Middle East needs to think globally, but unite locally - opinion

The US is withdrawing militarily and disengaging diplomatically.

A U.S. Marine observes an Iranian fast attack craft from USS John P. Murtha during a Strait of Hormuz transit, Arabian Sea off Oman, in this picture released by U.S. Navy on July 18, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A U.S. Marine observes an Iranian fast attack craft from USS John P. Murtha during a Strait of Hormuz transit, Arabian Sea off Oman, in this picture released by U.S. Navy on July 18, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For the past century and a half, the Middle East has been a chess board of big powers. Every country, every movement, every entity in the region had to align with one of the superpowers of the day in order to survive. First there were France and Britain and later the United States and the Soviet Union. That paradigm is disappearing and is arguably already dead. The European powers, confronted with the reality of their “soft power” approach, have lost any meaningful influence. Russia, after a decades long de facto absence from the region, is making a comeback but with a very different footprint and much more narrow interests.
The US is withdrawing militarily and disengaging diplomatically. China, though slowly increasing its involvement in the region, is still lacking the means to project its power and has purely economic interests. This situation creates a power vacuum where the regional players must fend for themselves, giving the participants the first opportunity in a few hundred years to chart their own destiny independent of the imperial ambitions.
That is not to say that a bitter power struggle has completely left the region. On the contrary, the powers vying for supremacy are local to the area. These are Iran, Turkey and Israel. The first two are attempting to reestablish their lost empires and project their influence well above the current borders. Israel’s goal, as a relative newcomer to the region, is to maintain its economic and military supremacy as the guarantors of its existence. The power play of the New Middle East is around those three countries. Thus the alliances being created are about nothing but those states and their respective interests.
The Abraham Accords are one such alliance of some Sunni Arab states and Israel against Iran. The accords are an unprecedented diplomatic breakthrough. It is not an old-style 20th century peace agreement forced down the throat of the participants by the big powers and primarily driven by financial and geopolitical incentives. The Abraham Accords, unlike their predecessors, serve genuine long term strategic needs of all signatories. They address military, economic and cultural aspirations of the sides in a mutually satisfactory and beneficial manner. They do serve a clearly defined purpose and may change over time assuming the main threat underlying them is gone or drastically diminished. Yet they are not dependent on big power plays or changes in the White House. Those days are gone.
However, the Abraham Accords are far from being the only attempt at forging alliances in the region, though it is so far the only one uniting stable prosperous countries in their fight for stability and economic development. Iran, with the expansionist goal of extending its hegemony over the vast area populated by Shia Muslims and in some ways recreating the Persian Empire, has created a united front of insurgent movements from Yemen to Lebanon.
THE PARTICIPANTS are a very dynamic force of willing fighters, a very destabilizing and potent force even by Middle Eastern standards. Its weakness is Iran as the only source of financial support. Iran is acting in a way very similar to the strategy that the Soviet Union employed at the height of the Cold War. It is financing an array of terrorist movements capable of inflicting immense damage, but not strong or populous enough to seize power on their own. Finally Turkey is building an alliance of “leftovers’’, of the most politically weak, such as the Tripoli government in Libya and a few rebel groups in Syria. From the “Sick Man of Europe,’’ Turkey has transformed itself into the “Sick Alliance of the Middle East.’’
However, Israel is not limiting its alliances exclusively to the countries of the region. The EU is experiencing a power vacuum not dissimilar to the one in the Middle East. The US is losing its interest in the continent and the EU is lacking a unified foreign policy and military force. The COVID crisis has underscored Brussels’ futile attempts at centralized planning and has deepened cracks in the political union. The agreement between Israel, Austria and Denmark to cooperate in the development and production of the future generation of coronavirus vaccines is the beginning of the pattern of local alliances extending beyond regions. Smaller EU countries are looking at ways to reduce their dependence on Brussels and acquire security expertise for the circumstances not too dissimilar to Israel’s.
Israel’s cooperation with Hungary and Poland in many areas has already produced tangible political results for Israel: a bloc of countries defending Israel’s interests in the EU. For Israel, Europe is extremely important. It is still its largest economic partner and its geographic proximity assures common political, economic and security interests. Expect more similar agreements to be signed as the EU’s failures in handling the COVID crisis become more pronounced and Israel’s competency in handling the crisis on its own becomes more apparent
As the internal crisis in the US deepens and the country’s foreign policy becomes more chaotic and less predictable and as China keeps its relatively low profile in the region, the Middle East starts resembling Europe after the wars of the Reformation. It allows for the emergence of strong durable alliances and stable nation-states pursuing their own interests based on the realpolitik of the region. In many ways it is a very hopeful time lest the super powers “help” and “encourage.” It takes a clever intellect to stay away, and that, unfortunately, is in much deficit these days.
The author lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.