In Other News: Israel-UAE Deal, Lebanese Prime Minister Resignation & More – August 14, 2020

August 14, 2020

Israel and the UAE reached a potentially historic deal yesterday that will begin the process of normalizing relations and temporarily suspend Israeli annexation of territory in the West Bank, while also angering Palestinians and further isolating Iran in the region. The two countries will send ambassadors and establish some commercial ties, including flight connections, making the UAE the first Gulf country and the third country in the region to establish diplomatic ties with Israel after Egypt (1980) and Jordan (1994). One of the key drivers behind the rapprochement appears to have been mutual mistrust of Iran, which is also shared by other Gulf neighbors, and the world is watching to see whether more of them follow suit. Additional deals could start the process of formalizing an alignment of Israel and its neighbors on the need for security cooperation to counter Iran’s aggression by proxy in the region. Iran and Turkey have slammed the deal as a betrayal of Muslims, and Palestinians have also been sharply critical of the deal, which excluded them from negotiations and undermined long-held unity among Arab neighbors in support of Palestine. One of the biggest impacts will be political – this is a major coup both for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump, whose administration helped broker the deal. An official signing will take place at the White House.

The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned Monday amid public anger and consecutive days of protests after a massive port explosion that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands more, and displaced hundreds of thousands. Protests turned violent, with demonstrators throwing stones and other objects, and police responded with what has been described as excessive force, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. The country’s president, Michel Aoun, has asked the government to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet can be formed. Parliament is now charged with selecting a new Prime Minister, which is likely to be a long process complicated by jockeying among the country’s competing sectarian (and other) factions. Furthermore, the resignation did little to quell protests, which continued into Monday night. Lebanon was contending with economic crisis and protests even prior to the Covid-19 outbreak and last week’s explosion. Few expect a change in cabinet makeup to effect any real change, and many fear endemic corruption will hamper efforts to effectively deploy much-needed aid. Continued failure on the part of Lebanon’s political class to govern effectively, especially in a crisis, is likely to prolong social unrest.

Russia has registered the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine (and called it Sputnik V), sparking widespread global concern about the potential impact of administering inoculations that have not undergone sufficient testing. The vaccine has not yet completed a “phase three” trial, in which thousands of participants are tested. Thus far, it has only been tested on 76 people. Regardless, it will be available to select groups of vulnerable individuals, such as Russian medical personnel by the end of August. Use in the general population is not expected until January 2021. The development has been welcomed in some quarters – a Brazilian institute expects to start producing it in the second half of 2021, and the Philippines will host a Russia-funded phase three clinical trial scheduled to start in October. Philippine President Duterte reversed course after initially offering to be a test subject, saying that he would wait until May 2021, after the phase three trial is over. A major requirement of a successful vaccine is that people trust and accept it – if not, few will agree to be inoculated. Beyond the obvious risk that an untested vaccine could have unintended negative health impacts, if it is widely administered and found to be ineffective, that could undermine public confidence in any future vaccines with greater potential to protect against the virus. Furthermore, Putin is taking a substantial political risk, given his push to return Russia to its Soviet-era global standing. While first place in the vaccine race can be a source of both prestige and national pride, failure, and the embarrassment that would entail for the country, could severely dent his popularity.

Tensions in Bolivia are boiling over again as anti-government protesters demand elections. Labor unions and indigenous groups who support former Bolivian President Evo Morales have mounted demonstrations and highway blockades over the last two weeks in an effort to pressure the current government of President Jeanine Áñez to move forward with presidential elections in September. Áñez came into office as a caretaker president last November when Morales fled the country in response to mass protests and ire over marred elections which gave him a narrow victory. Many Bolivians and international observers believed the vote was fraudulent due to widespread irregularities in the process. New presidential elections were supposed to take place in May 2020, but they have been postponed twice now due to the pandemic. The new proposal is for an October 18 election, but protesters want Áñez to honor the September 6 date. The unrest in Bolivia is not surprising, however, given that the pandemic renewed economic grievances among Bolivia’s poor, many of whom are fervent Morales supporters. Morales was Bolivia’s first president of indigenous descent, and although he remains in exile, he still wields influence in the country.