The turning point for normalization was in 1993, not 2020

Prof. Elie Podeh November 2020

The wave of Arab reconciliation with Israel – as evidenced by the three Arab states that have normalized ties with Israel and possibly more to follow – finds Israel’s political community deeply riven. Reactions to this development are also polarized, largely driven by political interests. One camp extols the signing of the new agreements as historic events opening new horizons for Israel; the other tends to minimize their importance and describe them as mere formalizations of preexisting relations and reconciliations with states that were never at war with Israel in any case.

The agreements undoubtedly play a role in the historic erosion of the Arab wall of hostility surrounding Israel and in its gradual entrenchment in the Middle East. It would therefore be wrong to dismiss their importance. Nonetheless, the writers argue that despite recognition of the agreements’ importance, they should not be viewed as historic breakthroughs.

The major shift in relations with the Arab world took place in the wake of the Oslo Accords, when seven Arab states gradually opened diplomatic missions in Israel to conduct relations in accordance with their specific priorities. Whether formally or informally, their presence was a de facto abrogation of the Arab boycott. In addition to Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), which had signed full peace treaties with Israel, there were Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania.

Of particular note on the Tel Aviv diplomatic scene in those days was the establishment of an “Arab club” similar to the groupings formed by envoys from European, Latin American and other blocs of states. Israeli citizens were granted access, at different levels, to the represented states. Just over a year after the September 1993 signing of the Oslo agreement, representatives of an unprecedented 12 Arab states convened in Casablanca to discuss economic cooperation between Israel and its neighbors. Three follow-up conferences were subsequently held in Amman, Cairo and Doha.

The full story of the post-Oslo relationships that unfolded between Israel and the five Arab states that joined those of Egypt and Jordan in Tel Aviv has yet to be told, but the following facts can be mentioned.

Oman, which was the first Gulf state to conduct clandestine ties with Israel going back to the 1970s, hosted prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit and his deputy Efraim Halevy in December 1994. It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia granted permission for Rabin’s plane to overfly its air space en route to Oman, 25 years before the Saudis agreed to official Israeli overflights following the 2020 agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

In November 1995, Omani foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi attended the funeral of Israel’s slain prime minister, and an Israeli diplomatic mission was opened in Muscat in April 1996, during a visit by acting prime minister Shimon Peres.

Peres’s Gulf visit also took him to Qatar, where he inaugurated the opening of an Israeli office in Doha. The initial contact with Qatar actually occurred, symbolically, a day after the signing of the Oslo agreement in Washington, at the home of the Qatari ambassador in the presence of Peres and Qatari foreign minister Hamad bin Jassim. Those secret contacts also led to the signing of an Israeli agreement to buy gas from Qatar, a deal that was not implemented only because Israel preferred to buy gas from Egypt due to diplomatic and economic considerations.

THE TURNING point in Israeli-Moroccan relations also occurred in the wake of the Oslo agreement. On its way to Israel following the White House signing ceremony, the Israeli delegation led by Rabin and Peres stopped in Morocco and met with King Hassan. In August 1994, a month after Israel and Jordan inked the Washington Declaration (paving the way for their peace treaty later that year), King Hassan gave his blessing to the establishment of diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv and Rabat. The establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel also facilitated the convening of the above-mentioned economic summit in Casablanca.

Tunisia, home to the PLO headquarters until 1993, also began a process of rapprochement with Israel. Following a 1993 visit by deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin, the two sides agreed to establish diplomatic channels via Belgium’s embassies in Tunis and Tel Aviv. The foreign ministers of the two states initially met in 1995, and direct diplomatic missions were opened in April-May 1996.

Mauritania joined these four states in October 1999, following Ehud Barak’s election as prime minister. There is doubt that in this case, too, the Oslo Accords were the key to unveiling the clandestine ties.

Rapprochement with the Arab states was an evolving process, but not irreversible. The regression began a few years later, largely stemming from Israel’s problematic relations with the Palestinians. The eruption of the Aqsa Intifada triggered by Ariel Sharon’s provocative September 2000 visit to the Temple Mount prompted the recall of the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors.

At the same time, Morocco, Tunisia and Oman decided to sever diplomatic relations with Israel. Qatar expelled the Israeli representative from Doha, although he secretly returned a short while later, and positive public relations were revoked. Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza in December 2008, in which more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed, further undermined ties with the Arab world. The ensuing decision by Qatar and Mauritania to sever relations with Israel completed the process of regression, and even Egypt and Jordan lowered the profile of their relations with Jerusalem.

Various ties continued over the years with these five states and with several other Arab states, but the Arab side insisted on secrecy and official denial, citing the freeze in Israeli-Palestinian search for peace and the frequent crises between the sides. Today’s return to official and open ties does not stem from progress toward resolution of the Palestinian problem, especially given the further deterioration on this front, but rather from the declining priority attributed by Arab states to this issue.

In sum, the significant turning point in Israeli-Arab ties followed the Oslo Accords and was directly linked to the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and progress toward resolution of the Palestinian problem. In a certain sense, the current agreements take Israel back to the initial post-Oslo period, albeit with the involvement of other Arab players.

It would be wrong to conclude that the Palestinian obstacle to full reconciliation with Arab states has been removed. While the ability of the Palestinian problem to thwart reconciliation with Arab states is now more limited, it still exists. Israeli policies and actions in the Palestinian territories – such as, for example, a return to the annexation plan as demanded by a sizeable political constituency – could lead to a regression of this process, just as happened a few years after Oslo.

**The article was published on Jpost, 12 November 2020.

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