On September 9, 2020, the Forum of Strategic Dialogue (FSD) and European Leadership Network (ELNET) held the third Trilateral US-Europe-Israel Strategic Dialogue in partnership with the Hudson Institute, a leading public policy think tank in the US. The dialogue covered US Middle East policy, and Europe and Israel in the context of Sino-American competition.
The dialogue addressed the announcement of an Israel-UAE peace deal brokered by the US. The discussions made it clear that the normalization agreement holds great potential and all parties concerned should think carefully how to make best use of this potential for Arab-Israeli peace, including in the Israeli-Palestinian context. The event took also place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, US “maximum pressure” on Iran, tensions in the Middle East (between both the US and Iran, and Israel and Iran), and a hardening US consensus on China. For their part, the Europeans entered the discussion while navigating internal challenges, trans-Atlantic tensions and the specter of a revisionist China. Discussions exposed a growing need by the US, Europe and Israel, to develop a common strategic picture of China.
Summary of key insights and assessments*:
U.S. Middle East policy & its impact on Europe and Israel
- There was a general agreement on all sides that the Israel-UAE agreement brokered by the US is an important step, which could open new and better horizons for the region. The big difference relative to Israel’s past peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan is that the UAE agreement could lead to a warm peace.
- The deal is significant, among other things, in that it puts an end to the Palestinian veto over Arab-Israeli peacemaking. From Israeli and American perspectives, more peaceful and normalized relations between Israel and the Arab world could contribute to the Palestinians. One Israeli official characterized the breakthrough as a development that could be “the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict”. The Europeans acknowledged the benefits of the deal and hailed the fact that it took annexation off the table (for now, at least), but at the same time expressed concern over the fact that it doesn’t specifically address the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From a European perspective, there should be more focus on “recharging” an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israelis however now believe that such a process should be viewed and addressed in a regional context.
- The Israel-UAE peace agreement is no doubt a blow to Iran’s regional ambitions. The three parties to the Dialogue by and large agree on the nature of the Iranian threat but disagree on its scope and the right strategy to cope with it. Iran is at a very low point. It is significantly weakened by the US campaign of “maximum pressure,” now exacerbated by the pandemic, and faces increasing public opposition in Lebanon and Iraq due to its meddling. Even Iran itself is roiled by discontent that has led to protests.
- The US administration believes that the “maximum pressure” campaign has forced Iran to “choose between guns in Damascus and butter in Tehran” (not all participants agreed with this statement). The US aims first and foremost to block Iranian oil exports—the main source of funding for Iran’s military capabilities and aggressive endeavors. It expects Europe to support this policy (as does Israel). While the US and Israel seem to consider the “maximum pressure” policy a success in weakening Iran and its role in the region, Europeans argued that it doesn’t work. Europe prefers an Iran strategy in the context of the JCPOA.
- Europe would support an international arms embargo on Iran and, in the face of the expiration of the UN arms embargo on October 18th, is willing to seek a solution with Russia and China that will prevent the selling to Iran of (major) weapon systems. From Israel’s perspective, Iran should also be prevented from exporting weapons, as is stipulated by the expiring UN embargo resolution.
- As far as Iran’s nuclear program is concerned, the current administration’s goal is to deny Iran indigenous enrichment because that concession in the JCPOA opens paths to nuclear military capabilities and weakens the US in attempting to enforce the “Gold Standard” (civilian nuclear programs without indigenous fuel cycle). If Joe Biden becomes the next US President, he will strive to rejoin the JCPOA. The question will be under what terms. In other words, will he first go back to the deal’s original terms and then try to improve it, or will he try to leverage the existing pressure on Iran to achieve a better deal?
Europe and Israel navigating the Sino-American competition
- All sides agreed that Xi Jinping’s China will likely become even more assertive, both in its own vicinity and globally. It aims to “restore Chinese greatness” surpassing the US economically, technologically, and militarily, while suppressing opposition at home, as demonstrated in Hong Kong.
- China is expanding its reach into the Pacific Ocean, the Middle East, and Europe, working on huge projects in the context of Made in China 2025 and the Belt and Road Initiative, including with Iran.
- The Iran-China deal may prove less than meets the eye because there is not enough trust between Tehran and Beijing—and it may not prove sufficiently cost-effective for China. Still, Iran makes for a natural partner to China.
- While Europe has relied much on the US in the past, it is currently shifting and developing more of its own policies, including on how to do business with China. Europe awoke late to the Chinese challenge and regards it increasingly as a risk, not only an opportunity. As a result, it is toughening against China, including introducing investment screening regulations.
- Like Europe, Israel is also compelled to maneuver between the US and China. Unlike much of Europe, it does not need Chinese 5G, yet like Europe it seeks Chinese investments. Israel lacks sufficient knowledge and expertise on China, especially in the decision-making circles.
 This summary reflects the main points which were raised by participants in the course of the Dialogue – according to our best judgement.