The postwar international order is undergoing a substantial realignment, and so, too, is the Middle East. Whereas the Israel-Palestinian conflict once determined most other geopolitical developments in the region, it is now largely crowded out by other disputes, not least the hegemonic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
We live in a time of geopolitical transition. China’s effort to replace the United States as the world’s leading power, or at least to become a co-partner in global leadership, deservedly receives much attention. But the macro-level dynamics that have long defined the Middle East are also shifting, and here, too, US influence is likely to diminish.
Just over a century ago, the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Middle East between France and Great Britain, and established national borders that remain in place to this day. But now the regional order is changing.
Since Israel’s founding, the Arab-Israeli conflict has largely dominated the region’s geopolitics. Israel won the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and all the wars that followed it. But whether the Israelis and the Palestinians could reach an acceptable settlement, and thus bring peace to the Middle East, remained a central concern in international affairs.
The closest the Israelis and the Palestinians have ever come to achieving peace was during the period between the signing of the first Oslo Accord on September 13, 1993, and the assassination of then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995. It is worth recalling that in both the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, the status of Jerusalem was left unresolved. It was widely agreed that such a sensitive and complicated issue would have to be addressed at the end of the peace process.
The Israel-Palestine conflict lost its centrality in the region after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and more so after the Arab Spring began in late 2010. After 2011, the Syrian civil war and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) dominated the regional narrative. But now that an international coalition has deprived ISIS of its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional dominance has come to the fore.
So far, Iran and Saudi Arabia have confronted one another mainly through proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. But each country’s support for rival factions in Lebanon, together with the ongoing diplomatic dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is also part of their larger struggle.
Against this backdrop, the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict seemed to have been downgraded to the status of a fringe dispute. That remained the case until US President Donald Trump’s administration decided unilaterally this month to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Israel’s government and the Knesset (parliament) are based in West Jerusalem, and foreign dignitaries routinely make official visits there. But Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War has never been internationally recognized, and other countries, including the US, have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv, because they know that Jerusalem’s status is a fraught political and religious issue.
Moreover, all other countries understand that weighing in on one side of the Jerusalem question would damage the prospects for an eventual two-state solution – the idea of which dates back to the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine – because both Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their capital.
In 1947, a two-state solution was not viable, because Arab states responded to Israel’s founding by waging war against it. When the Palestinians finally recognized the existence of Israel in 1993, that decision alone was seen as a big step forward.
Although diplomats still speak of a Middle East peace process, there has been no process to achieve peace for many years. A two-state solution remains the only conceivable option for satisfying both sides, but it is becoming less credible with time, and with the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. And now America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could mean the end of the two-state solution once and for all.
But the alternative, a binational arrangement, would confront Israel with the dilemma of remaining either democratic or Jewish, but not both. And with a two-state solution off the table, it would be only a matter of time before the Palestinians, having abandoned the struggle for their own state, instead demanded equal civil rights.
There is a third option, at least in theory: a Palestinian state could be created in Gaza, extended into the Northern Sinai, and put under Egypt’s de facto control, while the West Bank could be divided between Israel and Jordan. But the Palestinians would never accept this outcome, and it would not solve the problem of Israel becoming a binational state.
One wonders why Trump decided to act on the Jerusalem issue now. Was it the result of his usual irrationalism, or of domestic politics? Or does he have in mind a new territorial solution that transcends the traditional parameters of the Israel-Palestine conflict?
It is worth noting that Trump’s unilateral demarche drew only a moderate response from the major Arab powers – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. For the Saudis, countering Iran is the top priority. And because Saudi Arabia is too weak to win that fight on its own – particularly in Lebanon and Syria – it will continue to strengthen its ties with Iran’s other rivals, especially with the region’s military superpower: Israel.
The emerging alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, once unimaginable, will likely become one of the driving forces of the new Middle East. Only time will tell what the price of such an anti-Iranian alliance will be?