West Asia's new deal

The unexpected peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), brokered by the United States, finally removes the fig leaf on the reality of the relations between the Arab world and West Asia’s sole Zionist nation. Despite public differences on the Palestinian question, the two power blocs have collaborated under the radar for decades — as far back as the 1960s, in fact — and Israel’s two major adversaries, Egypt and Jordan, extended formal recognition in 1979 and 1984 respectively. It is widely recognised that the UAE is unlikely to have signed the resumption of full diplomatic relations without the implicit approval of Saudi Arabia. The expectation now is that the UAE-Israel deal will soon open the way for formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The fact that Israel has agreed to halt its annexation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank as a pre-requisite for the agreement even as the UAE did not insist that Jerusalem abandon that project offers a face-saving modus vivendi for both sides. This de facto repudiation of the Palestinian’s 72-year quest for statehood in favour of closer alignment with a nuclear-armed client of the world’s sole superpower is driven by a common threat perception: Of Iran and that country’s nuclear ambitions. US President Donald Trump’s unilateral rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by the Obama administration, and the US withdrawal from Syria presented fresh geopolitical challenges for West Asian theocracies, and the Israel-UAE deal is one response to them. The important point to note is that the polarisation between Sunni/Zionist and Shia power blocs is now out into the open. It is unclear yet how this alignment will play out in a region where authoritarianism and terrorism make for toxic politics. Lebanon and the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah remain threats on Israel’s northern border. Questions also arise over Iraq, where a population almost equally divided between both denominations has created renewed political instability.

The new West Asian alignments also simulate the split between US allies and a Russia/China axis, with the latter deepening its relations with Tehran since 2018. All of this, thus, adds complexities to the decades of successful tight-rope walking that has characterised Indian diplomacy in West Asia, which accounts for over 80 per cent of the country’s oil imports, and Israel, the biggest supplier of critical defence software. Indeed, it is significant that the Indian foreign minister was one of the first officials the UAE administration called a day after the deal with Israel was announced. On its part, New Delhi has made all the right noises by openly welcoming the deal and offering unexceptionable remarks about promoting “peace, stability and development in West Asia” — even as the Ministry of External Affairs asserted that the deal would not affect India’s traditional support for the Palestinian cause. It is a measure of the greater confidence that India enjoys in the region that Riyadh recently gave Air India overflight rights on the Delhi-Tel Aviv route even as the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation declined Pakistan’s request to hold a special session on India’s reading down of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir. The fact that India has been distancing itself from Iran, with whom relations have been fractious of late, after the US re-imposed sanctions, may have played its part in bolstering the Arab world’s confidence in New Delhi. Either way, West Asia is headed for more interesting times.

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