Tuesday, May 24, 2022
May 24, 2022

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Rubin: U.S. stuck in confusing Mideast


Last Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett paid the first official trip by an Israeli leader to the United Arab Emirates, where he laughed and joked with its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

Some Israeli pundits billed Bennett’s historic visit as a sign that the Mideast region had permanently changed, with Arab Sunni states aligned with Israel as a hedge against Iranian aggression.

Yet only a week before, the UAE’s national security adviser traveled to Tehran to heal a five-year rift with Iran. The Iranian foreign minister crowed that the two countries were turning over a new leaf. In other words, Sunni Arab states are hedging their bets.

Welcome to the new, confusing Middle East, where Arab and Israeli leaders are trying to figure out which way to jump, as the U.S. pulls back from involvement in the region — and tries to focus on China’s rise.

It’s a little more than a year since the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain stood alongside former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu on the White House lawn as they celebrated former President Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords, which normalized relations with Israel.

Trump’s hopes that the Abraham Accords would bring a final Mideast peace were vastly overblown. Iran’s continued march toward threshold capacity for building a nuclear bomb could set off a new regional conflict and the unresolved Palestinian conflict still could explode.

So how can the Biden team avoid getting sucked back into a Mideast war?

I put this question to Martin Indyk, a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Having served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he has watched grandiose plans for peace rise and fail. Now he has written a history of a famed diplomat who didn’t believe Mideast peace was achievable or even desirable in his time. “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy” focuses on Kissinger’s years as Richard Nixon’s secretary of state when he stabilized the Mideast and set the stage for peace talks.

Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy aimed not at ending the conflict but at encouraging a step-by-step Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory it had captured in Sinai. “Kissinger’s peace process was designed to buy time rather than peace,” Indyk writes in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“We have signaled by our Afghanistan withdrawal and bipartisan consensus,” says Indyk, “that we don’t want to be involved in another forever war. What is emerging is a rebalancing in which Israel and Arab Sunni States are working together to balance Iran. The U.S. is encouraging that to calm the situation down.”

But U.S. diplomacy is still critical. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord left Iran free to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level. Many Israeli security experts, including former hawkish Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, now slam Netanyahu for urging Trump to quit the accord. Free from the nuclear deal, Iran has slashed the time it needs to produce enough fissile material for a weapon.

So the Mideast faces a situation in which Israel may gear up for a military strike on Iran, a move that could set off a regional conflict. In Kissinger-esque terms, the question becomes how U.S. diplomacy can convince Iran to draw back from its enrichment efforts. Indyk believes China might pressure Iran to do so since any military outbreak would threaten oil supplies.

But buying time for the situation to improve is Kissinger’s modus operandi. For example, over time Indyk sees a process in which Israel’s ties with Jordan and Egypt are improving, which might encourage them to do more for the Palestinians.

That doesn’t get the United States, or Israel, off the hook, however. Buying time will increase chances of a violent Palestinian explosion.

Handshakes in the Arab Gulf will not be enough.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. trubin@phillynews.com

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