UAE-Israel peace agreement has unlocked a new mood in the Middle East: Thomas Friedman

Dubai - Pulitzer-winning American political commentator, columnist and author discusses regional policies during a session at Arab Media Forum

By Web Report

Published: Wed 23 Dec 2020, 6:56 PM

Last updated: Wed 23 Dec 2020, 7:00 PM

The recent UAE-Israel peace agreement and similar agreements involving other Arab states may give rise to new aspirations for the people of the Middle East and a shift from old ideologies and political strategies in the region, said Pulitzer-winning American political commentator, columnist and author, Thomas Friedman, during the first virtual Arab Media Forum (AMF) that kicked off on Wednesday.

The session was attended by Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairman of the Dubai Media Council.

“The UAE paved the way and created the model,” Friedman said during a discussion with journalist and TV presenter Zeina Yazigi.

“People saw a really successful Arab state get together with a really successful non-Arab state and if you’re in Beirut right now and … you see successful states getting together … you’re saying why am I not part of that.”

“I think there’s a new mood in there and the UAE-Israel deal unlocked a lot of that. People on the street actually want to be part of the world. They’re tired of the old games,” he said.

“Abu Mazen has to wake up to that and so do the Iranians,” he added.

The US’s Middle East policy is likely to drift towards amplifying positive developments arising from within the region, he said. One thing that we have learned in the last 20 years in the Middle East is that the opposite of autocracy is not democracy, it is actually disorder. The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with the parties out there because that meant it was in their own interests, it was self-sustaining.”

“I see America much more in an amplification role rather than one stomping around diplomatically or militarily,” he said.

Speaking about the confluence of factors that helped Trump successfully mediate the peace agreements, Friedman said that it was a combination of “luck of timing”, the rise of Iran and the withdrawal of America, which led to regional actors coming together.

Trump also created a diplomatic position that was never seen before – the ‘Son-in-Law-in-Chief’. “I’m not critical of it, I’m trying to understand it, Friedman said.

“He threw out the old playbook and created his own, which only a Son-in-Law-in-Chief could do. So, he didn’t have to worry about the State Department, the desk officer, the ambassador. That was a radically new approach,” he added.

Friedman noted that Saudi Arabia will be the “big prize “ for the peace process and achieving that may involve negotiations on several fronts. “Saudi Arabia understands that it has a problem in Washington DC going back to the Khashoggi murder and that’s not going away. It’s a big problem. At the same time, the Biden administration understands that the stability of Saudi Arabia is a huge national American interest and the natural way to close that gap would be if Saudi Arabia were to open normalised diplomatic relations with Israel.”

“To me the question is, is Saudi Arabia ready to normalise. If it is, what will it demand from Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians by way of concessions and what will it get in Washington DC in terms of getting off the blacklist or at least reducing its isolation. It’s a three-way poker game.”

Responding to a question on the Palestinian issue in light of the new Middle East peace agreements, Friedman said that the “core problem” hampering the resolution of the issue is the divisions among the Palestinian leadership. “The Palestinian leadership has to step out and be more forward in terms of what they are ready to do vis-à-vis Israel,” he stressed.

However, Israel has also not faced up to potential internal problems that could result from these developments. “Palestinians will say eventually, well if that’s your approach, then give me a passport, give me citizenship, recognise all two-and-a-half million of us as Palestinian citizens, and that will have huge implications for Israel as a democracy and a Jewish state,” he noted.

Talking about Middle East foreign policy options for the incoming Biden administration, he said: “If I were Biden and I would be looking for a new frontier in the Middle East to take on, I would be working on bringing Syria back to the Arab fold. I think Syria is still the keystone to the region.”

He also noted that the Russians and Iranians have different agendas with their involvement in Syria. “I think the Russians want stability. They’ve invested a lot in Bashar Al Assad. The Iranians want Syria as a base to threaten Israel. Their interests are not the same. Israel is not going to let Iran put precision missiles into Syria.”

Speaking further on Biden’s potential Iran policy, Friedman said: “Biden’s position today is that he is ready to go back to the nuclear deal with Iran, if Iran goes back. But he is keenly aware that the world has changed in four years, that we had an Iranian attack on the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia and we now have a tacit alliance in the Middle East against Iran with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt. He knows that just going back into the nuclear deal without immediately addressing some of the regional issues and using the leverage of sanctions to get Iran to address those issues will be very controversial.”

“Once he gets into office, once he studies the issues, once he listens to our allies in the region, my gut tells me his position may become more nuanced. It won’t be just as simple as ‘you go back, we go back’,” he added.

The 19th edition of the AMF saw more than 10,000 people tune in to the Forum’s sessions, which were broadcast live on a special platform set up for the Forum and through the live feature on DPC’s official Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Thomas Friedman in discussion with TV presenter Zeina Yazigi at AMF. Supplied photo
Thomas Friedman in discussion with TV presenter Zeina Yazigi at AMF. Supplied photo

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