TEL AVIV — The last American president to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was honored less for something tangible he had achieved, and more for who he was and what he represented. President Barack Obama, the Nobel committee declared in 2009, has “created a new climate in international politics.”
Whatever one might think about Trump’s other actions and overall personality, the president deserves to be seriously considered for a Nobel Peace Prize.
If President Donald Trump is not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it would be reasonable to suspect that the reason is similar. Trump also created a “new climate in international politics,” just in a way that’s much less appealing to the judges in Scandinavia. So maybe his chances of receiving the prize are also less about what he had achieved, and more about who he is.
But overlooking him would be a mistake. Whatever one might think about Trump’s other actions and overall personality, the president deserves to be seriously considered for a Nobel Peace Prize. And if not him, it should go to his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They deserve it for achieving a breakthrough that eluded all of Trump’s predecessors, something no president before him has done: He successfully pushed for two back-to-back peace treaties between Israel and a pair of Arab nations — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — signed at the White House on Tuesday.
And this breakthrough is likely to lead to more. On Tuesday the president spoke about four or five more such treaties. This might have been an overstatement, but we know that negotiations with Sudan for a similar normalization process are underway. Sudan is a particularly interesting case because it was in the country’s capital, Khartoum, in 1967 that the Arab League coined the infamous “Three Nos” that held the Middle East back for many years: No to peace with Israel, no to negotiations with Israel, no to recognition of Israel. This triple rejection of the Jewish state is a fine starting point for better understanding why the new deals are important — and are indeed a move worthy of the label “peace.”
The very source of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the notion that Israel is an illegitimate implant in the Middle East. Arab countries rejected Israel when it was established and fought many wars against it. This was painful and damaging for Israel and was of course the most important dimension of the posture for Israelis like me. But it was also destructive for the whole region. The conflict diverts the energy of countries away from productive development. They invest in weapons rather than agriculture. They neglect teaching science to teach hate. Foreign investors and tourists must think twice about coming. (Who wants to risk their lives in a war zone?)
Egypt was the first Arab country to identify these facts. Accordingly, in 1979, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel. In 1994, Jordan followed suit. This week, the number of treaties was doubled with a few strokes of a pen.
True, the Emirates and Bahrain were never Israel’s enemies in the Egyptian-Jordanian sense. These Gulf states don’t share a border with Israel and never fought a direct war with it. It’s also true that these states had been quietly cultivating ties with Israel for years because of their shared anxiety over Iran’s expansionist intentions.
Nevertheless, the decision to move from quiet ties to official ties, and from practical cooperation to essential acceptance, is a huge step forward for peace. In many ways, this is a bold declaration that a broader Arab-Israeli conflict no longer exists. Hostility toward Israel becomes an oddity; cooperation becomes the norm — economic partnerships, scientific research and innovation, tourism, the ups and downs of normal neighbors.
In the previous cases of Egypt and Jordan, the U.S. was an important mediator but not the crucial initiator of these peace processes. President Jimmy Carter played an important role in bringing about the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty with Egypt, and he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize more than two decades later largely because of it. President Bill Clinton played a role in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Jordan. He was not awarded the prize, and for good reason, because his role as mediator was smaller.
But Trump did more than all American presidents before him on this front. He inherited an Arab-Israeli peace process that seemed dead after eight years of futile attempts by the Obama administration to focus on progress with the Palestinians. So he went against the grain by instead authoring his own peace plan, and when it proved to be no more successful than Obama’s, he used it to get results someplace else.
Along the way, he was on the receiving end of ridicule, criticism, skepticism and sabotage. And it is fair to argue that Trump failed to meet his stated goal — that of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But unlike Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton, predecessors who also failed, Trump wisely leveraged this banal letdown. When the Palestinians refused to negotiate based on his proposed peace plan, Trump and Kushner — his pointman in the undertaking — saw it not as a defeat but as an opportunity.
This is the Trump administration’s doing. With his refusal to accept that no peace in the Middle East was possible until the Palestinians said yes, he signaled to the Arabs that they could no longer use the Palestinian issue as a delay tactic — and he signaled to the Palestinians that their rejectionism would no longer be a useful tool in preventing other countries from moving toward peace.
Trump continued this dynamic peacemaking shift by insistenting on acknowledging facts — such as that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital — rather than operating in an imaginary world. He broadcast that Israel is here to stay, that it’s time to accept this fact and move on, and that countries like the Emirates had a lot to gain if they ditched the old fiction of maybe-one-day-Israel-will-somehow-disappear. No less important: Trump was willing to break with Obama and declare that Iran is the region’s main threat — a view that Israel and the Gulf states also share, and which the Trump White House harnessed to find ways to yoke the parties more tightly together.
Indeed, Trump did not waste precious time attempting to close the insurmountable gap between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, he reached for the lower-hanging fruit. While the president didn’t initiate the ties between Israel and the Gulf states, he was the one to realize that with a nudge and a push, these states were ready to fully commit. In doing that, he proved that smarts do not always come in the expected form of elegance, eloquence and an elaborate process.
Many past Nobel Peace Prize recipients’ achievements pale in comparison to what Trump did this year in the Middle East — both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s award for his “efforts to create peace in the Middle East,” alongside Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and United Nations atomic energy watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei’s prize for his “efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes” in Iran were laughably premature. No, Trump didn’t get his — and our — “peace of the century.” But he did orchestrate the first step towards what he once termed a “beautiful future.”
Surely, there are many arguments against awarding Trump the peace prize, from his domestic record on human and civil rights to his international arms deals to his refusal to lead on climate change. It’s also not easy for anyone to acknowledge that this president succeeded where other presidents who seemed smarter, sincerer, more capable, didn’t. And yet, he deserves to have his very real offenses weighted against his very real achievement. Other less-than-savory figures have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize not for who they are but for what they accomplished. Trump should be no different.