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The Trouble with Trump’s Middle East Moves

Sep 25, 2020
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

August and September featured twin announcements by U.S. President Donald Trump proclaiming the normalization of relations between Israel and two Arab states — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.  

But while the move was made in name of peace, it will instead create instabilities in the region over the long term.

First, the foundations of the Palestine-Israel peace process will be undermined. Various factors have stalled the peace process between Israel and Palestine, but the primary one is Israel’s unwillingness to give up the territories occupied by military force. As is widely known, various American administrations have been either unwilling or unable to pressure Israel on this point.

Although the peace process basically involves Palestine and Israel, the assent of Arab countries as interested parties was always important. A majority of Arab countries have refrained from formally recognizing and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, providing the only leverage available for their little brother, Palestine, could take to the negotiating table.

For many years, this has been an explicit commitment by a majority of Arab countries to the Palestinians. The Arab Initiative for peace, which was raised by Saudi Arabia in 2002, clearly made the normalization of relations a bargaining chip in demanding Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories.

The UAE and Bahrain, in combination with Egypt and Jordan — which normalized relations with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively — could lead to a collapse of dominoes, with more Arab countries establishing relations with Israel.

Clearly, in this context, Palestine will face more difficulties in realizing its legitimate rights of nationhood, since Israel will feel no pressure to find political solutions.

Palestine’s right to nationhood is one of two sides of the peace process. Palestinians’ anger over its legitimate rights not being respected, will always be a factor that could lead to instability. It might be a joke that Palestine could somehow threaten Israel’s security at the state level, but the frustrations of Palestinians will always lead to more violence at the grassroots level, and even spill over to other Arab countries. Frustration can be contained for a time, but sooner or later it will burst out in a ferocious manner.

Second, Trump’s move could undermine the domestic stability of some Arab countries. While the U.S. administration is boasting of success in bridging gaps between Israel and Arab countries, the Arab countries involved will have to face pressure at home, which could easily engender turmoil, such as street movements.

Marginalization is often used to describe the current status of the Palestine issue, but no one denies that people of the Arab world and even the wider Muslim world identify with Palestine’s cause of nationhood. They believe that their Palestinian brothers should have a nation-state, and they support efforts to achieve that goal.

Put another way, support for the Palestinian cause has always been one of the major sources of political cohesion for Arab countries, whether republics or monarchies. It is for this reason that a majority of Arab countries have refrained from officially engaging with Israel. Reaching peace agreements with Israel might enhance their relations with the United States, but will seriously undermine their legitimacy among Arab countries.

It is less than 10 years since the Arab Spring of 2011. Since then, Arab countries, including Gulf countries, have been working hard to reconstruct their political houses through both talk and economic measures. This year, particularly, is witnessing their struggle against the coronavirus and its impact on their economies, which has already brought instability to the region, imperiling people’s livelihoods.

The latest diplomatic move could pose another serious challenge for Arab countries. The UAE is in a much better situation than most, as it has constructed a diversified economy, while Bahrain could be in a more fragile situation, as it has run out of oil reserves and its new economic foundation is not yet built. With Sunni monarchy aligned with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain especially has to face political pressure from its pro-Iran Shiite communities, which represent two-thirds of its population. More Arab countries could sink into a difficult situation if more of them decide to normalize relations with Israel.

Third, Trump’s move will undermine international efforts to construct an inclusive security framework in the Gulf region. The last decade saw growing tensions between GCC countries and Iran and between the U.S. and Iran as well. It is believed that an inclusive regional security structure featuring dialogue is urgently needed in the Gulf to include regional countries and external actors. It is believed that Iran should be brought into the tent instead of being kept out. That should be the inevitable choice.

For this purpose, Chinese officials have laid out the country’s position on maintaining security in the Gulf region on many occasions. For instance, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi discussed a three-point proposal on security building in the Gulf region on Sept. 4. China believes that regional issues should be decided by countries in the region via dialogue, and that external actors should push for such efforts rather than alienating those countries.

In September last year, Russia proposed an initiative for constructing an inclusive mechanism in the region that would bring major regional and external actors together. It was supported by China immediately. The European Union is also a major external actor with normal relations with both GCC countries and Iran, and it also supports dialogue between Iran and GCC countries.

Unfortunately, Trump’s new move is pushing the region in the opposite direction. As observed, by pressuring Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, Trump is materializing his so-called new Middle East plan to build an alliance between Arab countries and Israel to contain Iran. That is just the opposite of bringing all of them together with external stake holders.

The U.S. move will also further increase hostility between Iran and Arab countries and widen the understanding gap between them. Just imagine, without Iran being included — and Iran being regarded as the target of security arrangements — how can any endeavor for security be sustainable?

All in all, Trump’s latest move in pushing some Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, though in name of peace, will not serve for building peace in the region at all. These moves will undermine the Palestine-Israel peace process, the domestic stability of Arab countries and international efforts to build a security mechanism in the Gulf region. They could even have a long-term negative impact, as they create uncertainties over the destiny of Palestine as a sovereign state.

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