Is peace breaking out in the Middle East?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

For those of us able to take our eyes off the depressing COVID-19 statistics or the forest fires blazing on the US west coast and the Amazon, this has been a spectacular week for diplomacy. Last Monday, President Trump hosted the latest version of a Middle East peace conference at the White House. This time round there was no Palestinian leader to (reluctantly) shake the hand of the Israeli Prime Minister under the watchful eye of a US President. The years of Camp David or Oslo peace accords sealed on the White House lawn seem now a distant memory. Instead we were treated to two Gulf Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, agreeing to open diplomatic relations with Israel. In the case of the UAE, this comes with an economic and trade agreement which covers technology, energy, transport and tourism. The Israelis hope that this will produce $500 billion in trade over the next decade. The first Israeli flight has landed in Abu Dhabi and the Israeli Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, has had a telephone call with his Bahraini counterpart.

For old-timers like me this seemingly modest event is little short of spectacular, and even surreal. Back in the 1990s these same Gulf Arab states met in the Saudi city of Taif and signed a pact pledging not to recognise the state of Israel or to have any dealings with it until a viable two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had been found. The isolation of Israel in the region and the hostility of its Arab neighbours were seen as the only levers to force Israel to the negotiating table and concede land for peace. Admittedly this was like closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. Already in 1980, and following Anwar Sadat’s legendary visit to Jerusalem, Egypt had signed a peace treaty with Israel and the latter had withdrawn its troops from the Sinai, occupied after the 1967 Six Day War. In 1994, Jordan followed suit and signed a peace treaty with its western neighbour. Yet these were a form of ‘cold peace’ which did not stop Cairo and Amman from lobbying for the Palestinian cause nor, until very recently, encourage many Israeli tourists or businesses to cross the border. Despite these two defections, the remainder of the Arab camp remained steadfast in seeing Israel not only as the repressor of Palestinian rights but also,  with its first-rate army and nuclear weapons, as the main threat to peace and security in the Middle East. Some Iranian leaders even called for the elimination of the Jewish state.

Now this Arab unity has broken; but how much and how fast remains to be seen. The Saudis tend to be slow and cautious although some state-sponsored Saudi preachers have begun to call interestingly for more moderation in public discourse about Israel (usually venomous). Oman has stayed close to Iran although the Israeli Prime Minister did pay a first visit to Muscat recently. Qatar is at loggerheads with the other Gulf Arab states due to its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist groups across the Middle East. It has aligned with Turkey which has pitted it against the UAE and Egypt in Libya. So Doha is unlikely to fall into line even though it hosts the largest US airbase in the region and is now the venue for the US-sponsored Afghanistan peace talks.

Yet even if only the UAE and Bahrain formally break ranks for now in recognising Israel, there is no question that attitudes towards Israel have undergone a significant shift throughout the Arab world. For some years already Gulf Arab countries have been hosting discreet Israeli trade delegations and exchanging intelligence with Mossad. Yet still it has been difficult for them to convey to their public opinions a sudden shift in their anti-Israel stance; and even this week the Emiratis were at pains to point out that in exchange for diplomatic recognition Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had agreed to suspend any move to annex disputed territory on the West Bank (at least for now and, of course, suspend does not mean abandon).

Conservative Gulf Arab states suddenly became aware of their own mortality, particularly with rising youth demographics and falling oil prices

So what explains this new alignment in a Middle East where for decades the Arab-Israeli dispute has seemed the most frozen and intractable of all the world’s conflicts?  Three factors in my view.

The first is Iran. The Islamic Republic was the big winner from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, paradoxically, the Arab Spring of 2011. The destabilisation of the Middle East that followed has given a voice to the Shia Muslim communities susceptible to Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Iranian militias and proxy forces have become the prop of beleaguered governments in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The Iranians boast that they control Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sanaa seemingly encircling the Gulf Arab countries and threatening their vital oil exports in the Straits of Hormuz. These links (for instance between the Iranians and the Alawite regime in Syria or with Hezbollah in Lebanon) are not always new but as the Gulf Arabs have tried to re-assert their influence in their immediate neighbourhood (for instance by the Saudis and the Emiratis intervening against the Houthis in Yemen or against Assad in Syria or dabbling in Lebanese politics) they have increasingly come up against Iran. The Saudis sent armoured vehicles across the causeway into Bahrain in 2011 to help in suppressing protests by the local Shia community. Iran has also been behind Houthi rocket and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia, most notably its major oil terminal at Abqaiq. Iran often acts through proxies rather than directly;  but the strategic competition between Tehran and the Arab Gulf states has become increasingly public and come closer to military clashes. So here the Arab fear of growing Iranian power and regional influence nicely dovetails with Israel’s concern about the Iranian nuclear programme.

The second factor is the Arab spring. The popular protests in 2011 brought down a number of long-standing regimes across North Africa and others (such as Assad in Syria) survived only with massive foreign military protection. This came as a deep shock to the conservative Gulf Arab states that suddenly became aware of their own mortality, particularly with rising youth demographics and falling oil prices. In addition, the sudden surge of ISIL reminded them that they remain vulnerable to transnational jihadist ideologies  Many have resorted to police surveillance and crackdowns on media and opposition forces to nip any second wave of the Arab Spring in the bud. Here they have increasingly turned to the United States (and European countries as well) for arms, police equipment and mass surveillance technologies. Israel has a lot to offer in this regard particularly given its long experience of counter-terrorism and state and societal resilience against internal threats. This has made practical cooperation more attractive. US support has also proved vital in allowing Saudi Arabia to withstand international criticism following the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Third, and finally, is Arab frustration with the Palestinians. The division between the Palestinian Authority and the old Fatah elements in Ramala and the Hamas radicals in Gaza has endured, and greatly reduced the weight of the Palestinians in international politics. It has prevented the Palestinians from having a common negotiating position or from being willing and able to make the compromises for peace. Saying ‘no’ has seemed their best survival strategy. At the same time constant rocket attacks across the Gaza border by Hamas and economic mismanagement by the Palestinian Authority, as well as delayed elections by its President Mahmoud Abbas, have further tarnished the prestige of the Palestinians; and made it easier for the Arab states to distance themselves from this endless stalemate.

This week’s events are pushing us towards a Middle East increasingly split into two heavily armed camps

President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu looked very pleased with themselves in Washington this week. With Trump up for re-election and Netanyahu facing trial on corruption charges at home both badly needed a diplomatic triumph. Yet does this mean that a new dawn of peace is breaking out across the Middle East?  Certainly not yet. The Palestinian conflict will not go away just because it has been pushed aside, as more Hamas rocket attacks reminded us this week. Palestinian desperation will only grow and more delay in finding a two-state solution will only confront Israel with the dilemma of how to absorb its growing Arab and Palestinian populations.

Moreover, this week’s events are pushing us towards a Middle East increasingly split into two heavily armed camps. On one side there is Iran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah possibly supported in the future by Turkey, Qatar and Iraq. On the other side, the Gulf Arab states with Israel, possibly with Egypt, and relying massively on US military backing. This struggle between the two emerging blocs may increasingly be fought out with proxy militias, cyber and disinformation campaigns, economic warfare and nuclear sabre-rattling.

The question here for the EU is how does it position itself and defend its interests, values and security in this new Middle East?  Its traditional policies: being even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, preserving the Iran nuclear deal, drawing closer to Turkey and using its economic aid to resolve conflicts and promote democracy no longer seem to apply. How can it once again be a player in its own right and not find itself squeezed between the two powerful blocs, finding itself increasingly suffering events having lost its ability to shape them?

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