Al-Jazeera / September 15, 2020
The Israel-Gulf normalisation deals are unlikely to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It is not a secret that US President Donald Trump is obsessed with either voiding or emulating the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump now seeks to defeat Obama’s political heir, Joe Biden, in the upcoming presidential election and wants to stack up enough peace-making deals to earn the elusive Nobel Peace Prize, just as Obama did in 2009.
As his poll numbers began to sink last summer, foreign policy “victories” became that much more necessary to distract from political troubles at home and boost his rating. Thus, Trump instructed his advisers to scout out deal-making opportunities around the world before the 2020 presidential election.
Gratifying Israel has been at the centre of the president’s fixation on collecting foreign deals as trophies, announcing them on Twitter and summoning the concerned parties for a photo opportunity at the Oval Office, so American voters can watch him first-hand demonstrate his skills in “the art of the deal”.
In recent weeks, the US president has been quite busy with this pursuit. On August 13, he had a three-way phone call with Emirati and Israeli leaders to seal a deal on normalizations of relations. Less than two weeks later, hoping to have a larger Arab-Israeli normalizations deal, he dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a tour of Sudan, Bahrain and Oman.
Then Trump invited the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo on September 4 for an economic normalization deal that might end up further complicating the situation in the Balkans while having them both awkwardly embrace Israel with no clear policy rationale. His administration is also pushing a fragile Lebanon to sign a border demarcation agreement with Israel in the next few weeks.
The White House also pulled some strings so Bahrain can become the second Gulf country to normalize with Israel. On September 15, Emirati and Bahraini leaders are joining Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington to celebrate these agreements in a reality-show-like event.
This diplomatic offensive before the US elections is a good illustration of Trump’s tendency to mix policymaking with campaigning and run a propaganda machine with a personality cult approach regardless of what negative consequences this might have at home or abroad. And such consequences are quite likely.
Do the normalizations deals matter ?
The normalizations of relations between the UAE and Bahrain on one side and Israel on another is the peak of a cumulative process that had been largely kept behind closed doors for years.
When Trump took power in 2017, he adopted a strategy to build on the continuing behind-the-scenes rapprochement between some Gulf countries and Israel. He wanted to strike a “peace deal” between the Israelis and the Palestinians in order to enable a formal Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran.
After overwhelming the Israelis with free gifts, like recognizing Jerusalem as their capital and punishing the Palestinians for rejecting it, phase one of this strategy started faltering. Meanwhile, Netanyahu was holding one election after the other to escape US pressure to concede something for the Palestinians.
The Trump administration was thus forced to abandon trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and skip to phase two of officially declaring an Arab-Israeli alliance, as the November US elections were fast approaching. Under the pretext of preventing Israeli annexation of additional West Bank territories, the Emiratis announced they were normalizing relations with Israel. Then a month later, Bahrain followed suit.
The major ramification of this process is not strategic but rather in breaking the ideological, moral, and cultural taboo of public Arab engagement with Israel, which is expected to become a contentious issue in the regional Arab discourse. The Arab League, whose only job for decades was to condemn Israeli activities, did not criticize the steps taken towards Arab-Israeli normalizations.
The fact is, there is a new generation of rulers in some Gulf countries who do not have the same affinity for the Palestinian cause as their elders did and have other priorities at home and abroad. These normalizations deals are also a reminder that the balance of power in the Arab world has shifted from traditional powers hostile to Israel, such as Syria and Iraq, to smaller powers on the periphery.
Bahrain and UAE’s population account for less than two million (not counting foreign workers) out of 422 million Arabs. The nature of the political systems in both countries allows the ruling elites to conclude such normalizations deals, by force if needed, with US support and now with reinforced Israeli direct consent.
Given its symbolic role in Islam and the potential political pressure at home, Saudi Arabia is not ready yet to undertake normalization but given how much the Saudi leadership owes Trump for its diplomatic survival after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, it helped with getting Bahrain to do it instead.
This top-down approach to normalization is a quick-fix or an attempt for a quick win and it is unlikely to change the Arab public mindset towards Israel. Neither Bahraini nor Emirati soldiers fought with Israel on the battlefield, hence their normalization does not have a significant impact on the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The normalization deals, however, are meant to prop up Arab authoritarianism and restore the pre-Arab Spring role of the US as a protector of Arab regimes appeasing Israel. They are symbolic agreements that will only deepen regional divisions instead of mitigating them. The UAE might try to bring other Arab regimes to this axis to expand the coalition against Iran and by extension Turkey. This can potentially increase regional tensions from the Levant to North Africa.
Previous top-down Arab normalization attempts with Israel have failed miserably and ended in either conflict, as was the case in Lebanon, or cold peace in the Jordanian case.
Impact on US foreign policy
In the context of the normalization process, there is a clear convergence of interest between Trump and those attending the White House ceremony today, as both sides wish for Biden to be defeated on November 3. Some Gulf countries and Israel are concerned that if Democrats return to power, they will most likely restore Iran’s nuclear deal and US engagement with Tehran. Hence, they are preempting this move by forging a new reality on the ground.
Netanyahu and some Gulf rulers are also returning the favour to Trump who helped them either in their own political struggles at home and abroad. Getting closer to Trump and Israel can also potentially shield UAE from any pressure to reconcile with Qatar. Having Israel as an ally will give Abu Dhabi more leverage in Washington even if Biden ends up winning.
This US-sponsored normalization also shows the contradiction in the Trump administration’s Middle East strategy which vacillates between endorsing Turkish policies in Syria and Libya and strengthening an Arab-Israeli alliance that is against Ankara as much as it is against Tehran. This selective approach is provoking tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and now the Gulf region instead of maintaining stability and encouraging reforms.
At the same time, normalization will most likely not make US strategy more effective in deterring Tehran and might even reinforce the Iranian regime’s narrative in Arab politics.
In the end, the actual impact of the Arab-Israeli normalization will largely depend on Trump winning the election and the evolution of Israeli politics. However, it is important to note here that Netanyahu will always choose to satisfy the right-wing coalition that kept him in power over appeasing his new Gulf allies which do not hold the keys of war and peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict anyway.
So, when the camera lights are out or when Trump leaves office, those who have taken steps towards normalization might realize that they have given up a bargaining card as a free gift without having any concessions in return and that regional deals by major powers have been made at their expense once again.
Meanwhile, Trump might need to normalize his relationship with reality, as well. At the end of his first term, the incumbent US president is acting as a de facto Israeli foreign minister. A narcissistic wannabe deal maker cannot rush historical change for self-serving interests without triggering conflicts that might outlast his longing to stay in power.
Joe Macaron is a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC