TLR 199 – War and peace (and much else…)

7th December 2020

The Middle East is constantly changing, but the single stable constant in the region is its complexity. This is true not just of the region as a whole, but also of the countries within it. Changes within countries, the way a country responds to changes around it, and the interaction between these country-specific changes, create regional change.


The most recent examples of these processes are the initial focus of this issue. Much the most prominent change has been the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, closely followed by Bahrain and, in a different corner of the region, Sudan. An analysis of the decisions taken by any one of these countries leads to an appreciation of the complex factors at work in each specific case and highlights the differences between even superficially similar countries, such as the UAE and Bahrain. The same is true when seeking to explain why other countries have taken other decisions – in this case, not (yet) to establish relations with Israel – and here, too, the same outcome stems from a very different set of considerations, for example by Oman and Saudi Arabia.


But all of these examples are part of a wider trend, namely that of closer relations between Israel and Arab or African Sunni Moslem states. Parallel to this trend, but in sharp contrast to it, is another in which relations between Israel and Shi’a Moslem states are worsening. Since these relations were already negative to the point of fierce enmity and open hostilities between Iran and its allies/ satraps/ client states and between Israel, any ‘worsening’ can only mean more, or more intense, hostilities – and this is what has happened this year and seems likely to continue next year.


The struggle between Israel and Iran is the central theme of this issue, because even the rush of positive developments between Israel and the Gulf nations can be traced back to the same source – the commonality of interests and concerns about Iran shared by all of the countries involved. Yet just when it seems that a relatively simple concept – fear of Iranian expansionism – can be used to explain many disparate and even opposing developments, the region’s innate complexity rears its head once more.


Lebanon, perhaps the single most complex country in the entire region, is an Iranian-dominated state, via Hezbollah, which is simultaneously bankrupt and home to the largest conventional military threat currently facing Israel. Yet just as Israel was engaged in drawing closer to Iran’s foes and ramping up its attacks on Iran and its allies, Lebanon and Israel began to negotiate – supposedly over technical matters, but with potentially far-reaching implications.


This issue does not cover the Lebanese-Israeli talks, which started but have now stopped. Nor does it relate to the extraordinary domestic political crisis into which Israel has worked itself Their turn will come soon enough. This time, however, precedence is due and is given to a preliminary discussion of the possible impact of the Biden Administration on the Middle East, which leads to a gloomy, if tentative conclusion. The reasons are, well, complex…

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