A New Power Structure in the Middle East

By | Mar 28, 2022
Jewish Politics & Power, Latest
Secretary of State Antony Blinken

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1. History is made in the Negev Desert

The photo may seem a bit awkward.

Six foreign ministers—from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, the United States, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates—crossing their arms, reaching out to colleagues on their right and left for a handshake, while trying to squeeze out a smile.

But this photo, and the event it topped—a six-nation summit held in Israel’s Negev Desert, not far from the tomb of the nation’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion—are no less than historic.

Historic not only for the most obvious reason: top officials of four Arab nations traveling to Israel and sitting down with their Israeli counterpart to discuss shared regional concerns. It was also groundbreaking because of the subtext, the unspoken message sent by these Arab and Israeli foreign ministers to the American Secretary of State standing in the middle of the picture. While not spelled out directly, Secretary Anthony Blinken was essentially told that there is a new power structure in the Middle East. What that means: Israel and some of its Arab neighbors are prepared to demonstrate a unified front against shared enemies—and also against the United States—if it adopts a regional policy that is not to their liking.

And to be clear, the regional policy issue of concern is, of course, Iran. 

Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and to a lesser extent Egypt and Morocco needed the United States to understand their worries about the U.S. rejoining the nuclear deal with Iran, and they needed Blinken to convey a message President Joe Biden that if these concerns are not taken seriously, the U.S. will face an organized diplomatic front made up of nations that until very recently were sworn enemies.

Blinken got the message: “As neighbors and, in the case of the United States, as friends, we will also work together to confront common security challenges and threats, including those from Iran and its proxies,” he said at the conclusion of the summit.

2. The Abraham Accords remain the most fascinating development in the region

Egypt has maintained peaceful relations with Israel since 1978. But the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco only normalized relations with Israel after the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020. 

The Accords were originally seen by many as an opportunistic stunt managed by former President Trump and his son-in-law/Middle East envoy Jared Kushner in order to sideline the Palestinians and shore up relations with oil-rich, weapons-purchasing totalitarian Gulf regimes. But since then, the Accords took on a life of their own.

Throngs of Israeli tourists flooding the UAE was only the beginning.

Then came massive trade deals, followed by the outing of what was until recently a hesitant and secretive set of diplomatic and security understandings.

The Abraham Accords nations discovered the power of working jointly. As American interest in the Middle East declines, these regional partners proved that they can form their own informal alliance, utilizing Israel’s political clout and the Gulf nations’ economic and energy power.

In practical terms, what this means for the Biden administration is that returning to the Iran deal requires satisfying the needs of all members of the Abraham Accords: Israel’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear activity, the UAE’s fear of attacks from Iranian proxies in Yemen, and Bahrain’s anxiety over Iran’s takeover of the region.

3. Can Biden build on Trump’s achievement to undo Trump’s disastrous choice?

The Abraham Accords, and the ideological beliefs behind them, were never part of Democrats’ plan. Joe Biden and most Democratic foreign policy mavens see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the core regional issue, viewing the normalization of relations with Arab countries not bordering Israel as an prize Israel can get only after it compromises with the Palestinians.

Trump took the opposite approach. He cared little about the Palestinian conflict and was eager to deliver a regional accord, even if it only meant normalization with countries that were not in direct conflict with Israel.

When Biden came to office, he inherited a reality in which the Abraham Accords are not only an established fact, but also a huge success. His administration decided to warmly adopt the Accords while also paying lip service to the Democratic Party, noting that the Accords should be seen as a building block toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Now Biden faces a new challenge: The Abraham Accords nations are united against his move to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, a move critically needed after Trump’s decision to withdraw, which led to a crazed Iranian race for nuclear enrichment.

And this goes back to Blinken’s group photo at the end of the Negev Summit on Monday. Can Blinken use this embrace to make a grand deal with all concerned neighbors of Iran? A deal that would allow the United States to rejoin the nuclear agreement and in return respond to all parties’ concerns: weapons and access to intelligence for Israel and the UAE (and Saudi Arabia, which is not part of the Abraham Accords but plays an important role behind the scenes), a promise to fight Iranian allies threatening the UAE from Yemen, and a practical acknowledgement of the new power structure in the region—which features the United States in the role of the withdrawing superpower, Iran as the aspiring regional power, and the new Abraham Accords NATO-like block of Israel and the Gulf states.

4. Speaking of disastrous choices…

AIPAC’s decision to officially step into the field of political endorsements has turned out to be one of the most controversial moves the lobby has taken in recent years. For critics of the pro-Israel political powerhouse, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Every endorsement the lobby’s two newly announced PACs make is followed by a wave of negative press and public uproar.

First came a barrage of criticism from Democrats, who were appalled to see on AIPAC’s endorsement list 37 Republicans who refused to certify the results of the 2020 elections, in which Joe Biden won the presidency.

Then, it turned out that the lobby’s super PAC chose to include in its endorsement list 27 Democrats who had supported the nuclear deal with Iran, which AIPAC had forcefully fought against.

AIPAC, aware of mounting anger on both sides of the political aisle, issued a letter to its supporters, first reported in Jewish Insider, arguing that this is no time for the pro-Israel movement to be “selective about its friends.”

Is it time to reconsider AIPAC’s foray into the world of political endorsements and contributions? The rationale behind forming the PACs was to show politicians and the world how bipartisan AIPAC really is, clearly demonstrating how it supports candidates from both parties. The endorsements are indeed bipartisan, and—perhaps as an unintended consequence—so is the criticism. AIPAC is now taking fire from both Democrats and Republicans.

5. And then there’s another one

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has been playing the political endorsement game for decades. Its latest slate of endorsees includes Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a Trump supporter and outspoken conservative running for his third term in a contested race. Johnson is also the senator who has thus far single-handedly held up the confirmation of Deborah Lipstadt as special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism.

Can the RJC claim the “AIPAC defense” and justify its decision to endorse Johnson by explaining that it is a “single-issue group” which does not seek to judge endorsees on other issues? 

Probably not. Johnson’s actions touch directly on the group’s core mission, which includes fighting antisemitism.

On the other hand, many Republicans have tried to turn the tables on Biden, arguing that by picking Lipstadt—who has criticized Republican lawmakers in the past—he had brought upon himself the inevitable political debate over her confirmation.

Top image: Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  (Credit: U.S. Embassy Moldova via Flickr / CC BY 4.0)

One thought on “A New Power Structure in the Middle East

  1. hag says:

    its great to have peace talks with your friends… meanwhile hoards of Palestine’s are locked into concentration camps.

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