Trump “Peace Deal” a Front for War – Phyllis Bennis

Video ThumbnailArab states' recognition of Israel is meant to target Iran. Beware of an October surprise, says Phyllis Bennis on theAnalysis.news podcast with Paul Jay Transcript Paul Jay Hi, I'm Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. And remember, if you like the work we're doing, please find the dona

Arab states’ recognition of Israel is meant to target Iran. Beware of an October surprise, says Phyllis Bennis on theAnalysis.news podcast with Paul Jay

Transcript

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. And remember, if you like the work we’re doing, please find the donate button and click it and donate something, because we can’t do it without your support.

At the White House on Tuesday, September 15th, what’s being hailed as a historic agreement on Middle East peace was signed. President Donald Trump, watched as the leaders of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed a deal normalizing their relations with Israel.

Just how historic is this, and what, if anything, does it mean for the Middle East, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

Phyllis Bennis

Now joining us is Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in D.C. Among her many books are “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer,” as well as the 7th updated edition of her popular “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer,” and “Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer.” Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.

Phyllis Bennis

Great to be with you, Paul. 

Paul Jay

Before we get into just what was agreed to and the significance in a broader way, there was a day, and it wasn’t that long ago, that an agreement to recognize Israel by any Arab country would have been met with, you know, storms of protest in Arab streets. I don’t get a sense we’re seeing that, and why not? 

Phyllis Bennis

You’re right, we’re not seeing that, except among Palestinians who have been completely left out of this process. You know, there are two things that this whole process was about and, spoiler alert, neither peace nor Palestine were among them.

So you’re not seeing a huge amount of opposition in the Gulf countries involved, the UAE and Bahrain, these are overwhelmingly, impossibly wealthy small countries where tiny majorities of the populations are citizens. The rest are imported workers who are treated terribly, that’s a different issue. But the desire to expand markets, to look at places like Tel Aviv as examples of Western modernity, which we want to be part of, is very popular in those countries.

And while there is support for the Palestinians in the abstract among the populations, the absolute monarchies that rule these countries are right in their assessment that they no longer really have to worry about any kind of serious opposition among their populations. This was able to go forward, ignoring the Palestinians, ignoring any reality of peace. These were not countries that were at war with Israel, let’s be clear. So the idea that Israel is finally making peace with longtime enemies, these countries were never enemies of Israel.

And in fact, trade deals, and security arrangements, and all kinds of ties were already underway, have been for years, decades in some cases, where they were simply done quietly and out of the public eye.

They weren’t covert, they were known, but they didn’t get bragged about. They didn’t get a lot of publicity, and that enabled them to go forward very quietly. But now normalization is front and center. So that’s what we were looking at in this signing ceremony yesterday.

Paul Jay

Now, in the press that’s a little more critical of Trump, mostly it’s being played out as this is a PR stunt. Some are suggesting it actually has real relevance, but mostly they’re saying it’s posturing. But do you think there’s more to it than just a PR stunt?

Phyllis Bennis

Absolutely. There is certainly a question of elections, that is, the timing question is central. Trump is looking to get credentials to look presidential. But the other thing that is very real and will have very serious consequences for the entire Middle East is that this set of alliances is all about shoring up the US effort to create a widespread Middle-East coalition, regional coalition, against Iran. This is far more about the possibility of war than it is about peace.

And by pulling in the UAE and Bahrain with Israel, the US gets its key allies unified against Iran. They likely get guarantees of arms purchases, we don’t know that for sure, not all the texts have been made public, but that’s a pretty likely agreement whether it’s written there or not. These are already countries that buy hundreds of millions of dollars of arms from the US and, of course, Trump gets support in the election context.

The UAE and Bahrain both get brownie points with the US for giving in, as it would be seen, and normalizing with Israel. They very likely will get access to more arms. There are already discussions underway about the UAE getting access to the F-35 fighter, the stealth fighter that so far only Israel in the region has had access to. And they will get access to Israeli markets. They can claim credit, as the UAE has done, for stopping Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, despite the fact that de facto annexation was already underway and is continuing nonstop.

And the de jure annexation, which had been threatened and is now stalled, was already stalled before the Israeli-U.A.E agreement was ever talked about.

So that’s simply a false claim. Israel gets normalization with Arab states that he can brag about in the very tricky political situation that he faces as well. 

Paul Jay

He being Netanyahu (the Prime Minister of Israel).

Phyllis Bennis

He, exactly, being Netanyahu. And Israel gives up nothing. Defacto annexation continues, de jure annexation is only partially delayed, and the Palestinians, to put it in the words of my beloved grandmother, get bupkis, which is Yiddish for nothing. 

Paul Jay

Where are the Saudis in all this?

Phyllis Bennis

The Saudis are being quiet. They have, among other things, a much larger population than these tiny little microstates, that they do have to pay some attention to. They also have a diplomatic and political problem that the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which officially is still the position of the Arab League and all the Arab countries allegedly, although as we see clearly, there’s no real alliance with it. But that proposal, that proposed agreement that the Arab world was prepared to normalize relations with Israel only after it ended its occupation, returned to the 67 borders, allowed a Palestinian state, created a just solution to the refugee crisis, etc., that was put forward by Saudi Arabia. So the Saudis are in a little bit of a political dilemma that they can’t simply abandon it as if it never happened, even though no one else is paying any attention to it. And my guess is that if this process goes forward, there’s talk about some combination of Oman, perhaps Sudan being brought into the process, that the Saudis will give in too. You know Paul, one of the things that we can look at here for some sort of precedent on how this works, there were, in US views, in the last 25-30 years of US claimed efforts to be dealing with trying to bring peace to the Middle East, meaning peace between Israel and the Palestinians, there were kind of two versions of how that could happen. One was known as “inside out,” the other was known as “outside in.” The inside out version, which was clarified and attempted with the Oslo process, which as we see has not worked, but that idea was that you start with the inside, you start with forcing the Israelis and the Palestinians together. You figure out some way to get them to agree. And then the outside, the Arab states, would kind of have had no choice but to go ahead and normalize relations with Israel as well.

Well, that didn’t work. That started in 1993-94, hasn’t worked. The other proposal was what was known as “outside in.” That was reflected in the 1991 Madrid talks that were also orchestrated by the US even before Oslo. And that idea was, you start with the outside, you start by getting Israel and the Arab states to normalize relations. And under those conditions, the Palestinians would have no choice but to follow along. Well, as we know from Madrid, that didn’t work either.

The problem with both of those models is that if you don’t have justice for the Palestinians, meaning ending the 67 occupation, ending the second, third and fourth class citizenship of Palestinian citizens inside Israel, ending the denial of the refugees’ rights to return to their homes. If you don’t have any of that, it’s not going to work, whichever side you start with. And that’s what we’re looking at right now.

Paul Jay

You talk about this as part of developing a front, an American allied front against Iran. One of the reports is that Bahrain was probably pushed into this by Saudi Arabia, or leaned on to join us by the Saudis, who have a lot of control over Bahrain.

But the Saudi control does not extend over Qatar, even though they wished it did, and there was quite an effort in the last few years to try to isolate Qatar by the Saudis and its allies.

And I think part of this was about the fact that Qatar seemed to not want to play along on the targeting of Iran.

Where is that now? 

Phyllis Bennis

Well, that has not changed very much. The boycott of Qatar, which has been quite, quite significant in terms of its impact on the economy, and in Qatar, which has been largely cut off, its population has a very hard time traveling to the other Gulf states. The Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain, and others, have declared this boycott against Qatar. And they have a set of demands that they’re holding to, one of which is that they get rid of Al Jazeera, that they end Al Jazeera.

It’s interesting that in that context that just yesterday we heard that the Justice Department is going after one part of Al Jazeera’s production, A.J. Plus it’s called, which is their online segment in English that is run out of the United States. The Justice Department is now insisting that it be registered as the agent of a foreign country. And the position of Qatar is that it’s independent. Whatever we think about that claim, given that it is funded largely by the government in Qatar, the position of Al Jazeera significantly is that it’s the same arrangement as agencies like the BBC, the Voice of America, all of these other national press outlets, and it should be treated no different. None of those others are required to become registered as foreign agents. So we’ll see how that plays out, but it’s quite likely that the initiative is a political initiative from the Trump administration designed to shore up the Saudi position in this conflict between Saudi Arabia and its allies versus Qatar. So right now, Qatar is not participating in this move. Interestingly, Oman does seem to be, they do seem to be sending signals that they might be interested in some kind of a peace agreement with Israel.

Just on that, one side point here, we should note that while the treaty with Bahrain is called a peace treaty, the UAE is making the claim that its agreement with Israel is not a treaty, that it’s simply a, quote, “declaration of peace.” Now, exactly what that means, if there’s really any difference, we don’t know because it has not been made public.

Paul Jay

Especially when they weren’t at war anyway. 

Phyllis Bennis

Precisely, precisely. None of these countries were at war with Israel. So in that context, it’s been interesting that Oman, which in the past has served as kind of an interlocutor between a number of the Gulf States, and the United States, and Iran, is now indicating that it might be interested in signing on to a deal with Israel. So, it’s not clear yet whether that will happen or not.

Paul Jay

So, if this is not just election posturing, and I’m sure you’re agreeing, it’s also election posturing, but if it’s about the isolation, or increasing the isolation of Iran, are they actually getting ready for something? I mean, do you think there’s some kind of October surprise coming?

Phyllis Bennis

I think the possibility of an October surprise is not, unfortunately, off the table. There was another incident a couple of days ago which has gotten very little press in the United States, I think it was picked up on Fox, but it’s gotten quite a bit of public attention elsewhere, particularly in South Africa, since the allegations came from there. There’s a claim that was being bandied about that anonymous sources in U.S. intelligence have found out that Iran was considering an assassination attempt against the US ambassador to South Africa.

Now, the U.S. ambassador in South Africa, Trump’s ambassador, is a wealthy woman from Florida. A long time, I think a 20-year member of the Mar-a-Lago Country Club, a big, big donor to the Trump campaign, and a purse designer. That’s what she does, she designs purses. She’s very, very wealthy. Her only claim to knowing anything about South Africa is that she happens to have been born in South Africa, and speaks Afrikaans, the language of white people, and some coloreds in South Africa.

But she’s not an expert in diplomacy, she’s not an expert in foreign policy, she’s not an expert in African affairs, she’s not an expert in South Africa.

Paul Jay

Yeah, but hang on, Phyllis, she is an expert in purses. 

Phyllis Bennis

Yes, she is. 

Paul Jay

OK, we’ve got to give her some credit here. 

Phyllis Bennis

As someone who knows very little about purses, I bow to her knowledge about purses. However, she is the US ambassador. So if there were a serious assassination attempt, that would be a very serious thing. Now, it’s not at all clear how serious this claim is. It’s coming from anonymous sources, they’re claiming that by going public with it, it will prevent it from happening.

So it’s one of those things that, you know, how do you prove that it never happened, how do you prove the negative? If this case was designed to further provoke a response from Iran, further escalate the situation, it makes the possibility, a very dangerous one, of an October surprise, right before the election saying, “I’m defending this country. We are going to go after Iran” in whatever form, a cyber attack, hopefully not even considering, but not impossible, a military attack of some sort.

And all of this is being framed on the US side as the likelihood that Iran would do something like this as retaliation for the United States move at the beginning of this year, on January 3rd, when the U.S. assassinated the Iranian general Soleimani on Iraqi territory, who was a very powerful and quite beloved political figure in Iran, as well as a military leader. And it’s in the context of that where Iran has not retaliated, has not taken the US position of every action requires a military response.

But, you know, this would be a serious provocation if the US moved against Iran on the claim that it had considered carrying out something like this, and it could escalate even further. It makes for a very dangerous situation right now.

Paul Jay

But we don’t see this sort of drumbeats for war with Iran that we had seen earlier. It seems to be all about China now.

Phyllis Bennis

So far that’s true. But the U.S. is certainly not about to go to war with or even threaten China in the same way for an immediate hoped-for public boost. That’s the danger of something like a possible attack on Iran.

There could be a view among some in the White House, not among anybody who knows anything, but among political appointees whose only concern is to make sure that their guy gets elected.

They may well believe that they could attack Iran with impunity, and there would be no strategic consequence, and they would get a lot of popular support for it. 

Paul Jay

Do you think that’s true? 

Phyllis Bennis

I think it’s not entirely untrue. I should say, I don’t think this is very likely to happen, I just think it’s a possibility that we can’t completely put aside. 

Paul Jay

The sanctions have been extremely onerous on Iran. What do you know about what’s going on inside Iran now?

Phyllis Bennis

Well, I think the main thing is exactly what you say, Paul, the sanctions have had a devastating impact on a country with a large middle class, a very wealthy and advanced country technologically and in terms of infrastructure. Suddenly you have, in the last couple of years, as the US has gone about the escalation of sanctions, particularly since 2018, when the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and immediately ratcheted up the levels of sanctions.

The impact on everybody, certainly the most on the poorest sectors of the population, but on the middle class as well, access to medicine has become very, very difficult. Even, in some areas, food has been facing shortages. In some areas, there are problems getting parts for civilian aircraft, for instance. So it’s become quite unsafe in many cases to fly inside Iran. So the day to day life of ordinary Iranians is being affected enormously.

The impact on the government, and certainly on Government decision making around strategic issues, has been unaffected, which is always the case. It was the case during the dozen years that the US imposed absolutely devastating, crippling sanctions on Iraq, where the impact was on the civilian population, not on the government. It’s been true historically in Cuba. It’s true now in Venezuela. So the question of economic sanctions always impacts the civilian population, and governments are always able to protect themselves from the impact of those sanctions.

Paul Jay

The Obama administration, the Obama-Biden administration, well, it didn’t change at all the American strategic support for Israel, and seeing Israel as sort of, some people have called Israel the “land-based aircraft carrier” for the United States in the Middle East.

But there was a very bitter relationship between Netanyahu and Obama.

Netanyahu came and spoke to Congress in a way that was meant to offend Obama, and it seemed to have some effect on the relationship.

What do you expect from a Biden? Do you expect any of that kind of antagonism between Biden and Netanyahu? Do we see any difference in American policy under Biden?

Phyllis Bennis

I think there will be a significant difference between Trump policy and Biden policy. The difference between Biden and Obama policy will be significantly less visible. As you say, the strategic relationship did not change under Obama. Crucially, the continuation, and indeed the escalation of US military aid took place under Obama. The memorandum of understanding was signed in, I believe it was 2014 under Obama. It was a 10-year agreement with Israel in which the US agreed to provide 38 billion dollars, 3.8 billion dollars a year to Israel in direct military aid.

None of it is economic aid. It all goes directly to the Israeli military. And that was negotiated under Obama. So the question of the strategic partnership did not change. What did change was not only the rhetoric, which certainly, as you say, Netanyahu treated Obama with incredibly overt, raw racism. And it led to, among other things, the decision of more than 60 members of Congress, most of them from the Black Caucus, who publicly decided to skip the speech when Bibi Netanyahu showed up at the invitation of Republicans to address a joint session of Congress and treated it as if he were making the equivalent of a State of the Union address, you know, bringing guests that he pointed to as if he was in his house rather than our house.

It was an incredible affront, and incredibly racist in his treatment of Obama. And the rhetoric was very sharp in 2010, early in the Obama administration, that was sort of at the height of this kind of personal racist treatment. And the tension was very high. What was interesting at that time, there was a poll taken, it was a Zogby poll that summer, and it was at the moment when the press was writing about the false claim that “Obama is throwing Israel under the bus,” “Obama is abandoning the strategic relationship with Israel.” None of that was true, but the rhetoric had changed, and the press was responding to that. That same moment, the Zogby poll people did a poll on foreign policy that included a question on U.S. relations with Israel. And the question asked specifically about Israeli settlements. And it said, “Israel is building settlements across the occupied territories. Which of the following two sentences best describes what you think about that?” So sentence number one was something like, “Israel is building settlements for security reasons and they have the right to build wherever they want.”

Sentence number two was something like, “Israel is building on expropriated land, and the settlements should all be torn down and the land returned to its original owners.” Now, under international law, sentence number two is exactly correct, but it’s also a very provocative, rather dramatic way of describing that, deliberately so. Despite that level of provocation, 63% of Democrats supported the second sentence, supported door number two, if you will, and it spoke very sharply to the degree to which support for Israel has become a thoroughly partisan divide in this country in a way that it has not been in the past.

And that continues today. It is a Republican issue to be unqualified, unconditionally supportive of everything Israel wants, and everything Israel does.

Democrats, even mainstream Democrats, are no longer prepared to do that. And within the Democratic Party, there’s a progressive wing, the Bernie Sanders wing, the Elizabeth Warren wing, the AOC wing, whatever you want to call it, who are far more willing to be critical of Israeli policies, and even for the first time, are now talking about considering conditioning US military aid, something that has never been conditioned, on Israeli acquiescence to an agreement with and operation with human rights law. That if Israel continues to violate human rights and violate international law, there should be a cut in military aid. That’s never even been mentioned, and it’s now a regular feature of the discussions in Congress. So it’s a very different world right now, and Biden’s going to have to respond to that, even though he probably is not that happy with changing that. He’s a longtime supporter of Israel, with a very personal tie that Obama, for instance, never really had.

So it’s going to be a little tougher. But I think he’s going to be more vulnerable to the changes within the Democratic Party, and thus the pressures from outside, from political movements. He’s going to have to respond in a way that earlier leaders, earlier presidents, never had to face.

Paul Jay

Now, one would think Biden is going to want to restore the Iran nuclear deal. 

Phyllis Bennis

Absolutely. 

Paul Jay

And certainly, these Gulf countries, the Saudis, the Israelis, are very opposed to that, which I guess is one of the reasons they’re playing along with this. 

Phyllis Bennis

Right, they want to do this before the new administration comes in. 

Paul Jay

To what extent will this affect the elections, do you think, that all these countries, especially the ones with so much money, really want Trump to be re-elected?

Phyllis Bennis

I don’t think it’s likely to have that much impact. The support for it is very strong among big-time supporters of Israel, which means a sector of the Jewish community, a diminishing, rapidly diminishing sector, and a very large sector of the Christian Zionist, or Christian fundamentalist evangelical movement. That’s where the bulk of Trump’s support on his Israel policies come from. Far more significant in the Republican Party than Jewish support, even with the shifts on Israel, Jewish support for Republicans, and Jewish support for Trump, are still a relatively small minority. It comes from the wealthiest, it’s people like Adelson and others who are longtime backers of Trump and backers of Israel, backers of Israeli settlement processes in specific. But they don’t speak for anywhere close to a majority of the US Jewish community, and they can’t provide those votes. So I don’t think it’s going to have that much direct impact on the election. Trump’s base will talk about loving Israel, so they’ll love this.

But they’re also racist in many cases towards Arabs. And the anti-Muslim, Islamophobic component in those communities is very strong as well. So at the end of the day, these leaders are still Muslims. It was interesting to me that all of them appeared in Western-style suits and ties, which is traditional for the Israeli leader, absolutely not traditional for officials in the Gulf states, who almost always appear in Arab style robes. I think that was a very specific, I’m guessing, this is purely a guess, that it was suggested to them perhaps, that they do that, that that would be more helpful to the Trump campaign, because his base would probably not appreciate seeing these so-called friends appearing looking like Arabs.

Paul Jay

Next to Trump right? 

Phyllis Bennis

Exactly. Exactly.

Paul Jay

Right. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis. 

Phyllis Bennis

Thank you, Paul. It’s been a pleasure.

Paul Jay

And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.

 

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