November 17, 2020 | Newsweek

How To Build Upon Recent Progress in the Middle East

November 17, 2020 | Newsweek

How To Build Upon Recent Progress in the Middle East

Litigation surrounding the 2020 presidential election is set to continue for a while, as state legislatures will not report official results until December. Assuming nothing changes, Biden will enter the White House in January. When he does, he will inherit a Middle East policy shaped by his predecessor’s most important achievement: the Abraham Accords. The peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel can help inform the policies of the incoming Biden administration in a number of key areas.

The Abraham Accords was the first in a wave of peace agreements not likely to end with the Trump presidency. Bahrain followed shortly after the UAE, with Sudan then following shortly thereafter. These countries made the decision to de-prioritize their pointless historical animosities with Israel and to instead emphasize their own national priorities—namely, to look at how Israel and the United States can advance their own interests. Other Arab countries are now openly mulling similar shifts. They include Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and perhaps even a few others.

With an opportunity to notch additional diplomatic achievements that only a few years ago seemed impossible, the incoming administration should see clearly that diplomacy with countries peripheral to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a greater chance of success than does direct engagement with the Palestinians themselves. That said, the more countries that de-emphasize historical Palestinian claims and narratives on the path to normalizing with Israel, the more the Palestinians will feel the pressure to negotiate and compromise. This creates an opportunity to pursue both tracks simultaneously.

But a word of warning: Returning to the orthodoxy of two-state solution diplomacy is ill-advised. Blindly yielding back leverage to the intransigent Palestinian leadership is not likely to encourage successful diplomacy. If anything, history has shown the opposite to be true.

With than in mind, the incoming administration should enlist the Arab states that normalized ties with Israel to play an intermediary role. In the past, many Arab leaders served as enablers of Palestinian intransigence. One gets a sense that fewer are inclined to serve that role, today. Helpful allies can convey the friendly, yet tough, messages to the sclerotic Palestinian leadership that those leaders need to hear. Specifically, calls to conquer Israel must be seen for what they are: unrealistic and silly. No less outlandish is the Palestinian call for the “right of return” of some five million Palestinians to live in Israel. This narrative, which stems from the tendentious Palestinian practice of viewing the descendants of refugees from the original 1948-1949 war as refugees in their own right, must finally be put to rest.

Similarly, the Arab states can work with the Palestinians to finally create institutions for better governance and services for the Palestinian people. With any luck, some of the wealthy Gulf states might even help finance such projects.

The alliance between some Arab states and Israel also introduces a new wrinkle in the Iran debate. The Middle East countries that were largely excluded from the last round of Iran deal negotiations are now likely to come together with one unified voice. Last time, Arab states quietly cheered while Israel contested the concessions that the United States and others made to Tehran. This time, they are likely to work openly with Israel, and to demand closer communication and coordination. Additional points of friction should be expected, particularly given Iran’s continued aggressive and provocative actions across the region.

The incoming administration should also remember that mutual concern about Iranian aggression served as a key motivation for peace between the UAE and Israel. Iran concerns played a role in the normalization agreements with Bahrain and Sudan, too. The next administration should leverage this if it decides to engage with Iran, reminding the regime of the growing coalition of countries in the region that seek to contain Iran’s nuclear program, as well as its missile proliferation and support for terrorism. A myopic focus on one challenge that ignores the others is not likely to resonate well in the new Middle East, where an Arab-Israeli coalition is increasingly speaking with one voice.

Finally, a word of warning. Some Democrats want to downgrade ties with Saudi Arabia, as justifiable outrage lingers from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, human rights violations at home and botched military operations that killed civilians in Yemen. But retribution is a mistake. It would likely deter Saudi normalization with Israel and disrupt the positive diplomatic trends in the Middle East, given Riyadh’s quiet leadership in this space. It might also push Saudi Arabia toward Russia and China, or even prompt the Saudis to reverse course on recent domestic reforms. This is not to say that Saudi transgressions should go unaddressed. The key is addressing them wisely and prudently.

The coalition between the pragmatic Arab states and Israel is off to a running start. It has the potential to expand—in terms of both numbers and influence. One can only hope that this new leverage will be used to serve the American interest. Specifically, it can be used to encourage increased regional cooperation as a means to counter Iran and advance a more realistic vision for Middle East peace.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

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Issues:

Arab Politics Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Palestinian Politics