The recent deals spearheaded by US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to normalise relations between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel offered something for everyone.
The two Gulf states formalised secret relations going back years, in their mutual fight against arch-rival Iran. After signing the Abraham Accords, Israel, one of the largest arms exporters in the world, may now sell billions in weapons and cyber-surveillance technology openly in the Gulf. No longer will Israeli firms have to create foreign shell companies to conceal their dealings with the Arab world.
Israel, in turn, will earn the legitimacy it has craved for generations. Instead of a decades-long boycott and Israel being a dirty word in the Arab world, it has broken through previously impenetrable barriers. Instead of the “three no’s”, Israel now basks in the glow of Arab recognition. It finds itself an indispensable ally of nations that once hated it.
Israel and its new allies now offer a formidable front against their joint enemy, Iran. They can plot to undermine the Islamic Republic’s presence throughout the region, notably in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. These countries are riven with rivalries and conflict; now, hostilities will be further intensified.
Trump, too, has earned important benefits from the normalisation deals, having firmed up support for his re-election bid among a core constituency, Christian evangelicals. He’s selling this to them as a portent of the Second Coming – a realisation of the scriptural vision of the end of days. Or, in Trump’s own words: “It’s an incredible thing for Israel. It’s incredible for the evangelicals, by the way. The evangelicals love Israel. Love Israel.”
Not to mention the billions in arms sales Trump foresees for US weapons contractors. This plays into his obsession with creating new jobs, often through sleight-of-hand and hocus-pocus. After he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman early in his term, Trump gamely announced that the Saudis planned to purchase more than $100bn in US weapons. He trumpeted the new jobs this would create at weapons plants around the country, claims the media revealed to be unfounded at best.
One of the earliest tests of the Gulf-Israel normalisation is Trump’s promise to sell F-35 warplanes to the UAE. The US has already delivered 20 to Israel (part of an overall order of 50), which was the first to use the plane in combat in Syria.
Selling them to the UAE would mark a significant shift in the military balance in the region. For the first time, an Arab state would possess the most advanced military hardware the US produces.
Israeli veto power
The Israel lobby and its congressional supporters have reacted with alarm, proposing legislation that would give Israel veto power over US arms sales to the Middle East. Offering a foreign state the ability to control US arms sales is an unprecedented compromise of national sovereignty – but it’s part of the lobby’s calculus as it jockeys for maximum leverage in pursuit of Israel’s interests.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly eyes an even greater haul. Realising that Trump is unlikely to win a second term, he’s peddling a huge military shopping list in Washington. It includes another F-35 squadron, immediate delivery of two Boeing KC-46 tankers capable of refuelling multiple planes in the air (a critical factor in any possible Israeli attack on Iran), and V-22 Ospreys.
According to reports, Netanyahu might also have asked for replacements of old Apache helicopters and more bunker-buster bombs capable of penetrating Iranian nuclear sites.
Netanyahu understands that Trump will do all in his power to accommodate his wishes. Trump has been more willing than any previous president to break decades of consensus in recognising Israeli sovereignty over conquered Palestinian lands. In addition, these sales cater to Trump’s ego as a job creator, another accomplishment he can tout on the campaign trail.
But it’s critical for the politicians who must approve these sales to examine the potential threats they pose to regional stability. While the US has committed to maintaining Israel’s military superiority in the region, it does so at the expense of the peace and security of Arab nations who lack these advanced weapons.
Guaranteeing Israel domination of the sea, land and air might make sense if the country was a force for good, serving as a good cop to the bad cops in the region. But increasingly, Israel is the bad cop, and there is no good cop to prevent its attacks against its neighbours.
Another world war?
Israel has attacked targets in Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon hundreds of times, killing senior Hezbollah and Iranian commanders. It routinely attacks Syrian military bases and intercepts arms shipments headed for Lebanon. It has also bombed weapons shipments in Sudan that were destined for Gaza.
Israel has taken advantage of its increasingly close relations with Gulf states to plant new surveillance bases in Eritrea and on an island off the coast of Yemen – all with the tacit approval of its new allies in the Gulf, especially the UAE. This military presence far outside Israeli borders is meant to offset Iranian ambitions in the Gulf, and particularly in Yemen.
The more lethal the weapons systems are, the more damage they will inflict when used – and given the hair-trigger situation in the region, it’s increasingly likely they will be, whether intentionally or unintentionally. When you mistrust your rival and he’s equipped with the most advanced weapons the world has to offer, it leaves a very small margin for error.
The slightest mistake could trigger a massive conflagration that could drag not only two rivals into conflict, but all of their respective allies. The circumstances that ignited World War I, beginning with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke, could easily be repeated in the Middle East.