Fighting the toughest election battle of his political career, US President Donald Trump had something to boast about this week with his show of “influence in the Middle East” as he claimed to have “brokered the deals” to what he and his administration say, ushering in an era of peace between Israel and the Arab world. Politically, the statement made by President Trump may earn him some brownie points on the diplomacy fronts, although briefly. But the “conflict-fractured” region is far from lasting peace, thanks to unresolved internal dynamics and the failure to iron out the Israel-Palestine differences, much of the responsibility is blamed on the US and on the two warring parties, says Professor Boaz Atzili, a global affairs expert on Israel and Arab studies in American University. Professor Atzili, who specialises in international security with an emphasis on the politics of borders and territoriality, has his regional focus on Middle East security. In an exclusive interview to The Sunday Guardian, he spoke on many key issues linked to the regional dynamics emerging out of the current peace deals signed between Israel and UAE, and Israel and Bahrain. Excerpts:
Q: President Donald Trump has something to cheer about in the heat of his election campaign as a “Truce Maker”. The US President is brokering deals between Israel and UAE and between Israel and Bahrain. Will he benefit politically? Your take.
A: I doubt that he would benefit much politically. For one thing, the average American cares very little about foreign policy. It might help his core to argue that he kept his promise to lead to a peace in the Middle East (though this is not particular agreement is not likely to result in that in any meaningful sense).
Q: The US under President Bill Clinton too had seen the historic moment when he brought both Mr Yitzhak Rabin and Mr Yasser Arafat for the “golden handshake to maintain regional peace”. It didn’t last as desired. How will Mr Trump’s efforts be different and fruitful?
A: This is different in two main ways. First, these agreements are peace agreements rather than an interim framework agreement as were the Oslo Accords. On the one hand the “Abrahamic Accords” are less likely to falter since they are much simpler straight-forward agreements and don’t require complicated future negotiations to succeed. On the other hand (and related) there is a reason why they are not complicated: these are peace agreements between sides that never actually fought a war and that has no real territorial or other complicated issues to solve.
Q: Do you think the smaller nations’ normalization of relations with Israel is like laying the ground for the biggest possible ice breaking, which is the normalization of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel? Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (MBS) has been conciliatory towards Tel Aviv in his statements since he has come to power.
A: Possibly. Such an agreement would be much bigger of a deal but I doubt that it will come without a major Israeli concession, as MBS will be worried of internal dissent and public opinion that is still very hostile to Israel, he might prefer to keep relations informal, as they are increasingly now.
Q: What do you see for countries like India, which share strong relations with Israel, Palestine and the entire Arab world? How important is a peaceful Middle East for India, which is currently on board with democratic nations, including the US, to counter China?
A: A comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be very important for advancing any agenda of progress and cooperation in the Middle East. The agreement signed this week has little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I don’t think in and of itself will change much in the overall conflicted region. More long-term I can imagine a larger role for India in the Middle East. As America’s standing (and its ability to play a balanced broker role) declines, then states like India with good relations on both sides could increase their involvement in the region. And to the extent that such peace could facilitate more open and cooperative oil market, it could benefit India’s increasing demand for energy as well. We need to keep in mind, though that the Israeli-Arab conflict is only one of the series of conflicts that engulf the Middle East, so resolving it will not be a guarantee for a peaceful region.
Q: Do you see a divide in the Sunni Arab world with Saudi Arabia-led group of countries lined up on the one side and a group led by Turkey on the other with countries like Pakistan and Malaysia? How does it figure in the overall Arab-Israel politics?
A: Yes, there seems to be such a divide but it’s one that is much larger than the relations with Israel. It’s about ambitions to dominate Middle East geopolitics, about the Syrian civil war, etc. If one side even tacitly draws on the support of Israel that’s a significant military advantage (not to mention that it may affect US support). But it also means the other side gets an automatic popular support in the region that always goes with the Palestinians.
Q: There are conflicting reports on the reactions of Hamas and Palestine towards the peace deals. Some reports say both are slamming the peace deals as a “stab in the back”, while other reports say that Hamas has reached a deal with Israel for ending the escalation of violence. As an expert on the subject and region, can you tell us the “true picture”?
A: The “true picture” seems to be closer to the first version. There is a wide-spread consensus among the Palestinians against the deal. Yesterday, there were rockets launched from the Gaza Strip aiming at southern Israeli towns, and Israeli retaliated against Hamas targets. Even if there will be some tacit agreement of de-escalation (with Egyptian mediation) it will not hold for long, like all previous agreements, because none are changing the basic reality of Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip and Hamas insistence on armed struggle. By the way, I think the Palestinian reaction is unwarranted because (a) this agreement changes little, as both Jordan and Egypt has peace with Israel and the Palestinians themselves have signed agreements with Israel in the past; (b) if anything it postponed Israel’s plans to annex some West Bank territories, which will be devastating to the prospect of a Palestinian state.
Q: Will these peace deals attract fierce reactions from the OIC or will there be a further split in the apex Islamic body? What will be the future of Gulf Cooperation Council amidst all these churning sweeping the Middle East?
A: I think the OIC will be split, along the lines you suggested above, and the GCC will display a split between Qatar and all the rest. But this is not new and not limited to relations with Israel or the new agreements.
Q: What impact do you see with improved Arab-Israeli relations on the Shia-Sunni conflict in the broader Middle East? Do you see these peace deals creating a further divide, consequential to the regional peace?
A: Not really. This will allow Iran and its allies to call UAE and Bahrain traitors, but they would do it either way, and beyond that it will make little difference in the short term. In the long term I hope it could play a constructive role in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
But finally, I want to be clear on two things:
There could not be a real peace without solving the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You cannot circumvent it (as the Trump administration is trying to do).
Currently the single largest obstacle for tackling this conflict is Israel and the Netanyahu government, rather than the Palestinians. And the Trump administration’s policy further encourages Netanyahu’s approach.