Waiting for Biden: a newly set Mideast table - analysis

Some elements of Trump's Mideast peace plan, the so-called “Deal of the Century,” are becoming facts on the ground regardless of who wins next week’s US election.

Palestinian herding community in the West Bank. (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Palestinian herding community in the West Bank.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
On September 14, 2016, shortly before the last US presidential election, Israel and the US signed a Memorandum of Understanding that would provide Israel with $38 billion in military aid over the next decade.
Considering the contentious relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US president Barack Obama, some counseled waiting until after the elections and negotiating the package with the next president, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
But Netanyahu thought otherwise, reasoning that by negotiating and finalizing a deal with Obama, he could avoid future uncertainties. In other words, “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”
The concern among those around Netanyahu at the time was that if Clinton would win, she might have trouble signing such a generous deal with Israel because she would come under fire from the party’s progressive wing – the Bernie Sanders wing – for giving Israel too much. And there was also concern that a Republican administration headed by Trump may also see this as an over-generous gift, and that the money would be better spent at home.
Similar types of calculations are obviously now being made in Arab capitals in the region regarding normalizing ties with Israel, something that the Trump administration is pushing hard for.
Do we normalize now, leaders across the region are asking themselves, and get X, Y and Z from the Americans – in the case of the UAE, it is lucrative arms deals, and in the case of Sudan, being taken off the terror list and financial assistance – or do we wait until after November 3 to see who will be president for the next four years?
The UAE, Bahrain and Sudan all decided to move now to lock in the deal, and there is speculation that there may be one or even more countries to join before Trump’s first term ends on January 20. These countries know what they will receive from the Trump administration; what they may get from a future Biden administration is anyone’s guess.
By locking the deal in now, the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan are, as Netanyahu rightly noted on Saturday night, changing the Middle East map. By so doing, it is fair to say that at least some elements of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, the so-called “Deal of the Century,” are becoming facts on the ground, regardless of who wins next week’s US election.
The plan, widely panned when rolled out in January by many “experts” of the Middle East peace process as completely unrealistic, included a number of different components.
The most important and prominent was, of course, a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that would lead to a demilitarized Palestinian state on some 70% of West Bank territory. The Palestinians wouldn’t even look at the plan, and the Europeans pooh-poohed it because it did not meet their requirements for a deal: two states based on the 1967 lines, with a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.
BUT THERE was another component of the plan as well: the regional component – and that piece is now well into the implementation phase.
As the Peace to Prosperity plan, as it is formally known, stated in the introduction: “The conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinians has kept other Arab countries from normalizing their relationships and jointly pursuing a stable, secure, and prosperous region ... We believe that if more Muslim and Arab countries normalize relations with Israel, it will help advance a just and fair resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and prevent radicals from using this conflict to destabilize the region.”
The plan further stated that in confronting common threats and in pursuing common interests, “previously unimaginable opportunities and alliances are emerging.” If implemented, this plan “can lead to direct flights between the State of Israel and its neighbors, the transport of people and commerce and the unlocking of opportunities for millions of people to visit religious sites sacred to their faiths.”
Parts of that vision – in terms of direct flight links between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain – are already being implemented. In other words, the Trump plan is setting the Middle East table anew. And if Democratic nominee Joe Biden comes to power in January, he will – when he eventually gets around to it, and with all the burning domestic issues facing America, this will probably be a while – discover a Middle East table set much differently than it was when he was vice president.
Biden will then face a choice: Does he clear the newly arranged table because it was set by Trump, or does he take advantage of the new settings and move on from there? Does he toss out the “Deal of the Century” and bring back the old peace parameters, or does he keep the new settings because there are advantages in this new design?
Even the head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Saudi politician Yousef al-Othaimeen, said in a Sky News Arabia interview last week, translated by MEMRI, that it was time to try new ideas.
“One is required to think outside the box in search for peace,” he said. “We have tried wars, we have tried to throw Israel into the sea, and we have tried many other things. This new generation of our Palestinian brothers should try some ideas that may lead to the resolution of this problem, which is important to all of us and to the Islamic world, but in new ways.”
The UAE and Bahrain’s decision to normalize ties now, and the green light they obviously got from the Saudis to do so, signals that they don’t want to take any chances, that they wanted to make concrete the new realities before a possible changing of the guard in Washington.
Their steps to normalize with Israel before the US election ensures that even if Biden wants to move back to the Obamaesque belief that somehow the Middle East, and US interests, will be better served if Iran is brought back in from the cold, a new diplomatic-security architecture made up of Israel and some Arab states is already being erected that will be able to challenge Iran, even if the US policy toward the Islamic Republic softens.