It was back in the heady days of the Oslo Accords, over twenty five years ago, that Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin and their backroom staff coined the term the “New Middle East” to describe what, they believed, was about to happen as Israelis and Palestinians set out on the path of peace.
But Oslo collapsed, settlement and de fact annexation of the West Bank became even more entrenched than previously, and no Arab country in the region (excepting those who had already signed an agreement with Israel – Egypt and Jordan) was prepared to exchange the old for the new.
Yesterday on the lawns of the White House, we did indeed witness a very different Middle East emerging to the one that we have known for the past seventy years. This new Middle East is not exactly the one that was foreseen by Peres and Beilin, nor has it come around because of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement – quite the opposite. But it has happened and none of us, however much we may not be supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government, however much we may think that the Palestinians have yet again been left on the sideline, none of us can ignore the significance of what we saw take place as Israel’s Prime Minister signed a formal peace agreement with both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The reasons for this version of a New Middle East are very different to those which were on the agenda a quarter of a century ago. In the first place, there is nothing like a common enemy, one which harbours extreme Shi’a fanaticism and with the potential of developing a nuclear threat, which serves to unite the Gulf States with Israel. Both feel equally threatened, the Arabian peninsula with Saudi Arabia at its geographical and political center, probably even more so than Israel.
The Gulf States have also lost any love they may have had in the past for the Palestinian cause. They may still pay lip service to such slogans as “end of occupation”, “no to annexation”, and “Palestinian statehood”, but they are equally aware that the Palestinians have taken an internal path which is not in the interests of the Gulf States. Moreover, as economic change, and even decline, sets in globally, the Gulf States are no longer prepared, at least as they perceive the developing and changing regional geopolitical situation, to have the Palestinian leadership add a further obstacle to economic prosperity as a result of poor decision making and a move towards political fundamentalism.
It is little wonder that Egypt was so enthusiastic about the agreement with the UAE and Bahrain. Ever since the signing of the Camp David Accords almost forty years ago they have been criticised within the Arab world for being the only Arab State to have done a deal with Israel. The addition of Jordan fifteen years later was but a side issue and the Egyptian leadership has always felt threatened by internal unrest which constantly raises and challenges the peace agreement with Israel – however cold that Agreement may be. No longer will Egypt feel isolated within the wider Arab world and there is a strong likelihood that the latest agreements will do much to consolidate and to warm up Israel – Egypt relations in the immediate future.
Israel gained a great deal in its security posture from the peace with Egypt by removing the immediate existential threat to the existence of the State. The Agreements with the UAE and Bahrain offer very different benefits, mostly economic, from technology to oil, from medicine to global business. The new peace agreements are a sign of the era within which we live. They do not focus on the unchanging political mantras of the past fifty years, even if many of those political problems remain unresolved. They are agreements which are rooted in the mutuality of geo-economic interests of countries determined to remain at the forefront of global development, even in, and especially so, in a world threated by the Corona pandemic and an economic downturn.
Holding the only Chair of Geopolitics in Israel at Ben-Gurion University, we keep a constant watch on the way in which political relations both within and between regions undergo a constant flux. A good geopolitics is a Realpolitik, one which takes constant account of change rather than rooting itself in the unchanging mantra of past generations. The Palestinian problem remains central to the regions’ future stability but the ways in which it can be resolved are different to those which have been wheeled out, time after time, as successive government and other beneficiaries of the somewhat monotonous and repetitive Track II peace industry have, at the end of the day, completely failed to find and implement a solution.
During this period the world has become more global, more digital and more cyber. Political relations and stability are no longer dependent on what happens between any single country and its neighbour. And even the firing of missiles from Gaza at the same time as the ceremony was taking place in Washington DC, was no more than a feeble and desperate attempt to refocus the world attention which failed miserably – even allowing for the damage and injuries which were incurred.
Europe, and Britain in particular, the once great colonial powers which governed and administered much of the Middle East, were nowhere to be seen in the latest agreements. The system of States and borders which they created during the past century, have long since emerged from their control and influence. They now look towards the increasingly independent Gulf States, the growing economies of Asia (in particular China and India) and, as was demonstrated yet again yesterday, the largesse and the desire to be accepted by the United States of America, regardless of who the President is. One only had to see the look of satisfaction on the faces of the UAE and Bahrain Ministers of Foreign Affairs, as they delivered their speeches and signed the Agreements while the entire world looked on, to understand that this, for them, was far far more important than any notions or diversions of Palestinian Statehood.
Back home we have greater issues on the domestic agenda. The inability to deal with the growing Corona pandemic, the forthcoming trials (if and when they ever take place) of a Prime Minister who, whatever one may think of him, has simply been in power for to long for any healthy democracy, and the missiles and balloons from Gaza, concern us much more than the latest round of agreements. But nothing takes place in a geopolitical vacuum, and while we face problems at home, we can not ignore the positive outcome of the latest Peace Agreements and the expected economic benefits. No geopolitical situation is ever entirely black or white – the two tend to work in parallel with each other. You can continue to demonstrate outside the Prime Ministers residence on a Saturday evening (actually from this Friday you cannot due to the three week closure which is about to take place ) but you can also welcome the Agreements which have been signed.
The fact that they work in the best interests of Trump and Netanyahu and serve their own personal political agendas is obvious. The fact that they serve the self interests of the states involved without too much thought for other unresolved political problems is also obvious. States always act in their own best interests. Geopolitics and international diplomacy is rarely about altruism. It is about mutuality of interests. The fact that these Agreements lend themselves to greater regional stability, future economic growth, and regional cooperation against what is perceived as the main security threat, namely Iran, offers more than a glimmer of light for the region’s immediate future.
Call it naïve if you will, but this is the nearest we have come to some sort of New Middle East and we should welcome it, albeit cautiously, as a step forward in this shatterbelt of a region.