Trump’s Normalisation Deal: A New Middle East?

(Photo: Foreign Policy)

By Joel Moffat – Contributor

Seemingly out of nowhere, a wave of normalisation deals between Israel and multiple Arab states, mediated by the Trump administration, has prompted a shift in the politics of the region. Initially, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain signed deals in September, followed by Sudan and later Morocco. Critically, Saudi Arabia appears ready to make a historic deal later in 2021. Only the neighbouring countries of Jordan and Egypt have historically recognised Israel in this regard. Is this a new era for the region, or is this simply the predictable outcome of political developments long in the making?

Both UAE and Bahrain initiated this pattern, signing normalisation deals with Israel last September. Importantly, this deal was signed without any real solution to the Palestinian issue, representing a historic breaking of political convention. The demand in Abu Dhabi for the intelligence and security technology Israel holds has been seen to be a major driver of the deal. With the signing of the deals, the intention for further deals was made clear. Netanyahu declared at this point that “peace will eventually expand to include other Arab states. And ultimately, it can end the Arab-Israeli conflict, once and for all.”

Perhaps the most politically unexpected event of this is the Sudanese deal. The African nation has been a certain enemy of Israel since its inception, and unlike UAE or Bahrain, Sudan committed troops in both the 1948 and 1967 wars. It was only in 2019 that Omar al-Bashir was ousted from his long hold on authoritarian power, with the financial crisis that motivated the revolution, continuing to challenge the new government.

A critical aspect of the deal is the removal of Sudan from the list of countries actively promoting terrorism. With this, the country can become the recipient of foreign aid. This was immediately initiated with US Congress passing a spending package of $700 million in assistance and $230 million in debt relief in December. This much needed financial assistance should be seen as the main motivation behind Sudan’s signing of the normalisation deal.

The political ramification of this deal over Sudan’s immediate future is yet to be seen. The country still lacks a parliament, with elections planned for 2022. In this regard, it is unknown even if the new government has the ability to enact such a deal.  

Morocco is the most recent country to sign such a deal, being completed just before Christmas. The important clause of this deal is the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region. This territory has been under legal purgatory since the withdrawal of Spanish control in 1975. A deal in 1991 gave Morocco control over a significant area of the territory, yet the conflict has continued on and off to this day, with the Algerian backed Polisario Front fighting for a sovereign state.

Recognition of Moroccan sovereignty is contradictory to the general UN position, with the US the first country in the world to do so (excluding Morocco of course). At its peak, the Polisario Front’s Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was recognised by over 40% of the UN members, though support has dropped off significantly over time. Experts have argued this is unlikely to change the UN’s general position, however it does place the Polisario Front in an undeniably worse position. Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat, an expert on the topic of territories in sovereign limbo, has pointed out that no recent secession case has been successful without significant US support.   

A significant theme of these deals is the handling of long-lasting conflicts in Palestine and Western Sahara. Reduced international support for these disputed territories may represent a new general direction for politics of the Middle East. The future of Palestine specifically seems murkier than ever. Yet this could just be a further extension of the Realpolitik the Trump administration has become known for. Should Biden continue to pursue further normalisation in 2021, it is likely that greater attention will be given to these regions.

In defiance of this trend, Qatar has ruled out any normalisation deal which does not include an explicit answer to the Palestinian conflict. It must be noted that Qatar has been estranged from the Arab world since 2017, with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt removing diplomatic ties and closing all land, sea and air borders. This was until earlier this month, in which borders were re-opened, and Qatar was brought back into the Arab world. It will have to be seen if Qatar continues to buck the trend following these changes. If these deals intend to form a united front against Iran, then bringing Qatar back into the fold will be an important aspect of this.

In understanding these deals, it is important to note they were made at a time of heavy criticism for both Trump and Netanyahu. Both politicians have experienced widespread disapproval of their response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, the prioritisation of Israeli citizens, over Palestinians, for the vaccine has flared sympathy across the Arab world.

Both politicians also remain at sensitive times for their hold on power, with the Israeli Prime Minister experiencing numerous accusations of bribery and corruption, and as the first deals were under negotiation, the US election was imminently approaching. A significant foreign policy success would have been of great benefit to both heads of state, as their public image began to crumble. Upon completion of the Sudanese deal, Trump declared that it was something “Sleepy Joe” could not have accomplished.     

The historic nature of the relationship between Israel and the United States is also significant here. Israel has long represented a gateway to the politics of the region for the US, and Israeli sentiment, in particular, has been shown to attract deep support from US voters. This special relationship has grown even stronger under the Trump administration, with Netanyahu referring to the president as “the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House”. The uncertain context that surrounds both politicians is a critical aspect of understanding these deals.

Upon the release of this article, it has become clear that these foreign policy victories failed to secure a second term for Trump. However, despite Biden’s opposing stance on the majority of Trump’s policies, in this case, it appears he will continue this general direction. The President-Elect described the UAE deal specifically as a “welcome, brave and badly needed act of statesmanship”. That this is a rare piece of praise of Trump’s policy suggests that we can expect this a continuation of this trajectory under the new president.   

With the last normalisation deal before 2020 being signed in 1994, the precedent for such developments in the region is seemingly unexpected. Yet this reflects the new Middle East that has been forecast for years. With the valuable intelligence technology offered by Tel-Aviv, the diminishing Palestinian cause, and the ever-looming threat of Iran, these deals should be seen not to be the start of a new era of peace. In fact, with the growing relationship between Arab states and Israel, the reintroduction of Qatar into the gulf, and continued sanctions against Iran, the sides have never seen clearer.   

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