The New Middle East
Last December I stumbled across an article that nearly knocked me off my chair. The headline read, “Israel and the UAE working together to eliminate UNRWA.”
UNRWA is short for United Nations Relief and Works Agency, an organization established to provide relief, works programs, and education exclusively for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA was intended to give temporary aid to the Palestinians; but 70 years later it continues to keep these people in a ruinous cycle of permanent refugee status.
For years Israel considered UNRWA an obstacle to peace. Now, the UAE [United Arab Emirates], which once supplied hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the agency, is working with the Israeli government to dismantle it. In addition, headlines that once pitted the entire Muslim world against Israel now read, “Thousands of Israeli Tourists Visit Dubai.”
It’s a new Middle East.
Iran is suffering significantly under U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, which also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and proclaimed Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Then Israel entered into historic peace agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco; and now the UAE and Israel are working to eliminate UNRWA.
Although anti-Israel/anti-Semitic sentiment still runs high in the region and no one is sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbaya,” the intensely hateful atmosphere that existed for decades has given way somewhat to bilateral peace and collaboration.
The new Middle East incorporates Israel and recognizes its existence as a vital asset in the region. In 1967 the Arab League drafted the Khartoum Resolution, famous for its “three nos”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.
The “three nos” isolated the Jewish state, which is bordered by water on the west and enemies everywhere else. Today, in the same Khartoum in Sudan where the “three nos” were produced nearly 54 years ago, a bilateral peace agreement was forged with Israel that says yes.
In 2016, then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry famously declared, “There will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that.” Kerry’s false narrative tied Middle East peace to the Palestinians. Certainly, Palestinians are important. But their plight does not define the future of the entire region.
In the past, the Palestinians were rewarded for obstructing peace with Israel. Today, the new Middle East expects more from them. Their leaders will be forced to change how they negotiate peace with Israel. The question is whether they’ll change course or run to a new friend: Iran.
The Trump administration was able to lay the groundwork for these new alliances primarily because Iran is a common enemy. But Trump is gone, and the question is, Will President Joe Biden build off Trump’s Middle East momentum, or will he return to the old ways of Middle East diplomacy?
Biden cannot derail the positive changes that have taken place between Israel and its neighbors. But his policy could dissolve America’s influence. If he resurrects the Obama-era nuclear deal, he will enrich and empower the Islamic Republic and signal to the rest of the region that the United States has no intentions of advancing the new Middle East.
The direction of this new Middle East is still uncertain, but it is something we plan to watch carefully.