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ANALYSIS - Scenarios for future of Arab-Israeli 'normalization'

ANALYSIS - Scenarios for future of Arab-Israeli 'normalization'
Abraham Agreement was result of strong influence of American power under Donald Trump

By Dr. Ceyhun Cicekci

- The writer is a lecturer at the Bandirma Onyedi Eylul University in Balikesir, Turkey and co-editor of “Kuresel ve Bolgesel Guclerin Ortadogu Politikalari: Arap Bahari ve Sonrasi” (The Mideast Policies of Global and Regional Powers: The Arab Spring and Its Afterwards).

ISTANBUL (AA) - As we often get caught in the flow of daily news and end up losing sight of meaningful frameworks, it grows harder to identify events and trends that are part of our world of incessant information bombardments, a world that continues to further globalize by the day thanks to the technological blessings we have. The process that has developed as an Arab-Israeli normalization has a similar fate. Interpreting geopolitical trends by placing them within a broad framework is also the principal condition for being able to make geopolitical counterattacks. In this context, perhaps at the expense of resorting to a generic analogy, looking at the picture from a distance or reducing the scale of the map may simplify the task at hand.

The Abraham Accords Peace Agreement, which can be considered the pinnacle of Arab-Israeli rapprochement, was the result of the intense influence of American power under the Trump administration. Moreover, the “Iranian threat” on the regional level emerged as the main factor that made the agreement possible. The normalization process with Israel initiated by small Arab monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula under the leadership of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, was not limited to the Arab heartland, but also led to an opening toward the African continent with Sudan and Morocco. But since the process is essentially carried out by the sponsorship of the US government, and in view of the concessions to the states concerned, can it continue in an atmosphere where the Trump administration has come to an end? Could the regional impact of the Biden administration, which is expected to become a replica of the Obama administration, cause a disruption in the normalization process? We need to seek answers based on these questions.

- Structural bases of normalization

Every state in international politics operates within the limits and latitude allowed to it by other states, and this process eventually results in the formation of a structural framework. At the end of the day, a state seeks to maximize its interests, and this rule causes each state to shape the playground of another. In short, the arena of international politics plays a structural role in which states influence each other, and, with each new move, determine their actions. The process considered to be an Arab-Israeli normalization also falls within this definition, and the Trump administration’s Israel-Palestine policy can be interpreted based on this framework.

The relative decline of American power has had a number of consequences at both global and regional levels. George W. Bush’s announcement of the timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq (2007), Georgia, a “potential member” of NATO’s program of Partnership For Peace (PfP), divided into three regions by Russian intervention (2008), and the Mortgage crisis (2008), which is compared to the Great Depression (1929), were the main indicators of the global decline of American power. Although different dates and facts can be taken as a starting point, US presence in the region eventually began to significantly lose its influence, and this trend became apparent under the Obama administration. The most remarkable effects of this gradual withdrawal were the de facto division of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea by Russia (2014) and the increasing Russian-Iranian influence in Syria, Libya, and Yemen during the Arab Spring.

One of the consequences of this gradual withdrawal has become the Arab-Israeli normalization. On the basis of a conceptual framework that we can remember from the Obama administration, i.e. “leading from behind”, the balancing of the regional problems, such as the “Iranian threat”, by the regional partners themselves would be possible by somehow eliminating the problem areas in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this context, the Trump administration urgently set about clearing the way by implementing a fait accompli policy regarding these areas of concern. Issues such as the recognition of Jerusalem as the “capital” of Israel and the recognition of the annexation of the Golan Heights were “eliminated” by unilateral moves. The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, portrayed as the “Deal of the Century”, also had similar results: the Arab monarchies in the Gulf began a process of normalization with Israel under the pretense of “preventing” a likely annexation of the West Bank, while at the same time realigning themselves with regard to the Palestinian issue in order to balance possible negative reactions from the Arab public.

On the basis of these processes, the relative decline of American power can be seen as a significant factor. However, the fact that certain actors at the regional level have ceased to be effective factors has also played a critical role. Ultimately, Arab-Israeli normalization became a reality in a region consisting of countries such as Libya and Syria, among others, that disintegrated and destabilized during the Arab Spring, dragged into civil war and lost their central authorities. In this regard, it should be made clear that the total disappearance of regional powers from the scene or the loss of their former power has enabled Israeli-centered strategies to take off. One could add to these actors the Baghdad administration, which lost its power and influence in the absence of the Saddam regime, which was destroyed by the American occupation (2003).

- Geopolitical future of normalization

Arab-Israeli normalization has become a reality against the backdrop described above. However, the change in the US administration has allowed Iran to increase its influence at the regional level. This may cause the normalization process to be interrupted. In addition, the possible geopolitical restoration of the historical “revolutionary” forces of the Middle East may limit monarchical structures in terms of their freedom to develop policies and transform the foreign policies of the Arab states in the medium to long term. It can thus be argued that the Arab-Israeli normalization, which cannot possibly continue for a long time, is vulnerable at various levels.

It will now be appropriate to evaluate the regional position of Iran in the near future. It has now become clearer that the regional priority of the Biden administration in its foreign policy agenda is Iran’s nuclear activities. It is believed that the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015 and known as the nuclear agreement with Iran will be restored under the Biden administration. We could assume that Iran will regain its international prestige and regional capacity to legitimize its actions, which it gained under the Obama administration. Even though there are ongoing efforts to control Iran’s nuclear activities in the international arena, Iranian diplomacy will attempt to increase its regional influence by promoting the agreement based on the narrative that this will integrate Iran into the international system. From this point of view, the Biden administration meeting with Iran on a new ground of rapprochement has the potential to undermine the Arab-Israeli normalization.

This common ground, which might bring Iran and the Biden administration closer together, will be of particular concern to the Gulf monarchies and Israel. In this regard, the lifting of the blockade against Qatar, which had been in place since the summer of 2017, seems to have been designed to ensure regional unity against Iran. The blockade of Qatar did not produce the desired result; on the contrary, it ended up increasing Iranian influence in the Gulf, and, thereby, weakened the strategic position of the Gulf states. This development, which can also be interpreted as a preparation for the Biden administration, has also left the ruling elite that formulated the “stick policy” in question in a tight spot.

The likely US-Iran reconciliation seems to have the capacity to profoundly undermine the Arab-Israeli normalization process. Although the small Gulf states concerned are involved in the process, Saudi Arabia’s hesitant approach to the process will take on real significance with the actual increase of Iranian influence over the coming months and years.

As one of the structural grounds that enables the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations, the Trump administration’s tough confinement policy toward Iran may evolve into a diplomatic approach under the Biden administration involving elements of soft power. Ultimately, the global perspective of American power imposes a balancing strategy on Far Asia. A reorganization process in the American domestic policy, a need that has become all too apparent now, will be time- and energy-consuming. It would therefore be reasonable to predict that a gradual withdrawal process similar to that in the Obama era will continue in the Middle East under the Biden administration. This, in turn, could put an end to the domino effect in the Arab-Israeli normalization, as it will entail controlling Iran through diplomatic means and relatively strengthening its regional legitimacy. Saudi Arabia’s insistence not to become officially involved in the process may prove to be a barrier to these regional trends and may lead other Arab regimes to distance themselves from the normalization process.

It can also be argued, from a long-term perspective, that incidents in Iraq, Syria and Libya also have the potential to shape the Arab-Israeli peace project. Presently, all three countries have lost their central authority and territorial integrity, or merely survive as satellites of other countries. Considering the history of these countries’ foreign policy and their strategic roles at the regional level in the Palestinian problem and the Arab-Israeli conflict, it can be seen that they have the capacity to influence Arab-Israeli normalization in the long run. When considered within this framework, the reintegration of Iraq, Syria, and Libya into the regional-international system by establishing a stable structure will put the Gulf monarchies in a difficult position. In other words, unless Israel normalizes its ties with the three countries in question, but particularly with Syria, with which it has been legally at war and whose territory it has annexed and occupied, the process of Arab-Israeli normalization will inevitably remain inconclusive or even irreversibly disrupted.

The fact that Syria is deprived of a central supervisory mechanism has given Israel further scope for action, but at the same time relieved the Arab monarchies of the potential threat of pressure from the Damascus regime hanging over their heads. It should be noted that Syria, as a state that has fought against Israel many times, lost its territories, and never signed a peace deal -- meaning that it is still legally at war with Israel --, should be at the heart of this normalization. Nevertheless, the fact that small Gulf monarchies such as the UAE and Bahrain, which do not have a history of war with Israel are taking part in and are even pioneering the process underway in the name of “normalization” does not, historically speaking, bear any real significance. In other words, if geopolitical integration is ever possible under any administration in Syria, this would have a substantially positive impact on the process of Arab-Israeli normalization. Still, given the current status of Syria, we can assess that the geopolitical integration in question is unlikely in the short term, especially given the Kurdish autonomy flourishing under American auspices in the northeast of the country and the Russian-Iranian influence in Damascus.

Libya’s being dragged into civil war and its territory risking being divided into two also portends a similar problem. Although Libya is a north African country, it enjoyed a capacity to influence the Arab world, especially during the Gaddafi regime, and it should be borne in mind that it emerged as an economically important regional actor, thanks in particular to its high oil revenues. In addition, the level of oil production in Libya made the country one of the main players in the determination of global oil prices, and this made Libya a foreign policy trump card as well. In this regard, the civil war in Libya makes it very difficult to contain the Gulf monarchies and minimize their power, at least at a rhetorical level. The African leg of the Arab-Israel normalization process, which is taking place over Sudan and Morocco, has already been implemented without the restrictive effect of Libya, which is no longer a powerful player in the region. From this point of view, Libya’s geopolitical reintegration and coming under the control of a central government could damage the comfortable atmosphere in which the Arab-Israeli normalization is taking place.

Moreover, the strategic inefficiency of Iraq is of critical importance. If we remember that Israel’s ruling elites strongly and fervently supported the Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq (2017), we can better appreciate the obstacles in the way of Iraq’s achievement of geopolitical integrity. From this perspective, especially the regional status achieved by the Saddam regime in the 1980s brought with it Iraq’s emergence as one of the main national security threats against Israel. Although Iraq lost its claim to leadership in the Arab world with its invasion of Kuwait (1990), it remained a powerful threat on the radar of Israeli national security, eventually paving the way for Israeli intelligence services to manipulate the process leading to the American occupation (2003). From this point of view, even the level of Iranian influence in Iraq pales into insignificance. Ultimately, the disruption of the Arab-Israeli normalization may be possible with the re-emergence of Iraq as a state that has strengthened its central authority and completed its geopolitical integration. Such a rebirth, however, does not seem possible in the short run. But if it does happen, it will have to be taken into account as a structural factor, one that will have an impact on the foreign policy behavior of the Gulf monarchies.

All in all, the Arab-Israeli normalization process may fail in the short, medium, and long term. The future of Iran’s influence on regional balances and the potential geopolitical integration of Iraq, Syria, and Libya and their potential capacity to influence developments in the region are factors that have the potential to radically change the balances in the Arab world.

Looking from a historical perspective, we can easily observe that the Gulf monarchies have never had such influential positions at the regional level. However, this situation has been largely caused by the intervention of foreign powers. The Gulf monarchies, which are able to produce policies at a regional level thanks to the power vacuum that occurred because the abovementioned actors were pushed out of the system, in fact represent an anomaly.

These monarchies are merely passive elements of what is obviously a departure from the usual course of history, of a process set in motion to a large extent by external factors, a process that cannot last.

Translated by Aysenur Albayrak from Turkish

source: News Feed
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