December 19, 2018 | The Washington Times

A modest Middle East detente

Arab states take a friendlier approach toward the enemy of their enemy.
December 19, 2018 | The Washington Times

A modest Middle East detente

Arab states take a friendlier approach toward the enemy of their enemy.

MUSCAT Perhaps Barack Obama deserves that Nobel Peace Prize after all. His achievement: bringing Israelis and Arabs closer together. He produced that result by throwing both under the bus. While there, they had coffee and a little baklava, and recognized how much they actually have in common.

Evidence of this modest detente: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s October meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said here in Oman’s picturesque capital. The two men spent ten hours in the royal palace, discussing affairs of state, dining, and enjoying a musical performance. Photos of them warmly shaking hands were made available to the media.

Not long after, the Israeli national anthem was played for the first time in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, as an Israeli athlete accepted a gold medal at an international judo tournament. Accompanying him was Minister of Sports Miri Regev. She broke into tears.

Earlier this year, Bahrain came out in support of Israel’s right to defend itself from Iranian forces in Syria. Over the weekend, the Bahraini foreign minister defended Australia’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Khalifa, even opposes economic boycotts of the Jewish state. Saudi Arabia cooperates with Israel on intelligence, cyber security and other issues.

In the old days, Arab states regarded Israel as the best of enemies. It could be blamed for all manner of dastardly deeds and misfortunes, but it would never put a missile on your breakfast table except in response to a direct and imminent threat. Why alter that convenient status quo now?

Because the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran are actively seeking to topple or subjugate Arab Sunni states for reasons of theology (complicated) and the will to power (simpler).

The clerical regime has installed Hezbollah as its regent in Lebanon, and Bashar al Assad as its client in Syria. It is strong-arming the elected leaders of Iraq, and backing Houthi rebels in Yemen. What nation, aside from Israel, has both the determination and the capabilities necessary to stand up to this menacing neo-imperialist power?

The obvious answer is the United States, but President Obama decided to try appeasing Tehran instead. Borrowing more from Mr. Rogers than Carl von Clausewitz, he proposed that Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic “share the neighborhood.”

He transferred more than a hundred billion dollars to Iran’s rulers in exchange for their promise to slow-walk a nuclear weapons development program they insisted they didn’t possess — even as they continued to test missiles that could deliver such weapons.

Both Arabs and Israelis were relieved when President Trump reversed his predecessor’s policies, though there is fear that the next occupant of the White House may do another about-face. Israelis, by contrast, can be counted on to stay the course.

What are the chances that Israel goes on to fully normalize relations with the Saudis, Bahrainis, Emiratis, Omanis and perhaps others? I’d say not good, at least not anytime soon.

The small states won’t want to go first, they’ll prefer to follow the Saudis. And the Saudis won’t want to give Iran’s rulers grounds to call them Zionists and traitors to the Palestinian cause.

In theory, this provides an incentive for Mr. Netanyahu to more aggressively pursue a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In practice, Hamas will make peace with the “Zionist entity” when pigs fly. As for Mahmoud Abbas, the 83-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, he is thinking legacy. A generation from now, he wants his picture hanging beside that of Yasser Arafat, not used for target practice in jihadi training camps.

A few complexities: The rulers of Egypt and Jordan long ago signed peace treaties with Israel, and cooperate extensively on security, energy, water and other issues. Average Egyptians and Jordanians, however, have been indoctrinated to despise Israelis, and their attitudes won’t change anytime soon.

The monarchies along the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula are not all alike.  Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are most adamant about doing whatever is necessary to contain the Islamic Republic.

Kuwait describes its relations with Iran’s ruling ayatollahs as “excellent” but last year ordered the expulsion of Iranian diplomats, including the ambassador, and convicted 23 men of spying for Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy. Prominent Kuwaitis have acknowledged Israel’s right to exist, and advised Palestinian leaders that killing Israelis is unlikely to make them more conciliatory.

Oman hedges its bets, casting itself as the “Middle East’s Switzerland” which implies not chocolate and cuckoo clocks but remaining neutral even when one side is obviously more threatening than the other. 

Qatar’s rulers most egregiously play both ends against the middle. They enjoy cozy relations with Tehran, military coordination with Turkey’s Islamist president, support the Muslim Brotherhood, and, allegedly, various Sunni jihadi groups as well. They own Al Jazeera and use it to spread their propaganda.

These and other issues have enraged the Saudis who, along with Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE, severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed an economic blockade in 2017. 

At the same time, Qatar hosts an American air base and maintains reasonably cooperative relations with Israel, which prefers Qatari money and influence in Gaza and the West Bank over that of Tehran.

It’s a complex situation that we might boil down to this: In the Middle East, the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. But if he’s strong and doesn’t plan to wipe you off the map, it’s only sensible to sit down with him for coffee and a little baklava — especially if you both find yourselves beneath the same large, proverbial motor vehicle.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.


Arab Politics Iran Iran Global Threat Network Palestinian Politics