World

ABRAHAM ACCORDS

Palestine and Iran are the big losers as Israel continues bridging the Gulf

(L-R) Bahrain Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald J. Trump and UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony, which normalizes relations between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 15 September 2020. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

Since mid-August, Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have taken a series of steps to set up a new geopolitical reality. Is this a really big deal, or just a pre-election ploy by Donald Trump?

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 

— Isaiah 2: 3-4

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

— Matthew 5:9

O God, You are Peace, peace comes from You. Peace returns to you. Grant us peace and grant us entry [into Paradise]. Blessed and most High are You O Possessor of Glory and Honour.

— Sahih Muslim, Hadith 591

On 15 September, it became one of those iconic scenes familiar through cinematic imaginings and real news coverage alike. Former enemies come together under the benign smile of yet another world leader such as a US president. Formal documents are signed, handshakes, embraces, often even a kiss or two happen. Television and a thousand cameras capture the moment, flags flutter, audiences heartily applaud, and notables gathered from around the world are all at rapt attention as they watch a breakthrough event.

While such formal peace accord ceremonies have taken place for hundreds of years, for Americans, the earliest version of this they presided over, albeit with less fanfare, was the 1905 peace treaty, facilitated by the then US president Theodore Roosevelt. This was between czarist Russia and imperial Japan, signed at the Portsmouth Naval Yard in New Hampshire.

Just by the way, Roosevelt won one of the early Nobel peace prizes – in 1906 – for his efforts. While the accord was celebrated internationally, the Japanese grumbled that the resulting pact was far too generous to the Russians who had, after all, been beaten devastatingly both on land and sea by the new, upstart Japanese military. (Maybe, the incumbent president really believes the Nobel peace prize lightning can strike again and he can join Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter as presidential prize winners, although Carter gained his for efforts after his term of office. And a few nominators have actually put Trump’s name forward for his efforts in international affairs.)

Now, in 2020, in the midst of what is an uphill campaign for re-election, Trump presided over a ceremony normalising diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) both, dubbed the Abraham Accords, playing out before a national and global audience. The president looked and sounded almost as if he had just given birth to a brand-new, supergenius baby, all by himself, and now he was holding the infant aloft for all to see.

It is curious that many of those speaking or writing about this formal event have referred to it as a peace treaty. That is certainly the wrong way to see it or describe it. Neither Bahrain nor the UAE has ever been at war with or engaged in hostilities with Israel since its founding in 1948.

Instead, what this ceremony actually recognised was the formal establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two Gulf states and Israel. This three-nation September event followed upon the earlier 13 August announcement that the UAE and Israel would tie a diplomatic knot.  If it was not a peace treaty, in truth, this event was still not entirely “small potatoes”.

It has doubled the number of Arab states with full diplomatic relations with Israel. The other two are Egypt and Jordan, whose ties were achieved largely under the good auspices of and some slightly twisted arms by US presidents Carter and Bill Clinton — and, in the latter case, the Norwegian government as well. (Turkey has had diplomatic relations with Israel for years and while overwhelming a Muslim society, Turkey is not an Arab nation. Along the way, Israel has expended significant effort to gain diplomatic ties with African Muslim but not Arab nations, such as Chad, as well.)

The Editorial Board group of writers, appearing in The New York Times, in looking at this new agreement, argued the best case for it, saying, “The agreements, moreover, made only a perfunctory nod to what ‘Middle East peace’ has long referred to: peace between Palestinians and Israelis. The Palestinians, in fact, were not warned in advance that the Emirates was hatching a deal with Israel and the United States, although the catalyst for it was Mr Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to annex much of the West Bank. The threat of annexation had the potential of inflaming Arab citizens. To forestall it, the UAE reportedly turned to the Trump administration with the idea of normalising relations in exchange for Israel suspending its annexation plans. Bahrain, a tiny kingdom closely tied to Saudi Arabia, followed suit. Oman and Sudan could be next.

For the Israelis (and perhaps even for the Iranians), there may be more than a niggling concern that the US role in this normalisation has a sting in the tail. For decades, Israeli military and strategic calculations have been based on their ability to maintain a qualitative military edge (QME) over any potential rival in the region. In practical terms, that has meant drawing upon US legislative requirements that the Israelis are able to access the most modern, most sophisticated military materiel available in the US arsenal, consistent with maintaining that qualitative military edge. 

“The annexation threat was not the only ulterior motive in the agreements. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates – and the Trump administration – are united in their hostility to Iran. Also, the UAE evidently expected to benefit from the deal by finally being allowed to buy advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets from the United States, though that possibility has sounded alarms in Israel. For Mr Netanyahu, the normalisation provided a political boost at a time when he is facing sharp criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a corruption trial, while Mr Trump welcomed the news during his re-election campaign.”

Down the road a bit, this most recent normalisation, as the Editorial Group notes, may also serve to generate additional momentum for yet other Arab nations – Oman, Sudan, Kuwait, potentially even Saudi Arabia – to join this movement towards diplomatic normalisation eventually. Particularly telling is that as part of the agreement, civil aviation links are beginning and these flights will be traversing Saudi Arabian airspace. Moreover, trade and hi-tech investment will certainly follow the flags, now that embassies and air traffic are established and ambassadors are exchanged.

Perhaps most telling, though, a proposed Palestinian resolution that was sharply critical of the newly declared Israeli-UAE relationship was not accepted by the Arab League. As Al Jazeera reported it, “Palestinian leaders won renewed Saudi support for Palestinian statehood on Wednesday, but failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn last month’s normalisation deal between Israel and the UAE. The Palestinian leadership softened its censure of the UAE over the US-brokered August 13 accord – to be formalised at a signing ceremony at the White House next week – in the hope of getting more Arab support, but to no avail.

“ ‘Discussions regarding this point were serious. It was comprehensive and took some time. But it did not lead in the end to agreement about the draft resolution that was proposed by the Palestinian side,’ Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Hossam Zaki told reporters.”

It seems reasonably clear that what has helped occasion this new diplomatic engagement (along with some US pushing) was Israeli willingness to postpone (indefinitely, perhaps) any planned additional takeovers of Palestinian land on the West Bank. This put on ice the expansive annexation plan and a minimised archipelago of self-governing Palestinian land that had been previously announced by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government and was, not surprisingly, almost instantly rejected by Palestinians, among others.

(Interestingly, a similar plan politically, but tied to potential pledges of bountiful financial help for Palestinians, had also been unveiled earlier by Trump administration special adviser Jared Kushner at a donors’ conference in Bahrain. It has gathered little political support as well.)

Having noted those Palestinian laments over the new diplomatic moves, Palestinian claims for their future (save for the fuzzy idea of eventual statehood some day, somehow) have now been shunted off to the geopolitical sidelines, relatively speaking. (For some, a sense of their betrayal by other Arab nations is being expressed bitterly.)

In place of the earlier prominence of the Palestinian cause as a key node in the Middle East landscape, something that has actually been receding for some time, in its place there is now the more explicit focus by the Gulf states – now in association with Israel – on building a more solid containment of Iranian desires, goals and actual efforts to achieve undisputed primus inter pares status for itself, most especially in the Persian Gulf. Increasingly, this extends significantly beyond that area as well, including Iranian interventions as far as Yemen and Syria/Lebanon, where they come into potential or real conflict with Saudis, Israelis and Americans.

So, who are the winners and losers out of this? At first blush, for the Trump administration, the words on a banner reading “Donald Trump: Peacemaker” have a wonderful ring to them. The ka-ching of voting. Just possibly this agreement may be worth a few votes among potentially still-vacillating, but very conservative Jewish Americans or from a few fundamentalist evangelicals who have not yet come over to supporting Trump. And just maybe those folks in the White House and the Trump re-election campaign have sussed out that a few thousand votes gained might conceivably be helpful for winning Florida when the voting in that state takes place for the 3 November general election.

But realistically, for the most part, the core issues for virtually all Americans during this electoral cycle are not going to be foreign policy ones, especially not something like this one. Instead, what ignites passion now is the pandemic and the resulting economic misery, the country’s racial tumult, healthcare, ecological/environmental concerns like the fires in the western US or the flood damage from a string of hurricanes, and the president’s intemperate, chaotic administration. These are much more salient issues than Israeli diplomatic recognition by a couple of small nations in the Persian Gulf.

Still, as there has been virtually no effort to address the Palestinian issue in the context of this agreement’s celebrations and by failing to say the words that could bring the Iranians into dialogue beyond the pro forma, it is just possible this new kind of alliance might even provoke Iran to give that relationship a bit of a stress test.

Still, for the Israelis, this dramatic, new, public embrace by several Gulf Arab nations, and the possibility of more to come, really does represent a turning point. There are real opportunities for travel and tourism, high technology sales and investment; and, as noted above, real chances for a much more united front vis-à-vis an expansionist Iran. But in terms of the Israeli prime minister’s political future, no knowledgeable Israelis believe this agreement will do much to move the needle away from the red danger zone of his deep legal (and thus political) troubles.

While the Saudis have not been a party to this agreement, observers also note that it is virtually impossible to believe Bahrain would have undertaken this step without a nod of approval by the Saudi government. The Saudis, of course, are also in the front rank of confronting Iran, and in fact have been combating Iranian-supported militias in Yemen.

Given those circumstances, international observers will be watching carefully for small but concrete steps by Saudi Arabia in its own rapprochement with Israel. The difference for the Saudis in comparison to Bahrain or the UAE, of course, is that elements of the Saudi military did engage in hostilities with the nascent Israeli nation back in 1948, and so that bit of history must be factored into the discussion as well.

Meanwhile, the big losers from these developments would appear to be the Palestinians and the Iranians, for obvious reasons. It is clear the Palestinian cause has become less central to the region’s Arab ruling political class than was the case pre-agreement. For the Iranians, meanwhile, their opponents are drawing together more closely, thereby making Iran’s strategic calculations more complex than previously. Yes, Israel and the UAE had already engaged in barely concealed strategic cooperation for some time, but this new agreement makes such cooperation easier and more obvious to maintain and strengthen.

Still, as there has been virtually no effort to address the Palestinian issue in the context of this agreement’s celebrations and by failing to say the words that could bring the Iranians into dialogue beyond the pro forma, it is just possible this new kind of alliance might even provoke Iran to give that relationship a bit of a stress test.

For the Israelis (and perhaps even for the Iranians), there may be more than a niggling concern that the US role in this normalisation has a sting in the tail. For decades, Israeli military and strategic calculations have been based on their ability to maintain a qualitative military edge (QME) over any potential rival in the region. In practical terms, that has meant drawing upon US legislative requirements that the Israelis are able to access the most modern, most sophisticated military materiel available in the US arsenal, consistent with maintaining that qualitative military edge. 

In practical terms, that means their gaining squadrons of the US’s newest, most technologically advanced aircraft, the F-35. But the Americans are now also keen to sell those high-powered fighting machines to the UAE as well, even over Israeli objections. Thus the calculations in Israel must now include whether gaining full-hearted US support for these new diplomatic accomplishments (and any future ones) is worth the gamble that this newest-generation strike craft, the F-35s, will now wind up in the hands of another nation in the region.

Just for starters, questions like the following would be on the Israeli military planners’ plate: Would the UAE always be friendly towards Israel? Would those planes always stay under the UAE’s control, or might a pilot or two defect to some place else less friendly?  But sometimes, in diplomacy, as with exercise routines, it is a case of no pain, no gain. Or, put another way, no risk, no reward. DM

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  • Most welcome development and hope there is more to come. The big perennial losers are the Palestinians – the world is tired and moves on. No peace is possible if one side continuously rejects it and until they get rid of the stranglehold of the hard-line Hamas and Iran, there will be no progress. I am all for an independent Palestinian state living in peace and security with Israel as its neighbour. As for Iran, under its present hard-line theocratic and autocratic regime, it is nothing but a malign force in the world.

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