Flight number LY971 on Aug. 31 was anything but a mundane trip from one destination to another. Aboard that debut flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi were senior Israeli and American officials, flying over Saudi airspace on El Al Airlines, to put together a formal peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Nothing in this scenario would have been close to imaginable for the decades since the establishment of the State of Israel, when the Arab world’s maximum-pressure strategy aimed to delegitimize it, both diplomatically and militarily, and call into question its existence. Most of all, Israel’s then-image as an ideal culprit helped Arab leaders rally their people against a common enemy, to deepen their grip on power.
Indeed, that deep-seated Arab paradigm has recently taken a sharp turn. From a cascade of Israeli-Arab peace treaties through multibillion-dollar investments, to a joint anti-Iran coalition in Warsaw, Manama and Washington, something novel has been happening in the Middle East.
In particular, we are witnessing the crumbling of the previous orthodoxy that pre-conditioned the Israeli-Arab normalization on an Israeli-Palestinian arrangement, according to a long list of demands that Israel cannot accept. Arab leaders are now showing jarring flexibility towards what had been claimed to be hard-and-fast principles.
One main reason for this is the radical power shifts that the region has been seeing over the past few years. Arab leaders now watch anxiously as Iran deepens its military grasp around the region and in their countries, while developing nuclear weapons. In parallel, the “Arab Spring,” a euphemism for the uprisings that have dethroned one Arab leader after another, led them to genuinely fear for their longevity for the first time since decolonization.
While the old approach to Israel was welcomed in 2009, as the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama embraced that Israel-centered paradigm, calling it the “only solution” to the conflict, the same was no longer true after 2011. The Iran nuclear deal’s multiple loopholes and expiration date signaled to both Israeli and Arab leaders that the U.S. was not interested in another war in the Middle East—even at the cost of overlooking Iran’s behavior.
In addition, Obama’s demand from then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign, leading to the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, reflected a policy that was not in the region’s grassroots interests. Here, too, both Israelis and Arabs preferred stable despotic regimes to chaotic and extremist substitutes.
Facing these tectonic geopolitical shifts—indeed, serious national-security threats—both moderate Sunni leaders and Israel felt a cold shoulder on the part of Washington. An Israeli-Sunni interest-based partnership had thereby begun to form under the radar, as the least-likely allies found themselves in the same boat.
These moderate Sunni leaders’ chief interest—political survival—has remained constant; the way to exercise it, however, has turned on its head. Israel, they realized, with a proven record of strategic autonomy, military might and technological innovation could be key to the survival of their regimes, this time through the warming of ties rather than alienation.
This recent success thus belongs to the region, but no less so to the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. The self-described disruptive administration has assumed what it called “Principled Realism” as the linchpin of its foreign policy. While adhering to core values, its success where previous administrations have failed may be first ascribed to one simple understanding: that in order to turn a corner, following the manual was insufficient; it had to be rewritten.
Indeed, the Trump administration has spoken to the peoples of the region in a language they understand: the “Trump Doctrine.” Focusing on interests and reality rather than imposing ideals, it reverse-engineered its strategy through shuttle diplomacy around the region by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, presidential adviser Jared Kushner and others, insisting on “listening rather than lecturing.”
The chief product of this attitude is the “Peace to Prosperity” plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was embraced by Arab leaders, even though it derailed the old common wisdom and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Facing Iran, the Trump administration spoke in the language of force, rather than appeasement, in the tradition of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s approach of “peace through strength.” Using harsh rhetoric, it called on the region to isolate Iran; withdrew from the nuclear deal; imposed severe sanctions on the regime; and supplied heavy armament to regional American allies.
Assassinating Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in the aftermath of the attack on the American embassy in Baghdad, for example, sent a strong signal in that direction. “In the Middle East, the strong survive,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted. Indeed, in a region where survival depends on power and prestige rather than on United Nations resolutions, this approach seemed more befitting.
Finally, a word about the emphasis that the administration put on religion, family and tribe. Its stress on these values within the U.S. jibed with its recognition of how they are crucial when negotiating in a deeply conservative region like the Mideast. This was evident in its emphasis to Muslims from the UAE that they would now have access to the holy sites in Jerusalem, or in its bestowing a gift of a Torah scroll to the King of Bahrain to install in the Manama synagogue. It is an attitude that has been praised for its honoring of local priorities.
Often mistakenly perceived as isolationist, the Trump Doctrine values national interest and leverages it to form interest-based regional coalitions. Much like NATO in Europe or the hub-and-spokes system in Southeast Asia, this American umbrella proved to be a sustainable model for stability, greatly contrasting empty condemnations in international forums.
Now that the ice has begun to break, and there is no way back from Israeli-Arab normalization, this understanding must be the lodestar of the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, as well.
Globalists often endorse a priori assumptions to the point that, even when reality changes—as it has in the Middle East—their policy does not change accordingly. Yet the realistic approach of combining power and partnership, while rejecting appeasement, has worked in a region long considered a lost cause—and has delivered actual results, not useless guarantees on paper.
The author is a researcher at Israel’s Defense and Security Forum (IDSF)—HaBithonistim, and an Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES). An earlier version of this article was published by The Institute for Development and International Relations (IRMO) and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.