The announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates, with the help of President Trump and the United States, have signed an agreement to normal relations between their two countries is a victory for reason in foreign affairs, and instead of wondering how this will affect the election (spoiler: not much), we should just take it for what it is: a victory, which the US has not had many of in the Middle East in the last 20 years.
This, now Trump’s number one foreign policy accomplishment, is a victory for all three countries and they were able to achieve it because they put their brains before their hearts.
Unlike President Bush, Trump is not trying to make the Middle East into Western Europe and unlike President Obama, he is taking a less naive approach to Iran. The Iran Deal, even if we grant for the sake of argument that it was a great nuclear deal, ignored Iran’s regional ambitions. Team Obama never had a good answer for this, they just simply accused Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu of being warmongers. But, of course the Sunni Arab Gulf states are just as concerned with Iran and since they do not fit nicely into an American left-right spectrum, it was hard to paint them as neo-conservative warmongers, so they were largely ignored.
Feeling like they were left out in the cold, the Israelis and Arabs had no choice, but to warm to each other, a process the administration has gone to great lengths to encourage. Israel and the UAE had about as positive relationship you could have without having formal relations, so Thursday’s announcement while good, was not shocking. While normalizing relations with Abu Dhabi has the potential to be a regional game changer, the big win would be normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia.
Whether that happens is an open question, although American and Israeli officials are optimistic. If it does — which is still a big if — it will because Trump ignored the bipartisan group of moralizing chest beaters who, in Lindsey Graham’s words, wanted to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia” for the Khashoggi affair and others who wanted the US to distance itself from the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni Civil War. If Trump wins in November — another big if — maybe his proclamations Tehran will be ready to deal will not seem so crazy after all.
Trump, and many Americans, have long wanted to get out of the Middle East, but time and again events have forced presidents to stay committed the region. Obama tried to solve this problem with the nuclear deal, but as mentioned above that did not do anything to counter Iran’s bad behavior in the non-nuclear realm.
The U.S. will not be able to completely leave the Middle East and such an exit is ill-advised, but if the US can build up it’s Israeli and Arab allies and get them to play nice and work more together, we may be able to trust them to pick up more of the burden as we continue to further reevaluate our interests vis-a-vis China. A strong US-Israel-Arab will be especially important going forward as the UN arms embargo expires in October and the odds that Russia and China agree to extend it are pretty much zero.
For the UAE, the move officially kills any romantic, ideological idea of pan-Arabism or “Arab solidarity.” The importance of such notions were always more prevalent in academia and Western foreign offices, as Arabs fought other Arabs and challenged each other for primacy, but still for many decades, Arab states said that a solution to the Palestinian question was a prerequisite for normalization with Israel. Since the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they no longer have any desire to see Israel eradicated and view Palestinian stubbornness as an obstacle to better working relations with Israel and all that Israel brings to the table as a robust regional power. A responsible country, when given the choice between ideology promotion and security, should always choose security, because otherwise it will have neither. The UAE chose security over ideology and is better for it.
For Israel, the price for normalization was the agreement to suspend, at least temporarily, any plans to annex parts of the West Bank. One can debate whether Netanyahu was ever serious about it and whether he will use this as a domestic excuse to back away from annexation, but it still proves Israel’s pragmatism. Iran is Israel’s biggest security challenge, not the Palestinians. Israel may want to annex certain areas of the West Bank to force the Palestinians to realize the inevitable and to make terms, but it does not need to, but does need to counter Iran. Annexation would probably have brought lots of strongly worded letters, but no change to the status quo, but why settle for the status quo when you can change it in your favor?
Foreign policy commentary usually consists of negativity. Our adversaries are always advancing and our leaders are, at best, incompetent clowns. But on Thursday, the United States and our Israeli and UAE allies got a win and we did it through simple pragmatism and taking advantage of the new reality in the Middle East.