By: Geoffrey Van Orden CBE, Distinguished Fellow
We can rightly applaud the steps now being taken by the UAE and Israel to normalise their relations. Such initiatives can only be to the long-term advantage of the people of the Middle Eastern nations, helping to build trust, opening fresh possibilities for harnessing Israeli know-how and Arab resources, and finding pragmatic solutions to the most bitter and deep-rooted problems. Following moves by Egypt some four decades ago and then Jordan, to reset relations with Israel, there are now many permutations in the relations between Israel and the 22 states of the Arab league with a majority open to low-level diplomatic relations and trade. This is in spite of the efforts to isolate Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and its western apologists. Extremists will of course seek to exacerbate problems. They will try to intensify their efforts through the more radical mosques and madrassahs, through social media, and through acts of terrorism, to continue to cajole and mislead the most populous and deprived areas of the Arab street. All this is well understood.
My immediate concern is elsewhere – the alienation of Turkey. We are used to Iran’s exploitation of Shia proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in order to threaten Western interests and the security of Israel. But there is now a new and deepening schism in the region. This could open dangerous and fresh fault lines across the Sunni Arab world where temporal rivalry is being played out through various strands of political Islam, in particular the Moslem Brotherhood. Central to this concern is Turkey, a great country that for the past century has looked to Europe for its modernising inspiration, for nearly 70 years has been a key member of NATO but which has been taken for granted by the West and its interests neglected. Now Turkey, feeling rejected, has turned to the South, seeking to rekindle its Ottoman heritage and to show affinity with radical, pious or opportunist elements in Gaza and Libya and Qatar and take issue with rival traditional rulers in Saudi Arabia and UAE and the military secular regime in Egypt. The pre-Erdogan alliance of convenience between Israel and Turkey has long collapsed. The west is in disarray. Not only has Russia now managed to reinsert itself into the Middle East but we also have France and the EU exacerbating the difficulties with Turkey by bone-headed support for Greek interests over the long-running Cyprus issue and now exploitation of natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
US policy in the region in recent years has lacked strategic consistency and is seen to be weak. The UK, once the most influential power in the region, has been barely visible, but could play a key role with the US in helping bring Turkey into the mainstream before schism becomes an irreparable chasm. The threat from the Iranian regime, from Russia and from international terrorism have not gone away. It is vitally important therefore to generate cohesion among our allies in the Middle East, to heal sensitivities and to repair damaged relations with restored regional alliances and economic opportunities. Turkey is central to this task.