One of the oddities of President Obama’s approach to the Middle East is that its hostility to Israel and its lack of support for Sunni allies have left the United States less influential and less respected with everyone in the region (including Iran) while Israel has become closer to its Arab neighbors. A recent event highlights this phenomenon.
The islands of Tiran and Sanafir are two tiny specks of land located at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. . . . And yet, the islands continue to make headlines. In the last 70 years, they have changed hands nearly half a dozen times. This week, Tiran and Sanafir — which historically belong to Saudi Arabia but since 1950 were ruled by Egypt and twice captured by Israel — were in the news again as Cairo agreed to hand them back to Riyadh in exchange for the creation of a $16-billion investment fund.
This is a bigger deal than one might imagine. “It is very significant. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is agreeing, according to press reports, to abide by the Egypt-Israel peace treaty,” Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, tells me. “When that treaty was signed in 1979, the Saudis denounced it and broke relations with Egypt. Now they are formally accepting it, and that means they acknowledge and will respect Israel’s rights to use the Gulf of Aqaba and pass through what are formally Saudi waters.” Abrams continues: “Moreover, all three parties–Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia–are acting like neighbors, agreeing (though there are still no open and direct Saudi-Israeli diplomatic contacts) on not only the islands and the Gulf but also a bridge to be built across the Gulf between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.” He sums up: “It is a remarkable demonstration of how the attitude of Arab states toward Israel is changing.”
Indeed, the island transfer is not an isolated event, Al-Monitor reports:
The recent move — the transfer of the two islands to Saudi Arabia — reveals part of the dialogue that has been developing between Israel and its Sunni neighbors. A highly placed Israeli security official, who spoke to Al-Monitor anonymously, added some details: Israel’s relationships in the region are deep and important. The moderate Arab countries have not forgotten the Ottoman period, and are very worried about the growing strength and enlargement of the two non-Arab empires of the past: Iran and Turkey. On this background, many regional players realize that Israel is not the problem, but the solution. Israel’s dialogue with the large, important Sunni countries remains mainly under the radar, but it deepens all the time and it bears fruit.
There are several takeaways here.
First, the notion that Israel had to solve the Palestinian problem before getting along with its neighbors (“linkage”) has proved to be utterly false. Threats from Obama and his secretary of state that the United States could not help Israel or protect it from boycotts and U.N. resolutions because of the Jewish state’s conduct can now be seen as false, a pathetic attempt by the administration to twist arms in Israel. In fact, the linkage may go in the other direction, as Al-Monitor notes:
In the past, several proposals were raised regarding regional land swaps, with the goal of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The framework is, in principle, simple: Egypt would enlarge Gaza southward and allow the Gaza Strip’s Palestinians more open space and breathing room. In exchange for this territory, Egypt would receive from Israel a narrow strip the length of the borderline between the two countries, the Israeli Negev desert region from Egyptian Sinai. The Palestinians, in contrast, would transfer the West Bank settlement blocs to Israel. Jordan could also join such an initiative; it could contribute territories of its own and receive others in exchange. To date, this approach was categorically disqualified by the Egyptians in the Hosni Mubarak era. Now that it seems that territorial transfer has become a viable possibility under the new conditions of the Middle East, the idea of Israeli-Egyptian territorial swaps are also reopened …
Second, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the Obama administration portrays as some kind of diplomatic oaf and blunderbuss, has better relations with the Saudis and Egyptians than the administration does. The administration is proving itself to be unreliable and infatuated with the dangerous notion that Obama can bring about a reorientation in the Middle East with Iranian detente; meanwhile, Arab states recognize that Israel is trustworthy and shares the same antipathy to Iran as they do. Obama has openly disparaged both Saudi Arabia (whom he contemptuously called a “free rider”) and Israel (whom he blames for the failure of the “peace process”). Perhaps he could learn some diplomatic finesse from Cairo, Riyadh and Jerusalem.
Finally, if the next president stops trying to appease Iran and instead repairs relations with both Israel and Sunni neighbors, there is the potential for unprecedented diplomatic, military and economic cooperation. It is a measure of Obama’s refusal to operate in the real world and inability to assess rationally other countries’ motives and interests that he has done the exact opposite, leaving the region more unstable and bloody than when he arrived in 2009.