US expands military footprint in Middle East to control energy markets, boost arms sales: ex-Israeli peace negotiator
Published: Jun 17, 2024 02:57 AM

Daniel Levy Photo: Xie Wenting/GT

Daniel Levy Photo: Xie Wenting/GT

Editor’s Note:

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution aimed at reaching a comprehensive ceasefire deal in three phases to end the war in Gaza on Monday. According to the resolution, phase one includes an “immediate, full and complete ceasefire with the release of hostages including women, the elderly and the wounded, the return of the remains of some hostages who have been killed, and the exchange of Palestinian prisoners.” The resolution urged both parties to fully implement the terms of the proposal “without delay and without condition.” How will the resolution impact on the current Palestine-Israel conflict? Is the “comprehensive arrangement” sought by the US feasible? Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) talked to ex-Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy (Levy), the president of the US/Middle East Project, on these pressing matters. 

GT: The UN Security Council adopted a resolution aimed at reaching a comprehensive ceasefire deal this week. How do you assess this resolution and its effectiveness to end the conflict?
Levy: The US has not put a proposal on the table that it is backed up with serious politics and leverage. It is also going beyond constructive ambiguity to being simply dishonest in suggesting Hamas is the only party that needs to accept this. The Israeli government has been quite clear in rejecting the key concept, which is that the beginning of the ceasefire leads to a permanent ceasefire. The US is either indulging in wishful thinking or in outright duplicity by pretending this is not the case. It seems to want to believe that there can be a breakthrough without doing the heavy political lifting.

I think what goes on at the UN is not going to change things. It seems the US promoted this Security Council resolution partly for domestic politics and in part due to the wishful thinking and weakness and hoping to avoid a standoff with Israel. The resolution was not a breakthrough, nor was it a challenge to anyone.  

GT: How do you view the “comprehensive arrangement” sought by the US in the Middle East, which includes providing security guarantees for Saudi Arabia, the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and more Arab countries with Israel, and Israel agreeing to a ceasefire and accepting the establishment of a Palestinian state? How likely is this arrangement to succeed? What are the biggest challenges it faces? 
Levy: First, it is important to acknowledge that there is not a comprehensive arrangement being sought here. This is primarily an upgrade in US-Saudi relations which the US is pursuing for its own geopolitical reasons and largely for reasons of domestic politics it is trying to add a Saudi-Israel component. This normalization arrangement is being attempted within the context of building competing axes in the region and to strengthen the American axis against the Iranian-led axis of resistance. So, its effect would also be to further drive conflict and destabilization rather than harmony, stability and peace. 

Furthermore, it is crucial to understand that this is not an attempt to actually reach Israeli-Palestinian peace – what is being proposed is very limited in terms of actual Israeli-Palestinian deliverables and specifically the concrete steps Israel would have to take are limited and are in fact exclusively rhetorical and symbolic. 

The US and Israel would hope that in the wake of reaching some arrangements with Saudi Arabia, other Arab and Muslim states might join. However, the three-way arrangement is unlikely to be reached in the short term. Other smaller arrangements may be reached. 

GT: If the US’ “comprehensive agreement” were to be reached, what impact could it have on the China-Saudi relationship? How might it affect the previous reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
Levy: The primary motivation for the US in pursuing this arrangement is its interest in upgrading relations with Saudi Arabia as part of its geopolitical ambitions to decelerate China’s growing cooperation and relations in the Gulf and Arab region. The US recognizes the financial and economic weight of Saudi Arabia. And it has of course noticed that America’s traditional allies in the Gulf are building closer relations in trade and investment, in science, technology and many other areas with China. 

Trade increasingly being denominated outside of a dollar reserve currency framework is of particular concern to the US, most notably energy and oil contracts and the prospect for the increasing use of the petro-renminbi rather than the petro-dollar. The US probably does not believe it can prevent Saudi-China relations from continuing and even expanding. Saudi understands we live in a changing world and will continue to hedge and in many respects probably sees China as a more reliable partner toward a stable global future. But the US hopes to slow this phenomenon down via a deal in which Saudi becomes more reliant on a more far-reaching American security arrangement. 
The US is probably hoping that China-Saudi relations will slow down and does not expect them to come to an abrupt halt. Even this expectation may be exaggerated. The US is acting as the weaker party in this arrangement, and Saudi Arabia most likely senses that. If there are unprecedented benefits for Saudi Arabia on the table at an acceptable cost, then one should expect Saudi to take those. But Saudi is very unlikely to want to shift exclusively into a US camp or to see the US as the most, or only, reliable, sustainable and stable long-term partner. 

While the extent of a security relationship may complicate matters, one should anticipate that Saudi will look to continue to carry forward its relations with China, and that if the US expects otherwise, it will be disappointed. 

The Saudi-Iran rapprochement was an attempt to take a comprehensive view of regional de-escalation and stability. Unfortunately, the Israel-Saudi deal promoted by the US has as one of its elements, at least with the Israeli side, an intention to do the opposite – to strengthen competing axes, increase instability and escalate conflict. 

GT: How do you view the recent recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state by several European countries this month? What does this signal? How do you view the prospect of a Palestinian statehood? 
Levy: The decision by three European states – Spain, Ireland and Norway – to recognize Palestine, possibly to be followed by others, is more symbolic than substantive. It does reflect an act of solidarity with the Palestinians and an ongoing loss of patience with Israel. These issues are also subject to shifts in domestic politics in European countries.
A final status deal on Palestinian statehood was supposed to be a quarter of a century ago in May of 1999. To prevent Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declaring statehood on that occasion, the EU issued a statement that it might recognize Palestine at an appropriate time. Fast forward 25 years, and a small clutch of European countries recognize it, which feels like a very small step. 

GT: How do you view the differences between China’s Middle East policy and the US’ Middle East policy? In your observation, has China’s Middle East policy changed in recent years? 
Levy: Contemporary China and the US have a very different history of involvement in the Middle East. The Middle East or West Asia was an arena of intense contestation during the Cold War with states aligning and being part of the American and Soviet satellite systems. US engagement included deep ties to various militaries in the region and a US military presence. In the post-Soviet era, and what is known as the brief window of unipolarity and in what might be characterized as the US looking for new enemies to sustain an advanced military footing and military Keynesianism as an economic policy, the US was militarily engaged in the Middle East to the highest degree in its history. 

The first Gulf War had the justification of expelling Iraq from Kuwait. This led to the US expanding its permanent military presence and bases. It also led to backlash against the US. In the era defined by the global war on terror, the US militarily invaded Afghanistan and then on the most spurious of grounds did similar in Iraq. In other words, the US has a major contemporary history, which continues, of military footprint, in the region. Alongside this, energy relationships have been crucial and in particular the US attempt to maximally control global energy markets and in particular to ensure the dollar as the trading vehicle for energy contracts, as well as the Middle East increasingly being seen as the most important market for US weapons manufacturers. China has no such contemporary history of deep alliances or warmongering in the Middle East, which is a good thing. 

When there is a period of global contestation, the US has a history and perhaps its default position is to divide the world into friend and foe and to build exclusive axes and alliances, as happened during the Cold War in which each region was approached in this manner. 

However, the degree of interconnectivity in today’s system in almost every respect, and certainly economically and with supply chains, means this model will be difficult to replicate if the US is seeking to pursue a global bifurcation based on its contestation with China.

Most countries will not want to choose sides. China does not seem to have an approach premised on choosing sides, which may well serve its purpose better in West Asia and globally. The US is accommodating its model. Both China and the US will attempt to build deepen relations and flows of connectivity, infrastructure, trade, outsourcing etc. China pursues both less of a zero sum approach and thus far does not emphasize militarization.

The US policy is also based on what appears to be permanent allies and permanent adversaries seeking to strengthen one block and to prevent the strengthening of a block that could be hostile. However, this very approach encourages conflict. The US has maintained an extremely aggressive sanctions regime against Iran. By contrast, China maintains relations with all parties. This is why China was able to broker a very important reconciliation between Saudi and Iran which has contributed much more to regional stability than the efforts on the other side. 

In this respect, the US can neither be an intermediary nor advance peace between the competing parties in conflicts. In the current conflict, for instance, the US cannot talk to both Israel and Hamas, and its role as a mediator is ineffective. The US instead has pursued an attempt to bring its own allies closer together. 

China’s role in the region is changing as the region becomes more important to the global economy and flows and nodal connectivity. As China deepens its cooperation, there will be difficult choices to make regarding how much to engage in the conflict-strewn arena of the Middle East. 

The recent meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum represents a further institutionalization of the deepening of ties and of the expansion of areas in which cooperation is taking place. China has already made enhancing ties with West Asia and the entire Arab expanse a priority. Arab states recognize both the trends and shifts in global power and the unpredictable pendulum swings in US policy.