The decision of the Arab League to refuse to condemn the moves of the UAE and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel and focus instead on the Turkish threat is a pivotal moment in Middle Eastern politics. The regional order, which dominated the Middle East for three-quarters of a century, is no more. Once an outsider in the minority, today Israel finds itself standing with the strong axis of regional Arab powers.
(September 16, 2020)
Last Wednesday in the meeting of the League of Arab States Council, the 154th regular session at the ministerial level, the Palestinian Authority received its most important wakeup call yet, being snubbed by the very organization that once oversaw its establishment. This major development in regional politics indicates the beginning of a transformative era of Arab politics in which willingness to accept Israel becomes a cornerstone of regional trust.
“You will have to wait.”
After the announcement of the Israel-UAE agreement on August 13th, the PA leadership rushed to request an emergency meeting of the Arab League to discuss the alleged “stab in the back.” Saed Erakat, Secretary-General of the Executive Committee of the PLO, who was just appointed to be a lecturer at Harvard, tried to call the Secretary-General of the League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who avoided taking his calls for days. This enraged Erekat who spoke out to the media on August 16th complaining the Arab League is ignoring the PA. But even his and Abbas’s fiery comments failed to create the effect they were hoping for, as it took many more days till the office of Aboul Gheit responded with, “There will be no call for an emergency meeting, and you will have to wait for the regular meeting of the League taking place on September 9th.” The PA rushed to call the foreign ministers of Arab states, but failed to secure support for their call for the emergency meeting but from the poorest two Arab countries, Yemen and Somalia.
The message sent to the PA couldn’t be clearer. The agenda of Arab action can no longer accommodate their erratic behavior. Instead of the Palestinian leaders receiving the message as a sign of a dawn of a new day, they doubled down on their condemnation of Arab states and the Arab League itself. On September 3rd, in a meeting of the Secretaries-General of the Palestinian Factions, chaired by Mahmoud Abbas and broadcasted in real-time on Palestinian TV, various Palestinian leaders used their time to hurl insults at the UAE, its leadership, the Gulf countries, and in one instance call Palestinian ex-pats in the UAE to sabotage their host country. The Gulf did not take to it lightly, however. Following the hysterical spectacle, the GCC issued an official statement condemning the insults and the provocation of the PLO, and demanding a formal apology from Abbas himself.
“Even you, Brutus? – Then falls Caesar.”
Despite all of this, the PA went to the meeting of the Arab League, hoping to pass a resolution condemning the UAE’s normalization with Israel agreement. The PA had the resolution written and moved between the different Arab representatives seeking support, and every time they were asked to rewrite it in a “milder” language. Eventually, following the refusal of Abbas to take down a line “condemning any Arab state which may deviate from the Arab peace initiative,” the Arab representatives decided to block the resolution altogether and move on the pressing issue of Turkish anti-Arab activities. Despite the Palestinian insistence, the Arab League refrained from even discussing Israel. The next day the Palestinians watched in shock as the Foreign Minister of the Sultanate of Oman issued a statement calling the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative “consultative.”
Two days later, Bahrain announced it will join the UAE in its agreement with Israel. Erekat declared, “The Arabs are stabbing us in the back.”
This latest episode of Arab political drama represents a major and unprecedented shift in Arab politics. Only last April, the Palestinians succeeded in securing an emergency meeting to discuss the Israeli annexation plan. Today, the Palestinians are being politely, or not so politely, they can no longer determine Arab action. The Arab League, which once cursed Israel with its three “Nos,” is today lifting its curse and turning its “No” towards the Palestinians.
This unprecedented development is taking place under the shadows of the major threats facing the region and as the Arab Sunni bloc. Headed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the Arab Sunni bloc is seeking to rally the regional forces to restrain Iranian activities across the Levant and the Turkish disruption in the eastern Mediterranean, two areas to which Israel is the dead-center. What the Arab Sunni bloc is seeking from Israel is not merely coexistence, but a strategic long-term alliance, which is already bearing its fruits of the UAE getting her F-35 advanced jet fighters.
The same Arab League meeting, which dismissed the once-powerful psycho-political phenomenon that is Palestine, focused entirely on forming a united Arab front against Turkey. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Shukry, gave a harsh condemnation of Turkish movements in Arab heartlands and asked the members of a unified and deterring policy towards Turkey. His speech was followed by that of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in which he reiterated the Saudi refusal for “turning our lands to the fields of the hegemonic and expansionary projects of others.” The Arab sense of urgency comes as Turkish intervention in Libya caused the Egyptian military to call for the largest mobilization since the Yom Kippur war on Egypt’s western borders and three weeks after two Greek and Turkish warships collided in the Mediterranean.
The Return of Ottomanism
There are many signs indicating Arab states may be immediately worried about Turkey even more so than they are about Iran, especially with the offshore natural gas resources on the line. While France and Egypt are already engaged in open conflict with Turkey in Libya, the rapid escalation witnessed in the east Mediterranean is risking a spiral into a major conflict. With Arab states, France, Italy, and the U.S. supporting Greece, Turkey’s defiance indicates the neo-Ottoman sultan may not go down without a fight.
Israel is not out of this equation, already worried about Turkish moves supporting terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, as well as in Syria. Israel too declared its support for Athens after it already announced last year it is shifting its attention from the plans of building an Israeli-Turkish gas pipeline to selling its gas to Egypt to be processed in Egypt’s liquefaction plants. The energy alliance of Greece-Israel- Cyprus- Egypt resulted in Turkey’s decision to seek new routes through its maritime agreements with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in war-torn Libya. This aggravated the situation between Egypt and Turkey who are already in hot water due to the support of the latter for the Muslim Brotherhood. As Turkish logistical and military involvement in Libya increased, Cairo already started talking war while the UAE engaged in an open drone-warfare against Turkey in the Libyan skies.
The Turkish disruption goes far beyond shifting the tide of the conflict in Libya or supporting an Islamist agenda. In Syria as in Iraq, Turkish military operations have sparked the fears not just of Egypt, but of the Arab states to the east of it. In Syria, Turkey launched three military incursions and proceeded to deploy forces to the Idlib region. In northern Iraq, the Turkish military recently started operating several military bases and deploying drones deep into the Iraqi heartlands. This is not to mention the establishment of military bases in Qatar in the heart of the Arab Gulf as well as in the Horn of Africa. For the Arab states, the signs of clear, Turkish ambitions go well beyond the natural gas fields of the Mediterranean, accentuating the ideological battles against the Muslim Brotherhood and regional hegemonic ambitions.
What does this mean for Israel in light of a new strategic Arab-Israeli partnership? In August, the UAE announced it was deploying an airbase of F-16s to Crete for exercises with Greece, a move which is meant to demonstrate resolve in the face of Turkey, just as Israel also pledged more participation in military exercises with Greece. With the UAE-Israel agreement, no doubt this will result in joint military exercises in the area. It is unlikely Israel will risk an open conflict with Turkey, however, Israel is likely to provide key strategic and tactical support to the UAE, Greece, and their allies. This is not merely a matter of joint commitments but with recent Turkish moves seeking to further embrace Hamas and Islamist terrorism, Israel needs to ensure maximum pressure on Turkey.
In the long-term, the Middle East is witnessing a new regional order where Israel is no longer backed into an isolated corner. Today, Israel is recognized as a formidable power and a strategic ally in the effort to stabilize the region following a decade of mayhem and conflict. The Jewish state has to plead for recognition no more. The Arab Israeli partnership, built on the ruins left by the Arab Spring and Iranian and Turkish agitation, is likely to grow only stronger far into the future, a pressing need, while American involvement in the region grows more uncertain. This leaves the Palestinian leadership with only one logical conclusion: abandon their rejectionism and come to accept reasonable terms for a final settlement of their cause. The slower they are able to do so, the more they will lose. Today, their backwardness is costing them Arab support; tomorrow it may cost them the support of their own people.
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