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On Tuesday, he is scheduled to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and officials from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for a signing ceremony as the two Arab monarchies normalize ties with Israel. It follows a White House summit last week where Trump convened leaders from Kosovo and Serbia in the Oval Office, announcing a supposed major economic breakthrough between the Balkan neighbors.
Trump and his lieutenants have branded both episodes as “historic” achievements inconceivable under previous administrations. On cue, two right-wing Scandinavian politicians nominated Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. Leading U.S. right-wing media pundit Laura Ingraham declared it “obvious” that Trump be given the prize, though he is unlikely to receive it.
Nor will he be able to do much of a victory lap over Afghanistan, whose government began negotiations with representatives of the Taliban this weekend after months of U.S. diplomatic legwork. But the prospects for a definitive agreement there are up in the air and Trump’s defining legacy in Afghanistan before the November election may remain his administration’s decision to intensify bombing operations across the country.
The two big deals trumpeted by the White House this month are not the victories for “peace” that Trump claims they are. Start with the main event this week: Both the UAE and Bahrain already communicate and engage with Israel, and the three countries were not locked in anything close to conflict. “The UAE-Israel strategic relationship was fueled by mutual fears of Iran and formalized by the United States,” Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told my colleagues. “It’s an example of Trump slapping his name on a hotel that was essentially already built.”
Israeli protesters showed up at Ben Gurion airport to try and block Netanyahu from boarding his plane to DC to UAE signing ceremony. Israelis think he needs to stay and deal with the coronavirus crisis. https://t.co/hwLgMYNg6w— Mairav Zonszein מרב זונשיין (@MairavZ) September 13, 2020
Boosters of the normalization see Israel’s deepening ties with the Arab world as a positive development in the region. But there’s no indication of what sort of real “peace” Palestinians chafing under Israeli occupation may gain from a handful of Gulf states receiving Israeli ambassadors and new orders of U.S. military hardware.
“It is hard to identify a single point of progress concerning Israeli-Palestinian peace that is the result of U.S. intervention,” noted Grace Wermenbol of the Middle East Institute. “Trump’s preternatural, pro-Israel policy has alienated the Palestinian Authority and challenged the U.S.' ability to act as an impartial mediator. Beyond a clear diplomatic re-evaluation of the Palestinian cause, the UAE’s normalization of ties with Israel is unlikely to offer much more.”
Other experts also lament that the Trump administration is not using its leverage with the UAE for actual peace — that is, applying pressure to compel the Emiratis and Saudis to draw down their U.S.-backed war effort in Yemen. A recent New York Times report found mounting concerns among State Department officials over U.S. culpability in Yemeni civilian casualties at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition. The violence there — and the American role in enabling it — is slated to be the subject of a congressional hearing on Wednesday.
“As long as the United States is selling sophisticated weapons to the UAE, it should not hesitate to apply maximum pressure on the UAE to curtail its human rights abuses, to push for an end to the Yemen conflict, to back off of its arm-twisting of Qatar, and to press the Saudis to begin a dialogue with Iran that could, in time, help ease the Saudi-Iran confrontation that undermines regional stability and security,” wrote former U.S. diplomats Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky.
Experts are also skeptical of the Serbian-Kosovar entente. Serbia and Kosovo (whose independence Serbia doesn’t formally recognize) have signed agreements in the past, only for those understandings to wither on the vine. This round — brokered by Richard Grenell, a Trump envoy and controversial former ambassador to Germany — largely rehashed some infrastructure deals that had already been in play and didn’t move the needle on any real political conciliation. To get there, it required Grenell helping orchestrate the collapse of a reformist government in Kosovo and led to a split between officials in Brussels and Washington over the path forward.
Kosovo and Serbia could not muster a joint statement. “Each side left the meeting armed with their own narrative for domestic consumption,” wrote Majda Ruge of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The White House claimed victory in advancing the peace process in a long-standing conflict. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic interpreted the event as a bilateral meeting with Washington aimed at improving bilateral relations. Kosovo, meanwhile, chalked it up to a win because it gained recognition from Israel.”
Here the moment President Vucic 🇷🇸 was informed that he was going to move his Israel 🇮🇱 embassy to Jerusalem. pic.twitter.com/8195dGDZQT— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) September 5, 2020
Trump, meanwhile, managed to yoke the meeting to his administration’s campaign to buttress Israel on the world stage. He heralded Kosovo and Israel establishing formal diplomatic relations and went on to say that Serbia would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem, much to the visible bemusement of Vucic sitting next to Trump in the Oval Office. The Serbian leader later said Belgrade would not relocate its embassy to Jerusalem if Kosovo opened one there. On Twitter, Trump hailed the agreement as a great day for “Middle East peace,” since Muslim-majority Kosovo was forging formal ties with Israel, but that only infuriated the Kosovar opposition, which saw the comments as an insult to Kosovo’s European and secular character.
“The quick unraveling of the agreement in a matter of days is a measure of the amateurish, slapdash nature of Trump administration negotiations,” wrote Daniel Larison of the American Conservative. “They can’t resolve any major issues, so they settle for the lowest-hanging fruit, and even then they seem incapable of nailing down those details. They refuse to do the necessary preparatory work that ensures that an announced agreement will actually be implemented, and that is because the president just wants the good publicity and couldn’t care less about the substance.”