On Tuesday evening, Middle East Time, US President Donald Trump stood next to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu at the White House ahead of the signing of the normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE and announced that at least five or six Arab countries — Bahrain has already signed up — will be following suit.
The first Arab-Israeli peace agreement since the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty gifted Trump an invaluable photo-op, raising his foreign policy profile ahead of the US elections. It also marked the beginning of a major shopping spree by the UAE and other Gulf countries whose appetite for arms looks increasingly insatiable. While these are far from negligible considerations for the current US administration, Middle East diplomats and informed commentators say the 15 September ceremony at the White House was about much more.
“Today we are witnessing a change in the Middle East,” UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan said in his remarks ahead of the signing. Many analysts would agree. What was on show, they say, was nothing less than the emergence of a new Middle East that has been more than a decade in the making.
In December 2008 the then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni stood shoulder to shoulder at a joint press conference in Cairo with her Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul-Gheit, now the Arab League secretary-general, to announce that the Middle East was no longer defined by Arabs vs Israelis but by moderates vs extremists.
In the lexicon of Israel and its Arab friends, both overt and covert, the extremists comprised Islamic resistance movements such as Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon, of which Iran was and is a key supporter, and the regimes of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and of Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan. More than a decade later, following the Arab Spring and its reversal, the division between who is moderate and who is not has evolved.
Iran remains firmly in the extremist camp, as do the Islamic resistance movements it supports in no less than five Arab countries. But now they have been joined by Turkey whose leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is effectively championing Islamist expansion.
Today, it is all too obvious that Arab countries are themselves divided into two camps. One accepts and finds ways to work with and around political Islam, while the other is vehemently opposed to political Islam in all its forms.
Egypt and the UAE lead the second camp. According to a European ambassador who has served in Abu Dhabi, “whatever Cairo and Abu Dhabi might agree or disagree on at the regional and bilateral levels they will always be allies because of their shared opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, and to Turkey.”
According to one Arab diplomat, “wherever Turkey is operating in the region, from the west of Libya to north Lebanon, the UAE will follow and establish a counterbalance. In the case of Libya it is in the east, but in Lebanon it is in the north.”
Saudi Arabia is, of course, firmly ensconced in the second camp. Riyadh and Tehran view each other as arch-enemies, and Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Mohamed bin Salman, is a close associate of his UAE counterpart Mohamed bin Zayed. They are joined in their loathing of political Islam, Iran and Erdogan’s expansionist Turkey, by Israel.
“This is not new. The deals and the exchange of visits is a novel development but not the shared concerns and shared interests, especially between Israel and the UAE,” notes the Arab diplomat. He adds that the growing economic relations between Israel and a number of Gulf states, including the UAE, Oman, possibly next in line for a normalisation agreement with Israel, and Qatar, which has kept its arms open to Iran, Turkey, the Islamists and Israel, has been an open secret for years.
During the last decade, says the same source, Israeli-Gulf relations have steadily moved beyond the economic to encompass security concerns, “Israel and a number of Gulf countries have extremely close security coordination. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself has institutionalised security coordination with Israel, which has allowed for the arrest, and at times elimination, of Hamas members.”
As far as the Arab diplomat and European ambassador are concerned there was nothing surprising about Trump’s announcement late last month that Israel and the UAE had agreed to establish diplomatic ties. The significance of the announcement, argue both, lies in the message it sends to those in the other camp that the front opposed to them is consolidating.
That said, the Arab diplomat doubts that “anybody in Iran, Turkey or the Palestinian Territories expected such a fast-tracked signing of an agreement.” Not that the UAE-Israel agreement, and the upcoming agreement between Bahrain and Israel, is likely to wrong-foot Turkey, Iran and their associates. The agreements simply signal a formal acknowledgment of the security and intelligence cooperation that everyone knew was already taking place.
The treaties, commentators agree, are far more important for the parties directly involved than their enemies. With the agreement between Israel and the UAE signed, they argue, the doors are wide open for Mohamed bin Zayed to position himself as the new Middle East’s peacemaker. This is no easy job given the anger of the PA which has called the treaty a betrayal of the Palestinian cause, nor is it impossible.
According to informed diplomats, the UAE is already working on creating a new Palestinian entity, an off-shoot of the Fatah movement that, once the elderly Mahmoud Abbas is out of the way, will be in a position to take over Fatah, and possibly the PA.
The same diplomats say the UAE could start to host some form of Palestinian-Israeli dialogue in less than 12 months. It need not be official talks but could consist of discussions between public intellectuals from both sides.
In an article published Tuesday morning Hesham Youssef, an Arab diplomat closely associated with the Middle East peace talks and currently a senior fellow at the US Institute for Peace, argued that what is now at stake are the basic parameters of Middle East peacemaking.
“The diplomatic agreements being signed this week among the UAE, Bahrain and Israel present formidable challenges to the long-standing paradigm for peacemaking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are yet to provide a viable substitute,” wrote Youssef.
“For decades, Palestinians and most of the international community have envisioned the same sustainable final settlement, the two-state solution, and the diplomatic tools for building it. The notional stick has been Israelis’ eventual recognition that the alternative to two states — an Israel that is either undemocratic or subject to a non-Jewish majority — is objectionable. The carrot was peace and Israel’s acceptance and integration into a region of Arab states.”
Now, Youssef argued, “all stakeholders to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have justifiably focused on Israel’s threat to annex Palestinian territory in the West Bank. The suspension of that disastrous step is indisputably a positive development, and the accord with the UAE contributed significantly to achieving this objective”.
Whatever the intricacies of Youssef’s argument, his analysis is restricted to Abu Dhabi’s role vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause, something which is being paid less and less attention by Arab governments which are busy with their own internal affairs and increasingly willing to distance themselves from the issue.
Beyond the Palestinian cause, however, this week’s developments, in terms of Israeli-Gulf Cooperation Council relations, appears to be fulfilling the “Gulf moment” prophecy that has become popular among many of Abu Dhabi’s most prominent intellectuals.
Abu Dhabi’s direct relations with Israel, and its close association with the US, has now positioned it to assume a far more central role in orchestrating regional security arrangements. Unlike Egypt or Jordan, which have had peace agreements with Israel for decades, the UAE has never been in a state of war with Israel. Nor, say informed regional diplomats, will it shy away from hosting security coordination meetings designed to combat Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: A case of déjà vu