Israel’s newly established relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are a welcome development signaling a paradigm shift. The working assumption for decades was that Arab states would not normalize relations with Israel absent resolution of the Palestinian problem, or at least significant progress toward that goal; it now turns out that some Arab states are no longer willing to wait.
The old paradigm, based on pronouncements made in public and private by Arab leaders, on opinion surveys conducted throughout the Arab world, and on social media discourse, failed to expose the yearning of the Arab elites to advance their particular interests.
These states have now followed the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s signing of a separate peace agreement with Israel. While the 1978 Camp David peace agreements between Israel and Egypt promised a solution of the Palestinian issue based on autonomy, such talks on self-rule were abandoned in the early 1980s.
Unlike the peace with Egypt, Israel’s 1994 agreement with Jordan was the result of progress on the Palestinian front, especially the Oslo Accord signed the previous year, which granted King Hussein a green light and legitimacy to advance in the bilateral channel with Israel.
Four factors explain the recent Arab willingness and readiness to normalize ties with Israel independently of the Palestinian issue. First was the desire to take advantage of the narrow window of opportunity opened by the Trump administration’s willingness to pay dearly, some would say an exorbitant price, for Arab normalization with Israel. In fact, it highlights a new and interesting phenomenon of a third party paying for a bilateral agreement.
The price in the case of the Emirates was a US weapons deal of unprecedented proportions, including the world’s most advanced fighter jets, the F35s. The US paid Sudan by removing it from the list of terror-supporting states, a move worth a fortune in Western loans and investments, whereas Morocco’s compensation was US recognition of its annexation of the Western Sahara, which it had been trying to achieve since invading that territory in 1975. Over the years, it had mobilized the Jewish lobby in the US to that end, but unsuccessfully.
The US provided generous aid to other countries that made peace with Israel in the past, but Israel was also made to pay in territorial withdrawal and diplomatic and economic assistance. The price Israel paid Egypt was particularly high, entailing its pullout from Sinai and dismantling its settlements there, but Israel also agreed to changes in its border with Jordan as part of its treaty with Amman, along with generous sharing of Jordan River water and granting a Jordanian special role on the Temple Mount (al-Haram al-Sharif) in Jerusalem.
THE SECOND reason Arab states agreed to normalization stems from concern that the new Biden administration would renew the nuclear deal with Iran. A public alliance with Israel was meant to create a new formula of deterrence vis-à-vis Iran should the US opt for a return to the deal with Tehran. In this context, concern about completion of the US withdrawal from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan also figured in these considerations. The pullout began during the Obama administration, continued throughout Trump’s term and is likely to continue under Biden, leaving regional players alone to face threats. For some states in the region, Israel’s value rises in the era of US withdrawal.
The third factor has to do with the declining importance of the Palestinian issue in the wake of the Arab Spring repercussions and the COVID-19 pandemic, which focused the attention of Arab states inward. This led directly to the fourth factor, which was the relatively indifferent reaction on the part of Arab and Muslim states to the Emirates’ initiative, which bolstered the confidence of other rulers in joining the momentum with Israel and triggering a domino effect.
If, in the past, the Palestinians could count on support within the framework of the so-called “Rejection Front” that opposed peace with Israel (and included Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria, South Yemen), these states themselves are hardly in any condition to help the Palestinians these days.
It would be wrong to conclude that placing resolution of the Palestinian issue on the back burner detracts from its importance. This issue remains at the heart of the conflict and cannot be avoided, especially given the increasing erosion of the two-state solution, on the one hand, and the demographic forecast that the Palestinians in Mandatory-era Israel would soon outnumber the Jews (their current numbers are almost equal at about 6.8 million). Thus, the ties with Dubai, Manama, Rabat and Khartoum, and perhaps additional Arab capitals in the future, though certainly important, are not an alternative to resolution of the Palestinian problem.
Clearly, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will not feature high on the Biden administration’s agenda, which will focus on domestic and foreign policy issues related to the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agreement with Iran, and more. However, the future Biden administration has been presented with an opportunity to promote a solution to the conflict, for several reasons.
First, the new Democratic administration will do all it can to distance itself from the legacy of the Trump administration, which caused a rift with the Palestinian leadership, adopted unilateral pro-Israel measures (such as recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which could have served as a bargaining chip in future negotiations), and in general turned the United States into a patently dishonest broker. What is more, the US military withdrawal from the Middle East presents an opportunity for expanded diplomatic engagement, thereby signaling US allies in the region that they are not being abandoned.
Second, having sustained several blows by the Americans and Arab states, the Palestinians appear willing to rejoin negotiations after realizing that their aggressive response to the normalization decision was economically and diplomatically harmful to the Palestinian Authority (PA). What is more, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) regards a Biden-led Democratic administration as an opportunity to rehabilitate his and the PA’s standing in the American arena.
The resumption of security coordination with Israel and agreement to accept the tax revenues Israel collects for the PA constitute initial steps in that direction. This may be Abu Mazen’s final opportunity to achieve his goal – the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. Finally, the move by Arab states toward a separate peace with Israel may actually strengthen their desire and need to compensate for allegedly abandoning the Palestinian issue, and to boost domestic legitimacy of their regime by doing so.
Paradoxically, this reversal that places resolution of the Palestinian issue behind Arab normalization with Israel creates a renewed opportunity to deal with the matter. The greatest unknown is the nature of Israel’s next government and the extent of its willingness to settle the conflict. Global and regional circumstances are creating an opportunity for Israel to undertake a “grand move” of not just bilateral agreements between governments, but a comprehensive regional plan for resolving the Palestinian issue.
This would include the Saudis and generate a breakthrough with major Muslim countries, such as Indonesia and Pakistan that maintain ties with Israel behind the scenes. Such a move would not be limited to the governmental level; it would also prompt changes within Arab civil society, most of which opposes normalization with Israel. Such a “deal of the century” stands a greater chance of success than Trump’s plan of the same name even though it appears wishful thinking, for now.
**The article was published on Jpost, 11 January 2021