The online session in which Thomas Friedman discussed the prospects for peace in the Middle East and the impact of the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan’s agreements with Israel to promote stability in the region. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: American political commentator, author and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman said the recent UAE-Israel peace agreement has created a new model that “may give rise to new aspirations for the people of the Middle East and a shift from old ideologies and political strategies in the region.”

Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, made the comment during a virtual session at the 19th Arab Media Forum on Wednesday. He discussed the prospects for peace in the Middle East and the impact of the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan’s agreements with Israel to promote stability in the region.

“The UAE paved the way and created the model,” Friedman said in a discussion moderated by journalist and TV presenter Zeina Yazigi. “People saw a really successful Arab state get together with a really successful non-Arab state and if you’re in Beirut right now and … you see successful states getting together … you’re saying why am I not part of that,” he explained.

Friedman spoke candidly and noted: “I think there’s a new mood in there and the UAE-Israel deal unlocked a lot of that. People on the street actually want to be part of the world. They’re tired of the old games. Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas, president of the State of Palestine and Palestinian National Authority) has to wake up to that and so do the Iranians,” he added.

US Middle East policy

Friedman noted the US is likely to drift towards amplifying positive developments arising from within the region rather than resorting to intervention and regime change. “One thing that we have learned in the last 20 years in the Middle East is that the opposite of autocracy is not democracy, it is actually disorder. The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with the parties out there because that meant it was in their own interests, it was self-sustaining. I see America much more in an amplification role rather than one stomping around diplomatically or militarily,” he explained.

With regards to outgoing US President Donal Trump, Friedman noted: “Trump created a diplomatic position we have never seen before, the ‘Son-in-Law-in-Chief’. I’m not critical of it, I’m trying to understand it. But he threw out the old playbook and created his own, which only a Son-in-Law-in-Chief could do. So, he didn’t have to worry about the State Department, the desk officer, the ambassador. That was a radically new approach,” he added.

Peace prospects

Friedman noted that Saudi Arabia will be the “big prize “ for the peace process and achieving that may involve negotiations on several fronts. “Saudi Arabia understands that it has a problem in Washington DC going back to the Khashoggi murder and that’s not going away. It’s a big problem. At the same time, the Biden administration understands that the stability of Saudi Arabia is a huge national American interest and the natural way to close that gap would be if Saudi Arabia were to open normalised diplomatic relations with Israel.”

“To me the question is, is Saudi Arabia ready to normalise. If it is, what will it demand from Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians by way of concessions and what will it get in Washington DC in terms of getting off the blacklist or at least reducing its isolation. It’s a three-way poker game.”

Palestinian issue

Friedman said the “core problem” hampering the resolution of the issue is the divisions among the Palestinian leadership. “The Palestinian leadership has to step out and be more forward in terms of what they are ready to do vis-à-vis Israel,” he stressed.

Israel, however, has also not faced up to potential internal problems that could result from these developments. “Palestinians will say eventually, well if that’s your approach, then give me a passport, give me citizenship, recognise all two and a half million of us as Palestinian citizens, and that will have huge implications for Israel as a democracy and a Jewish state,” he noted.

Biden administration

What should President-elect Joe Biden do? Friedman answered: “If I were Biden and I were looking for a new frontier in the Middle East to take on, I would be working on bringing Syria back to the Arab fold. I think Syria is still the keystone to the region.” He also noted that the Russians and Iranians have different agendas with their involvement in Syria. “I think the Russians want stability. They’ve invested a lot in Bashar Al Assad. The Iranians want Syria as a base to threaten Israel. Their interests are not the same. Israel is not going to let Iran put precision missiles into Syria.”

“Biden’s position today is that he is ready to go back to the nuclear deal with Iran, if Iran goes back. But he is keenly aware that the world has changed in four years, that we had an Iranian attack on the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia and we now have a tacit alliance in the Middle East against Iran with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt. He knows that just going back into the nuclear deal without immediately addressing some of the regional issues and using the leverage of sanctions to get Iran to address those issues will be very controversial,” he added.