While Joe Bidenís envoys try to tempt Iran back into the JCPOA, a new kind of diplomacy shows the shape of the future in a region where American influence is waning. Israel already has the most successful Covid-19 inoculation campaign of any liberal democracy. Last week saw a flurry of Covid diplomacy in the Middle East. None of it involved the United States.
Israel is alleged to have bought $1.2m-worth of Sputnik V jabs for shipping to the Assad regime in Syria. The secret deal, mediated by Moscow, is a sweetener in the exchange of a young Israeli woman who had entered Syria for two Syrian shepherds who had crossed into Israel.
Israelís military censors kept the story out of Israeli media. Was it that Benjamin Netanyahu, only weeks away from elections, doesnít want his rivals on the right criticizing him for trading the corona-elixir to Israelís enemies ó or his enemies on the left accusing him of propping up a war criminal? Or was it that Putinís government, who have faced street protests and have been slow off the mark in the great vaccination race, didnít want to be seen shipping shots abroad?
Either way, by the end of last week Netanyahu was reported as musing in a cabinet meeting about the further use of vaccine diplomacy with states that donít officially recognize Israel. He didnít have to look far for an example.
On Monday, 20,000 doses of Sputnik V entered Gaza via Egypt and the Rafah Crossing. The shots were a gift to the Hamas regime from the United Arab Emirates, and are believed to have been organized by Mohammed Dahlan.
Dahlan was born in Gazaís Khan Yunis refugee camp and acquired fluent Hebrew during his numerous sentences in Israeli prisons. After the Oslo Accords, he commanded the Palestinian Authorityís Preventative Security Force in the Strip ó where he was accused of embezzling millions of dollars in customs fees.
After falling out with first Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas ó who accused Dahlan of poisoning Arafat ó Dahlan decamped to the Gulf. He became a close advisor of Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, which competes with Qatar in shipping aid to Gaza.
Dahlan was always Hamasís enemy. Hamas accused him of torturing its operatives during his time in Gaza, and of attempting an American-funded coup after Hamas took over the Strip in 2007. On Monday, however, Ghazi Hamid, Hamasís minister for social development, thanked ďcomrade DahlanĒ for his generosity.
Why is Dahlan giving Hamas a shot in the arm, and why are Hamas thanking their old enemy?
Itís election season in the Palestinian territories too. Or at least itís supposed to be. Since 2007, Palestinian elections, like reconciliation between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, keep being declared, only to disappear like a mirage. Earlier this month, though, Fatah and Hamas met in Cairo and, after fourteen years of failed negotiations, finally agreed on the court that would manage the elections that are scheduled for May. They have yet to agree on how to run elections for the PLO, the Fatah-controlled umbrella body, and will meet again in Cairo in March. If Mahmoud Abbas allows the elections to happen, they could transform the map of Palestinian politics. Abbas is old and ailing. Dahlan the Fatah strongman is waiting in the wings, approved by Israel and the UAE. He might still be approved by the Americans and Europeans, who supported Dahlanís candidacy as Abbasís deputy and heir in 2007 ó a candidacy that Abbas rejected, just as he rejected negotiations with Israel, rejected airlifts of medical aid from the UAE in the early months of the Covid pandemic, and rejected the Israel-UAE peace deal.
Hamas are under intense pressure from Egypt and the Gulf to bury the hatchet with Fatah and end the Palestinian civil war. With Abbas tottering from the stage and the Gazan economy wrecked by the Israeli and Egyptian blockades, the time might be right for reconciliation, with Dahlan as the front man for the Palestinian factions. That would be the preliminary to negotiations with Israel, which would allow the Gulf Arabs to deepen their anti-Iranian alliance.
The common threads in this Covid diplomacy are that itís Russia, not the US, thatís supplying the vaccines to Syria and Gaza. Itís Israel thatís seeking diplomatic gains from permitting the worldís most valuable medicine to reach its enemies. Itís the UAE thatís seeking to pacify the Palestinians.
The United States, the historic patron of peace processing, seems to have no control over this intricate round of Covid diplomacy ó apart, of course, from pushing its older allies into alignment to counter the Democratsí flip to Iran.
The outlines of the post-American Middle East are emerging