Two summits: Arab kings gather in UAE as Bahrain, Israel meet - analysis
The kings of Jordan and Bahrain flew to Abu Dhabi for an important meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani was in Israel meeting his Israeli and American counterparts on Wednesday. These important and unprecedented meetings illustrate the tectonic changes in the Middle East.
The tone was different in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. A Gulf Air flight arrived at 10:20 a.m. in the morning in Tel Aviv with Zayani and US envoy Avi Berkowitz. It was the first flight of its kind and is likely to mean that Bahrain’s Gulf Air will soon join flydubai and Etihad in the UAE, which have announced service to Israel.
Zayani, wearing a mask, met Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on the tarmac and they exchanged greetings. Subsequent meetings were all about peace and the brave new world that Israel and the Gulf states are moving toward. This is a world that has been midwifed by the US, playing the role of matchmaker of eager countries that have much in common in regional worldviews.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to meet the Bahrain delegation and Israelis. It is a farewell tour for him, a welcome break from Washington where postelection uncertainty hangs over the Trump administration in its final months. The Middle East is more positive. Pompeo, Zayani and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got to see one of the year’s best sunsets on Wednesday, symbolic of the positive energy of the meetings. President Reuven Rivlin had just invited Al Nahyan to Israel, and Bahrain invited Ashkenazi to Manama.
Meanwhile in the UAE, the leaders of the important states that are guarantors of regional security discussed the brotherly love they have for one another.
The Kingdom of Jordan is very different from Manama and Abu Dhabi. The kingdom is hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, has a large historical Palestinian population, and has many economic challenges. It is the guardian of the Islamic and Christian holy places in Jerusalem – and the king has never had good relations with Netanyahu.
In short, the Kingdom of Jordan and Israel showcase what peace can look like if it is not built upon strong civil society, economic factors and personal warmth.
The relationship between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel appears to be very warm. Jordan’s message was a bit different in Abu Dhabi. No Israeli delegation was in the room while the monarchs discussed not only their strategic ties but the importance of a just and comprehensive peace for the Palestinians based on the two-state solution.
It is a reminder that, as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to come into office, there will be rising calls to pressure Israel regarding lack of movement on Palestinian issues.
For instance, while the Palestinian Authority may be open to security cooperation with Israel, officially it is not even dealing with the US and Israel. Palestinian factions are working on a compromise in Cairo, one of many they have discussed which have failed over the years. European powers are shining the light on Israel’s decision to build homes in Givat Hamatos in Jerusalem, which the European Union says will harm the two-state solution.
This means that while the positive discussions in Israel on Wednesday showcased what could be in the future, the discussions in Abu Dhabi showcased the reality that will continue to cloud some of the discussions. There is a lack of clarity on how the UAE’s and Bahrain’s new relations with Israel could dovetail with the Palestinian peace process.
So far, the Palestinian leadership has given the Gulf states the cold shoulder. No high-level Palestinians traveled with Jordan’s king to his meetings. One way that Abu Dhabi, Manama and Jerusalem could deal with this is to compartmentalize the issue. This is a possibility, but compartmentalization can have its downsides.
On the other side of the coin, making everything rely on a peace deal and Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank is not realistic. The Saudi initiative of 2002 and the subsequent Arab League support for that kind of deal didn’t pan out. Then-US secretary of state John Kerry and others tried to make everything be tied to the need for Israel to withdraw, which essentially handed the Palestinians all the cards. Taking away that card was part of President Donald Trump’s innovation.
This could mean that compartmentalization and support for a future two-state concept – with the UAE and Bahrain trying to slowly influence issues in the West Bank and Jerusalem – could happen.
Palestinian names like Mohammad Dahlan are sometimes mentioned in that respect. Breaking the Iranian and Turkish-Qatari attempt to influence the Palestinians is also important. Hamas, for instance, slammed Israeli airstrikes in Syria on November 18, after Israel retaliated against Iran’s IRGC Quds Force units responsible for planting improvised explosive devices on the Golan Heights.
Jordan is a pragmatic country and moves slowly on regional issues. It has been tough on Israel in recent years, demanding the return of lands that were symbols of the 1994 peace agreement. It recently had elections, but they saw a low turnout. Articles in the media noted that women and opposition Islamist members lost seats.
In Saudi Arabia, reports focused on the Bahrain trip to Israel and Pompeo’s statements on the need to isolate Iran. Al-Ain media in the UAE focused on Pompeo as well.
The UAE’s decision to host Jordan’s king and the king of Bahrain as the Bahraini foreign minister was in Israel shows strategic foresight. The UAE has been talking up regional stability, with its Washington Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba speaking to Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, as well as alongside Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, at The Economic Club.
The UAE also put out a white paper on the Emirates deal with the US for the F-35. This is about showcasing the Emirates responsible and strategic role alongside the US and partners in the region. Pompeo will be heading to the Gulf after Israel.
Jordan’s King, who used to speak frequently with the Trump administration in 2017 and 2018, may not meet Pompeo, but his comments in the UAE will be important for the current and future US administration – and for Israel to take into account.