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Jerusalem Format: Searching for a Solution to the Crisis in the Middle East

Aleksandr Aksenenok

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On July 20, Jerusalem hosted a summit meeting for the national security advisers of Israel, the US, and Russia that was unusual both in terms of composition and thematic content. Intensive negotiations held in bilateral and trilateral formats, including meetings with Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, focused on a wide range of regional security issues, as well as other issues non-related to the Middle East. While the situation is only exacerbating, and there are practically no stable channels for bilateral negotiations on different vectors or they are being used occasionally, the participants of the negotiators touched upon the issues of civil conflicts in Ukraine and Venezuela, combined with an increasing wave of problems that aggravate Russia-the US relations.

However, no matter how varied the range of issues was, the Middle East content prevailed. Namely, Iran’s policy and its role in the region, especially in the Syrian conflict. It was Netanyahu who proposed to hold such consultations, and this fact predetermined the focus on Iran, that has always been considered in Israel as an “existential threat”. Fears of this kind only intensified as Iran, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and during the war in Syria since 2011, consistently increased its military-strategic positions and political influence along Baghdad — Damascus — Beirut vector.

The anti-Iranian Middle East policy of Trump’s Administration has strengthened Israel’s determination to defend its interests by force. A certain division of roles between the two countries has been observed. Israel exerts constant military pressure on Iran with airstrikes at its facilities in Syria, the United States increasing financial and economic sanctions. A new situation emerged and is now perceived as a potential flashpoint for a direct clash between Israel and Iran on the Syrian territory, which would put Russia, having long-standing partnerships with both countries, in an extremely delicate position.

On the eve of the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem, various speculations about the upcoming “backstage deal” were widely spread in Russian and foreign media. The United States and Israel would allegedly propose Russia to put pressure on Iran in order to curtail the Iranian military presence (regular military units, divisions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as Iranian-controlled Lebanese Hezbollahs and the so-called “people’s militia”). In response, the United States will be ready to recognize the legitimacy of Assad, lift the sanctions from the Syrian regime, and contribute to the economic recovery of Syria.

Of course, any objectively thinking expert would consider such predictions far-fetched and rather superficial. While there is a need for a meaningful conversation on the whole range of issues for the future of Syria in the context of the strategic interests of Russia, Israel, and the United States; and as the tension has been growing, this need is getting more and more urgent. Before giving any assessment, it is important to trace which new trends in the Middle East policy of the United States and Israel served as the ground for the summit in Jerusalem and how they affect the interests of Russia in the region.

From Obama to Trump: Middle East U-Turns

During the presidency of Obama the US strategic line in the Middle East as a whole did not go beyond the traditional framework of previous administrations being committed to Israel’s security, maintaining allied relations with Saudi Arabia, and deterring Iran. At the same time, the peculiarities of Obama’s administration have revealed in exactly these three key areas.

As Netanyahu’s policy on the Palestinian issue was shifting more and more to the right-radical side, which deprived the Palestinians of practical opportunities to have their own statehood, serious irritants gradually accumulated in relations between the US and Israel. The President and his Secretary of State J. Kerry reaffirmed the internationally recognized solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of coexistence of the two states and publicly criticized the expansion of settlement construction in the West Bank. Since 2011, after the collapse of the seemingly unshakable Arab regimes the US policy in the Gulf region has been shaped on a more pragmatic basis, on the principle of a “moving equilibrium.” This implied some kind of balancing between Iran (the regional aspect of its policy did not come to the fore) and Saudi Arabia (the threats from Iran, as the Americans stated at that point, should not be exaggerated). All this caused strong discontent both in Riyadh and in Tel Aviv. The signing of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program (JCPOA) was perceived in these capitals as a violation of allied obligations and served as an impetus for the rapprochement of Israel and Saudi Arabia on the anti-Iranian basis.

Assessing the zigzags of the US policy with the change of administration, it can be stated that the difficulties with its formation are connected with the clash of two contradictory realities: on the one hand, Trump’s obsessive desire to become “anti-Obama” in the Middle East (and not only), and on the other, the inability to make this without infringing the US national interests and the normal functioning of all departments involved in foreign policy activities — the Department of State, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and special services. This was especially evident in the internal struggle that Trump had to deal with while conducting a steep drift towards Israel and Saudi Arabia with a simultaneous shift in policy towards Iran.

Never in the history of the United States after the presidential election have senior posts at key management levels been filled so slowly and with great scandals. Trump broke all records for the number of layoffs and rearrangements of prominent figures in foreign policy; some of them (Tillerson, McMaster, Matthews, Cohen) expressed disagreement with the spontaneous decisions of the President regarding Iran in many cases. For the same reasons, the CIA has undergone personnel changes in the leadership, that, like in the case with IAEA, did not confirm the information Trump needed about Iran’s violation of the terms of the “nuclear dossier” agreement.

The withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, which was largely the sole decision of the President, caused a barrage of criticism from well-known American diplomats, politicians, and Middle Eastern experts. W. Burns, former US Under Secretary of State, one of the initiators of secret negotiations with Iran, noted: “But we don’t live in an ideal world. Diplomacy requires difficult compromises. And the nuclear deal achieved the best of the available alternatives… By failing to operate in good faith, the administration has weakened — not strengthened — our hand.” According to J. Allen, President of Brookings’s Center on the United States, Trump’s decision “would be a much more serious blow to American interests and to US global leadership than Trump’s previous treaty-related decisions.” T. Pickering, a prominent American diplomat who worked as ambassador to a number of leading world capitals, including Moscow, calls for a change of the political vector with regard to Iran and a reorientation of US foreign policy. His position included the following important points: “Withdrawing from the deal has left the U.S. isolated and weakened the international consensus on Iran, seriously damaging the transatlantic alliance, undercutting the U.S. position in the global financial system, and putting U.S. credibility on the line.”

The above estimates represent the quintessence of the reaction in the United States to a sharp turn in the US policy on Iran and, as a result, to a change in the nature of relations with Saudi Arabia. According to widespread opinion in the US Congress and in expert circles, with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh started playing a “dangerous game” in the region, making use of the “strategy of kowtowing” conducted by Trump, as the authoritative American political scientist M. Lynch put it. Such strategy deprives American diplomacy of the ability to restrain regional ambitions countering to the long-term interests of the United States.

The anti-Iranian strategy of Trump’s administration did not bring dividends and only added new dangerous elements to the conflict centers in Syria, Yemen, and the entire Gulf region.

International efforts, including Russia-the US cooperation, to resolve the Syrian conflict, in which Iran should and can play its positive role under certain conditions, are significantly complicated. The US Administration report on Syria submitted to the Congress contains the requirement of “the removal of all Iranian-led forces from Syria” as one of the three strategic goals along with “the defeat of ISIS” and “resolution of the Syrian crisis through a political solution in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254”. This requirement is in no way consistent with the continued illegitimate US military presence in eastern Syria, which allows to support alternative to Damascus local government structures, jeopardizing its territorial integrity.

The war in Yemen and the tensions around Iran spurred the arms race in the Gulf region. Over the past few years, military spending by countries in the GCC has grown by 6% hitting an all-time high of USD 100 billion. The widespread competition between the United States and major European suppliers for multibillion-dollar defense orders has weakened the possibility of external influence on regional players, getting more and more uncontrolled.

The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) project launched during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia (May 2017) with a clear anti-Iran focus turned out to be an inoperative tool due to suspicions about the intentions of the United States, that did not hide its opportunistic goals, and also because of the conflict interests among its members. A number of Arab states members of the “alliance” do not consider Iran a threat to security in the Middle East. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, none of the states in the region supports the policy towards confrontation with Iran, and even more so military actions. Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman advocate for maintaining dialog with Tehran and resolving the Gulf crisis through political means. Egypt and Jordan are also not enthusiastic in supporting the United States and Saudi Arabia, although they refrain from public criticism given the strong dependence on the financial investments.

One of the reasons for the failure of the US diplomacy is the attitude of the most states in the region towards Saudi Arabia, whose policy in the region is viewed as having “great-power” ambitions, unpredictable, and gravitating towards dominance. Trump’s opponents in the United States are also paying attention to this. Saudi Arabia’s boycott of Qatar and the unexpected support of this decision by the US President, contrary to the recommendations of the Department of State and the military, caused a deep split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. At the same time, the previous US administrations relied precisely on this military-political association as a regional instrument of pressure on Iran.

The policy of maximum US pressure on Iran through increasing the military presence of extra-regional powers in the Persian Gulf, the development of a “tanker war”, and the imposition of ever new sanctions created a potential threat of open conflict, given that both sides declare their unwillingness to bring the matter to a military clash and signal their readiness to negotiate. In general, it can be stated that steep turns and unpredictable decisions in Trump’s Middle East policy have increased the degree of tension in the region, created new obstacles to resolving multi-year conflicts and stabilizing the situation through multilateral cooperation mechanisms.

Israel’s Strategy in Syria and Russia’s Interests

After the change of Administration in the US, the “shadow war” of Israel in Syria underwent significant changes. While the US was increasing the sanctions, Israel began to escalate its pressure on Iran. With the outbreak of the civil war, Israel was only striking at convoys and arms depots of the Lebanese Hezbollah, later with the strengthening of Iran’s military infrastructure and the Shiite “people’s militia”, the number and the geography of objects significantly increased. Military bases, concentration of military force controlled by Iran, factories for production and assembly of missiles, and bases of unmanned offensive arms were subjected to air attacks. Thus, Israel made it clear that Iran’s military activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are under constant surveillance. In the changed situation around Iran, Israel’s military-political leadership considers it possible to eliminate the military threat on its part by combining constant force pressure and the use of diplomatic means. Russia is given a special place in the foreign policy in the hope of providing assistance on its part, taking into account the influence on Damascus and special relations with Iran. Supposedly, in the medium term, as the situation stabilizes, Russia will not need military cooperation with Iran in Syria that much. Issues of restoring the ruined economy and political influence on the Syrian leadership will come to the fore, which will strengthen elements of rivalry in Russia-Iran relations.

At the same time, adjustments were made to the military tactics. On Israel’s initiative, agreements were reached on improving the channel of military communication with Russia and on the fullest exchange of information in order to avoid unintentional clashes. Russia outlined its “red lines” and, judging by Netanyahu’s statements, during the trilateral summit in Jerusalem in June Russia’s warnings about the consequences of Israel’s military activity, including for the security of Russian personnel and military facilities, were perceived with serious understanding. Israel’s strikes in Syria are aimed primarily at the military infrastructure of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and their personnel. Contrary to previous years of “maximum secrecy” it is now officially announced every time with an indication of the objects struck. Thus, Israel ensures relatively “free hands”, seeks understanding of its motives on the part of the international community, and makes Damascus understand that close contact with Iranian strongholds should be avoided.

After the Syrian forces were moved to the southern Syria to the Israeli-Syrian demarcation line in the Golan Heights area (in July 2018), a local point of tension occurred that can be compared to the one in the northwest in Idlib or in the east – in the areas where the US military contingent is located. Russia, the USA, and Israel, with the participation of Jordan, agreed on creating a “security zone” 70–80 km inland from the border with Israel within the Syrian territory. These agreements provided for the withdrawal of all Iranian forces from these areas and their patrolling by the Russian military. Russia held consultations with Iran and Syria, whose consent on the administrative status of the territories bordering Israel was to be part of multilateral agreements on the south of Syria.

However, according to Israel’s and Western estimates, over the past year, pro-Iranian formations under various coverings have once again entrenched themselves in the immediate vicinity of the border with Israel. Hezbollah and Shiite militias patrol areas dressed as uniformed Syrian regime forces deploy former rebel fighters in the provinces of Sweida and Quneitra to patrol areas and provide intelligence directly to the Iran-backed paramilitary group. During the trilateral summit in Jerusalem, Netanyahu strongly urged that “Israel would not allow Iran, calling for our destruction, to establish a bridgehead on our borders.” Israel’s military leaders are seriously considering a scenario in which Iran, in the event of an extreme aggravation with the United States, could open a “second front” on the northern border of Israel taking advantage of the increased military potential of Hezbollah on its southern border.

Thus, the initiative of Israel to organize a new format for Syria in Jerusalem was put forward at the time when the erroneous estimations could lead to an exchange of blows with the escalation into an armed confrontation of a regional scale. Moreover, on the eve of the parliamentary elections Israel does not want to be drawn into a war that has no winners, but they cannot afford inaction.

Jerusalem Format: Are there any Further Prospects?

Multilateral efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis create a system of peculiar concentric negotiating circles, that are so far loosely connected with each other. This is a negotiation track of various levels between Russia, Turkey and Iran (“Astana Format”), the mission of the UN Secretary-General Special Representative, the summit of Russia, France, Germany, Turkey (the possibility to continue meetings in this format was discussed at the meeting between Putin and Macron on August 19), the so-called “Small Group” of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Russia occupies a central place in this negotiation system, having working contacts with all the players on the “Syrian field”, unlike other participants.

Will the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem at the level of the Heads of the National Security Councils of Russia, the USA, and Israel become an effective channel to achieve proper understanding that would allow us to timely suppress the outbreaks of military tension and bring together a vision of the future? It is still difficult to fully estimate such an opportunity, although certain nuances provide the basis for reflection on further possible scenarios.

The statements of the participants following the results of the negotiations sounded optimistic, which gives reason to assume mutual interest and keep to this negotiation track not only as a “fire-fighting” tool. Nikolai Patrushev noted the “spirit of goodwill” and the coherence of opinions on most issues, however, “we have to conduct a dialog on how to implement this,» he said. Bolton, a well-known hardliner for Russia and Iran, also noted “We didn’t come with the expectation we were going to solve all the problems, or even most of them” during the negotiations, which he described as “historic.” The initiator of the summit, the Prime Minister of Israel commended the trilateral meeting designed for an internal audience on the eve of the parliamentary elections.

As for the content of negotiations, all participants reaffirmed their previous positions in public speeches, emphasizing the desire to move on the oncoming tracks. Russia’s approach to the problem of Iran’s military presence in Syria was stated earlier by President Putin: “The start of a more active phrase of the political process, foreign armed forces will be withdrawing from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Explaining the words of the President of the Russian Federation, A. Lavrentiev, the Special Envoy to Syria, emphasized that Moscow addressed its appeal to “everyone, including the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah and, of course, the Iranians.”

Taking into account the recurring aggravations between Israel and Iran, the Head of the Russian Security Council gave further explanations of Russia’s position in the sense that the withdrawal of Iran’s military units and allied forces should be considered in conjunction with the complete elimination of the foreign military presence in Syria. This is the ultimate goal in the settlement process, and it cannot be achieved in one step. The Russian side emphasized the need to reduce tensions through a conversation with Iran, rather than confrontation, and it was suggested that they take oncoming steps in order not to turn Syria into an arena of geopolitical confrontation. Russia shares Israel’s concerns about ensuring security, but proceeds from the assumption that other states of the region have their own national interests in this area. In response to a well-known set of accusations against Iran, Patrushev pointed out that it is unacceptable for Moscow to view Iran as the main threat to regional security, let alone equal it with ISIS.

The trilateral meeting in Jerusalem showed significant differences in the approaches of Russia and the US-Israel tandem towards the tactics regarding the role of Iran in Syria and the region as a whole. At the same time, judging by the final statements, the parties agreed that this new format could become a useful political asset for removing any misunderstanding in regards with each other’s intentions and plans. In this context, forthcoming trustful consultations at this level, as confirmed by the Israel’s Prime Minister, cannot be ruled out. There are also opportunities for Russian diplomacy to moderate the situation between Israel and Iran, while Israel could help mitigate irritants in relations between Russia and the United States on the whole range of issues of the Syrian settlement.

According to European estimates, Russia is still trying to maintain its balancing role between Israel and Iran while preserving effective working relations with its Iranian military ally on the ground. Apparently, this role of Russia has been tacitly accepted by partners, including Iran. And only de-escalation of tension can make it possible to find a formula that would satisfy Israel’s real security needs and allow Iran to outline acceptable limits for its influence in the region, including political and economic positions in Syria.

From our partner RIAC

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A Middle Eastern Westphalia

Albadr SS Alshateri

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This book, Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East, is a product of many conferences and seminars between government officials, policy wonks, academics, international organization officials, experts from Europe, and the Middle East; in addition to a host of think tanks. The authors, Brendan Simms, Michael Axworthy, and Patrick Milton “have summarized the results” of the “discussions, provided a detailed account of the most important elements of the Peace of Westphalia, and outlined elements of a possible framework for peace in the Middle East.”

The Westphalia project started with the observation of the parallels between the current situation in the Middle East and the Thirty Year War that ended up with the Westphalia Treaty (1648) to put paid to the “war of all wars.” The German Körber Foundation and the Policy Planning Unit of the Federal Foreign Office in cooperation with Cambridge University launched the project to see if there were lessons to be drawn from the European conflict in the first half of the 17th century and the subsequent peace treaty to shed lights on the current crisis in Syria. The authors are well aware that parallels do not mean similar. “The analogy between the Thirty Years War and the war in Syria informing the present work thus ought to be employed as an analytical framework, and the Peace of Westphalia ought not to be used as a blueprint.”

There are models to regional peace and security other than Westphalia. The authors see Westphalia as the aptest for two reasons. One is structural: the current Middle Eastern crisis comprises a set of interlocking political and religious struggles at the local and the regional levels.” The second is the religious factor: although in both cases, religion cannot be entirely blamed, however, “sectarian tension has tended to merge and interact with other levels of conflict.”

From the outset, the authors debunk two main myths about Westphalia. One is that Westphalia had established sovereign states. Two, Westphalia reduced religious order in favor of a secular one. “Sovereign states existed well before 1648, and interventions in the domestic affairs of other states (and other Imperial Estates) continued well after 1648.” Further, although Westphalia foregrounded secular laws over ecclesiastical laws, “Westphalia was explicitly a Christian peace”. The Treaty reorganized confessional balance into constitutional laws “and regulated relations between Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists in a highly detailed set of confessional laws.”

Turning to the Middle East, the authors see three interconnected factors that influence the dynamics of the conflict. The lack of state legitimacy, according to the authors, harks back a century, i.e.,  to the inception of these states as a result of Sykes-Picot. The reason is arguably attributed to being contrived by colonial states. After all, it was a colonial power, namely Britain that reneged on its promises to deliver a unified Arab state from Syria to Yemen.

Political Islam cannot solely be ascribed to “secular Arab autocracy and against the failure of Arab nationalism to achieve its aims”, as the authors claim. Islamic revivalism predates secular Arab regimes and had started in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Hassan al-Banna launched his Muslim Brotherhood in 1928; more than two decades before Nasser assumed power in Egypt: It was the defeat of these regimes in the 1967 war, however, that gave political Islam prominence as an alternative ideology to secular nationalism.

The second factor pertains to what the authors call Saudi-Iran dualism and great power rivalry. The geopolitical competition between Riyadh and Tehran has fueled the fire in the region. Various hot spots have seen both countries on opposing sides. The Syrian civil strife witnessed Iran’s direct involvement in support of Assad’s regime and Saudi backing of some opposition groups. Likewise, Yemen has seen both actors and allies supporting the warring sides in that internecine conflict.

Iran is not alone in picking sides in the Middle Eastern confrontations. More recently, Turkey has been playing a significant role in regional maelstroms. The Arab Spring and the ascendancy of political Islam have enticed Turkey to play a larger role in the Arab World. Turkey is involved in several areas of contention. Turkey’s interest in containing the Kurds and fear of irredentist claims led to its involvement in northern Syria. Geoeconomic and geopolitical imperatives, as well as ideological competition, dictated Ankara’s propping up the Government of National Accord in Tripoli; and showing its fangs to the Europeans in the East of the Mediterranean, to boot.

Last, sectarianism is the third factor that influences the regional dynamics. The historical rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites contributed to the current situation. The authors are quite cognizant of the role played by confessional enmity; however, they do not assign a deterministic power to such a factor. Many legitimate demands have nonetheless “descended into sectarianised conflict in many quarters”.

The conflict-ridden region of the Middle East is in a dire need for regional peace. The question is what the Thirty Year War offers in terms of lessons for the Middle East. The European geopolitical scene, according to the authors, was dominated by the rivalry between France and the Habsburg powers. “It is the equivalent of the Saudi–Iranian rivalry in the Middle East, the chief difference being that France and the Habsburgs were not divided by religion (they were both Catholic) and that they often engaged in direct full-scale war.”

The rise of Calvinism in the 1560s has thrown the delicate balance into chaos. Few leading princes had converted to the proscribed creed and had caused a clash with the Lutherans. The Calvinists had upped the ante and resisted the banning of their faith, “and were determined to confessionalise disputes and thereby paralyse the system”.

As with the conflict in the Middle East, the Thirty Year War cannot be characterized as a religious conflict. The polarization was not clearly on confessional lines, and intra-confessional wars had their share of the pervasive conflict. However, religion had colored the threat perception among the warring countries, and faith and geopolitics had interplayed in a very pernicious manner. Similarly, the Middle East in this century has mirrored Europe in the seventeenth century: “the quest for security has become increasingly sectarianised, as it was and is assumed that one will find automatic allies among co-religionists.”

Naturally, one can find similarities and analogies between varieties of conflicts. The question remains how conceptually these conflicts are analogous to warrant the comparison under discussion. The authors found a few structural parallels between Europe in the seventieth century and today’s Middle East.

The authors outline five structural analogies between the two cases. The conflicts then and now tend to be complex and of a variety of types: “state-on-state wars; internal rebellions; civil wars; proxy wars; [and] external interventions in civil wars”. The second parallel is conflict over sovereignty and civil war. Thirdly, the growth of rebellious conflicts into full-fledged wars. Another similarity is great power competition and interventions. Finally, in both situations, no war is declared and wars resulting from the process of state formation. 

The authors provide ample examples of such parallels and analogies within these categories. However, the context seems to be glaringly different. For example, one cannot draw a parallel between a secessionist movement in seventeenth-century Bohemia and the rebel forces like ISIS as state-building wars; alternatively, one cannot compare the geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran to dynastic squabbles in early modern Europe.

The authors seem to be more well-grounded in European history than Middle Eastern current affairs, which presents a skewed view of the entire comparison. The idea that “Arab–Israeli problem has been less prominent in regional geopolitics,” shows less perspicacity of the current strategic realignment in the region, and flies in the face of the most recent developments. Israel and oil have been the most important strategic concern for the US in the Middle East. Without both Washington would’ve slept better.

Examples of useful lessons from Westphalia for the Middle East abound. A normative consensus had been a fulcrum of the Westphalia Peace. The authors find in religion, culture, language, and legal tradition, without specification, serve as the basis for normative consensus in the Middle Eastern region.

Other lessons that could be drawn from Westphalia are the establishment of trust, inclusivity, the role of diplomacy and negotiations, mediations, security guarantors, and de-sectarianization of the conflict among others.

There is also the question of why Westphalia and not other regional orders! Can one be selective and draw lessons from, say, Concert of Europe, for example. Alternatively, are there other examples from Africa and Asia that one can look at and select bits and pieces that might work for a new Middle Eastern order?

The problem with the Westphalian order for the Middle East is the diachronic comparison. At the time of Westphalia the world system and had not congealed to what is today. Globalization and great powers rivalry has allowed extra-regional powers to play a bigger role, and not always in the interest of the region.

The book, hopefully, would spark a discussion that is very important for a new security structure in the Middle East. One wishes translations of the book in Middle Eastern languages would appear to allow access to a wider audience in the region.  

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Shaping Palestinian politics: The UAE has a leg up on Turkey

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The United Arab Emirates may have the upper hand in its competition with Turkey in efforts to shape Palestinian politics. Similarly, the UAE’s recognition of the Jewish state gives it a leg up in ensuring that its voice is heard in Israel and Washington irrespective of who wins the November US election.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t miss a beat during his address to the United Nations General Assembly, insisting that he, unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, would not accept a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not endorsed by the Palestinians.

Mr. Erdogan’s solemn pledge may earn him brownie points with large segments of Middle Eastern and Muslim public opinion critical of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the two Gulf states but does not strengthen his weak hand.

The UAE, with whom Mr. Erdogan is at loggerheads over Libya, Syria, and the future of political Islam, may have less clout than it thinks in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but has, for now, more cards to play.

What those cards are worth will only emerge over time.

The UAE is betting that a combination of soft power garnered through recognition of Israel and close security, economic and technological cooperation will enable it to convince the Israeli government that an independent Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest.

While there is little reason to believe that the UAE will succeed where others have failed in recent decades, Emirati leaders, in contrast to Turkey, potentially could in cooperation with Israel also try to impose an unpopular Palestinian figure who has close ties to the US, Emirati and Israeli leadership.

The move would be designed to install a leader who would be  more conducive to engaging in peace talks on terms that hold out little hope of meeting long-standing Palestinian aspirations.

It is a scenario that 84-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be taking seriously and appears to be trying to pre-empt.

The Democratic Reform Bloc, a political group headed by Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief believed to be close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto ruler, said dozens of his supporters had been arrested or summoned for questioning by Palestinian security forces in recent days.

Mr. Dahlan appeared to be walking a fine line when he recently denied any role in mediating relations between the UAE and Israel.

Mr. Abbas’ suspicions stem from an unsuccessful effort last year by the UAE to engineer a deal in which Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, would share power with Mr. Dahlan.

Mr. Dahlan went into exile in the UAE in 2007 after Hamas defeated his US-backed efforts to thwart the group’s control of Gaza. US President George W. Bush described Mr. Dahlan at the time as “our boy.”

He has since been indicted by Mr. Abbas’ Palestine Authority on corruption charges.

UAE recognition of Israel constituted an acknowledgment that the 18-year old Arab peace plan that offered Israel diplomatic relations in exchange for land and a Palestinian state had produced naught.

In its rivalry with Turkey, whose assertive support for the Palestinian cause has likewise failed to produce results so far, the UAE is banking on the expectation that it has the upper hand in getting not only Israeli but also the attention of Washington that under US President Donald J. Trump has disregarded Palestinian rights.

The UAE assumes that it will be able to capitalize on the fact that Emirati recognition of Israel has further complicated Turkey’s relations with its NATO ally, the United States.

Turkey’s relations with the US are already troubled by US support for Syrian Kurds; Turkish military backing of the Libyan government in Tripoli; tensions between Turkey and Greece, another NATO ally, in the Eastern Mediterranean; and Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system.

The Trump administration hopes to finalize by December the sale of F-35 fighter planes to the UAE in the wake of the deal with Israel.  Earlier, it cancelled Turkey’s acquisition of the same plane in response to the country’s S-400 deal with Russia.

For now, Turkey can look at appreciation by important segments of Arab and Muslim public opinion as an upside of its  strident support for the Palestinians.

Seeking to capitalize on its Palestinian goodwill, Turkey has been attempting to end the rift between Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement and Hamas in a bid to get the Palestinians to agree on elections and the formation of a joint government.

The two groups, agreed during  talks in Istanbul this week to work together and hold long overdue elections in the next six months.

The joker in Turkish-Emirati differences over Israel and Palestine is the upcoming US presidential election in November.

Irrespective of who wins, Turkey has lost to the UAE the beneficial mantle of being Israel’s best Muslim friend.

Nonetheless, an electoral victory by Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who is expected to be more critical of arms purchases by the UAE and other Gulf states and take them to task on human rights issues, could put both Turkey and the Emirates on the back foot.

A Biden victory would be for Turkey a lost opportunity. The very issues that are at the core of its strained relations with the UAE are likely to complicate its relations with a Democratic administration.

Recent media reports reminded Mr. Erdogan that Mr. Biden had described him in a conversation with The New York Times early this year as an “autocrat.” The Democratic candidate suggested that the US. should “embolden” his opponents to defeat him in elections.

In the conversation, Mr. Biden mentioned other issues, including the Kurds, Syria, and tension in the Eastern Mediterranean that do not bode well for US-Turkish relations should the Democrat occupy the White House. Mr. Biden is expected to be also critical of the UAE’s interventions in Yemen and Libya.

Nonetheless, the UAE, despite its own issues with the US, is likely to still find itself in a better place in Washington no matter who emerges victorious from the November election.

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Arabs-Israeli Peace must be Well-Anchored, not Neatly Fantasized

Mohammed Nosseir

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Watching a few Emirati and Israeli citizens dance in Chabad House, Dubai to celebrate normalization may give the impression that these nations have realized a genuine peace; a false assumption that disregards the facts that the peace treaty between Israel and two Arab Nations is meant to serve Donald Trump in his upcoming presidential election, values the “ground reality” that clearly favors Israel over United Nations resolutions upholding the “land for peace” principle, and advances western politicians’ view that peace can be imposed top-down, seconded by autocratic Arab rulers.

As an Egyptian, I highly value the peace treaty between my country and Israel that was based on regaining occupied Egyptian land, the Sinai Peninsula. The treaty has helped to alter Egyptians’ views of Israel fundamentally; no longer seen as a permanent enemy, Israel is presently perceived as a “cooperative” neighbor that has offered us millions of tourists and a few sound investments – solid pillars for normalization. Meanwhile, the clear majority of Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims continue to sympathize with the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation – a crisis that can only be resolved by pursuing the same path towards peace as that of Egypt.

For years, the United States has been trying to impose a peace treaty between the Arab nations and Israel based on the concept that Arabs should accept Israeli territorial expansion in return for the injection of substantial U.S.  funds to boost the Palestinian economy, a proposition strengthened by Israel’s military power and Arab rulers’ injudicious, hasty attitude towards the crisis. Underneath this reality lurks the further empowerment of the political Islamist proposition that places Israel as a permanent enemy, which could easily drag our region into additional, unpredicted violence. 

Arabs societies generally appear to lead a “double life”. On the one hand is the reality that 60% are either poor citizens or citizens who are vulnerable to poverty, an unemployment rate of roughly 11%, the lack of basic freedoms and living under autocratic rule; a sad status that has become even more dramatic with the advent of Covid-19. These factors combined intensify Arab youth’s anger and frustration towards their rulers and towards the United States, seen as a solid supporter of those rulers. Obviously, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation rule have an extra challenge to deal with.

On the other hand is the fantasy life constituted of GDP growth and the implementation of a few mega projects that Arab rulers like to exhibit and that western politicians and scholars tend to recognize as a sign of success – completely overlooking the fact that these projects are often awarded to the rulers’ cronies and that the unequal distribution of wealth will keep large portions of Arabs living in poverty for generations to come, making them more vulnerable to violence. Likewise, expanding trade deals between Arab nations and Israel or receiving economic incentives from the United States have proven to benefit only the same cronies.

Moreover, the present rumour that the United States is building a block of Arab nations and Israel meant to potentially engage in a war with Iran is a catastrophic approach. Should it happen, it will thrust the entire region into a state of intense violence and enduring war that could well lead to the collapse of many of the signed treaties. Furthermore, a peace treaty between Israel and two Arab nations, who are not in conflict with Israel, will not help to resolve either the Palestinian crisis or the Iranian conflict – Bahraini and the Emirati citizens will never validate such a treaty, if it is presented to them fairly.

There is a huge difference between a peace treaty concluded between two mature, democratic nations whose respective governments truly represent their citizens, and an agreement that is imposed on nations whose citizens are – to put it mildly – in disharmony with their rulers. Arab citizens, often accused of engaging in violence and declining to peacefully settle with Israel, are in fact caught between two fires: their autocratic rulers, who deliberately offer them undignified living conditions and Islamic extremists, who promise them eternal salvation as a reward for engaging in violence and terrorism.

Permanent Arab-Israeli peace can only be achieved through a bottom-up approach that is designed to last, which entails keeping away from western pragmatism and enforcement, both of no value to this crisis. Israel is continually working to enhance its security, an absolute necessity for its citizens. It needs to offer Palestinians the opportunity to live a dignified life based, first, on regaining their occupied land and establishing a state of their own, followed by advancing their economic status. Offering the later at the expense of the former will keep us in this vicious circle of violence for decades to come.

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