As we go to press, this election season’s foreign-policy surprise is wearing off but still reverberating: two small Arab states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Bahrain, have agreed to “normalize” relations with Israel, an eventuality anticipated by Ahmed Hashim in our lead article, “Security and Defense in Small States” (p. 30). To be sure, this is not a peace treaty, no war having been fought, but rather represents a strategic calculation.
The new relationship between the UAE and the Jewish state had been germinating for some years, but formalizing it was designed to deter regional malign actor Iran and to gain access to U.S. cutting-edge weapons. Donald Trump came into office looking for an exit from the region, famously pledging there would be “no more stupid [that is, money-wasting] wars,” so small states were suddenly exposed. The shock in the Gulf of the U.S. refusal to retaliate against Iran’s brazen September 2019 attack on a Saudi ARAMCO installation clearly got the Gulf states’ attention.
Israel had to offer a concession to close this new deal. The Kushner “peace” agreement of January 2020 — which the Israelis eagerly accepted, since it required very little from them — seemed to be a license to annex Palestinian land in the West Bank. However, the UAE conditioned its normalization on Israel’s controlling this impulse, since it would inflame the Muslim world, including Emirati citizens, of course. The fact that it would also be a breach of international law may also have carried some weight. The League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and most European countries rejected it. As Roger Cohen of the New York Times pointed out, the bar is set very low when Israel is asked merely to, please, notcommit a blatant crime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that even this concession was temporary. His right-wing constituents will not wait long to appropriate the best tracts of land they consider God gave them. Moves in this direction will likely have to wait until Israel’s internal strife abates; the term “civil war” is being tossed about in Israel, according to the renowned policy entrepreneur Gershon Baskin (Jerusalem Post, October 7, 2020).
Other Gulf Arab states may also be leaning toward normalization, but the Palestinians have not been given so much as a token. It is as if they no longer exist (recall the bitter anti-Palestinian resentment in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s 1990-91 invasion of Kuwait; see “Kuwaiti Policy toward the Qatar Crisis” by Faisal Mukhyat Abu Sulaib, p. 46). The Palestinians have not put forth a counterproposal either, except to temporize, claiming that elections have to take place before an official reaction will be forthcoming. During this period of relative calm, one could consider how a real Abraham Accord might be achieved, mentioning mutual concessions on the right of return, land swaps and reconciliation between the two nations. To be sure, this presupposes a great deal, the gap between Fatah and Hamas — or even between Hamas and Islamic Jihad — being wide. If the Palestinians are cheated out of their land, however, attaining real peace will become impossible; the merging of Israel and Palestine is anathema to those now in charge in Israel.
It may seem like ancient history now, dating from the 1970s, but such an eventuality was considered inevitable by the Israeli statesman Meron Benvenisti, a long-serving deputy mayor of Jerusalem who passed away on Rosh Hashana. His major insight, unpopular at the time, was that only a one-state future is possible. Four decades ago, he saw that the Israeli settlement project of land expropriation made any other “solution” unreachable, especially after the separate peace with Egypt at Camp David in 1979 removed the only capable Arab army from the field. The Palestinians were again left out in the cold. President Jimmy Carter, distracted by the growing unrest in Iran, was incapable — as who would not have been? — of wringing substantive concessions out of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for a comprehensive settlement (point of view being everything, see Mousavian and Chitsasian on the Islamic Republic’s grievances, p. 96).
Decades of American involvement in the region was the background of the Middle East Policy Council’s 101st Capitol Hill Conference, held by Zoom on July 17: “Progress or Conflict? What to Expect for U.S. Policy in the Middle East” (see the edited event transcript starting on p. 5, and the video on the Council’s website at www.mepc.org). The speakers were Anne Patterson, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan; Mara Rudman, former deputy assistant to President Obama for national-security affairs; Sanam Vakil of Chatham House; and F. Gregory Gause III, head of the Department of International Affairs at Texas A&M University. The panelists all quite reasonably predicted a continuation of the current widespread violence in the region, and of U.S. efforts to muddle through, from Libya to Egypt to Israel/Palestine to Iran.
The recent “normalizations” will hardly be a panacea for what ails the region. Recall that America’s “unipolar” moment following the Cold War led to a neoconservative attempt to rearrange the Middle East by brute force under the rubric of a “freedom agenda.” That exercise in hubris produced the “stupid” wars Trump took office vowing to end, though what he meant was ending U.S. participation in them. Armed conflicts continue to wreak havoc in the region, many involving an increasingly assertive Turkey. In “Coup-Proofing Strategies in Turkey: Keeping the Soldiers at Bay” (p. 136) Murat Ülgül and Sertif Demir look at reducing the power of the Turkish military over the country’s elected civilian government (an oft-cited reason for the European Union’s exclusion of Turkey from their club). But even as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has managed to curb the power of the General Staff, perhaps it is becoming clear that the more pressing issue facing the country is religion — specifically, a deficit of secularism.