With US Backing, Israel and the Gulf Dictatorships Became Best Friends
Joe Biden has continued Donald Trump's Middle East policies — ignoring Palestinian demands for justice and sealing an alliance between Israel and Gulf state dictatorships.
Among the changes small and large of the pandemic, you’d be forgiven for not having noticed an ostensibly minor alteration in US militarism’s position in West Asia. But as it turns out, Israel — established in 1948 inside the borders of historic Palestine — has finally been recognized as a Middle Eastern country, no longer under the US European Command (EUCOM).
Such a change might appear odd, or trivial. Yet the reality is anything but.
First, the shift means that Israel will henceforth be included in the Middle East planning and budgets of US Central Command (CENTCOM) rather than with the European states in EUCOM. Communications can now run through these new channels, leaving the way open to easier facilitation of military exercises and joint operations.
Second, in making the move, Washington is professing its faith in the durability of the so-called Abraham Accords, signed in 2020 between Israel and the despots that rule over the populations of, principally but not exclusively, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. If you think that deals between Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, and murderous tyrants with no popular mandate don’t seem like the sort of thing to stake a foreign policy on . . . well, Washington and Joe Biden disagree.
Lastly, the shift is a constituent part of, and further signal to, a direction of travel that conjoins Israel ever more closely with Gulf despotic regimes — often regarded as culminating in the full normalization of the already close ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump talked up the utility of getting Saudi Arabia on board with normalization (“they’re big”), and figures ranging from disgraced ex–prime ministers to shock jocks such as Maajid Nawaz are cheerleading the potentially lucrative work that comes from this lobbying. Accordingly, Israel has been taking a turn at lobbying against prosecution of the Saudi killers of Jamal Khashoggi, in part because Israel’s NSO spyware was itself crucial to the journalist’s murder.
As well as making life harder for those gluttons for punishment who like to insist that Israel is a force for democracy and not despotism in the region, the significance of the arrangement will be felt by its principal target: Iran.
Netanyahu famously went to Washington to lobby for a war on Iraq and the supposedly safer Middle East it would usher in. Today Israel’s reckless, even sinister, desire to stop at nothing to secure regime change in Tehran — whether through war or sanctions — is total.
By the same token, efforts to improve ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia have, from the Iranian side, been incentivized by an acceptance that the animus between them benefits few parties more than Israel. After all, the threat of a cliché Sunni-Shia conflict detracts resources from the more prominent regional imposition that is US power, exercised primarily through the US commitment to Israel. Put simply, more headaches for Iran means fewer headaches for the US and Israel. The animosity, however, also weakens Saudi Arabia by making it more reliant on Washington — a situation even Saudi rulers could eventually come to reappraise. The now near-constant US bellyaching that oil prices are either too high or too low might be helping demonstrate even to the House of Saud that it just might have divergent interests with Washington.
Nor is the logic of cooperation wasted on Israel. More calculated strategic thinking among officials in West Jerusalem has often envisioned a two-state solution with Palestine — no matter how reduced the Palestinian state — to settle the historic Arab grievance with Israel and open a common front against Iran (not to mention the use of a two-state solution as a mere delay tactic as Palestine was steadily occupied). Realization of the Oslo Accords was meant to be the goal of this policy under former Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, before he was assassinated by the extremist Yigal Amir, later a hero to many in Israel beyond his jail cell.
While Israel’s change of military groupings is best regarded as a foreign policy move, it also signals how Palestinian affairs are likely to be seen in Washington under Biden. US devotion to Israel remains near total — and with the US spending on Israel’s Iron Dome budget newly boosted, the abuses of the apartheid state in West Jerusalem are growing more embarrassing to US power. Categorizing Israel militarily as in the Middle East should be seen as an indicator of a further coming to terms with the status quo in Palestine, which will produce an attendant need to whitewash the grossest violations of law, human rights, and basic decency anywhere in the Western orbit.
During the recent Israeli bombardment of Palestinians, Biden’s promise to keep the grandmother of Detroit congresswoman Rashida Tlaib safe absurdly reduced questions of hegemonic power and policy to the protection of one grandma (perhaps also accidentally revealing the fundamentally mafioso style of US policy). But it did at least make clear the extent to which, in an age of growing consciousness on racism, Islamophobia, and the inspiration that Black Lives Matter has drawn from Palestinian resistance, the United States cannot ignore Palestine any longer. The excesses of Jewish supremacists, settler violence, and a gutted rule of law that embarrasses Israel’s embattled secularists have now also reached the point of damaging US power and legitimacy, and thus the administration’s own goals.
That said, it remains hard to imagine the long-promised “viable” Palestinian state, or a “one person, one vote,” one-state solution in Palestine and Israel, coming any time soon. Slightly less difficult to imagine are the Bantustans and ghettos of a discontinuous, carved-up, and settlement-besieged Palestinian territory being fraudulently defined by the Biden administration as suddenly viable, a move that would further help the path of Saudi normalization, particularly upon the death of the elderly, nominally Palestine-supporting King Salman, whose upstart son Mohammed bin Salman shows no real handle on either Arab pride or Palestine.
Such a move would also be in keeping with Biden’s obvious ease with Trump’s Middle East policy. At the time, the Abraham Accords and the US embassy’s move to West Jerusalem were decried as a reckless Trumpian endeavor that shed supposed US diplomatic prestige. Yet there are no signs of the Biden administration reversing them — and the president seems quietly content dressed in Trump’s policy.
How to Respond?
Far from being the concern of only the Pentagon and military planners, Israel’s shift into CENTCOM and the Middle East should alert activists and campaigners on how to approach the issues of Israeli regional aggression and Palestinian oppression.
War with Iran would be a cataclysm that makes both the Iraq and Syrian wars seem small by comparison. So it is first imperative that the United States and Israel disabuse themselves of their warmongering disposition towards that country. The aggression coming from Israel and the Trump and Biden administrations has only shrunk the space for diplomacy with Tehran. US escalations and extrajudicial assassinations have made a stronger case for Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons than any hard-liner in Tehran ever could.
Israel’s military alignment with the likes of UAE and Bahrain needs, moreover, to be matched by a broadened awareness and labelling of Israel as an ever closer ally of the Gulf despots. In truth, the daily maintenance of Israeli power — based on the suppression of Palestinians — involves a routine internal brutality equal to or greater than that of many of the Gulf states, whatever their own regular disregard for minority groups, such as the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia.
The difference between Israel’s reputation and that of its Gulf allies is primarily reducible to whiteness and Islamophobia; Israeli brutality has always been met with justification where Bahrain’s or Saudi Arabia’s has not. Even a brief glance at the last decades of Israeli leadership shows that the state’s Arab Jewish (not to mention Muslim) populations have clearly been marginalized from power, arguably because it is advantageous to Israel to be seen in the West as a visibly white population — Ashkenazi, not Mizrahi.
What does it mean for expectations of Israel, at home and abroad, if structurally it is finally becoming one with the despotic Gulf states?
The first feature of the US-despot relationship is acceptance of countries in all their abuses — “come as you are.” Despite a weak rule of law, high repression, low democracy, and routine disregard for human rights, there is little pressure to act otherwise.
Second, a state’s human rights and global reputation do indeed take a nosedive as a separate set of standards is introduced, complete with their own low expectations. But the time during which a veneer of democracy — or pretense at commitment to a real two-state solution with Palestine — was useful to Israel is very much passing, if not gone. In Israel, the same despot trade-off — legitimacy for consolidation — is mostly complete, with the right to control what happens inside its territories superseding transnational arrangements, especially those regarding values.
Third and most important, are no signs of change in Washington. Relations to the despots grow closer even as US influence grows less. Perhaps the best example of an increasingly brutal regime already in lockstep with the Gulf despots is Israel’s other ally, Egypt. Strongly condemnatory noises from Biden (when he was campaigning) haven’t amounted to any real changes in US military aid to Egypt (a mere 10 percent cut in wages to Trump’s “favorite dictator”). President Abdel al-Sisi knows both his worth to Washington and — whatever the noises coming from its think tanks — the real value it places on human rights.
Though all this might seem a cynical but shrewd change, there is also the worry that the United States and Israel end up gambling and losing. While dictatorships may seem rock steady, the reality is that these regimes, built on countless injustices, will finally rupture. Despite the traditional US fondness for them, dictatorships make poor allies: not only for the moral reasons the Biden administration seems uninterested in but also because of the weak decision-making capacity that flows from a total absence of democratic consensus-building.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE went into Yemen as allies, only to wind up falling out and backing different sides. Mohammed bin Salman, having staged a palace coup against his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef — erstwhile heir to the Kingdom and Yemen war skeptic — has perhaps realized his own overreach too late. He is finding out the hard way that Yemen’s Houthis are in fact able to retaliate inside Saudi Arabia for the devastations the Saudis spent years visiting on Yemen.
Understanding and rethinking a Zionism that is at home with Gulf despots who once rejected Israel outright requires a change of perspective. This reappraisal is required for Palestinian justice and regional stability at large, but also for a less compromised, fragile version of Israeli security. For all that, a democratic regional integration is necessary. The new US military alignments are, at best, a misstep, but potentially something far worse.