By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib*
The US received an important wake-up call with the Saudi Arabia-Iran deal that was brokered by China. The significance of the March deal goes beyond the normalization between the two regional foes — it also means that Beijing’s role in the Gulf is increasing. The US definitely does not want China to become the new security guarantor in the region.
It would be another blow to the US if countries in the Middle East started accepting the yuan for its oil exports to China. So far, there has been no clear indication that the petroyuan will replace the petrodollar, but the issue is being talked about and that is in itself a threat to the US’ hegemony over the oil market and the US dollar’s supremacy as a worldwide reference currency. So, this would not only be a blow to American influence in the Middle East, but also a setback for Washington in terms of its competition with China. While the American discourse was previously signaling its disengagement from the region, we now suddenly see the US rushing back to court Saudi Arabia.
What we see is overoptimism from the American side about an Israeli normalization deal with the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has always put Palestine at the center of any normalization talks with Israel. In 2002, it launched the Arab Peace Initiative that Israel has rejected. Saudi Arabia is also the center of the Islamic world; hence its support for the Palestinian cause — a cause that has taken on a central significance in the Islamic world.
Thomas Friedman, writing for The New York Times last week, assumed that Biden would coerce Israel into making concessions and that Benjamin Netanyahu would give up his lunatic far-right allies and replace them with more moderate ones. However, this is probably driven by wishful thinking and is an overestimation of the US’ leverage over Israel.
To start with, Netanyahu is more concerned with his constituency than with the US or any other foreign power. The Israeli prime minister will not seek to please America at the expense of upsetting his voter base. It was his constituency that gave him the premiership, not the US. Another issue is that Washington, as revealed by Friedman — who is supposedly close to the Biden administration — is expecting Netanyahu to change course. To do that, his allies will have to be convinced of the importance of normalization with the Muslim world and they will have to relay that to their voters. This is far-fetched.
For the settlers, the extremist factions and the dogmatic people in Israel, acquiring the land that they claim God gave them is far more important than normalizing with Muslim countries. A settler driven by ideology is probably far more interested in Hebron than in having the freedom to travel to these countries.
The other assumption Friedman makes is that Netanyahu can change his allies’ minds. This is not as easy as it might look. If Netanyahu breaks with his allies, he will lose his majority and the country will head to new elections. And he will not necessarily be able to garner the support of the more moderate factions. He only allied himself with Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and their ilk because he was desperate to win a majority and return to the premiership. The downside of him losing power now could be that he goes to jail. Will Netanyahu take this risk?
We have to remember that the Netanyahu coalition won the last election by a relatively small margin. His bloc won 2.36 million votes, while the anti-Netanyahu camp was able to garner 2.33 million votes, a difference of only 30,000. And some in the opposition camp say that Netanyahu’s win could be attributed to their own missteps, as they were disorganized and did not have a consistent message. Their defeat was also attributed to the fact former Prime Minister Yair Lapid did not give his constituency anything tangible. While Lapid hyped up peace with the Palestinians, he did not take any serious step toward it.
If the country were to go to the polls again now, the anti-Netanyahu camp might win, especially as a result of the judicial overhaul that has upset a lot of Israelis. The only alternative that could prevent another election would be if Netanyahu broke with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich and replaced them with Lapid and Benny Gantz. Would they join him? I doubt it. As mentioned, they would have a chance of winning on their own if a new election were to be held.
There is also an overestimation of how much the US can pressure Israel, especially in the Arab world. Israel gets $3.8 billion in aid from the US every year. But Israel could very much live without this aid. The other help the US offers to Israel is its veto at the UN Security Council, which is a flag Uncle Sam waves every time a resolution condemning Tel Aviv is proposed. However, when a resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements was not vetoed by the Obama administration, nothing happened.
The other perk for Israel could be the economic benefits that can come from normalizing with Muslim countries. However, Israel is already a prosperous nation, with a per capita gross domestic product of $55,540, which is the highest in the Middle East after Qatar. Normalization would probably add to this prosperity. It would be a cherry on top but it is not essential to the country’s economic growth. Israel has a vibrant economy and has trade relations with most countries around the world. Again, could you convince the ideological settler that a few billion dollars on top of the country’s GDP is worth relinquishing the West Bank for? Not really.
Most importantly, from a security perspective, Netanyahu does not need to have peace with the Palestinians. He can keep them contained using coercive measures. While the anti-Netanyahu, pro-peace camp has been warning of a possible third intifada if there is no proper settlement, the Israeli military machine has been able to pacify the Palestinians, at least for now. Hence, it is unlikely that Netanyahu will make any concessions, or at least any meaningful ones that could make the American plan happen.
Ultimately, Netanyahu is a political survivor who thinks from one election cycle to the next and, for the moment, his No. 1 priority is to keep the premiership and stay out of jail.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.