18.05.2023 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Israel and the ‘New’ Middle East

Israel and the ‘New’ Middle East

In 2020, when Israel, backed by the US, signed the Abraham Accords with the UAE and some other Middle Eastern states, the Israeli government looked well in charge of the trajectory of the peace process in the Middle East. Three years later, peace-making is no longer made in the US or Israel, as China’s success in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia has significantly shifted Middle Eastern geopolitics’ local and international dynamics. Locally, more and more Arab states are now pursuing ‘normalisation’; internationally, Beijing, rather than Washington, is playing the lead role. This adds to Israel’s troubles, as it can no longer influence these developments even indirectly via Beijing for obvious reasons. At the same time, if the underlying logic of the Abraham Accords was to expand Israeli influence in the Arab world and further isolate Iran, this is no longer possible.

While the US and Israeli officials have stated that the Iran-Saudia deal doesn’t impact the politics and the possibility of the possible extension of the Abraham Accords, it remains that the deal has not materialised despite various rounds of talks. While one of the key reasons is the change of government in the US, with the Biden administration not sharing the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for both peace in the Middle East and deep ties with Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia, too, is not keen to make this deal. In other words, the China-led ‘new’ peace process in the Middle East is nothing short of a setback for Israel.

This is most clearly evident from the way Saudi position vis-à-vis talks with Israel has hardened in the past few months or so. As reported in the mainstream media in the US as well, not only is Saudi Arabia demanding additional security guarantees from Washington but is also seeking the latter’s help to develop its civilian nuclear programme. This is besides the Saudi demand from the US to loosen restrictions on the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. These demands are in addition to a persistent Saudi demand from Israel to “do something to address Palestinian aspirations for independence.”

From the US and Israeli perspectives, the Saudis are only using the scenario to extract maximum concessions from them in exchange for ‘normalisation.’ From their perspectives, they might ultimately need to address some of the Saudi demands, given that a peace process in the Middle East that excludes Israel as a player will ultimately lead to Israeli isolation in the region insofar as other states are most likely to continue pursuing their normalization politics under the Chinese auspices. As irony would have it – and as it may further complicate the US position – China recently offered its services to mediate between Israel and Palestine to develop a realistic peace plan. If the US fails to convince Saudia, Israel, fearing increasing isolation, may ultimately move towards China for a new peace process.

The US, so far, has failed to make any headway in this direction i.e., towards an Israel-Saudi peace process. In fact, the failure to address Saudi demands is pushing the latter in the opposite direction. Saudi Arabia, as again reported in the US mainstream media, is moving to normalise and streamline its ties with Hamas, a Palestinian militia resisting Israel but designated by the US as a ‘terrorist group.’ As Wall Street Journal reported, the Saudi move is part of the,

“the kingdom’s rapprochement efforts with Hamas are part of a larger drive to demonstrate the crown prince’s diplomatic clout as regional players re-establish ties with Syria and countries such as China and Russia challenge the US for influence in the volatile region.”

For Israel, this move is a major setback for two basic reasons. First, it shows that the Saudi state is not mindlessly pursuing talks with Israel. In fact, Saudi moves are aimed at squeezing regional space for Israel in order to force it to make difficult choices. Secondly, the report shows that Saudi Arabia is actively countering the US in the Middle East. Establishing ties with Hamas directly confronts the US insofar as the Saudis do not consider Hamas as a terror group, at least in the same sense as Washington and Jerusalem evidently do.

From the Israeli perspective, this nuance is a major complication. Earlier, when the Abraham Accords were negotiated, the underlying logic was Iran as the common enemy of all ‘Sunni Arab states’ and Israel. China’s diplomacy has changed how Arab states view Iran. While Iran is still a rival state, these Arab states have China in between to check Iran’s regional – and nuclear – ambitions. As a result, Arab states no longer need to develop ties with Israel as keenly as they looked to pursue in 2020.

This became evident most recently from the decision of the government of UAE – which is a signatory of the Abraham Accords – to postpone a defence deal with Israel. The decision came last month as a reaction against the Israeli government’s storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the attack on the Palestinian town of Huwara by settlers, and the statements of Israeli Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, calling for wiping it to be “wiped out.” While these incidents may indicate the continuing centrality of the Palestinian issue, a more crucial reason for the Emirati leadership to step away from Israel has to do with the changing geopolitical dynamics within which normalising ties with erstwhile rivals – Iran, Syria, Hamas, etc. – is apparently the new normal now.

For Israel, this is a challenging situation. It can either stick to its traditional way of geopolitics and pursue its interests aggressively and risk wider confrontation, or it can turn to China for the ‘new’ peace process. The latter option will, however, further undermine the US position in the Middle East.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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