A flood of new peace agreements for Israel, creating diplomatic relations with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Sudan, has the potential to reshape the Middle East. Israel and its new friends can set a course that will lead to the emergence of an alliance system that will underpin Israel’s first new peace agreements in a quarter of a century. However, the speed with which these relationships have come about and the sense that they are part of a series of transactions being pushed through by the White House mean that they could be affected by any change in Washington’s policies.
To promote the new relationship with Israel, the U.S. is expected to sell Abu Dhabi the fifth generation F-35s that will change the game and help make the UAE one of the most advanced armed forces in the Middle East. Similarly, the potential deal with Sudan has been sweetened by the country’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The F-35s could have been sold to the UAE without an agreement with Israel, and the new government of Sudan could have been removed from the terrorist list without any link to normalization of relations. Both countries also deny that their openings with Israel have a transactional character. This is because Israel offers a lot to Sudan and the UAE. For the UAE it means cooperation in the strategic assessment of the region, for example in dealing with threats from Iran. For Sudan, Israel’s technology and drip irrigation could be helpful.
But appearances are deceptive. President Donald Trump put the Israeli prime minister on the loudspeaker when he discussed the question of whether the democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden could have made the recent agreements. One has the feeling that Trump has tended to push for a transactional form of foreign policy – be it in the form of new billion-dollar deals with Saudi Arabia, the claim that the U.S. will stay in Syria to guard the oil wells, or the demand that the NATO countries and South Korea increase military spending in return for defensive support from the U.S.
If you conduct foreign policy as a transaction, there is always the possibility that if part of the transaction is not kept or if the person in the White House changes, the foreign state will not keep its word. This means that to strengthen Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and possibly other agreements with Oman, Saudi Arabia or several other countries, the U.S. must continue to be a stakeholder – or Israel and its new friends must act quickly to strengthen the agreements.
Israel has maintained pragmatic relations in the past. In the 1950s, when the Arab states were enemies, it reached out to Iran and Turkey, and then signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, but never maintained particularly close relations with either. Today, the Iranian regime is the most hostile country to Israel and Turkey – and Turkey, which still maintains relations with Israel, has vowed to “liberate” Muslim areas in Jerusalem from the Jewish state. This shows that Israel’s relations in the region are rather precarious.
How can relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan learn from the challenges of the Pas?
First, Israel and the UAE already share a common world view of the region and may be part of an emerging alliance between the US and India and Greece that would create a power nexus from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. This requires a strategic partnership with Washington, building on F-35s for Israel, Greece and the UAE, and a close partnership between Israel and India that already exists. Interpersonal relations are also essential for the development of Abu Dhabi-Jerusalem relations. The economic centers in Tel Aviv and Dubai offer excellent opportunities. There is already cooperation on the medical front against COVID-19 and the first ship from the Emirates has arrived in Israel, as have the first flights.
The foundation stone for the new friendships of Israel is laid. Now the countries have to fill the new building with economic, cultural and finally also defense relations. Some of these relations are being pushed forward by Washington, but after the US elections it is important that these new friendships grow by themselves. The joint focus of Israeli, Emirati and other regional leaders, business people and civil society organizations can help to make this happen.
Seth J. Frantzman is Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a senior Middle East affairs analyst at The Jerusalem Post, and author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Battle for the Middle East (2019). Twitter: @sfrantzman.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.