Commentary: The Sunni world knows it can never do without the West to seriously oppose Iran and its proxies. It also needs the U.S. and the EU technologies to make the “energy transition” from oil and gas to renewables. Finally, it needs weapons and technologies, but probably also direct military aid from the United States and NATO – and, in the future, also from the Jewish State.
The issue of the new relationship between Israel and Bahrain, following the agreement already signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is particularly interesting. It marks a realignment of the Sunni world with the Jewish State, clearly against Iran, and hence indirectly with the West.
Israel, however, does not always think strategically like its Western allies. This is positive.
The oil leverage between the Arab East and the Euro-American West is currently changing (although the EU has not yet realized it) given the rise of the U.S. oil power.
Nevertheless, there is a change also in what we could define as the military “protection level” between the Sunni Arab world and the Western defence system, between NATO and the U.S. or Atlantic Alliance specific agreements with Sunni Arab countries. Europe is obviously out of the game.
The primary aims pursued are the following: as to the Arabs, fully playing the Western card with regard to the Russian Federation and, in some ways, also to China; as to Westerners, the game No. 1 is to take back the Sunni world after the jihadist crisis and then to create a new market of crude oil prices just now that the U.S. shale oil is changing the whole price system. Ultimately, however, the United States wants to avoid Russia and China strategically “taking” the Sunni world.
The Sunni world knows it can never do without the West to seriously oppose Iran and its proxies. It also needs the U.S. and the EU technologies to make the “energy transition” from oil and gas to renewables. It finally needs weapons and technologies, but probably also direct military aid from the United States and NATO – and, in the future, also from the Jewish State.
Iran is an existential threat also to them. In the Middle East the areas of influence and contact between Iran and the Sunni world are such that they cannot be regulated by some kind of peace treaty. Yemen is a case in point. Every move in the Gulf is a zero-sum game.
Now, however, we need to take a step back. The “Abraham Accord” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAEs) and then Bahrain is based on future “normal relations” between the Jewish State and the UAEs.
An agreement drafted in mid-August 2020, but long prepared by the Intelligence Services and subsequently by both parties’ diplomacies, and also by some European Intelligence Services.
These “normal relations” imply usual business relations, direct flights, tourism, scientific exchanges and full diplomatic recognition.
It is obvious, however, that the Emirates will not send an Ambassador to Jerusalem.
It is not envisaged in the agreements, but there is, however, a specific exchange of information between the Intelligence Services, as has long happened also between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Again according to the Emirates – but the text is anyway clear in this regard – the Israeli-UAE agreement immediately stops any Israeli attempt of West Bank annexation, but it also envisages a renewal of the negotiations between the PNA and the Jewish State to “put an end to the conflict”.
Vaste programme, as De Gaulle would have said. The core of the issue is that now the Palestinians of the PNA – a badly conceived entity resulting from the end of the Cold War – are no longer of any use to anyone.
Neither to the Soviet Union, which does no longer exist and no longer needs cumulative training camps for European terrorists or possibly pressure systems for their Arab allies, nor to the European left (and to the EU, although it is not aware of it) that knew nothing about foreign policy, but only wanted Israel’s “reduction”. Least of all to China, which does not know what to do with them, nor even to the jihadist galaxy, which has scarcely used the old Palestinian guerrilla network.
Currently the prominent role played by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and also in the West Bank – a movement deriving from the Muslim Brotherhood, which explicitly accepts the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in its statutes and which, however, is notoriously now fully supported by Iran, with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – is a role that is certainly not interesting for the Gulf Sunni countries.
Probably it is interesting only for Qatar and Turkey, which have much to do with the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, I do not think that Turkey and Qatar want to go all the way in this strategic game, with the risk of antagonizing Saudi Arabia and most of the Emirates.
However, no one wants to bear the high costs for managing the PNA any longer. They are strategically useless and most likely even dangerous.
Israel and the UAEs already tried to normalise their relations years ago. In 2015, the Jewish State opened a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, in relation to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Later there were sports meetings and Israel had also been envisaged as a guest in the 2020 World EXPO, now postponed to October 2021, unless otherwise decided due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The real sign that the agreement with the Emirates was very important for Israel was the decision taken by Netanyahu to postpone the annexation of the West Bank indefinitely.
The Palestinians immediately recalled their Ambassador to the Emirates.
Israel cares little about the PNA, the relic of a Cold War that no longer has strategic significance, except for the pro-Iranian role played by Hamas and by a part of Fatah, the old political group of Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is therefore interested only in the West Bank and, in full agreement with Egypt, in the anti-jihadist control of the Gaza Strip and Sinai.
Obviously, neither Saudi Arabia, nor the Emirates, nor Bahrain, nor other States in the Sunni area (even though Bahrain has a Shiite majority, but a Sunni ruling class), and even less Israel want to be associated with a corrupt and totally inefficient political class such as the PNA’s, which is now the glove within which the Iranian hand is extended – and Iran is the only power interested and willing to take the two political areas of the old PNA by the hand.
As mentioned above, the “Abraham Accord” has been accepted also by Bahrain and then by Jordan, which has an old peace treaty in place with Israel dating back to 1994, but burdened by the subsequent severe crisis of 2015-2016 with Israel, at the time of the annexation of East Jerusalem and hence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Al-Aqsa means “the farthest”, a reference to the distance of Islam’s third holiest shrine from Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia).
The agreement has also been accepted by Egypt, which sees the jihadist tension in Sinai resolved, in perspective, with the Jewish State’s more direct and explicit collaboration. Finally, the “Abraham Accord” has been publicly praised by Oman, now that the new King, Hatham bin Tariq, wants to keep on modernizing the Kingdom of Oman and Muscat in the wake of the late Sultan Qaboos – whose Guards wore Scottish kilts and played bagpipes – and with greater strategic independence from the other Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Who is against the Accord? Obviously Iran, which sees a strategic correlation between Israel and the Sunni world looming large, with the very severe closure of the Emirates’ area to Iran – an area where it could have played the card of influence operations against Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Also Qatar is against it. The country is also militarily tied to Turkey and it is the financial and political base of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is disliked by all the other Gulf Sunni States and, in some ways, is in a process of reconciliation even with the Iranian-Syrian and Lebanese Shiites.
Obviously also Turkey is against the agreement, not for the acceptance of the Jewish State in the framework of inter-Arab relations – a State with which Turkey has had diplomatic relations since 1949, although it has never recognised the UN Partition Plan from which the independence of the Jewish State itself originated.
Turkey has a cold attitude towards the “Abraham Accord” particularly because it will be isolated in the Emirates and in the Gulf area, since it is loosely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, and has a project of Central Asian expansion that will not enable it to maintain the status quo currently favourable to it in the Gulf, nor – in perspective – the good relations with Qatar.
As stated above, Bahrain – and, if all goes well, it will be the turn of Sudan, Oman and Morocco – is accepting and, indeed, has already accepted the Abraham Accord.
Morocco has already had Jewish Ministers in its governments, and the private affairs secretary of King Hassan II was an Italian, from Ferrara, who had also been the only one to show solidarity with him when the young Giorgio Bassani was expelled from high school due to infamous “racial laws” of 1938.
King Hamad has already allowed Israeli leaders to participate – in the future – in a regional meeting on Gulf security, the Manama Security Dialogue 2020, scheduled in the capital of the Kingdom for December 4-6.
Netanyahu already met the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman in 2018.
Why does Bahrain officially recognize Israel under the “Abraham Accord”?
First and foremost because the Jewish State is a brilliant success story.
Because of its technology, its stability, its military strength, even its excellent intelligence, Israel allures many countries in the Arab world and in other world regions. Sultan bin Khalifa has always openly expressed his esteem for the Jewish State.
In 2018 Bahrain’s Foreign Minister twitted a message in favour of Israel in its war against the underground channels created by Hezbollah. Later he explicitly expressed his appreciation when he saw that also Australia had recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State.
The Sultan of Bahrain has openly put strong pressure on the Gulf Security Council for it to designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”.
Here we are not talking about traditional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, but about a geopolitical and strategic choice: to make the Emirates and the whole Gulf a peaceful area, so as to start – as soon as possible – the energy and economic transition that will decide the future of the oil States in the region.
The war freezes positions. It is expensive and does not allow the great economic transition that all the Gulf ruling classes, with the sole exception of Iran, intend to begin as soon as possible.
Obviously Iran does not play its cards so much on oil as on natural gas, which is not envisaged by the OPEC system.
It should also be recalled that Bahrain also hosted the White House’s Peace to Prosperity Workshop in 2019. On that occasion as many as seven Israeli journalists were welcomed to the Kingdom.
It should also be noted that Bahrain is closely connected to Saudi Arabia with specific reference to the economy and the selection of the ruling class.
Bahrain has a majority of Shiite population, with a Sunni royal House and a Sunni ruling class. Hence, more than for other Gulf countries, Iran, which is in front of its shores, is an existential threat.
The link between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is increasingly strong, especially after 2018, when the small coastal kingdom had to repress – often harshly – the “Arab Springs” which, indeed, had many connections with Iran.
The greatest mistake recently made by Westerners in the Middle East, the “Arab Spring”, after the Sykes-Picot Treaty, when France lost some of its power because the translator was Luis Massignon, with his very refined Arabic that the desert raiders did not understand, while the interpreter for Great Britain was Lawrence of Arabia, who was used to the Arab streets and plebs.
What about Palestine? On September 3 last, almost simultaneously with the announcement of the “Abraham Accord” by Donald J. Trump at the White House, a videoconference was held between the Lebanon and Palestine, with the participation of Abu Mazen and all the Palestinian factions. It should also be noted that the videoconference had been organised by both Fatah and Hamas – a unique rather than a rare case.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Chief of Hamas Political Bureau, was in Beirut, together with Ziad Nadalia, the Secretary General of Islamic Jihad, and all the leaders of the factions that are not allowed to operate within the Palestinian National Authority’s territories.
Mohammed Barakeh, former member of the Israeli Parliament, was in Ramallah.
For everyone, the strategic key to interpreting the “Abraham Accord” was the breaking of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Saudi Arabian initiative of 2002, then reaffirmed in 2007 and again in 2017 by all Arab League Summits.
This “initiative” concerns, in nuce, Israel’s withdrawal from all occupied territories, as well as a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees on the basis of UN Resolution No.194, and the establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.
What were the videoconference results? The clear and obvious perception of the isolation of the PNA, which no one now wants to maintain at full cost any longer, considering that it is a “strategic relic” of the past; the agreement between Hamas and Fatah, a unique rather than a rare case; the inevitable opening of the PNA’s territories to the declared enemies of the Abraham Accord, i.e. Qatar, which will try to reach a strategic and military correlation between Libya-Tripoli and the Gaza Strip, as well as for the West Bank and then Turkey, with its Muslim Brothers, who are those who founded Hamas. But above all it will be a deal for Iran, which already supports the Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions, obviously against Israel and waiting for Hezbollah to make again operations beyond the Litani River.
Hence “people’s struggle”, in the PLO and PNA jargon, but there is no reference to “armed struggle” in the final document of the videoconference, as well as the request for a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders, and then the evident verification of the declining consensus for the Palestinian cause among the Sunni Arab States of the Gulf, from which a further restriction of economic aid to the PNA will result.
Nevertheless, the real danger, which should regard also Israel, is the PNA’s full implosion, which could cause global military, migration and economic phenomena.
What about the Russian Federation? It must go back being essential in the Middle East. The “Abraham Accord” brokered and mediated by the United States and by some European intelligence services can put an end to the comparative and strategic advantage of Russia’s victory in Syria and the very careful management of military and intelligence relations with Israel.
Not to mention the refined Russian containment of the Iranian pressure in Syria – one of the real goals of the Russian presence in Bashar el Assad’s republic.
What cards could Russia play in the new Middle East that is currently being defined? Many cards.
As early as 2018, Russia has started to meet the Islamic Jihad again, while Abu Mazen also met Russian leaders in 2019 to create a new “format” of peace between Israel and the PNA mediated by the Russian Federation alone.
Then there is the Lebanese card – Russia’s presence is increasingly visible in the Lebanon due to an obvious spillover from Syria.
Hence Russia’s number one game in the new Middle East is to maintain close relations with all the regional, State and non-State actors, so as to get to be the only supreme arbiter (also towards Israel) of the future and now inevitable Middle East peace.
What about China? It does not view the Abraham Accord favourably, considering that for China it is tantamount to an actual withdrawal from the Middle East by the United States – and therefore an increase in the costs for the strategic control of the region – but also to the return of many important Sunni countries within a U.S. economic orbit, just when China was seducing Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
The “Abraham Accord” closes the Gulf’s doors to many countries that wanted to enter the region.
China, however, will put on a good face and make the best of a bad sitaution, by supporting an actual friendly country, Israel, and maintaining the usual excellent relations with the Sunni world, in the hope of soon replacing the United States as the political-military reference point for the region.
Giancarlo Elia Valori