On Oct. 18, 2020, Israeli and Bahraini officials signed a normalization declaration in Manama, yet another step towards an official peace treaty. The establishment of peaceful relations between Israel and Bahrain and Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a significant milestone in Israel’s relations with the general Arab world, against the backdrop of the tectonic changes occurring in the Middle East, as well as the dramatic U.S. elections. Israel and the UAE have enjoyed fruitful cooperation in several areas for over two decades, but with the latest regional changes—along with the expected changes ahead—Abu Dhabi has realized it is time to “put things on the table” and that official agreements are of greater benefit than hidden relations.
The Middle East is somewhat like the Wild West: only the strong survive and the balance of powers is estimated daily, while all the players understand that he who fails to assess the situation accurately and make subtle regional alliances will very quickly be smothered by the extremist or financial aspirations of the others.
In his role as U.S. Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis labeled the UAE “Little Sparta” out of gratitude for its important aid to the United States during the war against Islamic State. “I respect and admire them for what they did and for what they can do,” said Mattis. Indeed, it seems that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) is one of the most dominant characters in the area, a leader who wisely constructed and preserved a significant military and economic force despite the regional turbulence caused during the so-called Arab Spring. MBZ is considered to be the driving force behind some of the most significant occurrences in the Middle East, navigating the dynamic regional reality with great wisdom and taking initiative in the fields that were important to him before it was too late.
So what was it that made MBZ set off with a series of warm declarations and open the gates of his country to Israel? What are the hidden and overt motives for the Gulf states and other entities who are hurrying to jump on the peace bandwagon despite the infamous Arab League boycott of Israel? In one word: Obama.
In June 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives Commission of Inquiry revealed that the Obama administration—though declaring persistence regarding the sanctions on Iran—had misled Congress about U.S. relations with Iran by secretly trying to inject money to the regime while bypassing the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. This was perhaps hidden from the American public’s eyes, but was certainly visible to the Sunni states in the Arabian Gulf and especially to Saudi Arabia, all of whom realized with astonishment that unlike his predecessors, President Obama believed that the United States should strengthen its bonds with the extreme Shi’ite world as opposed to the Sunni axis. They all saw Obama’s complete support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, his choice to close his eyes in the face of Assad’s massacre of civilians in Syria and the strengthening of bonds with Iran even as the regime became significantly more extreme.
The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who took office in 2005, and his brother Khalifa bin Zayed both witnessed, in the ’90s, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait despite the American threat, and naturally realized the dangers of an Iran with American backing.
“Mr. Obama, perhaps you prefer Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood over an 80-year-old friendship?” cried the headlines in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, quoting the Saudi prince. Obama and Hillary Clinton represented the new Democratic-American approach to the Sunni states and it was surprising and threatening, abruptly ending 80 years of loyalty between the moderate Sunni axis and the United States.
Unlike the Obama administration, President Trump saw great importance in reorganizing the balance of powers in the Middle East. Trump’s aversion to the Shi’ite axis seeks to form a regional coalition of the pragmatic Sunni Arab states that can halt Iran together with the growing influence of China, Turkey and Russia in the Arab Gulf and the Middle East. With the U.S. presidential election approaching, the UAE, Bahrain and others worry Joe Biden will revive Obama’s heritage. They see Iran and Turkey gaining power and realize it’s more important to maintain their own power than to continue defending the Palestinian cause. As the regional challenges and potential dangers become visible, the right thing to do is to join forces with Israel as part of the pragmatic coalition which can achieve strategic, economic and security advantages with the help of the Trump administration ahead of time, and that will create a stable balance of power against the growing radical Shi’ite axis.
Peace is never stable and must be always maintained by a balance of power. The historic Abraham Accords mark the beginning of a normalization process with other Arab countries that can foster stability and prosperity by creating a new balance of power. Understanding of the new reality in the Middle East and the new regional balance of power will bring regional prosperity by leveraging the benefits of each country and reducing and neutralizing the axis that seeks a radical new Shi’ite order in the Middle East.
Lt. Col. (Res.) Yaron Buskila is the secretary general of “Habithonistim – Protectors of Israel.” He served in the IDF as battalion commander, special operations officer and commander of the Southern Command infantry training base.