‘Lasting peace’: Self-interested parties and key missing pieces blur Trump’s Middle East declarations and risk instability

Analysis: US presidents often record their biggest foreign policy wins during their second terms – but a true Middle Peace would take more than Washington’s ‘friendship’

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Tuesday 15 September 2020 21:32
'Peace without blood all over the sand': Trump jokes about Netanyahu's love of war at peace accord signing

Donald Trump and three Middle East leaders were all smiles as they signed historic peace accords at the White House on Tuesday. But experts warn the agreements are missing their most important peace and could spawn further instability in the volatile region.

The US president sat beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office and declared the "Abraham Accords" will deliver "peace without blood all over the sand" throughout the Middle East. Minutes earlier, he sat in the same place with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, UAE's foreign affairs minister, and predicted "real peace" soon would break out across the region.

Mr Trump, in his usually direct way, cut right to the chase during a ceremony on the White House's South Lawn where the three countries, along with Bahrain, inked the first Middle East peace pacts in decades.

"We are here this afternoon to change the course of history. After decades of division and conflict we marked the dawn of a new Middle East," Mr Trump said from the executive mansion's Truman Balcony. "Thanks to the great courage of the leaders of these three countries we take a major stride toward a future in which people of all faiths and backgrounds live together in peace and prosperity."

A few minutes later, Mr Al Nahyan was just as optimistic about the meaning of the accords.

"I stand here today to extend a hand of peace and receive a hand of peace. In our faith, we say, 'Oh God, you are peace and from you comes peace.' The search for peace is an innate principle, yet principles are effectively realised when they are transformed into action," he said from behind the familiar blue US presidential lectern. "Today, we already ... are witnessing a change in the heart of the Middle East, a change that will send hope around the world."

Even the normally hawkish Mr Netanyahu, who at times has frustrated Republican and Democratic administrations – and lawmakers in Congress – for decades with what they have seen as his overly aggressive actions, declared a new era.

"This day is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace. For thousands of years, the Jewish people have prayed for peace. For decades, the Jewish state has prayed for peace and this is why today we are filled with such profound gratitude," he said. "The blessings of the peace we make today will be enormous. First because this peace will eventually expand to include other Arab states, and ultimately, it can end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all."

If only it was that simple. If only decades – centuries, even – of distrust and conflict could be washed away by three signatures on a handful of documents.

Experts say there is much more work ahead and a myriad unresolved issues. Chief among them is the missing peace to a truly meaningful Middle Peace plan: the Palestinian question.

"Supporters of the deal argue that the Arab states' declarations have overturned the historically held notion that a stable Arab world, in which Israel is fully accepted, would only occur after finding a solution to the Palestine question," HA Hellyer, of the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said.

"But this new narrative overlooks a crucial set of issues that will not disappear, even if they may seem distant to those watching from thousands of miles away," he said. "Within the region, the siege of the Gaza Strip, the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and the denial of a solution to the refugee issue remain an open wound for the Arab public."

‘Buy the fighter jets’

All would require substantial reversals or concessions by Mr Netanyahu and the Israeli government. The Israeli leader has said he is open to talks, but Palestian officials counter that he has done little to convince them he is ready for serious talks that would fulfill enough of their demands.

Mr Trump, who is hailing himself just months from Election Day as a once-in-a-generation peacemaker who deserves a second term to finish the Middle East peace push he started, has shown little interest or willingness to try forcing Mr Netanyahu to seriously meet Palestinian leaders at the negotiating table.

One line of thinking behind the Abraham Accords is what they unlock – including the freer flow of investment dollars – and whether it will compel other Arab states to seek their own agreements with Israel. Another is that UAE and Bahraini officials could lean on their Palestinian counterparts to return to the table.

But there are few reasons to expect that after just these two agreements. Experts say it likely would take a true regional heavyweight like Saudi Arabia to enter into normalisation talks with the Jewish state to amass that kind of influence. For now, each state had other reasons for making a deal now that was more about their own self-interests.  

"While Israel is largely driven by security interests and could deepen cooperation with the UAE to counter mutual threats – including the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran's Axis of Resistance, and other Arab and African countries – the UAE seeks to amplify its power projection across the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean, enhancing its posture vis-à-vis Iran and Turkey, and bolstering the connectivity of its maritime assets for economic gains," according to Ibrahim Jalal of the Middle East Institute.

"I would have no problem in selling them the F-35. I would have absolutely no problem," Mr Trump told the Fox News Channel's morning crew a few hours before the ceremony. Notably, he floated a carrot before other Middle Eastern countries as he tries to build upon the Abraham Accords.

"They're very wealthy countries for the most part, like the UAE, and they would like to buy the fighter jets, and I personally would have no problem with it," Mr Trump said. "Some people do, they say, maybe they go to war."

‘Less pan-Arab cooperation’

What's more, some regional analysts see the collective move by the UAE and Bahrain as one declaring their partial independence from the greater Arab world. Before Mr Trump might, if he is re-elected, get a chance to build on the deals signed on Tuesday, that splinternig could cause him new headaches.

"Less pan-Arab cooperation, combined with a US determination to lighten its footprint in the region, is likely to create different regional dynamics," said Jon Alterman of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It is worth pointing out that other regions have found regional cooperative organizations – such as the European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Organization of American States, and African Union – useful ways to deal with problems," he added. "The League of Arab States will go through a period of redefinition and refocus, and while some of that is overdue, some may be destabilizing."

Mr Trump said before signing the accords that he "offered America's friendship, I offered America's help but I said clearly that the nations of the regions had to decide what kind of a future they wanted for their children and for their families and for their nation itself [because] no one could make that choice for them; they had to do that themselves."

Agreement-signing ceremonies make for grand speeches with memorable rhetorical flourishes. But a second-term Mr Trump would quickly be a lameduck diplomat-in-chief with much less capital and sway at home and abroad. Then again, second-term US presidents often secure their biggest foreign policy achievements after being re-elected.

If he wins in November, however, Mr Trump would learn Washington's "friendship" alone will not help foster Middle East peace. At some point, he would have to get directly involved with his alleged "Art of the Deal" negotiating skills that have gotten him little when working with Democrats at home.

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