Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt with a shared gripe: The US is conceding too much to Iran.
There have long been concerns that while the US was discussing Iran talks with Israel and its Gulf allies, it was not really listening and not taking their security needs seriously.
The latest is that the Biden administration is considering removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – which is behind proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza – from the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list as a side deal to the nuclear talks. In exchange, Washington asked Iran to commit to de-escalation in the Middle East and, specifically, not to attack Americans in the region.
It was that last point that stung in particular.
“We believe that the United States will not abandon its closest allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists,” Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said over the weekend in their most strongly worded statement on the Iran talks so far.
The United Arab Emirates was “shocked” by the Americans’ plan to delist the IRGC, a source in Abu Dhabi said. But they, together with Saudi Arabia, began showing their disappointment weeks ago in a way that has reverberated more than a pointed statement.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have been very frustrated with what they view as a weak American response to the wave of missile and drone attacks by the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels on their countries that began in January, in addition to how the nuclear talks are progressing.
So when Washington came knocking on their doors – first to condemn Russia at the UN Security Council and then to “turn on the spigot” of oil following sanctions on Russia’s energy sector – MBZ and MBS, as the crown princes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia are respectively known, were too busy to take US President Joe Biden’s call.
The UAE took their displays of dissatisfaction even farther this week, hosting isolated Syrian President Bashar Assad. The only other countries Assad has visited since he began massacring his own people in 2011 are Russia and Iran.
Jerusalem’s feelings on the Assad meeting are mixed. There are no warm feelings between Israel and the Butcher of Damascus, but his greater acceptance in the Arab world could mean a weaker Iranian presence over Israel’s northern border. Bennett left his meeting with MBZ, in which the topic arose, with food for thought.
The State Department said it was “profoundly disappointed and troubled” by the Assad-MBZ meeting – and that’s an understatement.
Washington viewed the meeting with alarm – though, let’s face it, not enough alarm to actually engage in some self-reflection and change its tack in the Middle East.
Now there is a bit of a role reversal going on: In 2015, Israel was the one shouting from the rooftops that the US is wrong and taking steps that many viewed as damaging the Washington-Jerusalem relationship, because it was worth the risk. The UAE similarly opposed the Iran deal, but did so much more quietly.
Bennett has found himself in the same situation as MBZ, seeing the US take steps that endanger his country’s security, but is the one responding in a quieter, more moderate way.
As Bennett sees it, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s way did not stop an Iran deal from being signed and damaged the relationship with the Obama administration such that Israel could not ask for more help defending itself against Iran and its proxies. Even if the Biden administration is determined – with a “religious conviction,” as one senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem said – to return to the Iran deal, at least by not antagonizing Washington, Israel can gain some defense advantages, was the prime minister’s view.
And that remains his view, even if he is campaigning against the removal of the IRGC’s designation.
That puts Bennett in another reversed role. Usually, countries that want to get close to the US try to do so via Israel. Now, the US wants to repair its relationship with the UAE and Israel is helping – somewhat. Israel helped convince the UAE to vote in favor of the US resolution at the UN General Assembly, and KAN News has reported that Jerusalem has talked to Abu Dhabi about being more willing to engage with Washington again.
The historic photo from the unprecedented trilateral summit in Sharm e-Sheikh between three countries with concerns about Iran – even if Egypt is less vocal on that front – sends a message that even if Israel is strategically restraining its reaction, it stands with the UAE in its disappointment and anger at American weakness toward Iran.
The statements to the press from the offices of Bennett, MBZ and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi were typical. The Egyptian and Emirati press releases had some variation of discussing trade and energy, and all three mentioned “regional and international issues and developments.”
That last sentence can be read as a hint at Iran, but Iran definitely is not the only topic they discussed.
Energy was a major topic in the trilateral meeting, and the leaders brainstormed how to use their respective advantages to cooperate, especially in light of the shake-ups in the energy market due to sanctions on Russia.
The potential for cooperation in the economic and energy realms is great between the three countries, as has been seen in only the year and a half of official UAE-Israel relations and recent years between Israel and Egypt in the area of natural gas.
Plus, direct flights between Tel Aviv and Sharm e-Sheikh are expected to begin next month, which Egypt hopes will be a boost to the Sinai resort town’s economy.
Another thing that is notable from the statements is what is not there: the Palestinians. After nearly every meeting between a senior Israeli official and counterparts in the region, the Arab side pays some kind of lip service to needing to reach a solution with the Palestinians. This time, there was nothing.
That sends a message as well. Even though Israel’s relations with both Egypt and the UAE came with promises vis-à-vis the Palestinians, that is not what the ties are about. They are flourishing due to the shared interests – security, economic and more – of all three countries.