Written by Ashok Alex Luke
No matter who occupies the White House, the West Asian region and the survival of the state of Israel is one of the primary concerns for all US presidents since the birth of Israel in 1948. In the current context, with the exit of Donald Trump, the biggest loser in the Middle East or West Asia would be Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Trump era was a golden period for Israel — Netanyahu described Donald Trump as Israel’s “greatest friend”. With Joe Biden assuming office and likely to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, both the Arab Gulf monarchies and Israel could be worried.
Since the recognition of Israel by then US President Harry Truman minutes after its formation on May 14, 1948, the US had been the vital guarantor of Israel’s security in West Asia. Barring the Suez Crisis of 1956, the US stood by the side of Israel in all the important regional, including the major wars in 1967 and 1973 and supported it via economic, military and diplomatic means. Over the years, the policies of all-American presidents in the Arab-Israeli conflict leaned heavily towards Israel and were heavily influenced by the powerful Jewish lobby in New York and Washington, most notably the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Today, Israel is the biggest receiver of military aid from the US — $ 3.8 billion annually. This closeness has antagonised the Arabs, especially the Palestinians, who call for a balanced position by the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump’s Middle East policy was influenced heavily by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was instrumental in the outcome of the Abraham Accords. The Trump era saw the recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel, absolute support for its “annexation” policy in the West Bank and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He even ended all US financial assistance to the Palestinians, the UN refugee agency that works with Palestinians and closed the PLO’s office in Washington DC. Above all, Trump provided Israel with an opening to establish diplomatic relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The Abraham Accords were an important milestone between the Arabs and Israel, similar to the Camp David Agreement of 1979 and the Oslo Accords of 1993. Though there existed clandestine relations between Israel and many Arab nations, the Abraham Accords saw, for the first time, two powerful Arab Gulf monarchies making an open embrace with the Jewish state together with the Arab-African nations of Sudan and Morocco. Though a Saudi-Israel diplomatic accord is not underway at the moment, the prospects for a future rapprochement between the land that houses the two ‘Holy Cities of Islam’ and the Jewish state cannot be ruled out under Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman (MBS). There were unconfirmed reports of a meeting between MBS and Netanyahu at a secret location in Saudi Arabia last November. It is widely believed that one of the reasons that the UAE and Bahrain agreed to forge diplomatic relations with Israel is their perception about Iran as a common threat.
What worries Arab Gulf monarchies today is not the Palestinians but an assertive Iran. Strategically located close to the Strait of Hormuz and with vast energy resources and a powerful army, Iran can play the role of a regional heavyweight. Relations between Tehran and Washington are at their lowest ebb ever since the killing of an Iranian Commander Qasem Soleimani by US forces in a drone attack last year. Tensions increased with the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Iran believes is the covert work of Israel. One of the serious concerns for Netanyahu and the Arab kingdoms will be the revival of the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA). Both Israel and the GCC had warned that the revival of the nuclear deal would upset the regional balance.
While congratulating Joe Biden on his electoral victory in November last year, Netanyahu knew that he would no longer enjoy the privileges that he had under the Trump administration on dealing with the Palestinians. While Netanyahu may have temporarily halted his annexation plans, he is not likely to give up the claims over the regions of the West Bank, which serve his political fortunes, as he is already battling hard on charges of corruption and facing criticism over the handling of the pandemic.
But how far he will go with the annexation policies by ignoring the sentiments of the Americans and his new Arab friends is yet to be seen. While Biden is in favour of a two-state solution, and is likely to restore relations with the Palestinians, any move which endangers the creation of a future Palestinian state is likely to create differences between Biden and Netanyahu as happened in the last years of Obama administration. This may even alienate Israel’s new Arab friends. While Israel may have won new friends in the region, the vacuum that Trump left behind will not be easily compensated. Therefore, the best option is to work for a two-state solution which recognises the legitimate rights of the Palestinians living in peace side-by-side with Israel.
(The writer is an assistant professor of political science at CMS College, Kottayam, Kerala and a researcher at the School of International Relations & Politics in Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala)