I have to admit that I was skeptical when I heard about President Trump’s peace deals between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Trump’s past diplomatic accomplishments have been greatly overstated and I suspected that this might prove to also be the case with the Arab-Israeli deals. As I learn more about them, however, the deals appear to be legitimate, especially having already been signed, but the scope is limited. The bottom line is that any treaties between Israel and Arab nations are big news but the new deals fall short of ushering in peace in our time… at least so far.
Any thawing of Arab-Israeli relations is good news for the world. Since the creation of Israel by the United Nations in 1947, precious few Arab countries have opened diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, let alone called for peace. I am old enough to remember when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic radicals for the crime of making peace with Israel. Until this week, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey were the only countries in the Middle East to have diplomatic relations with Israel.
So, as Joe Biden might say, the treaties are a BFD for the simple fact that Israeli and Arab leaders are sitting at the same table and signing the same piece of paper. Even though Israel has never been at war with Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates, open diplomatic relations between the two sides is a major accomplishment.
And it has been a long time in coming. The first thaws between the new peace partners occurred years ago. Haaretz reported in 2011 that Bahrain had a backdoor channel between its intelligence services and the Mossad. Likewise, the same Israeli media company reported that Israel was opening its first diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, way back in 2015. While the Trump Administration was able to close the deals, diplomatic groundwork to make them possible has been going on for years, if not decades.
So why now? Iran is probably a big a part of the answer.
Over the past few decades, the Arab world has begun to present a less united front against Israel as the hundreds-of-years-old Sunni-Shia schism came again to the forefront. The split goes back to an argument over who would succeed the prophet Mohammed in AD 632. The Shiites are concentrated in Iran and Iraq while most of the rest of the Arab world is Sunni. The rift began with an Islamic civil war and fighting has continued sporadically since 632. The religious divisions played a prominent role in post-Saddam Iraq as Iranian-backed Shiites battled Saudi and al Qaeda-backed Sunnis for control of the country.
Over the past few years, the fighting has spilled out of Iraq into other countries. Unknown to most Americans, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen since 2014 in addition to the muddled Syrian civil war in which Iran and Russian back the government against the Sunni Islamic State and anti-government rebels backed by the US and Saudi Arabia.
In 2011, Saudi troops were deployed to Bahrain to help put down an uprising against King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The government of Bahrain accused Iran of fomenting the uprising by the country’s Shia minority. Just last year, Iran was revealed to be behind a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities.
As we dig deeper into the new Israeli treaties, it seems that the nations formalizing relations with the Jewish state are Sunni nations concerned about Iran. President Trump hinted that more peace deals may be coming and specifically mentioned Saudi Arabia among the seven-to-nine nations conducting negotiations. My guess is that most of these nations will be Sunni members of the Saudi bloc that gave up on eradicating Israel years ago and who want to ensure US assistance against the growing Iranian threat.
The terms of the deal also support this view. CNN reports that the Arab nations hope the deal will allow them to purchase high tech weapons systems such as American F-35 fighters and Israeli Iron Dome missile defense systems. These weapons would be invaluable against Iranian aggression. Trump has already brokered an $8 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
Israel also made a YUGE concession to get the deal done. The UAE insisted on a suspension of Israeli development of the West Bank of the Jordan River as a condition for the deal. This territory, which contains Jerusalem, was captured by Isreal in the Six-Day War of 1967 and has been a point of contention ever since. It is unclear how long this suspension will last.
It is worth noting that the Palestinian Authority condemned the UAE deal when it was announced last month even though UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said that the deal was part of an effort to preserve the two-state solution.
For his part, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in the Washington Post, “I am committed to sovereignty. I did not give up on the settlements.”
All of this simply means that the issue of Israeli development of the so-called “Occupied Territories” is still an issue that must be settled. In essence, the two sides decided to kick the can down the road.
The deal does come at an opportune time for both Trump and Netanyahu. Trump is facing a difficult re-election campaign and Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in November 2019. Both men had powerful incentives to make concessions in order to generate good foreign policy news.
Whether the deals are, as Trump says, “the dawn of a new Middle East” remains to be seen, but they are historic and a sign of progress in Arab-Israeli relations. How good the deal is will be seen as the side-deals that made it possible emerge into the light. As to whether Mr. Trump is the only president who could have brokered such a deal, it is worth noting that Jimmy Carter negotiated the Egypt-Israeli peace accords and Bill Clinton was able to sign a deal between Israel and Jordan.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that peace will break out over the entire Middle East. Mr. Trump’s optimism that he can make a deal with Iran is most likely misplaced. So far, none of the Iranian-bloc nations, such as Lebanon and Syria, have been open to a deal with Israel. Neither has Iraq, which has largely fallen into Iran’s orbit as American influence has waned.
And Iran remains the biggest threat in the region. When we last heard from the mullahs before the pandemic, they were swearing to avenge the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and launching a missile attack on a US airbase. Politico reported earlier this week that the rogue nation had plotted to assassinate the US ambassador to South Africa.
The new peace deals – with possibly more to come – do represent a diplomatic coup and President Trump and his administration deserve credit for their role in securing the agreements. However, the deals seem to reflect a political realignment against Iran rather than the spontaneous outbreak of pacifism in the region. The treaties are a step in the right direction, but they are only one step of the many needed towards lasting peace.
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