Peace in the Middle East (lol)
Peace in the Middle East (lol)
“We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history. After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East.” – U.S. President Donald Trump, September 16, 2020
Last week, the United States hosted the leaders of Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates at the White House to commemorate the latter pair’s normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel. There is no denying that this is a historic achievement. It is the first time an Arab nation has recognized Israel since Jordan in 1994, and if President Trump is to believed, five or six more Arab countries may be following in quick succession, including potentially Saudi Arabia. There is also no denying this is a major victory for the Trump administration, which has based its foreign policy in the Middle East on isolating Iran and establishing closer ties with Sunni Arab dictatorships and Israel. Full disclosure: we are critics of that foreign policy. Even so, it is possible to recognize that securing closer ties between Israel and the Arab world is critical to pursuing that policy and that it is a goal that has eluded American, Israeli, and Arab political leaders for decades. Credit where credit is due.
And yet, even considering what a momentous achievement this is, and even accepting that it is a major step forward for the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities, the White House has managed to exaggerate its importance and to obfuscate its true purpose. Part of the reason is unabashed campaign politics. The list of sudden policy moves to buttress Trump’s position with key voting demographics grows longer by the day. $11.6 billion in aid to Puerto Rico – three years after Hurricane Maria and subsequent federal heel-dragging on aid – is another example. Or consider the sudden extension of an oil drilling moratorium for Florida, protectionist policies aimed at Canada, Brazil, and Mexico to protect U.S. steelworkers and farmers, or a hastily convened Kosovo-Serbia economic normalization agreement already falling short of its conditions. The timing of these sorts of moves is not coincidental and being able to brag about a major diplomatic coup that strengthens Israel’s position in the Middle East is good for Trump’s reelection campaign.
The deeper issue, however, is that Trump’s administration seems incapable of letting the UAE and Bahraini commitments to normalize relations with Israel speak for themselves. The notion that the Middle East is now on the cusp of a new era of peace and prosperity would be laughable if it wasn’t so deranged. A potential Israeli-Arab alliance represents a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, no question, but the whole purpose of such an alliance is to prepare for future conflict down the road. Indeed, for as much credit as Trump, Netanyahu, Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ), and Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa deserve, the simple fact is that none of this would have been possible if not for Arab and Israeli fears about the power and ambition of two powers in the neighborhood, namely, Iran and Turkey. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a perfectly solid basis upon which to build relations and even alliances, and that’s exactly what this is. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Bahrain and the UAE come by their fears of Iran honestly. Bahrain is a small country with a Shiite majority being ruled by a Sunni monarch. When it looked like the Arab Spring might come to Bahrain in 2011 and potentially create an opportunity for Shiite Iran to support a Shiite Arab uprising, Saudi Arabia wasted no time rolling tanks across the King Fahd Causeway to put the rebellion down. The UAE is right across the Persian Gulf from Iran and despite its formidable strength relative to its size it cannot hope to resist Iran on its own. Israel, of course, has been fielding threats of annihilation from Iran for decades now. As concern over Iran’s behavior in the region has grown – and as Iran’s influence in Iraq has grown – Sunni Arab countries have had the impetus to work with Israel quietly behind the scenes for years. In that sense, Arab-Israeli normalization is simply a recognition of a shift that has already taken place. Indeed, we would be surprised if any of the countries Trump says will follow Bahrain and the UAE are outside of Iran’s vicinity. Sudan and Morocco have already said they won’t be next in line (although in Sudan’s case that may be a result of angling for U.S./UAE aid money).
Iran, however, has been a potential threat to the Sunni Arab Middle East heartland since the U.S. overthrow of the repressive bulwark Saddam Hussein’s regime represented. What has changed in recent years is that another regional power, Turkey, has hegemonic ambitions of its own and is acting on them. Turkey either has or will have military bases in Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya. Turkey’s relationship with Qatar has been particularly galling for much of the Sunni Arab world, which has tried to frighten Qatar into falling in line to no avail. Turkey’s military is deployed on the ground in Syria and Libya. Turkey is also not afraid to use its political influence in the Arab world, aligning itself with Muslim Brotherhood chapters throughout the region and promoting political Islam as a solution to all problems. Turkey has positioned itself rhetorically as the most outspoken champion of the Palestinians’ cause for precisely this reason. Sunni majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are suspicious of Turkey because its (relatively) democratic model is a threat to their authoritarian politics and because Turkey is a formidable economic and military power in the region.
It is little wonder, then, that Iran and Turkey have been vociferous critics of the past month’s diplomatic events. Iran, in language eerily reminiscent of Ludendorff’s “stab-in-the-back myth,” has decried normalizing ties with Israel as “shameful,” “stupid,” and “disgraceful.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to suspend diplomatic ties with the UAE and denounced its behavior as hypocritical – which is pretty rich coming from the leader of a Muslim country that was one of the first in the world to recognize Israel after it declared independence in 1948 and has not seen fit to cut off ties with Israel itself (for now, at least). Historically, Turkish and Persian regimes have balanced and competed against each other in the Middle East, but Iran and Turkey now ironically find themselves on the same team, even agreeing recently to broaden economic ties and to fight their respective Kurdish separatist groups in loving harmony. Is it just us or does this brave new peaceful Middle East bear a striking resemblance to the old one?
Further complicating matters is that normalizing relations with Israel does not mean that Arab hearts and minds are going to be changed about Israel overnight, if ever. This is admittedly a difficult variable to quantify, but what limited polling we have on this issue is not heartening. A 2017-2018 poll by the Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies found that 87 percent of Arabs in countries surveyed (which included Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq) would “disapprove of recognition of Israel” and 90 percent believed Israel posed a serious threat to security and stability in the region. A 2018 Zogby Research Services annual survey on Middle East public opinion asked respondents if a partnership between Israel and Arab governments could help fight Islamist extremism and Iranian interference. 58 percent of those surveyed in the UAE rejected all forms of partnership with Israel even if Israel withdrew from the West Bank and recognized an independent Palestine. 60 percent of Saudi respondents were also against it. On the eve of the White House ceremony, myriad civil society groups in Bahrain rejected Bahrain’s recognition of “the Zionist entity” categorically. Just because a bunch of well-fed, yacht-sailing sheiks are ready to bury the hatchet with Israel for fear of losing their position in their respective fiefdoms does not mean the Sunni Arab masses are ready to put aside over a century of Arab-Israeli conflict, a reality which Turkey, Iran, and Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS will seek to take advantage of.
This is not the dawn of a new Middle East or of world peace. Jews and Arabs and Kurds and Iranians and Turks are not about to hold hands and sing kumbaya. Muslims and Christians and Bahais and Jews and Druze are not about to beat their swords into plowshares. The U.S. is calling this the “Abraham Accords initiative,” having conveniently forgotten that the biblical figure of Abraham was hardly a figure of regional peace in his supposed time. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. sought a more stable, less ideological relationship with Iran in the hopes of a balance of power between the region’s powers that would allow the U.S. to extricate itself from the region. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. is pursuing the same goal with the same tactics – it is just using different pawns in different formations. The JCPOA is being replaced with the Abraham Accords. The enemy of my enemy is still my friend. The Palestinians are getting screwed by Israel, the Arab world, and their own leaders. The U.S. is prioritizing short-term tactical wins over long-term strategic imperatives. The dawn of the new Middle East looks an awful lot like business as usual.