Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Backstory in the Middle East

Speaking of unforced errors, yesterday a senior member of the Trump advance party in Israel rejected the idea that Prime Minister Netanyahu could accompany President Trump on his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He explained to the Israelis that the Western Wall is not theirs, but is contested.

Such was the Obama administration policy when it abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote that redefined the status of East Jerusalem.

After the remark provoked an angry confrontation the White House quickly declared that the senior official was not speaking for the administration. So, enquiring minds want to know who the official was and why he had a job. We also want to know why he still has a job. 

How did the Trump White House hire people who felt empowered to offer their personal views as administration policy. And how did it happen that this same individual, surely an Obama administration holdover, was allowed such latitude? At the least, this bespeaks incompetence. At worst, it represents an administration failure to define its policy.

Meantime, the Middle East peace process has been advancing, in its own way. Call this the back story to the main story, but surely it matters—as I have reported on occasion—that Arab Gulf states are working to establish better diplomatic relations with Israel, including, one presumes, an eventual recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

In return, these states are not asking for a peace treaty with the Palestinians but a good faith effort by Israel to engage them. Take this for what it is worth. The story has been reported in detail in the Wall Street Journal, and it is certainly worth considering… in order to put things in proper context.

The Journal reports:

Arab Gulf states have offered to take concrete steps to establish better relations with Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a significant overture aimed at restarting the Middle East peace process, according to people briefed on the discussions.

The offer to the U.S. and Israel comes ahead of President Donald Trump’s trip to the Middle East. The potential steps include establishing direct telecommunications links with Israel, allowing overflight rights to Israeli aircraft, and lifting restrictions on some trade, said these people.

The Gulf countries, in turn, would require Mr. Netanyahu to make what they would consider to be a peace overture to the Palestinians. Such steps could include stopping construction of settlements in certain areas of the West Bank and allowing freer trade into the Gaza Strip.

No one expects a peace treaty in the near future, so the Gulf states are looking for some conciliatory steps… mostly to provide cover for them and to allow them, given what they have invested in the so-called Palestinian cause, to save face:

The confidence-building steps being considered by Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and other Gulf states would be phased in if Israel were to take reciprocal steps to improve relations with the Palestinians.

Among other possible Arab steps are the issuance of visas for Israeli sports teams or trade delegations to take part in events in Arab countries. Gulf states would also seek to better integrate Israel into regional trade and business bodies.

Arab officials said they understand that a formal peace agreement is unlikely to be reached between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future. But they stressed that Israel has to show good faith to get diplomatic benefits.

Relations between Israel and the Gulf states have been improving, and the Journal offers some details:

The Gulf states’ initiative, according to the people briefed on it, underscores the vastly improved relations between Israel and the Gulf states in recent years, driven by their shared concerns about Iran and Islamic State.

“We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity,” said a senior Arab official involved in the discussions.
The Arab governments involved are Sunni-dominated, while Iran is ruled by Shiite clerics, a Muslim divide fueling the region’s potential realignment.

Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Qatar have been major financial backers of the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, since its inception in the 1990s. But Qatar also hosts the political leadership of Hamas, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, which presides in the Gaza Strip.

Already, Israel and Gulf countries have secretly stepped-up intelligence sharing, particularly focused on Iranian arms shipments to proxy militias fighting in Yemen and Syria, according to U.S., European and Middle East officials involved in security issues. Iran has denied providing arms to the Houthis.

Israeli officials have also made a number of secret trips to the Persian Gulf, particularly to the U.A.E., despite their countries having no formal diplomatic relations.

One has noted in the past that the Saudis and the Emirates have been cutting back on their financial support of the Palestinians. One suspects that the recent revision in the Hamas charter—you know, the one that Prime Minister Netanyahu threw in the trash—was instigated by the Arab paymasters.

The Israelis consider the transformation to be momentous:

“Much more is going on now than any time in the past,” said Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz in an interview, referring to Israel’s relations with Gulf states. “It’s almost a revolution in the Middle East.”

Mr. Steinitz, a close aide to Mr. Netanyahu, visited the U.A.E.’s capital, Abu Dhabi, last year to open an Israeli diplomatic mission tied to an international agency focused on renewable energies. He said Israeli technology companies are sharing high-end equipment, including for surveillance, with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

Here are some details about the kinds of cooperation that have been taking place:

Israel in recent months has shared intelligence with a Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to former U.S. officials. Both Israel and the Gulf states view Iran as their single greatest national security challenge, said these officials.

Last year, alarm bells went off in Israel when an Iranian ship being tracked by Israeli security services began navigating toward Yemen’s coast, according to former U.S. officials. Israeli intelligence indicated it was loaded with weapons and other supplies for the Houthis.

And also:

Israel, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia have significantly stepped up support for Egypt in its fight against Islamic State- and al Qaeda-linked militias fighting in Sinai, said U.S. and European officials.

Israel shares intelligence derived from drones and human agents with Cairo while the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have provided billions of dollars in aid to President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s government, according to U.S., Arab and Israeli officials.

Considering the ongoing cooperation, the current initiative seems far more substantive than the one that was inaugurated by a previous Saudi king when he pulled a peace proposal out of a drawer and tossed it at the gobsmacked Tom Friedman.


Ares Olympus said...
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Sam L. said...

I begin to get the impression that the Palis, Hamas, and the Pali Authority have finally irritated the Arab states sufficiently to lose their support.