Recent developments in the Middle East do not represent a significant shift towards the settling of the fundamental problems that still blight the region, says PAUL KNOTT
The recent agreements normalising relations with some small Arab states are a success for Israel. For decades, it has sought recognition from the Arab world while avoiding making concessions to the Palestinians in return. But rather than being a major new development in the Middle East, these deals merely formalise the discreet relationships the Israelis already have with Gulf states like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Even if, as seems probable, more Arab governments sign similar accords with Israel, the practical impact on broader Middle Eastern peace, development and stability is likely to be minimal. Whatever the immense frustrations and difficulties, real progress would require resolving the real conflicts that bedevil the region. These continue to be the Palestinian question and the power struggle with Iran.
Not everyone is as underwhelmed by these agreements. At the White House signing ceremony between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE in September, Donald Trump proclaimed “the dawn of a new Middle East”. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed his sentiments, saying “this day is a pivot of history; it heralds a new dawn of peace”.
While countries committing to friendly relations should always be welcomed, it is absurd to hail the achievement of “peace” between nations that have never fought a war with each other and are unlikely to do so. Trump and Netanyahu’s grandstanding says less about the accords and more about their desperation for a foreign policy success to relieve domestic political pressure.
The Israeli PM is clinging on to power via a rocky coalition agreement, while facing growing public discontent and a trial on corruption allegations. Trump meanwhile has been trying everything he can to boost his flagging re-election chances by diverting attention from his multiple failures, including his catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
It was no coincidence that these agreements came during the US election campaign. All involved have an interest in attempting to boost Trump’s standing. Netanyahu correctly judges that no other US president would be as easy for him to manipulate. Equally, Trump’s vulnerability to flattery and financial incentives enables the Gulf states to persuade him to ignore their human rights abuses and blindly support them against Iran.
More last ditch support for Trump from the region may follow. Bahrain is beholden to its bigger neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and would not have signed up without its approval. The Saudis and their de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, owe Trump for his backing over the murder of the US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Although the likelihood diminishes as polling day draws closer, one of the ‘October surprises’ that usually crop up to influence US presidential elections could yet be Saudi Arabia signing an accord with Israel too.
Other more peripheral Arab countries are also being pressured to join in. With characteristic crassness, the Trump administration has offered Sudan aid to cope with the aftermath of the flood disaster it recently suffered in return for formalising diplomatic relations with Israel.
Beyond dubious political back-scratching, there are some substantive reasons for the Gulf nations drawing closer to Israel. Unlike frontline Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the Gulf states are located 1,000 miles away from Israel and the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
They host few Palestinian refugees or citizens of Palestinian origin. Aside from the increasingly obsolete concept of ‘Arab solidarity’, they have little direct connection with the consequences of that festering dispute.
Their primary security concern is neighbouring Iran and the Sunni-Shia feud within Islam that the (Sunni) Saudis and (Shia) Iranians have been fuelling for several decades. For Bahrain and Saudi Arabia this schism is a domestic as well as an external security concern. They blame Iran for stirring up the resistance of their large Shia populations to their autocratic Sunni rule.
The threat posed by Iran and its proxy militias across the Middle East unites Israel and the Gulf States. They were all deeply sceptical about the Obama administration’s 2015 deal with Tehran, despite this removing the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons for at least a decade.
Instead, they feared the deal signalled a US-Iran rapprochement that would weaken the Washington’s commitment to defend them. These shared concerns intensified the quiet security cooperation Israel and the Gulf states were already conducting. The new agreements will enable this cooperation to be overtly enhanced.
A further sweetener for the UAE is that it will finally be permitted to purchase the state-of-the-art US-made F-35 stealth fighter planes it covets. This sale had previously been blocked because the US legally guarantees to maintain Israel’s defence technology superiority over every Arab nation.
While it is widely accepted that the UAE poses little threat to Israel, some Israelis are worried about surrendering the principle of guaranteed military advantage. This precedent could make it harder to prevent future sales of high-tech US defence equipment to less reliable countries in the region.
The other potential benefits of the agreements are commercial. Israel styles itself as the ‘start-up nation’ on account of its thriving tech sector. Several Gulf states are keen to tap into this expertise to prepare their economies for the post-oil and gas era.
There are common interests too in tourism and technology to maximise scarce water resources. In some instances, the security and economic elements of the Gulf-Israeli relationships overlap.
Controversy has been sparked in Israel by revelations that the government authorised the sale of a public surveillance system to the human rights-abusing Saudi authorities. The potential for a future political agreement with Riyadh was allegedly a factor in this decision.
As ever, the people disadvantaged by these developments are the long-suffering Palestinians. Mentions of their right to freedom were conspicuous by their absence from the agreements and the discussions surrounding them. The Emiratis and Bahrainis briefly noted Netanyahu’s vague commitment to suspend Israel’s annexation of more of the Palestinian land it occupies in the West Bank. Nothing illustrates the imbalance of power in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute more emphatically than Israel temporarily refraining from breaking international law being presented as a concession.
Some outside observers, such as the former Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair, welcomed the agreements as bringing fresh impetus to a stalemate. As they point out, the decades long Arab boycott of Israel has produced little for the Palestinians. But these optimists have yet to explain how the unilateral surrender by some Arabs of one of their few negotiating cards will elicit concessions from the current Israeli government. It consistently makes clear that it has no intention of reaching an equitable two-state solution with the Palestinians.
While there is little intrinsically wrong with the agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, their value should not be overstated. They are essentially a sideshow that provides short-term benefits to the political leaders involved rather than long-term solutions to the region’s two most important challenges. One of them is finding a way to reduce tensions with Iran, which escalating an arms race will not achieve.
The other was well expressed by the veteran Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat, who said: “I am what needs to be solved. I am the problem. They (Israel) are my problem. The only way to have peace in this region is to solve the Palestinian question”.
Solving those complex, deep-rooted difficulties will require braver and more capable political leadership than is currently present in the Middle East and the United States.