Just two months before election day, Donald Trump appears to have won a diplomatic coup in the Middle East.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have normalised relations with the state of Israel.
But this latest Arab-Israeli entente is neither a bolt from the blue nor the result of months of delicate shuttle diplomacy by the Trump administration.
Israel and the gulf Arab states began establishing tentative links after the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993. They opened trade missions in each other’s capitals, although several were closed after a surge of Israeli Palestinian violence in the second Intifada, which erupted in 2000.
The chance for progress came, paradoxically, because of Arab alarm over Trump’s effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The Trump plan was heavily tilted toward Israel, essentially giving Netanyahu a green light to annex territory in the occupied West Bank.
For the gulf Arabs, annexation would be a fatal blow to closer ties with Israel. Under the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, Israel would win full recognition from the Arab world only by resolving its conflict with the Palestinians and granting their aspiration for statehood.
It fell to a well-connected diplomat from the United Arab Emirates, Yousaef al-Otaiba, to lay out the choice for Israel. In a column on the front page of a Hebrew-language newspaper, Yediyoth Ahronoth, in June, al-Otaiba as Ambassador to Washington, told the israelis they could have annexation or normalisation – but not both. The Ambassador approached Jared Kushner with the same message. It was received.
The Emiratis had other reasons for moving now. It helped seal their purchase of sophisticated American weapons: F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and EA-18G Growler jets. Analysts say Bahrain’s move could help that country secure air defense systems from the United States. Interestingly, Qatar has ruled normalisation out for now.
By playing the “normalisation’ card so late in Trump’s term, the UAE and Bahrain are betting Trump will win again, Trump remains Israel’s de facto Ambassador, and Israel can be trusted to keep its word and not keep annexing by stealth anyway. Let’s see how that works out.
These normalisation deals will on one hand prop up Arab authoritarianism and restore the pre-Arab Spring role of the U.S. as a protector of Arab regimes appeasing Israel. But it will also allow Israeli commerce to do business direct with Arab states, which is desperately needed in a recession.
Whether Trump’s team did the spadework or not, this is an electoral gift which he is playing up on television to the hilt.