Politico

Opinion | Trump’s Win Is a Loss for the Middle East


The Trump administration announced a deal this week between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which was immediately hailed as “an historic day for peace in the Middle East” by Mike Pompeo’s State Department. A flurry of similar analyses framed the deal as “a big win for Trump,” and a “geopolitical earthquake.”

But that was exactly the point of this deal: a lot of publicity for the deal-makers, but not much substance to the deal. In fact, this “breakthrough” is mostly a PR boost for the three leaders involved: President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohamed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, the costs will be borne by the one party not involved in the arrangement, the Palestinians.

The leaders’ statements about the deal are revealing. In a tweet, President Trump announced that Israel and the UAE had “agreed to the full normalization of relations.” The joint statement particularly stressed Trump’s role in securing Israel’s agreement to “suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace.”

Bin Zayed, de facto ruler of the UAE also known as MBZ, was more measured. In English and in Arabic tweets, he described “setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship” and emphasized that Israel would “end annexation” of Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu maintained that he had made “no change in my plans for annexation,” the pursuit of which was a key campaign promise to his supporters.

This is how the announcement benefits the leaders. Trump gets to show his supporters that he can make deals, an arena in which he has consistently overpromised and underdelivered, as demonstrated by failures to achieve more favorable outcomes regarding relations with North Korea, Iran and China. Media coverage repeatedly stressed the importance of the deal, with outlets like The New York Times referring to a “major diplomatic agreement” and The Washington Post describing a “huge achievement” for Trump, which provides his reelection campaign with something to distract from Trump’s dismal economic and Covid-19 numbers.

Bibi, meanwhile, gets to back away from his stated commitment to annexation, a plan that had damaged support for Israel among U.S. Democrats. The announcement allows him to prepare for either outcome of the U.S. election in November: smoothing relations with a possible Biden administration likely to oppose annexation, while reserving the right to pursue it if Trump wins, while simultaneously slowing the momentum that had built in the weeks since July 1, when annexation was initially slated to take place.

Mohammed bin Zayed gets to further burnish the UAE’s credentials as the premier bastion of so-called “moderate Islam,” building on previous high-profile initiatives such as establishing a Ministry of Tolerance in 2016, hosting Pope Francis in 2019, and welcoming religious groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in April. The Mormons announced they will open their first temple in the UAE this year. The regime does all this, while continuing to engage in human rights abuses against its own citizens as well as those of other countries.

Beyond being a publicity stunt, however, the deal does not represent a significant transformation of geopolitical relations. Israel and the UAE were already quietly cooperating on security matters in response to the perceived threat from Iran, their mutual foe.

The real impact will be on the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict. In contrast to the dominant triumphalist narrative, resolving it is in fact less likely now that normalization is no longer predicated on recognizing Palestinians’ rights.

Prior to today’s announcement, the only countries that had normalized relations with Israel were, respectively, Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The scale of the reaction to this week’s announcement derives from its interpretation as comparable to those peace deals, which were undertaken in a regional environment when normalizing relations was akin to suicide. Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by a militant Islamist, motivated by frustration over Sadat signing the peace deal. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated after the signing of the peace deal with Jordan, while the CIA uncovered a plot by Syrian President Hafez Assad to assassinate Jordan’s King Hussein and his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, in retaliation for the deal.

In contrast, neither MBZ nor Bibi is likely to face anything like that in response to normalizing relations, in part because the agreement had nothing to do with Palestinians, and instead merely made public a bilateral relationship that already existed behind the scenes.

Up until now, the agreement among the other Arab countries was that normalizing relations with Israel could occur only if Israel granted Palestinians their own sovereign state. Thursday’s move by the UAE is likely to be watched closely, as commentators have already begun to speculate on which Gulf countries may follow suit, with Bahrain a likely candidate eager to gain the approbation of the U.S.

Support for Palestinian statehood remains strong throughout the Middle East, despite efforts by some to characterize the issue as no longer salient. In the highly authoritarian Gulf states, expressing support for Palestine remained one of the few avenues for expression of political dissatisfaction, because of awareness of creeping normalization with Israel. Although Gulf citizens knew they risked arrest or worse if they voiced opposition to their own government, criticizing Israel or expressing solidarity with Palestine was one form of mild dissent that was tolerated, until now.

Dismay at the announcement appeared online from social media users across the Middle East. An Arabic language hashtag meaning “Normalization_betrayal” circulated on Twitter. Many Saudi users posted images of King Faisal, (who reigned from 1964 until his assassination in 1975): Faisal was known for his pro-Palestine stance and opposition to Zionism. The use of images of former Saudi kings is one way that Saudis express dissatisfaction with certain policies without voicing overt critique: The Saudi authorities can hardly persecute a Twitter user for posting an image of a Saudi monarch. Users outside the Gulf posted images of the so-called “Mohammed al-Durrah incident,” two infamous photos of a 12-year-old boy and his father caught in crossfire early in the second Palestinian intifada in 2000; in the first image, the father shields his son, in the second, both have been shot by Israeli forces. The prevalence of the image serves as an additional reminder that Palestine remains a key issue for the majority of Arabs, even though some can no longer express their position publicly.

Some supporters of a more restrained American posture toward the Middle East interpreted the announcement as a useful example of greater diplomacy between U.S. partners, signaling the possibility of reduced military presence in the future. However, such a view is based on the most generous interpretation of the announcement, the one put forward by the Trump administration, that the deal is in fact as historically significant as earlier U.S.-led efforts to achieve greater security for Israel in the region.

However, as the statements of the two signatories indicate, neither Israel nor the UAE are characterizing the deal in the same glowing terms: MBZ says the process is “beginning,” while Bibi made clear that he is merely postponing annexation. If he moves forward with annexation as he has promised to do, the UAE may back out of the process of normalization. Keenly protective of his image as a moderate, MBZ is eager to avoid scenes of overt repression of Emirati citizens, who would likely revolt in response to annexation. Therefore, if Bibi backs out of the agreement, MBZ will likely do so as well.

So, the deal between Israel and the UAE is best understood as a win for these three men, but a loss for democracy, for an actual peace agreement, and especially for the Palestinian people.

Continue

About the author

Lisa

Leave a Comment