A Palestinian protester runs to seek cover from heavy tear gas fired by Israeli troops after a protest against the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ in the West Bank city of Ramallah Tuesday. The deal was announced by US President Donald Trump on January 28.
The United States doesn’t need the Middle East the way it used to. As American energy production surges, the US has begun to disengage from the region (see Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya). And without the need to keep the broader Middle East peace for the sake of its energy interests, the US now has the luxury of choosing which battles it wants to wage. Most recently, that has meant pushing forward a Middle East peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians that’s much more pro-Israel than any US administration has put forward before.
There are plenty of critics of the deal, which is understandable. If peace was the immediate goal of the proposal, US President Donald Trump’s team would have engaged both sides, instead of only the Israelis. The administration’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem dealt a fatal blow to any Palestinian participation. But that’s the point – this proposal wasn’t just a peace deal. Rather, it’s about enshrining the status quo on the ground. And looked at through that lens, the deal is a realistic assessment of where things currently stand (much to the chagrin of supporters of Palestinian statehood).
Looking back, this latest attempt to formalize the current situation has been made possible by two distinct geopolitical developments over the last 20 years – or since US President Bill Clinton attempted to broker a tentative peace deal between the two sides.
The first development is the continued ascent of Israeli primacy in the Middle East. The last 20 years have seen plenty of volatility in the region, from wars to political uprisings to deposed strongmen. Through it all, Israel has continued its march to tech and military dominance in the Middle East, buoyed by enviable economic growth. And as Israel grew stronger, so too did the ultra-nationalists who believe that the West Bank and Gaza belong to Jewish settlers and who have strategically constructed their settlements to cut across any future Palestinian state.
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, these settlement constructions were allowed to proceed to the point where legalizing them today (as proposed by the Trump deal) would leave just 70 percent of the West Bank to a Palestinian state, compared to the 94-96 percent on offer by the Clinton team.
The second geopolitical development enabling the US to offer this kind of deal is related to the first – as Israel has solidified itself into a genuine Middle East power, it has also become a much more attractive partner for other Arab nations to want to work with. That’s especially true now that an aggrieved Iran has begun striking out and become an increasing threat for many of them (look at the Iranian attack on the Abqaiq oil facility in the Saudi Kingdom). Vilifying Israel no longer packs the same political punch it once did, and in a world with increasing threats (many of them in the cyber realm) there is no shortage of Arab leaders who would much rather work with Israel’s leadership than rail against it.
Put more bluntly – the Palestinian cause is no longer a common cause for the Arab world, presenting an opportunity that Israel wants to seize while presenting Palestinians yet another tragedy in a long series. And while groups like the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have officially come out against the deal, the deal has buy-in from some Arab governments, as proven by the presence of ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman at the White House unveiling of the proposal.
Critics of all things Trump were quick to pan the deal as completely impractical. That’s not its problem – if anything, it’s all too practical given the realities on the ground. And compared to other Trump foreign policy proposals that were long on promises and short on substance, the 50-page Middle East proposal does reflect the current state of play. But what it won’t do is bring peace to the region. For years, people were worried the US was too involved in that part of the world and made a mess of things. Now we’re entering an era where the US is less involved… but actively choosing sides. Only time will tell if that makes the region more or less of a mess.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.”