No preelection gifts from Arab leaders to Benjamin Netanyahu

Ksenia Svetlova February 2020
At the annual Munich Security Conference in mid-February, the most important event of its kind – to which Israel did not bother send a single senior representative this year, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan put an end to rumors of a possible meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “There will be no such meeting,” bin Farhan said, explaining that the Saudi position on the Palestinian issue remained unchanged.

One can argue about the extent to which the Palestinian issue is important to the Arab Sunni states. A quick glance at the evening news on the pan-Arab television channels, such as Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya, or local channels from Morocco to Bahrain clearly shows that news from Gaza and the West Bank barely make it into the lineup. Nonetheless, there is not a shadow of a doubt that absent progress on resolving this issue there will not be any significant progress on normalizing ties between Israel and Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or other Arab capitals.

During the three election campaigns of the past year, the most bizarre in Israeli history, Netanyahu sought time after time to set up a meeting or summit with Arab leaders. Feelers were put out to the king of Morocco, requests were sent to the king of Jordan, pleas were conveyed to the president of Egypt, demands were made of the king of Bahrain and insistent appeals were directed to the Saudi crown prince. All to no avail. In the case of the Jordanian monarch, a meeting with Netanyahu as he floats ideas of annexation would not be conceivable in any case. Other states, even those that persistently signal to Israel their willingness for warmer ties, were not wild about the idea, either.

Arab leaders are well aware that Netanyahu is the only real beneficiary of such meetings. For them, a meeting not conditioned on renewed negotiations with the Palestinians or a sign talks are in the offing, would be worthless at best and a wonderful gift for their domestic opposition in the worst-case scenario.

Several months ago, when Netanyahu made a surprise appearance at a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty – organized by MK Merav Michaeli – he explained how his visit to Oman in late 2018 was different than the one conducted there by late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. “Rabin was forced to pay with Oslo, but I am not paying with concessions,” he explained to the guests, among them Middle East scholar Prof. Itamar Rabinovich and the former director-general of Rabin’s office, Shimon Sheves.

Netanyahu seems to truly believe the Arab world has despaired of the Palestinians, gotten on with its business and all obstacles to cooperation with Israel have now been lifted. After all, our sportsmen and women are allowed to participate in international tournaments in Dubai and Doha, our ministers travel to the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo and to international meetings in Abu Dhabi and a significant security dialogue is being conducted behind the scenes between Israel and Arab states, chief among them the Gulf States.

On the face of it, he is right. The Iranian threat brings Israel closer to the states in the region that have despaired of the Palestinians and realized that Israel is not their enemy. Nonetheless, absent resolution of the Palestinian issue, Israel will remain a “mistress” to these states but never “a legally wed wife.”

Arab leaders reiterate this caveat time and again, so there was nothing new in what the Saudi foreign minister said in Munich. There may be other goodies ahead Israel could present as a “breakthrough” in relations, but nothing more. The Palestinian issue is akin to a glass ceiling that limits the development of relations between Israel and the Arab world, and, as Netanyahu found out personally, it cannot be breached without paying the price.

Relations with the countries of the Middle East are very important for Israel. The importance of proper ties with Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other states cannot be overstated. At the same time, Israel clearly must strive for resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, first and foremost for its own sake. Advancing ties with Arab states and Israel’s integration in the region are a highly significant bonus. Those dreaming of shortcuts that will allow them to reach Riyadh without stopping in Ramallah should think again.

The writer, a former member of Knesset, is director of the Program on Israel-Middle East Relations at the Mitvim Institute. She is a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and formerly a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

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