My Word: The Middle East muddles on

The world is a very different place today than it was when Biden started his bid for the US presidency and when Netanyahu failed to create a viable government coalition in April 2019.

A LIGHTWEIGHT Vehicles Prototype team, operated by Israelis, takes part in the Dakar Rally, Saudi Arabia, last month. (photo credit: OMER PEARL/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A LIGHTWEIGHT Vehicles Prototype team, operated by Israelis, takes part in the Dakar Rally, Saudi Arabia, last month.
(photo credit: OMER PEARL/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
 There has been a countdown going on in Israel. It started the minute Joe Biden was inaugurated as president of the United States on January 20. It was not the countdown to a possible showdown with Iran over its continued nuclear program – although the sound of that particularly lethal ticking time bomb has long accompanied Israeli leaders and policy makers. The ticktock that has been bothering pundits and politicians lately is that sound of the clock when you’re waiting for an important phone call that doesn’t come. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed off concerns that Biden had been deliberately snubbing him. Netanyahu was not sitting by the phone like a lovesick teenager. He has other things on his mind. Nonetheless, the prime minister was obviously pleased when the call from the White House finally came through on Wednesday night and they held what the Prime Minister’s Office called “a warm and friendly conversation.”
As The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon noted this week, Netanyahu kept his cool when being grilled by Yonit Levi in a Channel 12 interview on February 15, when asked why Biden still hadn’t called him. The message Netanyahu wanted to give out was, despite the strong relationship between Israel and the US, the most important question was who could stand up to the US president if necessary and who might want to curry favor and give in to American demands. It was clear he was playing on his own image as a statesman and someone who has remained firm on the Iranian issue – even when it angered former president Barack Obama – compared to someone like Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who has nowhere near the comparable experience and international standing. It reminded me of the Likud campaign ad ahead of the elections in 2015 which showed animated cartoon versions of joint Zionist Union heads Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog arguing over whose turn it was to answer the red phone from the White House, both ostensibly afraid of being chastised by Obama.
Some have suggested that Biden refrained from making the call to Jerusalem earlier for fear it would be used as part of Netanyahu’s election campaign as the country heads yet again to the polls next month. Others noted that the US president had not yet called the leaders of many countries, including allies in the Middle East, and it was more a sign that Biden, too, is otherwise engaged with domestic issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world is a very different place today than it was when Biden started his bid for the US presidency and when Netanyahu failed to create a viable government coalition in April 2019, in the first of what would become four elections.
Although Israel – with the significant help of Donald Trump’s administration – signed diplomatic treaties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, the peacemaking process will probably not be high on Biden’s agenda. The unpredictable and complicated Middle East arena is unlikely to be a priority. Netanyahu – and any Israeli leader who were to replace him – will undoubtedly want to build on these new alliances. Biden, on the other hand, will not want to be overly focused on the area when he has so much to deal with closer to home.
Both Biden and Netanyahu want to halt the Iranian threat, but they perceive it differently and have almost opposite ideas of how to act – Biden leaning more toward returning to the basic framework of the JCPOA nuclear agreement of 2015; Netanyahu pushing for greater sanctions and action if that fails. Of the two, it is Netanyahu who is more aware of the sound of that countdown to a nuclear breakout and realizes that Israel is the first in the line of fire, but not the only target. The Great Satan and the Little Satan both feature in Iranian plans. The E3 – the UK, Germany and France – would also be wise to take into account that the distance between Iran and Europe is decreasing in terms of how ballistic missiles fly.
IT IS HERE that the new alliances come into play. And the non-official alliances, too. The relationship Israel is developing with the Gulf States has many potential benefits in the fields of tourism, cyber, agriculture, health, the environment and the economy, but above all there is a joint desire to contain Iran. The Saudis, suffering from Iranian-backed rocket attacks by Houthis in Yemen – much like Israel suffers from rocket attacks from Iranian-sponsored terrorist movements Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza – maintain contact with Jerusalem to fight the shared threat. Indeed, Israel is aware that the Houthis not only threaten strategic shipping lanes, they could also launch Iranian missiles on the Jewish state.
Iran has succeeded in creating its desired Shi’a crescent, spreading from Tehran to Lebanon, through Iraq and Syria and southwards to Yemen. But it has many rivals. The question of where Turkey stands could be pivotal in the new Middle East. It is a Middle East whose borders have been so blurred as a result of global jihad that it is hard to say for sure how to define it. Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, might also be considered part of the broader (rather than Greater) Middle East. Israel is definitely interested in normalizing ties with Muslim-majority countries far afield, in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
Conventionally, three main axes have been perceived to play the dominant role: Iran and its Shi’a allies; the so-called “pragmatic” Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia (including the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, with which Israel now has peace/normalization agreements); and a Turkish alliance working with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, although Qatar recently reconciled with its neighbors in the Gulf.
Even before the start of the so-called Arab Spring a decade ago, much was made of the Sunni-Shi’a split. But this doesn’t serve to answer all the riddles of the strange bedfellows using different flags as sheets as they huddle together. The divide between Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries and entities also needs to be taken into account.
Former president Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” didn’t come to fruition but the aptly named Abraham Accords have changed the Middle East map for the better. Hopefully, Biden won’t erase the basis for these ties that serve as a bridge between the Gulf and Israel. One of the achievements of the accords was that it unhyphenated Israeli-Palestinian relations. Contrary to previous belief, Arab countries went ahead and acted in their own interests, instead of waiting for an unlikely Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The Palestinians, while still divided politically and physically between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, have been hoping that Biden would call them soon. The Palestinians are not boycotting Biden the way they did Trump and Biden has already taken steps to renew financial aid.
It is not clear whether Palestinian elections, promised by aging and ailing Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, will actually take place later this year. If so, the question will again arise of whether Arabs in Jerusalem will be able to participate. When Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem it served as a diplomatic reset. Assuming that Biden will reopen a consulate for the Palestinians, Israel should insist that it is in PA territory – in Ramallah – rather than its old address in western Jerusalem.
The Middle East is still fraught with tension but full of surprises and potential. (Who this time last year would have thought that hundreds of Israeli tourists would be stranded in Dubai as Israel closed its borders due to the novel coronavirus?) Instead of asking for whom the bell tolls, or when the phone rings, the most important question remains who will be the person to pick it up and answer the red phone in the future.