By Simon Tisdall* – The Guardian
The outgoing US president has his eyes on a Saudi Arabia-Israel accord – no matter who gets hurt
Peace deals that entrench injustice, punish the weak and are propelled by greed, blackmail and weapons sales have precious little to do with peace – and are unlikely to endure. Yet the Middle East has witnessed a recent spate of such dodgy deals. All concern Israel and all were hastily cobbled together by the White House. As his curtailed presidency grinds to an unlamented close, Donald Trump appears engaged in a frantic foreign policy fire sale.
Peace is always a welcome prospect – but never at any price. Trump’s horse-trading on Israel’s behalf has made a cruel mockery of Palestinian rights. By agreeing to normalise relations with Israel, the UAE and Bahrain broke with the 2002 Arab peace plan that makes recognition conditional on the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state. The deal was sweetened with offers of advanced US weapons and money-spinning business and trade opportunities.
Israel’s new chums are nothing to be proud of. Both countries are autocratic monarchies. Both have a history of jailing and abusing those who disagree with them. Women’s rights, and the rights of migrant workers, are disregarded. Neither regime could be counted on in the event of war between Israel and their mutual enemy, Iran – part of the deal’s supposed raison d’etre. The UAE’s military is mostly famous for bombing civilians in Yemen and Libya.
Trump also recently bullied Sudan into embracing Israel in return for lifting a veto on desperately needed assistance from the World Bank and IMF. Khartoum first had to pay $335m the US said it owed to American victims of terrorism.
Sudan has also been taken off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. This is hardly generous. Washington should have done all this for free last year, after Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship was overthrown.
Trump’s latest “peace in our time” scam echoes the UAE-Bahrain “stab in the back” suffered by the Palestinians. To secure Morocco’s formal recognition of Israel this month, he reneged on a decades-old US commitment to a UN-supervised independence referendum in disputed, mostly Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara – and unconditionally recognised Rabat’s sovereignty over the entire area. In doing so, he ignored UN resolutions and failed to consult Sahrawis, neighbouring Algeria, Mauritania, the African Union (AU), or the EU.
The immediate, predictable reaction of the Polisario Front, the Western Sahara independence movement that proclaimed the AU-backed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976, was to declare a resumption of hostilities with Morocco, ending a 29-year ceasefire. Like the Palestinians, Sahrawis trusted the international community’s promises. Like them, they have been betrayed. Few in the wider world appear to have even noticed.
Trump did not need to offer these inducements to Morocco, which has done little to deserve them. Backed by France, it has persistently thwarted UN attempts to organise a credible referendum. In another echo of the West Bank, it encouraged northern settlers to move to Western Sahara, changing its demographic and ethnic profile. Like Palestinians in Lebanon, tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees remain in camps in Algeria 45 years after Spanish colonial rule ended and Morocco moved in.
Nor did Israel have any great need of Morocco’s diplomatic endorsement, having long maintained back-channels to Rabat. Trump forced through this shoddy stitch-up for the purposes of self-glorification, hoping to compensate for four years of foreign policy failures and further bolster his supposedly pan-Arab, anti-Iran alliance.
Not everyone in Washington is looking the other way. In an excoriating critique, John Bolton, Trump’s sacked national security adviser, said his old boss had thrown the Sahrawi people “under the bus”. Trump’s rash decision risked reigniting a frozen conflict in a combustible region on the edge of the Sahel that is vulnerable to Islamist jihadist influence. Fighting has not yet resumed but may do so imminently, he suggested.
“This is what happens when dilettantes handle US diplomacy, and it is sadly typical of Trump’s nakedly transactional approach,” Bolton wrote last week. “To him, everything is a potential deal, viewed in very narrow terms through the attention span of a fruit fly. Fully weighing all the merits and equities in complex international scenarios is not his style… Fortunately, Trump made no nuclear deal with North Korea or Iran. One can only imagine what he might have given away.”
Bolton urged president-elect Joe Biden to reverse course and swiftly rescind US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the Western Sahara. Such a correction would matter little to Israel, he argued, and would expose the “underlying reason for the [Moroccan] occupation – which is that it wants control over possible substantial mineral resources”.
An American volte-face would certainly gain regional approval. Algeria, Polisario’s main backer, said the US move had “no legal effect”. Spain and the EU are calling for resumed, UN-supervised talks, even though the process has been stuck in the sand for years. Palestinian officials have been scathing. “Any Arab retreat [from the 2002 peace plan]… is unacceptable and increases Israel’s belligerence and its denial of the Palestinian people’s rights,” the PLO’s Bassam as-Salhi insisted.
Yet with the damage done, Trump has already moved on. His eye is now fixed on the biggest prize of all: a Saudi Arabia-Israel “peace deal”. This would be welcome if it were done for the right reasons and honoured previous undertakings. Given Trump’s record, that’s too much to hope for. Saudi leaders, who are split on the issue, are so far publicly refusing his blandishments.
But he will keep trying. For Trump, bringing Israel and the Saudis together, on what he personally calculates to be politically and financially advantageous terms, would be his dodgy “deal of the century” – regardless of what promises are broken or who gets hurt.
*Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian