The Israel-Sunni Bloc – the Middle East’s New Sheriff

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Between his meetings in Jerusalem on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recorded a short address for the Republican National Convention in which he discussed many of the Trump administration’s foreign policy accomplished. By the time his remarks were broadcast in the U.S. Tuesday night, Pompeo had already landed in Khartoum, Sudan, the second stop on his week-long shuttle diplomacy mission aimed at expanding the circle of normalization between Israel and the Arab states of the region. 

Aside from the fact that it was nice to hear Pompeo’s warm remarks about Jerusalem, his address was significant for the way he chose to end it. Pompeo closed his remarks by recalling Andrew Brunson, the American evangelical pastor who was held hostage in Turkey from 2016 to 2018.

Brunson, whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was arrested during the course of the mass arrests that followed the failed coup d’etat against the regime of Turkey’s Islamist dictator Recep Erdogan in July 2016. In 2017, Erdogan demanded that Israel repatriate a Turkish terrorist it had arrested in exchange for Brunson. After President Donald Trump asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help out, Israel released the terrorist and sent her back to her state sponsor of terrorism, Turkey.

But instead of keeping his end of the bargain and releasing Brunson, Erdogan upped the ante.

Erdogan demanded that Trump extradite Turkish expatriate cleric Fethullah Gulen from his home in Pennsylvania. Erdogan alleges that Gulen and his followers were responsible for the failed coup.

The Trump administration was not impressed by Erdogan’s offer. Rather than extradite Gulen, President Trump slapped tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel exports to the U.S. and demanded Brunson’s release. A few months later, Erdogan released Brunson and the tariffs were later withdrawn. Gulen remains in Pennsylvania.  

The fact that Pompeo chose to recall Brunson’s suffering in Turkey, rather than say, the suffering of American hostages whose release Trump secured from Iran or North Korea, points to a willingness on the part of the administration, to finger Turkey – a NATO ally – as a hostile state.

In recent days, the administration has turned up the pace of its condemnations of Turkey almost as fast as Turkey has accelerated its hostile acts against the U.S. and its allies. For example, also on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus harshly criticized Turkey for hosting a delegation of senior Hamas terrorists, including Saleh Arouri who is wanted by the U.S.

Turkey, which recalled its ambassador from Washington to protest the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, led the protests against the United Arab Emirates for agreeing to normalize its relations with Israel two weeks ago. The UAE, for its part, sent six F-16s to Greece this week to participate in military exercises.

After Turkey unlawfully began gas and oil exploration in Greece’s territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean earlier this month, both Greece and Turkey conducted naval exercises this week.

The administration’s willingness to acknowledge – indeed highlight — Turkey’s hostility despite their formal alliance in NATO is a function of the changed nature of America’s alliance system in the region.

The shift predates the Trump administration. A decade ago, the Sunni Arab regimes in Egypt and the Persian Gulf had a brush with annihilation that transformed their perception of the region and the world. With the rise of Islamist forces in the Arab Spring threatening to overthrow them on the one hand, and the Obama administration shifting U.S. support away from them and towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran on the other, the Egyptian military, the Saudi regime and the UAE leadership collectively arrived at an earthshattering conclusion that Israel is not their enemy. Like them, the Jewish state was spurned by Obama. And like them, Israel recognizes Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as its mortal foes. As Obama’s betrayals multiplied, and his support for Iran and its nuclear program expanded, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia began to view Israel as their most stable and powerful ally and only competent defender against Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the Iran and Muslim Brotherhood supporting Democratic Party.  

Facing the Arab Sunni regimes and Israel, and strongly supported by the Obama administration were Turkey, Qatar and Iran which together formed a Sunni-Shiite Islamist bloc. With their proxies and vassals in control of Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and Iraq, members of this bloc were open to alliances with the Democrats, the Russians, the Chinese, the EU and Marxist regimes in Latin America.

The first time the two blocs were seen in the light of day was in 2014, during Hamas’s war with Israel known as Operation Protective Edge. At the time, Turkey, Qatar and the Obama administration supported Hamas’s ceasefire terms. The Republicans, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia supported Israel. Their unprecedently willingness to publicly stand with Israel stunned the Obama administration and enabled Israel to withstand administration pressure to succumb to Hamas’s demands.

Immediately after taking office, Trump embraced the Israeli-Sunni bloc and worked to expand and formalize it under American leadership. Now, following the announcement that with U.S. mediation Israel and the UAE have agreed to normalize and formalize their relations, the dimensions of the undertaking, and its impact on the strategic realities of the region and of the international system as a whole are coming into view.

To understand the depth of the achievement it is important to recall what this realignment is replacing.

For 40 years, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union divided the world into two blocs. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that division began to erode as states formerly in the Soviet orbit beat a path to Washington’s door. It seemed then that the U.S. was destined to stand tall and alone as the leader not just of the free world, but of the whole world.

While at the outset of the 1990s, the U.S. indeed, enjoyed the position of sole superpower, by the end of the decade, states and sub-state actors who had long been anti-American, began to reemerge after years of shock and disarray. Anti-American leftist movements reinvented themselves as anti-globalists. The demonstrations and riots they organized throughout the Western world renewed and strengthened the traditional anti-Americanism of the Western Europe and contributed to the radicalization of the left in Europe and the U.S.

Then there were the Islamists. In 1996, al-Qaeda declared war against the U.S. and Iran bombed Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. In 1998 al=Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

With its new membership in the World Trade Organization, China began its steady rise as the global power of the future.

After the Soviet Union collapse, Russia rose from its embers. Under the leadership of a KGB officer named Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin rebuilt its position as a world power defined by its opposition to America.

The rapidity of America’s decline in global stature in the 1990s was best perceived in the very different responses presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush received in their efforts to build international coalitions against Saddam Hussein. In 1991, H.W. Bush easily formed an international coalition against Iraq under the aegis of the UN. Twelve years, later, his son hit a brick wall both at the UN and in Europe.

After overthrowing Saddam and his Baathist regime, the younger Bush stunned the U.S.’s Sunni Arab allies when he made transforming them into liberal democracies the central goal of his foreign policy. Bush’s democratization efforts empowered the Muslim Brotherhood. His overthrow of Saddam empowered Iran.

Whereas Bush acted out of utopian ignorance, Obama’s Middle Eastern policies were borne of his anti-Western world view. Obama’s polices exacerbated the damage Bush had wrought to America’s position in the Middle East and to regional stability.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to reach out to the Egyptian military, to the Saudis and to the Emiratis in the midst of the Arab Spring and the Obama administration’s betrayal was the first sustained, rational, strategic initiative anyone had tried in nearly a decade of turmoil. The operational alliance they formed blunted the momentum of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Iran.

In the American context, Netanyahu’s move offered Republicans a framework for developing a rational and constructive alternative strategic framework not only to Obama’s radical realignment, but to the wider conceptual vacuum in U.S. post-Cold War strategic planning.

In Pompeo’s shuttle diplomacy we see the enormity of the administration’s achievement.

After the Cold War, Israeli leftists and anti-Israel foreign policy analysts in America claimed that with the superpower contest settled, Israel was no longer a strategic asset to America. The Israeli left argued that to retain its relevance to America, Israel had to sue for peace with Yassir Arafat on his terms.

Arguably the saddest man in Jerusalem this week was British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab. Blind to the seismic shifts that have occurred, Raab arrived uninvited in Israel’s capital, (which Britain still refuses to recognize) to mediate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

After Britain exited the European Union following the Brexit vote, the Trump administration expected Britain would renew its special alliance with the U.S. and ditch Brussel’s anti-American and anti-Israel unified foreign policy. But Boris Johnson didn’t get the memo.

Much to Washington’s disappointment, the Johnson government has continued to act as a loyal member (or vassal) of the EU. The Johnson government opposes the administration’s maximum pressure strategy for dealing with Iran, even abstained from supporting the U.S. at the Security Council last week.

The British Foreign Office, like the EU and the UN reacted coldly to the news that Israel and the UAE are normalizing their relations, insisting that the Palestinians must not be ignored, the chimerical “two-state solution” must be upheld at all costs.

Raab met with Pompeo in Jerusalem. While the details of their meeting were not reported, Netanyahu made clear Israel’s displeasure at Britain’s pro-Iran policies, and expressed no interest in Britain’s offer to pressure Israel to make unreciprocated concessions to the Palestinians.

The Israeli-Sunni Arab bloc is a stabilizing force in the region because it is an organic alliance. It was not the product of superpower rivalry. It was borne of common interests that are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. The existence of this bloc has enabled Washington rebuild its credibility as a superpower and an ally in the Middle East and advance its Iran policies with or without UN Security Council support.

If Trump is reelected in November, this stabilizing bloc whose members stand against both Sunni and Shiite jihadists will expand and the circle of formal ties between Israel and the Gulf States will grow. If Trump loses, just as the bloc protected its members against the hostile Obama administration, so it is likely to survive and shield its members from the vagaries of a Biden administration.  

Originally published in Israel Hayom.

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