The Middle East’s New Reality

Roy Mathews, Managing Forum Editor

Thanks to the genius of our president, or more likely thanks to his ability to get out of his own way, two peace deals were signed at the White House this week that normalized relations between Israel and two Gulf Arab states. The last time Israel normalized relations with an Arab state was with Jordan in 1994

This time, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain have agreed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and have fully normalized relations with a country that for decades had been militarily, diplomatically, and economically isolated in the Middle East. This deal means the official acknowledgement of a new reality in the Middle East: the Arab world has moved on.

The Middle East has changed since the last major conflict between Israel and the Arab world in 1973. The lack of organized encroachment on an Arab country’s sovereign borders by Israel in the last fifty years has led many Arab states to realize that the source of chaos within the Middle East is not Israel, but the Iranian government. 

The recent peace deal reflects this new reality. Iran’s continued funding of terror groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis of Yemen, as well as the enablement of such funding by past administrations have led many Arab leaders to see the writing on the wall: making peace with Israel means that states can focus their resources on containing Iran and its proxies. 

Just ask Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who remarked in 2018 that Israelis “have a right to own their land” and stated that “our country does not have a problem with Jews.” Echoing the Saudi Crown Prince, Bahraini foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa defended Israeli strikes on Iranian military targets in Syria, saying that Israel “has the right to defend itself by eliminating the source of danger.” Perhaps most surprising of all is a Saudi imam’s sermon at the Mecca’s Grand Mosque on September 4, preaching about the Prophet’s kindness towards a Jewish neighbor, which some experts have pointed to as laying the foundation for the kingdom’s normalization of relations with Israel.

What explains this change of priorities among Gulf states? Because of the Arab Spring, many Gulf state citizens wanted to focus on their own country’s issues. Little by little, many Arab news crews in Jerusalem “went from busy to bored as people wanted to talk about their own issues and political challenges.” 

The monopoly of news coverage on Israel by Arab state-owned news outlets was also shattered, as their own citizens were taking it upon themselves to learn about Israel instead of defaulting to their government’s narrative. Al-Masdar (“The Source” in Arabic), a website carrying news about Israel in Arabic, has attracted more than two million Arab readers and was founded by an Israeli Arab analyst, Shimrit Meir. 

Yad Veshem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, even translated most of its web content into Arabic to push back against Holocaust denialism. The Arab Spring shattered the perceived pan-Arab unified front against Israel and allowed many Gulf states to choose to engage with Israel on their own terms. 

Sources at the Associated Press have further speculated that Morocco, Oman, and Sudan may be next in recognizing Israel with a formal normalization of relations. Finally, the largest factor in this new reality in the Middle East can be traced back to President Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal and the “pivot” to Asia.   

Looking back at not so recent history, the Gulf states have consistently received the short end of the stick from past U.S. administrations. Instead of factoring in Gulf states’ concerns about Iranian-funded terror groups, the Obama administration went ahead and struck a deal with Iran that even Secretary of State John Kerry said would allow Iranian terror groups to receive funds. Even though Israel and numerous Gulf states opposed the deal, the United States’ goal was to disengage with the region and leave the quagmire of the Middle East. 

Civilians living under the threat of Iranian missiles in Oman and Saudi Arabia see the U.S. leaving the region as a signal they will have to fend for themselves. The past Iran nuclear deal only added to their fear. “How would the French or British feel if their capital cities came under direct threat by the Iranians?” questioned editor Faisal Abbas of Saudi Arabia’s English language Arab News. Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, the Houthis, have fired multiple missile salvos into Saudi Arabia since the Iranian government has given arms, funds, and resources to the Houthi movement in Yemen’s civil war. 

Couple Iran’s support of the Houthis with their military support of the seperatist Polisario Front in Morocco, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) training and arming of Iraqi militias has shown that Iran’s attempt at sowing chaos in the Middle East has been expanding due to the hands off approach taken by the Obama administration. 

With the Obama administration pulling out and the Trump administration’s policies changing from week to week, Gulf states desired a consistent security partner in the face of Iranian aggression. The only option is Israel. “They have greater trust in the reliability of Israel’s position than the U.S.” according to former Obama administration official Robert Malley. Of course these normalizations of relations do not benefit the Palestianians, whose leader Mahmoud Abbas was notably absent from the historic day at the White House.

This is the new reality that President Abbas has failed to prepare his people for: the Israli-Palestianian conflict is now of secondary importance. The threat posed by Iran takes the cake in terms of priority for both the Gulf states and Israel now. 

The recent peace deal is yet another opportunity for President Abbas to step up to the negotiating table, as the deal imposed a freeze on Israeli President Netanyahu’s settlement plans in disputed territories. Remember when President Obama imposed a ten month freeze on settlement building in 2009? The first nine of those months were thrown away by President Abbas because he “refused to negotiate.” Remember Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s proposals to keep only 6.3% of the West Bank and give control of Jerusalem’s Old City to the United Nations? Of course not, because President Abbas then rejected those overtures too. 

Nevermind that Jared Kushner told reporters this month that “If we keep going with the status quo…Israel, ultimately would have eaten up all the land.” The Palestinains rejected this latest deal as well. 

Where is President Abbas, President of the Palentstinian Authority? Why was he not at the White House this past week? The Palestinians in refusing to even come to the negotiating table have forfeited their seat for a continued protest. While President Abbas and his family profit off his position, 95.5% of Palestinians believe their government is corrupt. President Abbas may be too busy trying to reign in his son, whose high-flying lifestyle was exposed by the leaked Panama Papers a couple of years ago. Maybe Abbas’ older brother Yasser’s monopoly on cigarette sales in the Palestinian territories would be threatened by an peace deal? As Al Jazeera points out, the last time President Abbas faced the voters was ten years ago, so he is not exactly democratically legitimate. 

Whatever the case may be, the Arab world has moved on from President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority’s intransigence.