Towards a new Middle East Cold War

Palestinians, like Ukrainians, are sacrificed at the altar of a strategic power politics.

Foreign Ministers of USA, Egypt, Morocco, UAE and Bahrain seen at a table in Israel
Foreign Ministers of USA, Egypt, Morocco, UAE and Bahrain meet at for summit in Israel​​​​​​​ on March 28, 2022 [Israeli Foreign Ministry/ via Anadolu Agency]

On Sunday, foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt joined their American and Israeli counterparts for a first-of-its-kind summit at the Sde Boker farm in southern Israel, where Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben Gurion lived and is now buried.

Ben Gurion was responsible for the 1948 Palestinian catastrophe (Nakba), the horrific ethnic cleansing of most Palestinians from lands that later became Israel. But that did not affect the Arab officials’ appetite as they dined on “Ben Gurion rice” accompanied by meat from the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

No stomach or heart ache was reported.

Food for thought.

The meeting was held on the 20th anniversary of the Arab League summit in Beirut when the Arabs launched their big peace initiative, as Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was languishing under military siege in the occupied Palestinian territory.

The initiative promised peace and normalisation of relations but only after Israel withdrew from Palestinian and Arab lands. However, in recent years, defeated and divided, a number of Arab autocrats, threatened by the Arab Spring, rushed to normalise relations with Israel under American pressure, leaving the occupied Palestinians behind, with absolutely nothing, nada, zilch.

The Palestinians saw that as a betrayal, a slap in the face. Well, make that many slaps.

None of the Arab ministers who visited Ben Gurion’s farm bothered to show up in the occupied West Bank. Perhaps too ashamed. Perhaps worried about Palestinians’ response.

And the summit’s substance was no less tragic than its symbolism.

Like the Ukrainians, the Palestinians are sacrificed on the altar of a new, albeit regional, Cold War, featuring Israel and the UAE camp on one side and the Iran camp on the other.

This anti-Iranian axis coalesced after the Trump presidency walked away from the Iran Nuclear Deal, and has continued despite the Biden administration’s attempts at reviving it.

In recent days, Israel and the UAE have accelerated their efforts to “muster an effective alliance against the common threat, Iran”, amid news of a potential diplomatic breakthrough in Vienna. Israel and its new regional allies believe a bad deal is worse than no deal at all, as it restricts its freedom to act militarily against Iran.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) hosted the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a first for the internationally sanctioned leader, in an attempt to further normalise Syrian-Arab relations. Just a few days later, the UAE’s de facto ruler also had a meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, hosted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

A third meeting followed in Jordan, where MBZ was photographed walking arm-in-arm with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the resort city of Aqaba, alongside the Jordanian king, Abdullah II, and the Egyptian president.

Despite the charm offensive, Syria and Iraq remain uncommitted and continued to signal that they are still leaning towards Iran, for political and strategic reasons. This is unlikely to change after sanctions are lifted and Tehran is emboldened.

Iran has already conducted at least three joint naval exercises with the Russian and Chinese militaries since 2019, and last year, signed a 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement with Beijing.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Bennett has warned that the US-Iranian deal taking shape to restore the nuclear accord is weaker than the original arrangement, and would lead to “a more violent, more volatile Middle East”.

But this is not a mere prediction, rather a self-fulfilling prophecy, considering Israel insists that it will do whatever it takes to impede Iran’s nuclear programme, and along with the UAE, do what it must to curtail Iran’s influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Israel and the UAE fear Iran will be richer, stronger and reinvigorated after signing a renewed nuclear deal that leads to the lifting of all Western sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Both especially fear the Biden administration will remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guards from the US’s “terrorist list” in return for security assurances.

But they think Biden is so indifferent to their nuclear deal reservations, so dismissive of their fears of an emboldened Iran, and so preoccupied with a resurgent Russia and rising China, that he is turning his back on the Middle East.

Well, the Biden administration may be absent-minded nowadays, considering the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the US is hardly absent from the Middle East, where tens of thousands of American troops are deployed on numerous military bases.

Still, Israel wants the Biden administration to understand that it views Khamenei’s Iran like the US views Putin’s Russia – a danger not only to itself and the region, but to the whole world.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has tried hard, perhaps too hard, in recent days to emphasise that the US and Israel are still acting together not only against Russia but also Iran. To no avail.

And if or when he asks his counterparts at the “Ben Gurion summit” to stand behind the US on Russia, doubtless, they will ask him why the US is not standing behind them on Iran.

With the world powers preoccupied with their new scorching Cold War, the new Middle East Cold War is heating up under the surface with potentially disastrous consequences. And Ukrainians and Palestinians will be the first to pay the heavy price.

As the US condemns Russia’s now 5-week-old invasion and its potential plans to divide Ukraine, and lectures the world about democracy, Palestinians and Arabs roll their eyes in dismay, considering Washington’s unconditional support for Israel after decades of its occupation of Palestine, and its persistent support for Arab dictatorships.

Imagine if the Russian foreign minister hosted his American and four of his European counterparts in Stalingrad, raising their vodka glasses in celebration, as Russia bombs, occupies and divides Ukraine, urging the Ukrainians not to escalate tensions during Easter season. Now try to imagine how the Palestinians feel.