Trump’s ‘New Middle East’ is a Mirage

Morocco, Qatar not likely to fall in line with Israel's Anti-Iran Alliance

President Donald J. Trump had better lower his expectation that additional Arab countries will follow the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in normalizing relations with Israel, a historic development formalized Monday at a White House ceremony that the president hailed as “the dawn of a new Middle East.”

Not so fast. Putting aside for a moment that Israel and Iran, not to mention the Palestinians, remain at knife’s edges, other Arab regimes aren’t jumping at what amounts to a U.S.-backed alliance of Israel and moderate Gulf and Arab states. The point of the new arrangement is to challenge Iran’s dominance over the region.

For starters, Morocco and Qatar have both flatly stated they will not normalize relations with Israel before Jerusalem and the Palestinians resolve their long-standing conflict.

As for Morocco, it appears Trump is not taking no for an answer. 

Richard Grenell, Trump’s fiery former ambassador to Germany and more recently special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, is racing to Rabat this weekend to meet with King Mohammed VI. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenkar and Matthew Harrington, the deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, also will arrive in Rabat for talks with the king in the coming days.

Money, honey

“There’s tons of speculation that Morocco could be bribed into recognizing Israel,” a diplomatic source in Morocco tells SpyTalk, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the matter.

The monarch, a longtime reliable U.S. partner in many aspects, is notoriously corrupt. Inducements to cooperate could include a new trade deal or weapons. In 2019 the Trump administration approved nearly $1 billion in arms sales to Morocco, but the king may also want to buy top-of-the-line F-35 fighter-bombers to supplement or eventually replace its fleet of U.S. F-16s.

King Mohammed has consistently rejected normalizing ties with Israel unless Jerusalem and the Palestinians agree on a two-state solution that includes an Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands and the establishment of Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.   

“We refuse any normalization with the Zionist entity”—a common reference to Israel by hardline Arab states and movements—“because this emboldens it to go further in breaching the rights of the Palestinian people,” Moroccan Prime Minister Sa’ad Dine el Otmani said last month after Israel and the UAE announced their intention to normalize ties. 

Morocco agreed to low-level ties with Israel after the 1993 Oslo accords, which began a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. But King Mohammed suspended those ties after the peace process broke down and Palestinians revolted in 2000.  

“There may be a [U.S.]pressure campaign on him, but I don't think he’d normalize at this time,” Edward Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, tells Spytalk. “I’m not sure what they will give him to cause him to change his opinion.”

Popular unrest

Gabriel points out that ordinary Moroccans harbor deep sympathy for the Palestinians, making normalization of relations with Israel at this time a trigger for popular unrest. The same holds true for the UAE and Bahrain, experts told SpyTalk on Monday.

“King Mohammed would have a hefty price to pay if he didn’t first extract meaningful concessions for the Palestinians before making any agreement with Israel,” Gabriel said in a recent commentary published in The Hill.

Meanwhile, Qatar announced on Sunday it would not join its Gulf Arab neighbors and normalize relations with Israel until it, too, resolved its conflict with the Palestinians. Unlike the UAE and Bahrain, Qatar also has good relations with Iran.

“We don’t think that normalization was the core of this conflict and hence it can’t be the answer,” Qatar’s Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah al Khater told Bloomberg News in an interview. “The core of this conflict is about the drastic conditions that the Palestinians are living under” as “people without a country, living under occupation.”

Presiding over the signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump predicted that five more countries would soon establish their own formal relations with Israel, though he opted not to name them.

One of them could be Sudan, where popular protests toppled the country’s anti-Israel, Islamist regime last year and brought to power the democratic administration of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Late last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Khartoum to pressure Hamdok to recognize the Jewish state. Another could be Mauritania. 

That’s two. He’ll probably have to wait on Morocco and Qatar.

SpyTalk Contributing Editor Jonathan Broder has covered the Middle East from the region and Washington for decades.