Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a lot of heat, particularly from Democrats, for addressing the Republican National Convention this week while on a trip with stops across the Mideast — but some analysts point out that there remains a lot of key diplomatic work to be done there.
One former top State Department official accused Pompeo of “using Jerusalem as a prop for the RNC.” This was followed by skepticism from some Arab voices about the secretary of state’s reasons for being in the Middle East right now.
“People are cynical in the Middle East,” said Mohamed Chebaro of The Independent Arabia. “They think he has done it for his own interests as far as electioneering is concerned in the U.S.”
Still, since President Trump announced two weeks ago that a deal to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates had been struck, there have been details to work out, and the Trump administration has aimed to get the support of more countries.
Pompeo has been in Israel, Sudan, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman, all in a few short days.
“It’s good to see that Mr. Pompeo continues to put that energy and effort in to continue to do those talks,” Mustafa Alrawi, the assistant editor-in-chief of The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, told Fox News. “Does domestic politics in the U.S., at some point, suck the oxygen out of what is being tried to be done in the Middle East that’s important? It seems like a fragile time. You want Mike Pompeo rushing around the region. You don’t want him—dare I say it—to be distracted by conventions and elections in November.”
No other Arab countries on Pompeo’s itinerary have signed on to normalizing relations with Israel, but observers say if that happens, it will take time. The wheels of diplomacy grind slowly. The State Department clearly hoped that in the meantime, countries could agree to disagree, but still have constructive dialogue.
“Perhaps that is not something that comes easy in the Middle East. Certainly, the UAE has taken a courageous step forward,” Alrawi said.
The visit to Sudan and discussion about it potentially recognizing Israel was perhaps the most dramatic on the itinerary. Long ruled by Islamists and still on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, Sudan, having recently overthrown its dictator Omar Bashir, had plenty of reasons to want a reset. But, it has given no promise on Israel.
Plenty of Arabs have argued that the Abraham Accord, as the deal between Israel and the UAE is called, would sell the Palestinians short even as it stopped Israel from annexing some West Bank settlements, at least for now.
But, Alrawi said Arabs are not abandoning the goals of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a two-state solution and a Palestinian homeland. He said the Abraham Accord is meant to be a new approach for achieving that aim.
“We’d seen no progress because nothing material was happening. There had to be a way to do things differently. One official said to me not engaging—an empty chair policy—had done little in terms of getting Israel to do more, give more.”
There had been skepticism in parts of the Arab world early on about where this administration’s Middle East policy was headed.
“There were dark days in the region—of morale—when certain unilateral decisions were taken, for example, to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem,” Alrawi said. “That felt like there wasn’t a dialogue in the region. There wasn’t an effort to find an Arab position there. This is the beginning hopefully of finding the Arab position.”
To be sure, there are plenty of Arabs who would disagree. But, in the meantime, there is work to be done.
An Israeli delegation is set to head to the UAE on Monday to hammer out details of their new peace. Israel is the technology hub of the region. The United Arab Emirates clearly has understood innovation and vision.
With a pandemic on the world’s hands, a regional meeting of minds and resources over matters of science could net enormous health benefits for a part of the world in need right now. That could, in turn, inspire broader collaboration across borders, for a start.