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Russia’s Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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It is often said in the Western mainstream media that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a disrupting role around the world, including in the Middle East. However, such accusations remind of an old Soviet joke that made its rounds in the late 1980s and could certainly be applicable to the United States and other Western countries. The joke begins with a man walking into a Soviet hospital and asking the desk nurse if he can see the eye-ear doctor. “There is no such doctor,” she tells him, “Perhaps you would like to see someone else?” “No,” he replies, “I need to see an eye-ear doctor.” “But there is no such doctor,” she replies. “We have doctors for eyes and doctors for ears, nose and throat (ENT), but no eye-ear doctor.” “No help,” he repeats. “I want to see the eye-ear doctor.” They go around like this for a few minutes before the nurse interjects and says, “Sir, there is no eye-ear doctor, but if there was one, why would you want to see one?” “Because,” he replies, “I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”

This is exactly the sentiment that seems to be gripping the international community. It is stated as fact that President Putin is attempting to destabilize the Middle East and Europe quite like he ‘orchestrated’ in the American Presidential Elections in 2016. Leaving aside the lack of evidence for the latter two cases, Middle Eastern countries do not feel that Russia is trying to destabilize the region. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Israeli-Russian relations have never been better: Russia’s “frenemy,” Saudi Arabia turns to Russia for regional issues more so than to the US; and Turkey has improved its relations with Russia since the Turkish army shot down the Russian jet in Syria. Russia is in close contact and on good terms with all the key players and countries in the Middle East, and playing broker or interlocutor when a crisis arises.

Russia has been actively involved in the region to preserve its interests, namely ensuring stability in a region where jihadi terrorism has run rampant. That was the main reason it intervened in Syria in 2015, as Salafi jihadi forces such as Da’esh, Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahrar al-Sham, and others were almost certainly on their way to occupying Damascus, which constitutes a red line for Moscow. In nearly three years, Russia has almost removed all of the Salafi jihadi terrorists from Syria and is now focused on finding a negotiated solution to the seven-year civil war. While it is working on a peace agreement in Sochi and Astana, Russia still sees Syria as the front line to its war on terror and is closely working with the Syrian Army to ensure it can fend off terrorists and any destabilizing efforts from any regional and external players. At the same time, Russia is constantly working with all the necessary partners to ensure stability there.

However, some prominent Russian figures including Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian deputy envoy to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov, and scholar Vitaly Naumkin have suggested that Russia can play a crucial role in resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the prospect for a solution to this conflict seems bleak, having a new player that can help is a positive sign. In fact, Russia has unique credentials to kick-start peace talks, since it is a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council and a member of the Middle East Quartet. In both international bodies, Washington has been mingling with far right-wing elements in Israel and stonewalling any potential peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians by vetoing key United Nations Security Council resolutions. A more reliable player who is active in the region, like Russia, would serve well as a broker to help the necessary parties come to an agreement.

More importantly, Russia can play a constructive role and be a dependable broker because it has close ties with all the necessary parties needed for any agreement. It is more of an honest broker than Washington for a variety of reasons. Chiefly among them, if for no other reason, is the fact that Russia can play a fair interlocutor given its presence in the region. If we look at Donald Trump’s ill-advised decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it not only reignited violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians but it also revealed that Washington had never been an honest broker in resolving the age-old conflict.

This is not the first time that Moscow had offered to be a broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Kremlin had offered to host the two parties in Moscow as a venue for discussions in 2016. However, all hopes were dashed when two Israeli professors decided to reveal that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was a KGB Agent in the 1980s while pursuing his doctorate degree. It was later revealed that the two Israeli professors had leaked this document to the Israeli press because they had their own agenda and did not want negotiations to bear fruit under the auspices of the Russians.

It takes two to tango: Do the two states want it?

Israelis

Current Coalition Government

The current Israeli government’s perspective on a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis is nearly nonexistent. This is Israel’s most far-right government coalition since it first became a state in 1948. Since becoming Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has always found an excuse to not seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Moreover, Netanyahu has laid down the conditions to an agreement that no Palestinian leader can agree to. For instance, in 2013, he outlined his so-called “vision” for a future Palestinian state. He stated that there would be no agreement unless the Palestinian leadership recognizes Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This is an ill-conceived approach as Israel’s concern should be about creating a two-state solution (and future narrative) for its national security rather than ensuring that its future neighbouring state recognizes the complexion of its statehood. Does the United States have to recognize Canada as a multicultural country? Or does Canada have to recognize the United States as a Christian state? No. The United States recognizes Canada as a state and vice versa. What each state does internally is its own business.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, he has always suggested that the Palestinians are divided and when they did unite he suggested that they are aligning with Hamas—a “terrorist” organization—and, thus, Israel cannot negotiate with the Palestinians. In reality, Hamas conducted terrorist activities in the past, but today they are very popular with Gazans, East Jerusalemites, and West Bankers. If elections were held today in the Palestinian Territories, Hamas most likely would win in all three cities. For the last nine years, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition governments have accused the Palestinian leadership of incitement. However, the blame should really be put on Netanyahu’s government for their incitement in the Occupied Territories (East Jerusalem and the West Bank), as it condones the daily activities of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the settlers’ mistreatment of the Palestinians on a day-to-day basis. As the country has shifted further to the extreme right in recent years, it will take much skill to convince Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his far right-wing coalition to come to the table and, eventually, agree on a final two-state solution with Israel’s neighbours. If anyone other than Netanyahu’s “Likud” Party in this coalition (namely Naftali Bennett’s “HaBayit HaYehudi” Party, any of the religious parties, or, to a certain extent, Avigdor Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beiteinu” Party, or any of their offshoots) wins the next general election, which is scheduled for 2019, then it will be increasingly difficult to reach a two-state solution agreement.

Opposition Parties

There is still some hope because there are a few party leaders that want to seek a two-state solution. However, the two main opposition leaders—Avi Gabay (“Labor” Party) and Yair Lapid (“Yesh Atid” Party) — do not seem to indicate that they are genuine in seeking a two-state solution. Their statements about Jerusalem, and other issues for a future agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, are disheartening. Both Gabay of the “Labor” Party (a central partner in the “Zionist Union” Party with Tzipi Livni’s “Hatnuah” Party) and Lapid of the “Yesh Atid” Party have shifted to the right of the Israeli political spectrum. Whether this is a tactic to attract right-wing voters or it is their fundamental belief remains to be seen. However, their statements signal trouble for the two-state solution if either of them were to become Prime Minister.

That leaves Israel with “Meretz” Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and “the Joint List” Chairman Ayman Odeh. Zandberg leads the progressive “Meretz” Party into the next election with only 5 seats in the Israeli Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). She has tried to inject new life in the party and suggested that if she were to lead a government, or take part in a coalition government, she would enter with all progressive parties on the Israeli left and would not rule out right-wing politician and current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, the Chairman of “Yisrael Beiteinu,” is a pragmatic leader who might be the only politician on the Israeli right that will change his view if he sees the security of his country at risk. That leaves the progressive with some hope that he would play it nice with Zandberg, but his negative comments about Arabs, Palestinians, and a future peace agreement makes one wonder if his views will actually change when faced with any potential agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Zandberg’s comments, however, could simply be a tactic for trying to lure more voters to her party, especially those on the right of the spectrum. It is still disheartening to hear the new “Meretz” Chairwoman make that promise to voters despite Lieberman’s rhetoric, which puts him in opposition to a fair peace treaty. Also, “Meretz’s” silence on Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, like other political parties on the left, with the exception of the “Joint List,” is also demoralizing to those struggling to bring peace.

Ehud Barak is a factor because he has wanted to return to the political scene since he resigned from his post as Defense Minister in a previous Netanyahu administration. He has been quite critical of the current Prime Minister over his several corruption scandals and his lackluster interest in seeking dialogue with the Palestinians. A former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and a protégé of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Barak has always sought a peace agreement with Israel’s neighbours and the Palestinians in particular. This is encouraging news, as Israel needs safe borders to ensure its stability and address its two national security priorities: ensuring the Jewish complexity of the state and reducing the violence within its borders. While it would be advisable to maintain a two-state solution, Barak’s strategy to ensure Israel’s national security concerns might be met with stumbling blocks. First, it is unclear if Barak is a strong contender, as many Israelis still remember his attempt at a peace agreement with the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Second, it is unclear what he will do should he negotiate with the Palestinians. In his last attempt, he refused to divide Jerusalem, rejected to return land to the Palestinians along the 1967 borders, and declined to dismantle settlements in those Occupied Territories. If he were to repeat this strategy, negotiations will almost certainly fail. In any case, Barak’s last attempt was Israel’s closest at reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. It abruptly ended when violence broke out between Palestinians and Israelis on Temple Mount, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon decided to pay a visit to the holy site for Jews and Muslims, thus giving start to the second intifada. In the following elections, Ehud Barak lost to Ariel Sharon ending all hopes for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

While most would dismiss Ayman Odeh, it would be a mistake to do so. The “Joint List” is the third largest political party (13 seats) in the current Knesset behind the “Zionist Union” (24 seats) and the “Likud” (30 seats). Along with being the Chairman of the “Joint List” Party, a coalition of several Arab parties in the Knesset, Odeh is the leader of the “Hadash” Party. The young and energetic leader has consistently said that he supports a two-state solution, has consistently advocated for the rights of minorities living in Israel, and has challenged the current government’s policy on settlement building in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and East Jerusalem), in Gaza, and how it has conducted itself in bordering countries—namely in Syria and Lebanon. More importantly, Odeh and his “Joint List” Party can play a productive role in a coalition government. As previously mentioned, Odeh has consistently stated that he wants a two-state solution—something that Israel should be seeking to ensure its national security. More specifically, in a future coalition, he can make the government treat minorities with respect and dignity—something past government coalitions have not done. A high ministerial position in the government for Odeh would be a first step in demonstrating that Israel is serious about integrating the 20% of its population that feels neglected and alienated by Israeli society. At the time of publication, both Gabay and Lapid have ruled out giving the “Joint List” Party a place in their coalition government, but we have yet to hear from the other candidates on the Israeli left. It is unknown what “Meretz” Leader Zandberg would do. In any case, if not as Prime Minister, Odeh and his “Joint List” Party can inject some new blood into a two-state solution and implement some progressive policies within Israel.

Palestinians

Fatah (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini)

Fatah is one of the main factions in the Palestinian National Authority (PA) and the second largest faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The Chairman of the faction, Mahmoud Abbas, is also the President of the PA. He succeeded the PA’s late President, and Fatah founding member, Yasser Arafat in a contested election. There are many problems with Fatah. Much has changed since it was founded in 1959. Swamped with graft and corruption, the “Old Guard” is still in control, but it is a movement that is deeply divided. The main tribulation for the “Young Guard” is the amount of corruption and the fact that it governs with a vertical approach, both within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. While the “Young Guard” is demonstrating its frustrations about the movement, it remains largely dominated by aging cadres from the pre-Oslo era of Palestinian politics—most of them gaining prominence through their patronage to the late Yasser Arafat.

Most notable from the “Young Guard” is the popular Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti. The jailed politician left Fatah in 2005 to form his own “al-Mustaqbal” Party, which was mainly composed of the youth of Fatah. His main complaint was the faction’s lack of vision and exorbitant corruption. This struck a chord with many in the Occupied Territories. However, his party never came to fruition, as Fatah decided to present a unified list to voters in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections—with Barghouti campaigning for Fatah from his jail cell. After the election, Barghouti remained popular within Fatah regardless of being in jail. PA President, Mahmoud Abbas is aging, in poor health, completely disconnected with the Palestinian people, and utterly alienated and demonized by the Israelis (with support from the United States). Any future mediator must look to the “Young Guard” within Fatah for a negotiating partner for a two-state solution—and Barghouti is one of those leaders to keep an eye on.

Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah)

Hamas is another faction within the PA, and the largest faction within the PLC. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Mahmoud Zahar, and several others founded it in 1987, right after the beginning of the first intifada. Its current Chief of the Political Bureau is Ismail Haniyeh. He succeeded Khaled Mashal, who held on to the position from 1996 until 2017. Originally an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was hostile to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—the predecessor to the PA—and Israel. However, it has since revoked most of its hostile rhetoric to the PA and Israel. Furthermore, it has revamped its hostile charter, which recognizes Israel as a state along the 1967 borders—indicating the land that Israel obtained in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel took ownership of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

This is not to mean that Hamas does not face challenges. It is in a quagmire of its own, as it struggles to maintain legitimacy in the Gaza Strip, where it has governed since the brutal power struggle between them and Fatah following the 2005 Disengagement. There have been some small murmurs of discontent of their leadership as it tries to balance between resisting the occupation, avoiding another war, and governing its people. As the economic situation has deteriorated over the years (mainly but not solely due to the Israeli blockade), it has led to small divisions within the rank-and-file, but nothing noteworthy of any type of threat to their leadership in the Gaza Strip. For all intents and purposes, Hamas is a necessary partner in a future peace agreement as it is still popular with the majority of Palestinians.

Suggesting that Hamas is solely a terrorist organization is a mistake. There are some elements within the organization that still seek a hard line with Israel and want to have the entire state of Israel. However, this is not the official position of Hamas. This is the main argument that comes from the Israeli right and the naysayers to openly negotiating with Hamas. To those that feel that Hamas should never be trusted and dialogue with the organization is a non-starter: would it not be wiser to engage with an organization that has extremist views, such as they do, and integrate them into the mainstream in the hopes of marginalizing those that want to make Palestine a cause while strengthening those that want to make Palestine a nation? The only way to change Hamas’ behaviour for the better is to engage them in the process, rather than leave them as an outlier where their mischievous behaviour will certainly continue. Engaging Hamas is necessary because without Hamas, there is no peace agreement.

The current regional players: How do they see it?

Saudi Arabia

The PA and Saudi Arabia have had a longstanding relationship. They both sit in the Arab League and the Islamic Cooperation Council. For the longest time, the two countries have been allies and the perception had been that the Saudis have always defended the Palestinians. As a charter member of the Arab League, Saudi Arabia has supported Palestinian rights to sovereignty and called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories since 1967. However, in recent years, this all changed. With the new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman having won the power struggle to succeed King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz, the policy and relations with the Palestinians have significantly shifted.

With the Crown Prince in full control, he “offered” a “deal” to the Palestinians that was almost immediately rejected by PA President Abbas because it made many guarantees to the Israelis, but offered the Palestinians nothing. This should not come as a surprise because, in one of the region’s worst kept secrets, Saudi Arabia and Israel have improved their relations significantly. This is a foreign policy that Bin Salman has carried out since solidifying his power. One has to wonder if this is a wise decision for Israel because the young Defense Minister has been highly sectarian in his wars with Yemen and the standoff with Qatar. What is more, he deems Iran as a greater threat than Israel, which is the main reason for his policy shift. For a country that is very weak, he is trying to hold on to power with an iron fist. This will not bode well for the Sheikhdom—a country composed of regions that differ in nature, which were united into a single political entity only by blending the Ibn Saud dynasty with Wahhabism. If left unchecked, Bin Salman’s iron fist mentality, will most certainly disintegrate Saudi Arabia into its historic components, as happened in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and potentially could happen in Syria. Furthermore, Bin Salman’s belligerent behaviour may lead to resistance from the Saudi elites who he is attempting to purge. Also, there is a considerable Shi‘i minority in the eastern part of the Sheikhdom, which will probably pursue a military or political sponsor for itself in Iran.

This type of aggressive activity at home and abroad has the very real possibility of creating a confrontation with Iran. Thus, Saudi Arabia can no longer be trusted as a key player in any political solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if not for its weakness and bellicosity, then for its lack of support within the Palestinian leadership as it’s seen as a guarantor for the Israeli side. This does not mean engagement should be shelved. On the contrary, a mediator should be in contact with the Sheikhdom in order to avoid rogue elements within the regime to sabotage an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Iran

Iran has been labeled as a menacing force by many Western countries, namely the United States and Israel. The argument is that Iran is a state that is sponsoring terrorism in the region and abroad. This is grossly exaggerated. While it might be on the same level as Saudi Arabia in “sponsoring terrorism,” where is this criticism of Saudi Arabia? It has funded numerous organizations that are in line with its Wahhabist vision. We see this in Iraq, Libya, and Syria where Daesh (the Islamic State or IS for short), and other similar organizations, have wreaked havoc after American covert or overt operations created a vacuum allowing these Salafi jihadi organizations to run amuck. These same organizations are still threatening others in the region. The Arab New Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia might have started in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution was successful in overthrowing the Shah, but the extremist ideological feud predated it with the Saudi Sheikhdom’s unholy alliance with Wahhabism and the exportation of its revolution into other countries in the Middle East. All this while cozying up to Western powers long before Iran had begun to export its revolution. What needs to be done with Hamas is exactly what needs to be done with Iran, and for the same reason. However, a similar approach also needs to be taken with Saudi Arabia because it is a country that has been allowed to act without consequence. The onus for the instability in the region and international terrorism should be placed on the Sheikhdom just as much as (if not more than) the Iranians.

Regarding Iran’s influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is limited. They do fund the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, which has claimed responsibility for some of the rockets launched into Israel. However, their influence and power are limited. But, if a mediator wants to marginalize the extremists within the organization, it would be wise to engage with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is what Fmr. US President Obama began in 2015 with his “Iran Nuclear Deal.” The withdrawal from the deal by the United States by current US President Donald Trump is disheartening for the simple reason that Iran has no incentive for cooperating with the international community and, more specifically, revoking its funding to Shi‘i organizations in the region, such as the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Turkey

In recent years, Turkey has taken a major shift from what it used to be in the 20th century. Under current President and former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country has taken on a more traditionalist identity. When first elected as Prime Minister in 2003, Erdoğan was elected because the society was changing. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were military coups happening more often than one would change their underwear. Those that had become wealthier now wanted to be able to practice their religion freely. Many people also felt disenfranchised for a variety of reasons. Whether it was for religious, economic, or social reasons, the people wanted a change from a strict, secular country guided by the military. It would be a misnomer to suggest that Turks wanted (and still do not want) to be an Islamic fundamentalist state. Rather, they wanted to be free to pray or practice their religion without feeling threatened (a more traditionalist state, if you will). The Turks do not want an Islamic fundamentalist state and their Presidential elections have consistently shown that as Erdoğan or his presidential allies have usually received a little over than fifty percent of the vote while always maintaining power in the Turkish parliament. The message the voters are sending is that it likes the government’s economic policies and it wants the traditionalist element in Turkish daily life but it does not want to have a fundamentalist version of Islam guide its country.

At the beginning, Erdoğan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), were the perfect fit. This is exactly what the party promised in their first election campaign and it has, more or less, implemented these laws throughout their time in power. However, as time went on, many rifts emerged within the AKP that eventually cost it seats in parliamentary elections. In fact, it received a minority government for a brief period before a snap election was called where the AKP regained its majority. Over the years, Erdoğan had gradually become weaker while pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” crusade in the region. We saw this in Libya during its civil war, in Syria during its civil war, and in his tough words and actions regarding Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Erdoğan remains weak and we know he is weak given the failed coup attempt back in 2016 and the countless arrests he has made ever since.

Today, Turkey has resumed ties with Moscow after Ankara shot down a Russian plane over Syrian skies. This is good news if Russia seeks to mediate a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Turkish-Israeli relations are “luke-cold” at best. They have diplomatic relations with each other. However, Turkey consistently criticizes Israel’s every move and consistently tries to defend the Palestinians. It is in close contact with Hamas, a vital partner for any agreement, and ties have been improving with Fatah. Turkey has consistently invited Hamas to Ankara and has defended them on many occasions. Any mediator needs to include Turkey, given their strong ties to Hamas, because leaving the country on the sidelines might have undesirable consequences that will not be in the international community’s best interest.

Qatar

Long before Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s failed blockade back in 2017, Qatar had been conducting a robust foreign policy. The tiny peninsular Arab country has sought ties with many different states within the region beyond its “base.” For instance, it has sought ties with Iran, which was at the heart of the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) led blockade. Since the Saudi-UAE led blockade, the Qataris also successfully reached out to improve diplomatic relations with Oman, Turkey, the United States, and Russia. Regarding the latter, in the waning years of the Soviet Union, Qatar established diplomatic relations and for three decades the two countries have had good diplomatic relations despite some minor tensions between them. In any case, economic ties between the two countries are strong and became even stronger after the failed Saudi-UAE blockade.

More importantly, Qatar is a crucial player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will play a critical role in its solution. For the longest time, Qatar has been an active supporter of Hamas. It housed Hamas’ former Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashal and has assisted the Palestinian organization financially. This has been another element in its robust foreign policy. For a small country, it is trying to gain clout in a region where countries are jockeying for a position of regional supremacy. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it very much has clout due to the fact that, like Turkey, it has very close ties to Hamas. Some might suggest that it has more pull than Ankara. In any case, like Turkey, it should not be left aside in a future peace agreement.

Two be or not two be: Can it be done?

The question remains: can this seven-decade-old conflict be resolved? The answer is yes, if there is the resolve. There are players in both camps that are willing to engage in resolving the conflict. It will be a tall order to accomplish, but all parties — both domestic and foreign — need to be on board and engaged. “Yisrael Beiteinu” Chairman and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman once said that there should be a regional agreement before a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He does have a point, but it is vital that the two sides come to an agreement first before a regional agreement is achieved for the very simple reason: it’s imperative Israel solve this issue for its own national security.

The United States and other Western countries have tried and failed to make the two sides come to an agreement. In the case of the former, it was never an honest broker in resolving the problem and usually took the side of the Israelis. Western players—namely, the European Union (EU) — never had the wherewithal and clout to resolve the conflict. With the exception of some breakthroughs, the Israelis and the Palestinians are far from coming to an agreement in which Israel will agree to give up the West Bank (in its entirety) along with East Jerusalem, and remove the blockade in the Gaza Strip. Israel claims that it still needs security guarantees that the latter will not lead to constant wars. However, if it doesn’t completely relinquish these areas, the one-state reality and the very real possibility of a civil war will be upon the Zionist entity sooner rather than later, which would surely spell the end of the Jewish identity of the country.

At the moment, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are keen on talking to one another—each accusing the other of incitement and blaming one another for the upsurge in violence. Where the United States and the EU have been unsuccessful, Russia has the potential of successfully bringing these two sides together. Why Russia? It has good ties with the Israelis and Palestinians as well as the key regional players that must sign off on the agreement. As much as it is in the Israelis’ national security interests to come to an agreement as soon as possible, so too is it an urgent national security issue for Russia. A civil war, which could explode in a region where extremism is rampant, is not only a threat to the Israelis, Palestinians, and the entire Middle East—but also to Russia and the entire international community.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russian-Jews left the Russian Federation, because under former President Boris Yeltsin, life was tough and Israel offered better opportunities. Today, Israel has a significant population of Russian-Jews as well as other Jewish people from other countries of the former Soviet Union. Since President Putin came to power, he has sought better relations with Israel. Over the years, there have been numerous state visits: many Israeli Prime Ministers visited Russia and President Putin and others have visited Israel on many occasions. Today, the two countries are cooperating very closely in Syria. Russia also has good ties with the Palestinians. This relationship predates the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union usually took the side of the Palestinians. Where Russia plays a unique role that others don’t is its presence and commitment to the region. It also has contacts with all the countries in the region and is, more or less, on good terms with them all. Russia genuinely wants to ensure stability in this region because of its fears that the extremism can spread to its backyard and, potentially, into its own country. It also has the experience and the relevant expertise to make the two-state solution a reality. More importantly, Russia has been in the region for centuries. So, trust and experience in a region full of skepticism can go a long way—and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no exception.

The Israelis and Palestinians have been in a stalemate for too long and something needs to change. The status quo is unsustainable, mainly for the Israelis but, to a certain extent, for the Palestinians as well. Both parties desperately need to return to the table if for no other reason than to ensure that their people live in peace, stability, and security. With the United States removing itself from the region over the last decade and a half coupled with the fact that it is a biased broker in this conflict, both the Israelis and the Palestinians should look to Russia if they want to resolve their age-old conflict. Russia seems to be a willing partner to broker a deal. Now, the warring parties must be ready to do the same rather than throw out useless accusations of incitement or “it is their fault, not mine.” For Israel, this is an existential moment, as the very identity of the country is at stake. If this opportunity is overlooked, Israel will only have itself to blame—and one would assume that the elite in Israel do not want that to happen to its people and to the Jewish diaspora who it claims to be protecting.

First published in our partner RIAC

Junior Editor for Global Brief Magazine and a PhD Candidate in Middle Eastern & African History at the Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies at Tel Aviv Uni-versity

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Middle East

The Forgotten African Slaves of Lebanon

Funmilola Ajala

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Photo Credit: Amnesty International

In April 2020, authorities in Lebanon arrested one Wael Jerro after posting an advertisement to sell a Nigerian lady, Peace Busari, for a $1,000 on a popular ‘Buy & Sell in Lebanon’ Facebook group. In the post which had a screenshot of the 30-year-old lady’s international passport, Wael described Peace as “…very active and very neat.”  He was subsequently charged to court for human trafficking while his victim was repatriated by the Nigerian authority.

Peace may be considered a lucky soul if her case is compared to other African migrants, who mainly work as maids, in the gulf country. For instance, back in March 2020, 23-year-old Faustina Tay from Ghana committed suicide after weeks of sending out several voice notes complaining of being molested by her employers. Her body was found in a car park in her employers’ storey building in Beruit. Faustina’s search for the proverbial greener pastures to Lebanon only lasted 10months during which she shared pictures of her bruised face and audios of her ordeal with family members back home. In an investigation by media outfit Aljazeera, her employer, Hussein Dia, whom Faustina had accused of beating her, refuted such claims. Ali Kamal, the man whose recruitment agency facilitated Faustina’s journey to Lebanon, also denied the lady was ever physically abused.

In 2018, the body of a 26-year-old Ethiopian was discovered drowned in a swimming pool within the premises of her agent in the town of Dweir only days after a baby delivered of her died due to birth complications. These cases represent a fraction of what many of the estimated quarter of a million Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) in Lebanon often experience and the story may, unfortunately, not change for the better anytime soon as highlighted by recent happenings.

Social Media to the Rescue

One of the incidents pushed to the front burner in the aftermath of the August 4 massive explosion which claimed 200 lives at a Beirut seaport storage facility is the maltreatment of foreign maids. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an approximate eight percent of the 300,000 people affected by the incident are MDWs. Before the cataclysmic occurrence, the 6million Lebanese population had come under severe living conditions occasioned by a strained economy (with an estimated 25% inflation rate) compounded by the stringent measures of the Covid-19 pandemic. The dire situation is said to have equally taken a toll on employers of MDWs many of whom were reportedly sent parking from their temporary homes with nowhere to go. Reports claim many of the stranded aliens resorted to passing the nights on the sidewalks in the Lebanese capital.

Kafala System

One of the 5,000 wounded in the devastating blast is Nkiru Obasi from Ebonyi in Nigeria. While getting ready to be evacuated to Nigeria alongside others on August 12, she and four others were stopped from embarking on a Lagos-bound airplane after her ‘madam’ interjected unmindful of the fact that the young lady was nursing wounds. The demeaning lifestyle of most migrant workers in Lebanon is bundled into an archaic tradition known as the ‘Kafala system that allows a domestic worker’s wholesome subjugation by his/her ‘masters.’ The practice is traced to the era of slave trading in many parts of Arab land, and – perhaps – explains the reason why it is largely sustained till date in Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and so on. Human rights abuses such as sexual molestation, denial of movement, working long hours, and physical assaults are some of the trademarks of the physical-cum-psychological trauma which foreign domestic employees are subjected to by their employers with no legal reprieve. It is a system that has continued to consume generations of young, unsuspecting souls from Sub-Sahara Africa – and parts of Asia – lured with the prospect of a non-existing rosy life far beyond their abode.

Bureaucratic Impediments

For most non-Lebanese migrant workers, the harrowing experience of suffering neglect, abuse, and ill-treatment by unsympathetic employers is rather endured if the other available option of approaching the authority is taken into consideration. Amnesty International says in trying to enforce the extant laws of the land, undocumented MDWs are intermittently rounded up and herded into detention by Lebanese General Security. Few days before the ratification of the UN’s Adoption of the Global Compact on Migration in November 2018, the Lebanese government released 35 foreigners from prolonged detention for lack of residency papers. This is the treatment likely to be faced by any daring migrant worker who attempts to unilaterally exit his/her Lebanese employer as he/she may lose the legal residency status which makes their stay valid in the first instance. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a September 2020 report titled “Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers,” criticized the exemption of MDWs from Lebanese labor law despite the huge economic importance of these individuals to their original and host societies. While calling for the abolishment of the kafala system, the HRW reveals that more than $90million was sent overseas by MDWs from Lebanon in the first six months of 2009, hence the imperative of providing legal cover for these individuals.

The First Bold Step Towards a Lasting Reform?

Despite the ongoing social unrest on the local scene since August 4 which had forced the political leadership in the country to resign its appointment, the implication of the plight of MDWs in Lebanon on the image of the country abroad seems not lost on Beirut and its government is responding to the challenge.

In what is seen as a cheering development, the Lebanese Caretaker Labour Minister, Lamine Yammine, recently announced the launch of a new standard unified labour law which “enshrines the rights” of foreign employees in the country. Yammine adds that, with the new contract law, MDWs would be able to “obtain all their contractual rights and benefit from the broadest social protections.” Similarly, while hosting top officials from the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) last June, in Abuja, the Lebanese Ambassador to Nigeria, Houssam Diab, claims that his government has suspended the issuance of working visas to Nigerians seeking to work as domestic workers in Lebanon to rid the current system of exploitation and abuse.

However, many activists accused the government of cheery picking and opine that the new labour law appears to have fallen short of expected cancellation of the Kafala system which they view as the major stack against the MDWs. Nonetheless, one can applaud the initiative as a positive step (albeit trifling) towards guaranteeing a better future for foreigners working as domestic employees in Lebanon.

Going forward, one key area which authority should not overlook is the role being played by recruiting agents like Ali Kamal who told Aljazeera that his firm accounts for the entrance of 1,000 foreign workers into Lebanon, each year. A constant searchlight must be beamed into the activities of such companies if the life of the enrollees is, indeed, fancied beyond lip service as worth more than that of mere ‘slaves’.

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Israel and its Image After the 1967 War

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The war of 1967, or the Six Day War as it has come to be known, was a war which came with immense, geo-strategic and political consequences. The Middle East, was the arena where it played out and fifty years later the reverberations continue to be felt in the region and beyond. This is reflected in the words of, the then Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, who said, “Nothing will be settled by a military victory. The Arabs will still be here” (Colonel Stephen S. Evans, 2008 ). His words have proved to be prophetic, for Israel has metamorphosed in this timespan, and the Arabs are still there though they are a house divided and peace is still elusive. The conflict between, Arab and Jewish identities over Palestinian land now has a regional as well as an international dimension. In this rite of passage, Israel’s relations with many nation-states have matured from nascency to maturity and much of this finds its origins in the aftermath of the 1967 war between Israel and the three states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It is this transformation in Israel’s stature in International Relations, that is to be examined.

 In the run up to the war of 1967, the events were moving in a manner that can best be described as fast and furious. With the Syrians being routed by the Israelis in April 1967, Nasser was under pressure to restore Arab prestige, when he was warned by the Soviets in May, that Israel was planning to invade Syria. In spite of having half his forces entrenched in a conflict with Yemen, Nasser reacted by asking UN peacekeepers to leave the Sinai Peninsula, and began massing troops in to the Sinai Desert. With no Israeli reaction forthcoming, Nasser then closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, on May 22, and challenged Israel to engage in conflict. The Iraqi President Abdel Rahman joined this tirade of threats against Israel and it was under these extenuating circumstances, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on the morning of June 5, 1967, with ‘Operation Focus’. It simply had no choice but to do so.

Six days later, Israel emerged victorious, against the defence forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and surprisingly enough, its territorial gains included, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank of the Jordan River (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights. Clearly, this was not an act of pre-meditation as this operation was supposed to be have been a “48-hour surgical strike” to neutralise Egypt and nothing more(Oren, 2005). Israel’s geographic spread now, was three times what it was before the war. Both Israel and Egypt were quick to approach the UN in quick succession, at the outbreak of the war and UN Resolution 242 resulted many weeks after the war, in November. In the aftermath of the war, it is really not possible to analyse Israel’s international relations in a linear manner as events and relationships tend to dovetail, converge and diverge at the same time. Clearly, Israel as a country went through a transformative experience from within and without after this war. It transcended the stage from where it was struggling to maintain it its territorial integrity in 1948, to a stage where it had won a decisive victory, albeit with American aid and French armaments. With control over the Sinai Peninsula, which overlooked the Suez Canal, and the Soviets stepping in reinforce their support to the Egyptians, Israel, now unwittingly became a player in the Cold War. In this context, from being in a situation where it was viewed as a burden by the U.S., Israel had now became an “imperative significant asset”(Kardo Karim Rached Mohammad, The Six-Day War and Its Impact on Arab and Israeli Conflict, 2017). Having proven its military might, U.S.-Israeli relations underwent a sea change, for now this relationship was of potential benefit. This was a far cry from 1956 when America had called Israel an aggressor when it had attacked Egypt as part of a secret pact with Britain and France.   

The symbiotic relationship between the U.S. and Israel, consequently assumed an overall upward trajectory with some periods of lull. Even the retributive oil embargo against the west, by the Arab world after the Yom Kippur war, did not derail this relationship and Reagan named Israel as a strategic asset, in 1979. Israel was now the beneficiary of considerable military supplies and treated as a proxy for the U.S. in the region. After the end of the Cold War, Israel was no longer a U.S. proxy but a strategic partner nevertheless and a “democratic anchor”. Since then, starting with the Clinton Administration, support for Israel has been unequivocal, with Trump’s presidency going beyond mere re-affirmation.  One noteworthy, pattern till now, is the implicit understanding of faith between the two countries, that Israel’s nuclear armament cache would never be a subject of discussion and there would not be any talk of signing the Non- Proliferation Treaty(Entous, 2018).

Another key relationship affecting Israel’s very existence, in the same time frame, was one of extreme challenges and continues to be so, till now. At the time of the 1967 war, sponsored by the Arab League, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was already in existence, and destruction of Israel, was one of its goals. After the war, Yasser Arafat and the Fatah, gained dominance within the PLO and led attacks against Israel which were to turn more and more violent over the years. It was only in1993, with the Oslo Accord, that PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and accepted, UN resolutions 242 and 338, Israel in turn was to withdraw from key territories and PLO was to govern parts of Gaza, Jericho and the West Bank. The fragility of this peace process gave rise to the Second Intifada and Hamas now came to control the Gaza strip in 2007, leaving Fatah with the West Bank. Though the Fatah and Hamas  have since reconciled, Israel views Hamas as a “hostile entity” for its acts of terror (Encyclopedia Britannica , n.d.). As a corollary, there is the issue of continuing build-up of Israeli settlements on the West bank which have been deemed illegal by the United Nations (UNSC 446). This notion of “creeping annexation” in the West Bank, is in defiance of all international laws and opinion (Cohen, 2019). Clearly, this was a manner of securing Israel’s boundaries, leaving the Palestinians, subjects, of an occupying force. There are an estimated,141 Jewish settlements, in the West Bank and upwards of 300,000 Palestinians are said to have been displaced. President Rivlin, in this context, even said belligerently, “it was their land that they were building” (Remnick, 2014).Undoubtedly, Palestine’s inability to eschew violence and its inability to embrace the two state solution, have repeatedly made peace elusive. Matters have now come to a head and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has rendered all agreements with the U.S. and Israel, void, in view of the threatened West Bank annexation, by Israel. Clearly, this may be another chapter in this uneasy relationship (Holmes, 2020). 

 In this entire flow of events, the paradoxical endurance of UNSC 242, as a “pivotal point of reference”, at first looks, is puzzling and intriguing at the same time (Mazur, 2012). Israel was seen to accept the resolution because it called upon the Arab states to acknowledge Israel’s right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force. Egypt, Jordan (from the outset) and the other Arab states (eventually) accepted it because it had a clause which called upon Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the recent conflict. With this UN resolution, the equation had changed overnight, Israel became an ‘occupying force’, with the burden of withdrawal subject to its being able to attain “secure and recognized boundaries” (United Nations , 1967). Deliberately incorporated phraseology, by Lord Caradon, meant that Israel would not be required to vacate all territories. Palestinians were just a refugee problem to be resolved, with no status of nationality or nationhood being discussed, they were left to be ‘generic’ refugees.

With the passing of years after UN 242, Israel and the Arabs, clashed repeatedly, including the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War, but it was as if the Arabs were coming off weaker, each time. Egypt was the first to make peace with Israel in 1979 under the land for peace initiative, and the return of the Sinai Peninsula was the key deal maker. This was followed long after with the Jordan peace settlement in 1994, wherein, the international boundary was delimited and waters from Jordan River and Yarmouk River were now to be allocated between the two countries. Thereafter, the Arab League has been rendered increasingly ineffectual due its own internal contradictions and issues like the Hamas are no more than a thorn in Israel’s flesh, while its engagements with Syria have been no more than border skirmishes. Palestine, the biggest loser in this development, stands marginalised by both.

Interestingly enough, in this changed Arab-Israeli equation, as a first responder, Israel under Netanyahu is now moving bilaterally within the Arab states, in a bid to find “peace out of strength” (TOI STAFF, The Times of Israel ). Clearly this strikes a common chord with the Arab states whose needs for Israel’s offerings of security and surveillance platforms align with the overriding need for security in the region due to America’s fading hegemony. So much so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the recent past has been quoted as saying, “Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land” (Goldberg, 2018). Until now this is one threshold, which had not been crossed by Saudi Arabia, the second largest Arab nation. The reason is not far to seek, as the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a common enemy in Iran and of just as much importance, are the common security interests that are shared by the trio of, Israel, U.S. and the Arab States. In fact, recently Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, admittedly said, “We do believe that Israel is a country to stay, and we want better relations with it, and we want peace with it” (Ragson, 2019). On the other hand, the opening of new synagogues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is another indicator of this ‘Arab Thaw’, if one were to invent a phrase. Interestingly, an added dimension to these initiatives, is the pursuit of public diplomacy by Israel, where the Foreign Ministry is using digital platforms to connect with Arabs, the goal being to showcase the shared common values and similarities, of two ancient cultures (Eglash, 2019 ).

Moving back to matters of nation states, Israel has all along been moving ahead in affairs of political economy and knitting ties, which are strategic, political, military and economic. With its expertise in high technology extending even beyond conventional areas to armaments, Israel is globally the eighth largest exporter of armaments and its ties with India have deepened measurably, as it has contributed to India’s military modernisation needs, especially in times of conflict. On the other hand, Israel’s ties with its largest trading partner, EU, are a mixed bag, as Europe is wary of its Palestine policies. With Anti -Semitism rearing its head in Europe, EU is trying to ensure that its funds do not reach the ‘settlement areas’ and has threatened to escalate diplomatic initiatives if Israel goes ahead with its West Bank takeover initiatives. In parallel, Israel is constantly exploring new relationships, and recently it has tied up an energy partnership with Greece and Cyprus, for the ‘Energy Triangle’, in a bid for ensuring Energy Security. From the kibbutz configured economy in 1967, Israel is now avowedly, a technological powerhouse for the world, where GDP per capita is twice that of the Saudi Arabia. Even with China, Israel enjoys a significantly strong economic relationship, though differences have started to surface off late.

In conclusion, it may be said that, many have spoken of this briefest of wars as a pivot or a turning point but it might be more correct and accurate to term it as a fulcrum, for it is Israel which now forms the lever that turns the geo-politics of the region that it inhabits. Even as Israel preserves the geo-strategic strengths of its gains from the Six Day War, the Arabs are disempowered in this Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinians are dis-enfranchised, like never before. As a nation it has worked like a true realist, giving credence to the realist credo that, “it is important not only to have a substantial amount of power, but also to make sure that no other state sharply shifts the balance of power in its favour”(Mearsheimer, 2013). Clearly, Israel has succeeded, in this objective.

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UAE and Israel: Nothing to See Here

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Across the world, the August agreement between the UAE and Israel, signed in September in Washington, to normalize their bilateral relations has been hailed as revolutionary. Certainly, it is a diplomatic triumph for the administration of US President Donald Trump which, in the face of criticism, continued with its “Deal of a Century” settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite its absolute rejection by all Palestinian parties. Then, Trump’s son-in-law and special advisor on Middle Eastern affairs Jared Kushner continued to claim that like-minded Arab states would seek to cooperate with the Israelis, support the administration’s proposal, and ultimately normalize their relations with Israel.

Now, that the UAE has agreed to just that, Kushner has certainly been vindicated. Already the UAE’s decision has precipitated Bahrain’s normalization of relations with Israel with Oman likely to follow. But was this as decisive a decision as Abu Dhabi has led many to believe? Supposedly, the UAE finally agreed to normalize its bilateral relations with Israel as the first Arab country to do so since the Oslo Accords in order to halt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex the West Bank and specifically the western banks of the Jordan Valley. However, that later claim that the UAE somehow prevented annexation seems unlikely to have been a real motivation, and rather a means of justifying the UAE’s decision as acting on the behalf of the Palestinians. In fact, Netanyahu quickly responded to criticism by Israeli settler groups of the deal declaring that annexation remains on the table, clearly negating this as a possible justification by the UAE for normalization. In fact, recent reporting suggests the US only promised the UAE it would not support unilateral annexation until 2024, only long enough for the UAE to save face. 

There are better theories that explain the UAE’s normalization than the looming West Bank annexation. Over the past few weeks many have argued that this is just the next logical step by the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) an organization of six oil-rich Sunni Arab monarchies, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to ally with Israel and deter the mutual threat of Iran. Indeed, the United States has openly supported the creation of an “Arab NATO” that would align the Sunni Arab states and Israel against Iran’s “Shia Crescent” of allied militias and states across the Levant. Iran and its ally in the Lebanese Hezbollah are staunch advocates of the Palestinian cause and military and financial allies of the Gaza based Hamas. Yet, the UAE in particular has always taken a more conciliatory stance towards Iranian expansionism, as demonstrated by its overtures to Tehran as tensions heated up in the Persian Gulf region over the safe passage of oil tankers in the summer of 2019.

Others have pointed out (more convincingly) that this is about deterring Turkey.  Both the UAE and Israel now feel threatened by Turkey’s projection of power across the Middle East’s maritime environs. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Turkey has become a close ally of the UAE’s arch-nemesis Qatar, and deployed thousands of troops to defend the microstate after Saudi Arabia and the UAE blockaded it in 2017. Recently, Turkey is now facing off against a coalition of Greece, (Greek) Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and France in the Eastern Mediterranean as it looks to secure its own zone of military and economic influence in the region. It has also intervened directly in the Libyan Civil War, saving the Tripoli based government from the warlord General Khalifa Haftar and his Russian, French, Egyptian, and UAE backed forces. Moreover, Turkey is now fast becoming the leading advocate for the Palestinian cause in the Sunni Muslim world, a role that has worried Israeli policymakers for some time.

Yet, the UAE’s security collaboration with Israel (let alone Saudi Arabia’s) is well documented to have been occurring covertly for some time now. Israel’s intelligence services have cooperated with the UAE in Syria, Libya, and now Sudan. Infamously, the UAE hired ex-Israeli and American special forces operatives to assassinate its opponents in the Yemeni Islah Party, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and the two states may have a joint intelligence base on the Yemeni island of Socotra. Emirati diplomats are in close collaboration with pro-Israel think tanks and lobbyists in Washington, and the UAE (along with Saudi Arabia)personally pressured Palestinian factions to support the US “Deal of a Century” –and that is only what is public. So, is this decision so surprising or shocking?

A simple metaphor is useful. If two lovers sneak off together every night for months, is anyone surprised when they announce their engagement? Not especially. The UAE and many other Arab-Muslim nations have flirted with recognizing Israel for years, if not decades. Initially, support for the Palestinian cause was an enticing prospect to unite Arab countries morally and politically in the quest for Palestinian liberation and resistance to the West. But the power and prestige invested in any country that could lead the Arab World by taking upon itself the mantle of defender of Palestine quickly evaporated with the end of the Arab Cold War and the beginning of the Oslo Peace process. Now, the mantle of “peacemaker” is more profitable and more powerful for any country in the Arab World seeking to lead the reshaped post-Arab Spring Middle East.

A Cause Abandoned Long Ago

Frankly, it is the Egyptian decision to normalize relations with Israel that began this inevitable trend in the Arab World. After watching its military destroyed in detail and the Sinai Peninsula occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat rebuilt his nation’s armed forces and fought the Israelis to the negotiating table in 1973. Once Egypt agreed to the Camp David Accords, that year the most capable advocate for the Palestinian cause was removed from the game. The Palestinians were also expelled from Jordan in 1971 during the events of Black September into Lebanon, where they were received not with open arms. Internationally, without Egypt, the only possible defenders of Palestine left were Iraq and Syria.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein took upon this role with relish, but instead of using Palestine to rally the other Arab states, its invasion of Kuwait left Iraq devastated and isolated by American bombings and sanctions. The fall of Saddam in 2003 and the collapse of the country into civil war ended its role as a patron of the Palestinians. Finally, Syria under the then youthful President Bashar al-Assad was the only major supporter of the Palestinians left standing, and it soon became the external location for the Hamas political bureau, that is, until the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.The explosion of Syria into a sectarian conflict split both the nation and the Palestinians between pro-Assad nationalists and leftists in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and pro-opposition Islamists in Hamas. With Syria devastated and now an international pariah, Palestinians were left without a leading Arab state to take on their cause.

With the Iraq and the Levant in ruin, the Palestinians turned towards the GCC. The GCC has always offered an economic lifeline to Palestinian parties and militant organizations, both overtly and covertly, in their resistance struggle against the Israelis. This is not to mention the millions in remittances sent back to Palestine by diaspora workers in Kuwait, Riyadh, Doha, and Dubai sent back home to those living in Gaza and the West Bank. In the 1970’s Saudi Arabia in particular rallied the Islamic World to support the Palestinian cause after the al-Aqsa mosque fire, when a Jewish extremist attempted to burn down the Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. Then, the inveterate anti-communist King Fahad led Muslim countries from across the world to form the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1978, dedicated firstly to the support of the Palestinians and the preservation of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and other Islamic causes more broadly.

But despite this support, the GCC states have always been a natural partner of Israel. A collection of small states, if not micro-states, threatened by larger powers on every side, the impetus for normalization with Israel has always existed. Just consider the entire citizen population of the GCC (thus not including foreign guest-workers) is on par with that of pre-civil war Yemen at approximately 26 million people. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the kingdoms of the Persian Gulf have relied heavily on external powers, like the United States, Great Britain, the Shah’s Iran, and even Pakistan, in order to provide for their national defense and the protection of their oil and gas reserves. The list of threats is long, and includes at various times, the Soviet Union, Egypt, Iraq, South Yemen, Syria, and since 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose regional power and ambition to dominate would lead to the creation of the GCC in 1981.

Moreover, the economic impetus for normalization remains strong, especially as the world faces the possibility of permanently low oil prices. As such, all of the GCC states are facing the difficult question of how to diversify their oil and gas economies. Although GCC states like Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE now rely more on the income generated from investing their oil and gas revenues abroad rather than the extraction of natural resources itself, the GCC nations’ best hope for diversification lies in the development of high technology sectors. Such industries can utilize their small affluent societies and provide employment for a well-educated youth population. Israel, as a technology leader and with a robust financial sector, offers to be a strong economic partner of the GCC states, that is if they commit to normalization, and abandon the Palestinians.

A Battle for Prestige

Hence the practical rationale of current political normalization has been building up since the 1970’s, but why has the UAE in particular chosen this path? The answer is not in Abu Dhabi but Doha. In the 1990’s a new phenomenon emerged in the Middle East with the rise of Qatar. In 1991 Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father to become the county’s emir. Al-Thani looked to assert Qatar as the first of the smaller GCC states with a foreign policy in the region independent of its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia. With a population of little more than a quarter-of-a-million citizens, Qatar could not deploy the military implements of its national power to gain influence and prestige.

Instead, Qatar used its financial wealth to raise its stature as a regional peacemaker. It mediated conflicts between local actors and nation states in Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, and Libya, and famously offered the Taliban an “embassy” in Doha, at America’s request, to begin peace talks in 2014. Most of all, Qatar quickly provided US Central Command the al-Udeid airbase in 1996 to maintain thousands of forces in the region after the post-Gulf War withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. Notably, Qatar was also the first Arab Gulf state to begin normalizing its relationship with Israel when it opened a trade office in Doha in 1994, although it was soon closed with the al-Aqsa Intifada. Instead, it captured the 1990’s explosion in Arab media with the state-supported Aljazeera network, and later the political tsunami of the Arab Spring by allying and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and associated Islamist political forces across the region.

In this sense, the UAE is really playing catch up to its regional competitor Qatar. In the 1990’s the UAE, like Bahrain today, closely followed the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia. This was since the UAE, as a small confederation of seven rival states, was historically threatened by its larger neighbor. From 1952-1955 Saudi attempts to assert their control over the oil rich Buraimi Oasis led the British to militarily intervene to secure the borders of the Trucial States (now the UAE) and Oman. This border dispute would last after the British withdrawal from its engagements East of Suez and the independence of the UAE in 1971. Although the two countries concluded a treaty in 1974, it was never confirmed until 1995, and never completely ratified by the UAE.But the UAE still looked to placate Saudi Arabia by following its foreign policy leadership. For example, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia and regional states Pakistan and Turkmenistan as the only countries to ever recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 1996.

However, the development of the UAE into the modern financial center it is today began to change this historic power dynamic. The UAE first began asserting its independence with the expansion of Dubai into an international center of business and commerce, but while the emirate of Dubai grew to become an internationally respected state let in its own right, the UAE’s largest emirate, Abu Dhabi, was overshadowed by its gaudier, although less economically stable sister. As much as UAE foreign policy is national, it still remains a hotly contested union of microstates. 

This changed with the rise of Abu Dhabi’s influential crown prince Muhammad bin Zayed, the infamous “MBZ.” Prince Zayed attempted to raise the stature of Abu Dhabi using the political and military tools under the control of Abu Dhabi as the state chiefly responsible for the governance, administration, and foreign policy of the UAE. He quickly brought the UAE in as a major leader and financer of the Arab counterrevolutions against the 2011 Arab Spring, bankrolling the government of President Abdul Fatah el-Sisi in Egypt, and anti-Islamist parties and forces from Mauritania to Jordan, along with Saudi Arabia and its ally Bahrain.

The war on the Muslim Brotherhood is both a personal crusade by MBZ and an attempt to undercut Qatar’s regional sphere of influence. The UAE has always felt al-Udeid would be better located in their country and was particularly incensed after it was passed up by the US to host the Taliban “embassy.”Yet, the UAE has had success in denting Qatar’s influence. Not only did it remove Qatari allies from power across the region, it has successfully raised the suspicion in Washington of Qatar as a state-sponsor of terrorism in the region and as a destabilizing force. This attempt to weaken Qatar’s influence in the region culminated in the UAE and Saudi Arabia leading a coalition of states to blockade Qatar in summer 2017 unless it agreed to abandon its independent foreign policy, including the Aljazeera network and its location as a haven for Hamas. While Qatar has survived the blockade, the UAE did succeed in dislodging its position as a regional power.

What has changed in the past three years is that the UAE has begun to strike out and pursue its own foreign policy goals separate from that of Saudi Arabia. Although the UAE originally entered the war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels as another ally of Saudi Arabia, it quickly looked to carve out its own sphere of influence. Beginning by reemphasizing historic ties with the tribes of South Yemen, it came to patronize and support the South Yemen separatists that provided the UAE an ally but undermined Saudi Arabia’s support of the internationally recognized government of President Abdul Mansour Hadi. In fact, the UAE’s support for the dramatic rise of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is itself a sign of the UAE’s outsized diplomatic influence over the kingdom and the changing nature of their bilateral relationship.

Moreover, the UAE took the unprecedented step of deploying its own military forces to obtain its strategic objectives. The UAE suffered a relatively large amount of battlefield casualties in Yemen that helped united the country around a national cause and propelled the further modernization of the armed forces, with the support of western officers and American and Israeli security firms. It also allowed Abu Dhabi to bring the other emirates in line behind its policies, exiling opposition princes, and thus bringing the country closer towards internal political unity. Now a veritable nation in war, deploying forces, cultivating allies, and building bases in Yemen allowed the UAE to construct its own, distinct security architecture to control the Yemeni coast, the port of Aden, and the strategic island of Socotra that commands the entrance of the Bab el-Mandab strait. In addition, it has looked to construct bases and invest in strategic ports along the East African coast in the port of Berbera in Somaliland, and Bosaso in Puntland, and has shown interest in acquiring the management of Massawa and Assab in Eritrea for Dubai Ports World.

A New Leader?

After consolidating its position in the Arabian Peninsula, the UAE has moved up one more logical step to try to become a regional power. Although its military forces are probably the most professional in the GCC, the UAE is still too small to compete militarily with the likes of Turkey let alone Iran. This became all too clear when tensions exploded in the Persian Gulf in Sumer 2019 between Iran and the US after Iran began targeting international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and possibly coordinated a missile attack with the Houthis on a Saudi oil-refinery that cut the kingdom’s oil production in half. Among the incidents was a most-likely Iranian bombing in May on tankers stationed at the major Emirati port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. After this direct threat to its critical infrastructure, the UAE quickly dropped its aggressive rhetoric towards the Iranians and secretly sent its national security advisor to Tehran. The UAE is still a microstate, Abu Dhabi, let alone Dubai, would not survive a regional war as any larger country could. Thus, the maritime tensions of 2019 were as a rude awakening to the UAE as the blockade of 2017 was to Qatar.

It is in part and for this reason that the UAE has now scaled back its aggressive military deployments. It now looksto displace Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman for the favor of the United States as a regional “peacemaker.” Therefore, the UAE has billed itself as America’s greatest ally in the region as a patron of “Moderate Islam.” It has cultivated a diverse group of supportive Muslim scholars internationally whose unifying theme is a generic message of tolerance. The UAE has also implicitly contrasted itself with the “Qatari” or “Turkish” Islam as political and “Saudi Wahhabi Islam” as ultra-conservative. Of course, this is political semantics, intellectually all modern Sunnism in the Persian Gulf region derives from a similar (Wahhabi) source.

Regardless, the UAE has received international acclaim for this Islamic role around the world. It has been recognized for its leadership in the Muslim world by the likes of former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and, importantly, Pope Francis. The later conducted the first papal mass ever to Christian migrant workers in the Arabian Peninsula in 2019. The UAE has further leaned into the image as a “tolerant” country domestically through a “Ministry of Tolerance” and the construction of the first Hindu, Sikh, and Mormon temples in the Middle East. It has leveraged this image bilaterally to develop bilateral ties with China, India, and now with Israel.

Therefore, the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel is the logical conclusion of that groundwork built over the past few years. Normalization allows the UAE to unambiguously and unilaterally claim its role as a leader in the Middle East and moreover the Islamic World. It can position itself to be a bridge between the United States, the West, and other Arab Muslim countries, by demonstrating a vision of peace, cooperation, and harmony between all religions. It fits well into its narrative as a collection of cosmopolitan, high-technology city states. It’s the culmination of its regional ambitions, and probably signals its new hopes to escape the Earth and explore space.

In other words, there was nothing surprising about the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel. The only question that remains is “Will it matter?” Even if every state in the world recognizes Israel, it is unlikely the Arab Muslim street will ever totally abandon the Palestinian cause. The UAE may be part of a diplomatic coup that will sustain its rising international status, but as long as Muslim populations themselves remain committed to the Palestinian cause it will not disappear. It remains to be seen whether the “Deal of the Century” can change that fact.

 As for the UAE’s regional ambitions, it still remains a small state. The UAE has effectively used the diplomatic tools at its disposal to become a regional power in the Persian Gulf region. But there is little precedent in history for small states outliving large empires. Many have affectionally called the UAE “Little Sparta” in recognition of its power. But while Sparta may have overcome Athens during the Peloponnesian War, it could never match the power of Macedon. While the UAE’s recognition of Israel may be significant, it is still a small state in a world of some 450 million Arabs and 1.7 billion Muslims. Can it really hope to become the political leader of an entire region in the international system, let alone a civilization?

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