Can the UK and Europe play an effective role in the changing Middle East?

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ELNET-affiliated Forum of Strategic Dialogue (FSD) and Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, one of the world’s leading think tanks, successfully held their fifth annual UK-Israel Strategic Dialogue via videoconference.

The Dialogue highlighted the fact that in recent years the UK-Israel relations underwent a significant transformation. While in 2006, the relations were focused around 80% on the peace process and 20% on the rest, today, there is a much broader focus on bilateral cooperation in such fields as trade, science, technology, clean energy, and more. The UK is also well aware of the potential for cooperation involving Israel and regional actors against the background of Israeli-Arab normalization. As the UK is currently doing a policy review, Israel will feature more prominently in areas where it is a global leader, such as technology and defense. The new Labour Party leadership is also in the process of adopting a different approach towards Israel, recognizing opportunities for partnership.   

Participants included ministers, senior officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs, politicians, former officials, experts, academics, and journalists from the UK and Israel, as well as a senior official from the UAE for the first time in our dialogues.  

The first part of the discussions was dedicated to the question: Can the UK and Europe play an effective role in a changing Middle East?  Participants noted that the next U.S. administration could hugely impact the balance of power in the Middle East and the issue of Iran. A Biden administration will likely revive the trans-Atlantic cooperation. There was broad consensus that the EU is a secondary actor in the Middle East. A renewed U.S.-Europe cooperation under a Biden administration, as well as the Israeli-Arab normalization process, could afford the EU the opportunity to become a more active and effective player in the MENA region, mainly through its economic leverage.  Notwithstanding Brexit, the E3 (the UK, France, and Germany) will continue to coordinate their Middle East policies and serve as a policy axis. The discussion revealed that it is important for the UK to continue asserting itself regarding Middle East policy issues, through the E3, and with the EU. It should seize the opportunities of the Abraham Accords and work closely with the new U.S. administration.  In this context, it should regard the Abraham Accords as an opportunity for also addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Iran, the UK has a different policy line than the Trump administration (and Israel) but the overall view about Iran’s problematic ambitions and behavior has been similar. It was emphasized that should negotiations with Iran resume, they should also cover Iran’s regional destabilizing activities. Israel and the UK should think together on how best to curtail Iran’s influence in the region, well beyond the scope of the nuclear deal. This is especially valid should the international community re-engage Iran in negotiations.  

The dialogue demonstrated that Islamist extremism is continuously regarded by Europe as a big challenge, in both the Middle East and Europe itself. Essentially, there is an internal conflict in the Middle East (and within Islam) between those who want for the future to bury the past and those who want to bury the future in the past. There is an important question for Europe of how to deal with political Islam. Participants noted that Europe in general and the UK, in particular, should address extreme Islamist ideology, inter alia, by going after corruption, which was said to be a part of the Islamist nexus, and following the money trail like in the case of Hezbollah.

The second part of the dialogue was dedicated to the breakthrough towards Israeli-Arab normalization and its potential impact on the region and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The UAE paved the way by breaking the taboo and shifting the paradigm from Arab rejection to recognition of Israel. Some participants noted that taking annexation off the table (for now) was a significant diplomatic achievement, highly welcomed by Europe and the UK as preserving the possibility for a two-state solution. Normalization now creates a window of opportunity also for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

The Arab-Israeli normalization carries much potential for regional development and cooperation, including in the areas of economy, climate change, water, technology, cyber, healthcare, infrastructure, agriculture, and more. The UK was among the first international actors to welcome the UAE-Israel deal and is very committed to the partnership with Israel and other countries in the Gulf. There is a huge potential for the UK to play a role in the context of normalization. It was questioned to what extent the EU/UK might invest in the Israeli-Palestinian process, given the fact that their plate is full of internal problems (including COVID and Brexit).

The Dialogue revealed that the Israeli-Arab normalization should be viewed as an opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian relations. On the one hand, it could show Israelis the fruits of peace and incentivize them to make progress with the Palestinians. On the other hand, it could help recalibrate Palestinian expectations. In this context, it was suggested that relevant Arab actors should consider a new/revised Arab Peace Initiative.  At this phase, conditions on both sides are not ripe for political negotiations on a permanent solution. The focus should therefore be on stabilization and keeping the window open for a future negotiated solution and adopting a phased approach towards peacemaking.      

The Dialogue proved a highly valuable platform for a rich policy discussion by senior officials and experts. It highlighted the huge potential for further developing Israel-UK cooperation in a range of fields. Essentially it was also a call to action for the international community and the UK to leverage the Arab-Israeli normalization with other Arab states and in the Israeli-Palestinian context.