Realities are becoming increasingly unreal in an ever more volatile region. Expectation of the Netanyahu government formally annexing Palestinian land—with the excuse that they are only confirming the reality of Israeli rule—means 2019 is going to be a dangerous one in the Middle East. At the heart of the current mess is a “normalization” policy with Israel that will not work, if only because any Arab leader who tries to push this through knows the backlash will be swift. Yet normalization is nevertheless at the core of the so-called “deal of the century” yet to be revealed publicly by the US, but already declared dead by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Lately, US policy on Israel has been shaped without Palestinian input. A book coming out this summer by Khaled Elgindy, an ex-adviser to the Palestinian leadership now at the Brookings Institute, refers to American policy-makers as blindly ignoring Palestinian politics. Entitled “The Blind Spot,” the book explains why the US has failed to broker peace, the role Trump has played in this, and how the issue of Israel and the Palestinians will continue to reverberate in the runup to the November 2020 election—suggesting that these interesting times will be with us for at least another year and a half.
The problem is that normalization has become appealing to some Israeli and Arab leaders as the way to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict without formal diplomatic relations. In this new normal, Israelis will sell their products in Riyadh while Saudis make pilgrimages to Jerusalem—without Israel’s dismantling West Bank settlements as part of a durable peace. Netanyahu has seized on the principle of normalizing relations with Gulf states without Israeli withdrawal. Yet this policy, which also appears to be backed by some in the Gulf region, will ultimately backfire and rekindle tension. Regardless of the realpolitik of their leaders, the populace of the Arab world is overwhelmingly anti-Israeli, and post-2011 no regime should feel secure in imposing their will on their citizens.
America has been touting their deal as a commonsense policy acknowledging facts on the ground. In an April 9 appearance before a US Senate committee, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid bare the administration’s thoughts: “We can’t make sound policy based on wishful thinking … Basing policy on reality, we recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. We recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”
Behind all this lurks a new US military policy in the Middle East, which Pompeo outlined at the hearing. Referencing February’s Warsaw conference, he stated that it brought over 60 countries together “to discuss common threats and shared opportunities in the Middle East—and that included both Arab and Israeli leaders talking to each other”—i.e. normalizing. Underlining this is the US desire to get its “Middle East Strategic Alliance” off the ground, even as it builds “an Indo-Pacific strategy to do a true pivot to Asia.”
The US has legitimate interests in the Pacific—or the “Indo-Pacific,” a US term that is annoying the Chinese, who in turn speak of an “Asian NATO.” To focus there, America sensibly wants to exit the Middle East and—less sensibly—turn over its policing to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Yet, American imperialism’s regional departure does not look like it will happen without a lot of noise involving Syria and potentially Lebanon, which receives training and support from the US for the Lebanese army. As for Syria, in December 2015, President Obama admitted the existence of a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” there to train, advise, and supply partner troops. Two years later, Turkish media revealed there were nine US military outposts in northern Syria alone. There and elsewhere on Syrian territory, the presence of American ground troops is combined with an extensive US-led air campaign. Though US ground forces are in the process of being greatly reduced—following the Putin-Trump meeting in Helsinki last summer—this might be interrupted or even temporarily reversed in the present state of international tension.
How will the next 18 months play out in the Lebanon-Syria theater, including US attempts to push Lebanon into segregation of Shiite groups and their leaders? The US, at the end of April, offered a $10 million reward for information that will disrupt Hezbollah’s finances; more such inducements will likely follow.
When ex-US Senator George Mitchell, the last serious American Middle East Peace envoy, resigned in late 2010, I half-jokingly suggested Spielberg as a replacement. I was not wrong: The coming excitement will out-Hollywood Hollywood. This could include high-profile temporary US naval deployments, sabre-rattling by the American air force in Syria, and further Pompeo pomposity regarding the status of the West Bank. Let us hope this will all be special effects “diplomacy” and not involve real destruction.