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By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Military University
The Trump presidency has been an eventful one, shaking up both domestic and foreign policy issues. As far as foreign policy is concerned, we saw the emergence of a new status quo with China, a lighter hand with Russia, and a hands-off policy when it comes to Afghanistan and Syria. Whether you fall on this side of the political map or the other, one thing is for sure: This administration is changing the trajectory of foreign policy.
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Without a doubt, there is a new sheriff in town who is not afraid of using all the tools in his holster, as we saw with the Soleimani assassination. The past few weeks gave us a glimpse of the trajectory the Trump administration is pursuing in relation to the Arab-Israel conflict; that is, the deal brokered by the White House between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The Gulf States-Israel Accord Came at the Right Time for the Trump Re-Election Campaign
Jason Greenblatt, the special White House envoy to the Middle East, the President’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, and Avi Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, have worked on this deal for some time. It culminated in a public Rose Garden signing ceremony. The accord came at the right time for the Trump re-election campaign, which can now tout a foreign policy achievement just in time for the November election.
It may have come at a good time too for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who might be facing another election if his fragile government collapses in the near future under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel’s current economic turmoil, and the corruption charges levied against Netanyahu, whose trial will resume early next year.
The trilateral agreement this month has led many people come up with predictions about the future of the Middle East if Trump were to win re-election. Trump took a path that prior administrations deemed impossible — Arab-Israeli peace deals separate from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. How did that happen?
Iran: The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend
At the center of the latest development is U.S. policy toward Iran. When Trump won the White House in 2016, he declared that Iran was not complying with the nuclear accord reached during the Obama administration and he withdraw from the multilateral accord on May 8, 2018. The administration was also worried by the Iranian regime’s continued involvement in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where the Teheran regime supported local Shiite militias attempting to take control of these countries.
To the chagrin of the European Union, the U.S levied sanctions against Iran and Teheran countered by putting more pressure on U.S allies in the region, which culminated in attacks against those allies using Iran’s proxy powers.
On June 13, 2019, Iran attacked two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and on September 14, Huthi rebels using drones attacked the Saudi oil processing facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. The insurgents, who were quick to take responsibility, said it was a warning to Saudi Arabia against supporting the anti-Huthi faction in the Yemeni civil war. But there was a clear message to the U.S also, that we can disrupt international oil supplies.
Years of Iran’s attempts to obtain nuclear weapons and to spread the Iranian revolution to other countries not only have threatened the U.S and Israel. They have also threatened other Arab countries which see the Iranian attempts to become a world power as part of a campaign to dominate Sunni Islam.
The Religious Aspect: Sunni-Shia Tensions
Iran is a majority Shiite country. About 20% of Muslims worldwide are Shiites. They differ from the Sunni majority on some doctrinal issues, first and foremost the identity of the true heirs of Muhammad. Shiites believe the leadership mantle should have gone only to Muhammad’s family, not to his close followers after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D. But they usurped the leadership and were not viewed by Shiites as Islam’s legitimate leaders. Sunni Muslims see those leaders as righteous allies of Muhammad and the tension between the factions has remained unresolved for over a millennium.
The Gulf States, which border Iran and other Muslim countries, are majority Sunni. They view with trepidation the increasing power of Iranian proxy forces throughout the Middle East as an attempt to create a Shiite axis that will dominate the region. This reality that unfolded in recent years brought about a possible new alliance based on the eternal political axiom, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Israel-Gulf States Cooperation against a Joint Enemy
Since the Iranian Revolution, Iranian expansion has brought the current rulers of the Gulf States to the realization that there are issues at their doorstep that need to be addressed. If Iran is their rival, then the natural place to look for assistance is Israel. The Jewish state has been a target of Iran through its proxy Hezbollah for decades and in recent years through the covert relationships between the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Prince Muhammad bin Salman. This relationship has grown and intensified of late, leading to the deal dubbed by the White House as the “Abraham Accord.”
The Pact Includes Direct Flights between the Parties and Scientific and Economic Cooperation
This agreement – which provides for direct flights between the Gulf States and Israel along with scientific and economic cooperation – stunned the Palestinians. “We consider this a stab in the back and we absolutely reject it,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said. And he warned other countries not to accept it.
Why did the Gulf States sign this deal even though there has been no progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? That peace process has been stalled since its collapse in 1999, when the Camp David talks between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak ended without results. That led President Bill Clinton to blame Arafat for the collapse. Since then there has been no movement toward a permanent peace while the Palestinian Authority split into two factions, one controlled by the PLO and the other by Hamas and supported by Iran.
The Gulf States have witnessed Netanyahu’s aggressive policies toward Iran and its proxies in Syria and Trump’s hawkish approach in the region, all the while the Israeli economy is a growing force. So the solution is simple: to stop Iran a deal with Israel was essential.
Why is this a unique Trump move? Because previous administrations were adamant that there would be no separate peace between Israel and Arab countries until there is a Palestinian state. Former Secretary of State John Kerry warned Israel that without the Palestinians, Iran cannot be stopped. That fuels Trump supporters who see the agreement as proof that he has brought an alternative to the stale Washington political reality.
So what does the future hold? We will probably find out after the U.S. election in November. Perhaps Saudi Arabia or Morocco will follow suit and sign a peace agreement with Israel. The Iranians are probably hoping that a Joe Biden presidency will change the tone in Washington, and Netanyahu might step down to avoid a full trial. But one thing is clear: The Middle East will continue to be in political turmoil.
About the Author
Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B. in Law, an LL.B. in Law and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University.
He has published a book and 17 articles to date in leading scholarly journals. At AMU, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.