columnMiddle East

Becoming the strong tribe of the Middle East

With the U.S. pulling up stakes in the Middle East, the Sunni Arab states are trying to decide whether to grovel to Iran, or stand with Israel.

Arab Gulf leaders pose together following the restoration of ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Source: Twitter.
Arab Gulf leaders pose together following the restoration of ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Source: Twitter.
Caroline B. Glick
Caroline B. Glick is the senior contributing editor of Jewish News Syndicate and host of the “Caroline Glick Show” on JNS. She is also the diplomatic commentator for Israel’s Channel 14, as well as a columnist for Newsweek. Glick is the senior fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Center for Security Policy in Washington and a lecturer at Israel’s College of Statesmanship.

In an interview with Fox News, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained that the fight he led against the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 instigated the strategic partnership Israel developed with the Sunni Arab states, which in turn spawned the 2020 Abraham Accords. The Saudis, the Emiratis, the Egyptians and other Arab states watched Israel’s leader’s stubborn fight against Obama’s deal with Iran’s regime, a deal that threatened them no less than it threatened the Jewish state, and reached the conclusion that far from being their enemy, Israel was their most powerful and trustworthy ally.

On the surface, last Tuesday’s summit at Sharm el-Sheikh between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ) seemed a natural progression of what Netanyahu began. Just as they came to Israel in 2015 as Obama was poised to sell them down the river to Iran, so today, as the Biden administration is about to conclude an even more dangerous nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, the Sunnis called on Jerusalem to tighten its security coordination with them. And Bennett seemed to deliver, by offering to develop a regional air defense system.

Unfortunately, there are good reasons to think other dynamics were at play last week at Sharm. Those reasons are anchored in the way that the Arab states view the Biden administration’s decision to implement Obama’s policy of realigning the United States toward Iran at the expense of Israel and its traditional Sunni Arab allies.

In an article published last week by JNS, Middle East scholar and former U.S. national security council adviser David Wursmer explained that MBZ, Sisi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) and others view the power struggle between their states and the Iranian regime as a blood feud between tribes. For the past 70 years, the nations of the Middle East have viewed the United States as the most powerful tribe in the region. In exchange for loyalty, the United States provided the Sunni Arabs and Israel with protection.

The nuclear deal U.S. President Joe Biden and his team have reportedly all but concluded with Iran in Vienna provides Tehran with the legitimacy and the means to become a nuclear threshold state capable of producing a nuclear arsenal at will in two and a half years. The sanctions relief which is an integral part of the deal gives Iran the financial means to carry out wars throughout the region.

In the tribal mindset, Wurmser explained, these U.S. concessions to the Iranians mean that the United States has withdrawn its protective umbrella from the Arabs and Israel. By removing its protection from its allies, the United States has signaled that their lives, property and very existence are forfeit.

Under these circumstances, the Saudis and Emiratis believe they have three options. They can accept their annihilation at the hands of Iran. They can grovel before the Iranians (as the Americans are doing) and suspend the blood feud by serving up another tribe—for instance, Israel. Or they can turn to Israel to serve as the strong tribe in America’s place. Russia and China, which could conceivably replace the United States as the strong tribe in the region, are allied with Iran.

Right now, the Sunnis are trying to decide whether to grovel to Iran, or stand with Israel.

As for Israel, as Wurmser explains, the Jewish state has but one option in the face of America’s betrayal: It must be the strong tribe.

With this understanding of the Arab mindset, the problems and dangers that emerged at the Sharm summit become apparent.

According to the media reports of the meeting, the primary issue the three leaders discussed was MBZ’s desire to rehabilitate the Syrian regime and its leader, Bashar Assad. The Arab League expelled Syria in 2011 in response to Assad’s campaign of genocide against his own people. MBZ, who hosted Assad two weeks ago, wishes to reinstate Syrian membership in the Arab League.

MBZ presented his initiative as a means to pry Assad away from Iran. Unfortunately, this is not the case—and MBZ knows it. Both MBZ and MBS know that Assad is not an independent actor. He is an Iranian proxy through and through. Assad has no regime, and no ideological, political or physical existence without Iran.

MBZ’s initiative was a cynical, dangerous ploy. Cynical because MBZ knows that for generations, Israel’s security brass operated under the delusion that Assad—father and son—could be separated from Syria. For decades, Israel’s generals advocated surrendering the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for Syrian separation from Iran. It never worked, and never could work, because both Hafez and Bashar Assad recognized that their survival was entirely wrapped up with the ayatollahs in Iran.

But hope springs eternal in quarters where habits are stronger than logic. The impulse to pursue Assad was undimmed in 2019, when the IDF General Staff tried to prevent the United States from recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Biden and his team made their intention of restoring Obama’s pro-Iran policies clear during the 2020 presidential campaign. And weeks after entering office they began putting it into motion. Among other things, the administration downgraded U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia, refusing to meet with MBS. They suspended the Trump administration’s plan to sell F-35s to the United Arab Emirates. And they removed Iran’s Yemeni terror proxy, the Houthis, who are waging a war against both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, from the State Department list of foreign terrorist groups.

Recognizing the harsh reality that the American “tribe” had abandoned them, the Emiratis and the Saudis began making careful approaches to Tehran to check the prospects of dumping Israel and making a separate peace with the ayatollahs. This is the context in which MBZ’s gambit on Assad needs to be understood. MBZ’s effort isn’t aimed at bringing Syria into the fold to get him away from Tehran. It is to use Assad’s rehabilitation as a means to bring Iran, which controls Assad, into the Arab fold—or more to the point, to bring the Arabs into the Iranian fold.

Whereas Netanyahu, who defied the military establishment to convince Trump to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, would have told MBZ to forget about Israel’s backing for empowering Assad, the generals who Netanyahu ignored are now in charge of Israel’s defense policy. The media accounts of the summit, which indicated that Israel didn’t oppose MBZ’s initiative, made clear that they are still embracing the fantasy that Assad can be separated from Iran. Bennett and his team certainly didn’t give any indication they understood that MBZ’s offer was pro-Iranian.

The only reservation that Israel reportedly expressed about his Syrian gambit was that the United States opposes it, and as a result, Israel couldn’t embrace it. Although it is hard to imagine the Biden administration having significant objections to an initiative that empowers Iran, the fact that Israel is concerned about U.S. opposition to the move points to another disturbing aspect of the Sharm summit.

Not only do Bennett and his advisers apparently not understand the Arab response to America’s betrayal, they don’t understand that Washington has betrayed Israel and that Israel needs to find its way outside America’s security umbrella.

Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz don’t view Biden’s pro-Iran policy (which is a continuation of Obama’s pro-Iran policy) as an abandonment or betrayal of Israel. For them, it is a simple difference of opinion. Even worse, in their efforts to discredit Netanyahu at home, the three politicians attacked him for persuading then-President Donald Trump to abandon Obama’s 2015 deal with Iran. Those attacks make it all but impossible for them to now reverse course and wage a campaign to discredit Biden’s pro-Iran policy, even though the Israeli public expects them to do so.

The only fight Bennett, Lapid and Gantz are (half-heartedly) waging is against the administration’s reported plan to withdraw Trump’s terrorist designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. While this is important, it misses the point and sets a trap for Israel. The biggest problem with Biden’s deal with Iran is that it legitimizes Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear arsenal and become the region’s hegemon. Withdrawing the IRGC’s terrorist designation would be a terrible thing, but it is a much lower level of disaster than the deal itself. Moreover, if Bennett, Lapid and Gantz succeed, and Biden retains the IRGC’s terrorist designation, he and his team will use the concession as “proof” that they are pro-Israel, even as their main policy imperils Israel’s very existence.

The Saudis and the Emiratis have responded to the administration’s hostility by refusing to speak with Biden or his advisers. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who is currently in Israel, was forced to cancel his planned follow-on trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE because their governments refuse to host him. Rather than learn from Israel’s Arab partners, and begin to extract a price from the administration for its hostility towards Israel, Bennett is reportedly trying to lobby the Saudis and Emiratis on the administration’s behalf. On Thursday reports said Bennett was even trying to organize a summit in Jerusalem during Blinken’s visit with MBZ.

These actions don’t raise Israel’s star in Arab capitals. Bennett’s slavish devotion to the abusive administration makes him look weak and foolish to the Arabs, who are deliberating now regarding whether to bet their future on Israel or Iran. If MBZ does come to Jerusalem, he is liable to walk away from the summit with a U.S. and Israeli agreement to rehabilitate Syria and so empower Iran.

It isn’t that Israel doesn’t have another play. It does.

Earlier this week, Bennett claimed that there was no point in campaigning against the nuclear deal because it was already completed and irreversible. This is false. The Biden administration is much weaker politically than the Obama administration was. Several Democrats are publicly opposing Biden’s deal with Iran. It isn’t too late to kill it.

And even if the campaign fails to stop the deal from going forward, it’s still imperative that Israel fight it. Doing so will mobilize U.S. public opinion against it, and energize politicians from both parties. It will also drive home that Israel will not be bound by the deal, which endangers its very existence.

Even more critically, in the face of MBZ’s Syria initiative at Sharm last Tuesday, Israel must fight it to broadcast its power and seriousness of purpose to the Arabs at this critical moment when they are trying to choose between working with Israel or groveling to Iran.

Maybe a Republican administration will be inaugurated in 2025 that will work to restore America’s standing as the strongest tribe in the Middle East by reinstating its commitment to Israel and the Sunnis and fighting Iran. But Israel can’t place its trust in such a prospect. Today, in the face of Biden’s abandonment, Israel has but one option—to become the strong tribe of the Middle East.

Caroline Glick is an award-winning columnist and author of “The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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