In his remarks before the UN General Assembly Tuesday, 25 September, US President Donald Trump talked about a regional strategic alliance for the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan and Egypt to counter the Islamic State group and other terrorist organisations in the Middle East.
Two days later, the foreign ministers of these countries met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the meeting dealing with the threats and challenges facing Middle Eastern countries, with special emphasis on defeating terrorism and containing Iran.
President Trump singled out Iran in his General Assembly remarks this year and vowed to challenge forcefully the “brutal dictatorship” that rules Iran.
He justified his decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) the Iran nuclear deal that had been signed in July 2015 by the P5+1 (the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) to curtail and control the Iranian nuclear programme by stressing that the agreement allowed Iran to gain in wealth that was used to destabilise American allies in the Middle East.
However, the concept of a regional alliance in the Middle East that would bring together what various US administrations have called “moderate Arab countries” in a regional grouping with Israel is not new.
The idea of bringing together these countries (namely, the Gulf countries and the two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, Egypt and Jordan) was adopted by the administration of former US president Barack Obama.
The underlying premise is to integrate Israel into the Middle East system. Some experts and Middle Eastern watchers would call it an attempt to resuscitate the concept of the Great Middle East of the 1990s that stumbled on the failure of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
All along these years, the central question has been how to deal with the Palestinian question in order to allow the Israelis to enter such a regional Arab grouping.
In other words, talk of finding a solution to the Palestinian problem has always been linked, in the eyes of the Israelis and the Americans, to a larger strategic priority, which is to make Israel not only a member in the Arab system, but a leading power within it if not the leader.
The Americans had realised in the early 1990s, during preparation for the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and during the war of liberation itself, that without a solution to the Palestinian question it would always be difficult, if not impossible, to work with the Israelis and the Arabs in joint actions that serve both American and Israeli interests.
Hence, the American proposal to convene the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991. At the time, the administration of former US president George Bush Sr had to exert financial pressure on the Israel government of the time headed by Ishak Shamir to participate in the conference.
The peace talks that had taken place were divided into two tracks one bilateral and the second multilateral. It turned out that the main emphasis had centred around the multilateral track.
The whole point had been, in fact, to get Israel into the Middle East and North Africa as well. Things did not work out as planned because of Israeli intransigence that had grown more entrenched with the coming to power of Binyamin Netanyahu, for the first time in 1996.
Many years later, in December 2016, former US secretary of state John Kerry would call Netanyahu’s fourth government the most extreme right-wing government in the history of Israel.
However, the strategy of bringing Israel into the Middle Eastern system has remained unchanged. The years of upheaval in the Arab world, known as the “Arab Spring”, paved the way for working on the strategy without much opposition from Arab countries, regardless of solving the Palestinian problem or not.
As a matter of fact, the Obama administration had talked seriously about forming an alliance that would bring together the GCC countries, Jordan, Egypt and Israel, but after the implementation of the two-state solution, a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel.
It was a sweetener for the Arab side to accept the idea of such an alliance with Israel, the occupying power of Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights. Most of the times, the officials of the Obama administration had talked about “Sunni” Arab states allied with Israel against “Shia” Iran.
The Trump administration has dropped the sweetener. The regional strategic alliance would be formed, but decoupled from the solution of the Palestinian question.
In this regard, President Trump has promised to unveil his “ultimate deal” to bring peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis in the next few months.
The White House postponed announcing the “deal” several times from day one. The US president said recently that he wished to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis before his first term in office ends in 2020. Still, the forming of a “regional strategic alliance” is on track.
The Arabs have no negotiating cards to play to make sure that they won’t enter into such an alliance before the Palestinians gain back their inalienable rights according to the UN resolutions.
This fact brings the credibility of the US-led regional alliance into question. Is it sustainable under present circumstances? It is doubtful.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Alliance before peace