Bahrain is Next
On January 28, 2020 Donald Trump unveiled the details of his long-touted plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a conference attended by the ambassadors from three Arab nations – Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain - Trump exposed a two state conceptual map showing scattered Palestinian lands where the West Bank and Gaza are joined through an underground bridge. What preceded was the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and the relocation of the US embassy there; the cancellation of aid funds for UNRWA and the closure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington. But all of those actions could not hide the fact that a concrete strategy was not provided and that the focus was eventually limited to Israel’s decision in annexing one third of the West Bank, which was able to ignite everything but “peace”. But suddenly the Abraham Accord was announced – an agreement to normalize the relations between UAE and Israel that slow-downed the annexation of the West Bank, hence the implementation of the “deal of the century” map. Today Bahrain is following this path and it may not be too farfetched to expect other countries joining in the future.
Let’s get things moving in another way
The relevance of this sequence of events allow policy analysts to question the strategic choices of the Trump administration. Was the “deal of the century” scenario a lobbying tactic to push Arab States towards normalizing relations with Israel? Or is it an attempt to score a foreign policy victory? According to Mark Pfeifle, the former White House Dep. National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Global Outreach, it was a conscious decision to take a different approach than other US Administrations before: "Let’s build a relationship with different countries and let’s get things moving this way."
Trump can certainly argue that his transactional diplomacy achieved what former administrations couldn’t. However, those Arab-Israeli peace pacts seemed to be intimately linked to the US president’s re-election campaign. They could constitute a tangible foreign-policy success after the failure of his administration’s big foreign-policy efforts - whether a Middle East peace plan, the limitations of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the trade war with China, or containment of Iran’s role in the Middle East. But to say that these efforts are purely related to the re-election of Donald Trump would overlook the fact that this election will be decided on other issues like COVID-19, economical prospects and the leadership potential of the two candidates, says Mark Pfeifle. "From an electoral point of view, the topic of these peace accords will have minimal effect to move voters, as there are not many undecided voters." he adds.
Between Riyadh and Tehran…
Despite Trump’s ambitions in the region, the political game is changing in the Middle East. Today, all eyes are on Bahrain. Yet, the long term questions tackle the effect of such initiatives on the balance of power in the region.
The last developments suggest that Saudi Arabia has lost its “moral” monopoly of power over the Gulf States. The Kingdom found itself abandoned by the latter on many occasions – lately in Yemen- and it is now trying to re-gather its forces to keep up with the economic and geopolitical challenges. The main question in this context is whether Bahrain’s announcement serves as a pre-test for future Saudi Arabian ambitions. Although a peace pact between Bahrain and Israel was more predictable than with UAE, yet it could not have happened without a green light of its largest neighbour. Bahrain depends heavily on the economic and political support from Saudi Arabia - even its oil returns are managed by the biggest Saudi petroleum Company (Saudi Aramco). The Kingdom might not follow suit anytime soon – especially under the rule of King Salman- yet the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will be able to gain some time to draft a proper scenario in this stance.
Another big question from the region is the Iranian fate and standing. The logical argument would suggest that Iran will find itself more isolated than before. The economic crisis in the Islamic Republic might and will intensify and the big question remains around the legitimacy of the current regime. Within all of these uncertainties, it is therefore important to observe how serious the pushback against Iran's "destabilizing activities" will be. Especially Arab countries under strong Iranian dominance – such as Iraq and Lebanon – will be the litmus test in this regard.
But there is also hope. Some scholars argue that the peace treaties between Israel and the Arab States might lead to an USA-Iranian rapprochement. This argument comes from the fact that (1) Iran cannot survive without its Arab surrounding – which explains why Iran did not stop its diplomatic relations with UAE- and (2) Iran has an interest in playing the role of an oil corridor linking the Gulf States to the Levant, North Africa, and of course Europe. The latter argument is supported by an “Foreign Policy Magazine” article, which revealed the existence of an oil pipeline, which is operated by Israel as a secret joint venture with Iran and which “could be a major beneficiary from the Trump-brokered peace deal with the United Arab Emirates.”
Let’s not forget the Palestinians!
While a new deal has been arranged, the Palestinians are once again frustrated, though hardly surprised. But Peace Treaties don’t stop after they have been signed. Official communication channels will be established and the continuity of countries interacting with each other will not wither away quickly. But given the dried up channels of communication between the Palestinian leadership and the US administration and the dismantling of diplomatic missions, Washington will find it increasingly difficult to measure the mood among the Palestinians.
Germany and Europe are therefore called upon to approach and intensify the exchange with the Palestinian leadership and civil society that feels excluded from this process. The room for additional external actors like Germany, which adheres to the primacy of international agreements, is limited in this situation. However, Germany and the EU could play a lasting mediating role between Israel and the Arab world, particularly through their work in and with Arab civil societies.
Dirk Kunze is the Regional Director at the MENA Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).
Yara Asmar is the Regional Strategy Manager at the MENA Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).