What ‘New Phase’ of Israel’s Relations with the Arab World?
On November 7, 2018, Israel’s Intelligence and Transportation minister made a speech in Oman, pushing for greater cooperation between Israel and the Arab world, presenting it as something extremely beneficial for the people and the region on the whole. The speech had been preceded by Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in October 2018 and culture and sports minister’s visit to UAE in the same month, signalling Israel’s not only highly increased diplomatic activity in the Arab world, but also a clear emphasis on people-to-people contact, such as through sports, to push for greater acceptability of the notion of ‘friendship with Israel.’ In the last week of November, Israel hosted Chad’s president in a first ever such visit to Israel after Chad had ended its diplomatic relations with Israel in 1972, indicating how Israel wasn’t going to confine its diplomatic out-reach to Gulf only. Indeed, the intention is to expand in the Aran world, in and beyond the Middle East as Netanyahu told Chad president about his intention to visit “more Arab states” soon.
The probable expansion of Israeli ties with Arab states is likely to impact the Palestinian question very powerfully. While Chad’s president did try to make it clear that “the renewal of diplomatic ties between us, which I very much want, is not something that can make the Palestinian issue disappear,” the very reason why Israel is expanding its ties is to win greater acceptability of its peace-deal with the Palestinians, which means, in one way or the other, pressure from Israeli friends in the Arab world on the Palestinians to accept the made-in-USA “deal of the century.”
How Israeli relations with the Arab world are likely to lead to marginalisation of the Palestinian issue is evident from how many Arab leaders, including Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman, have already begun trying to ‘convince’ the Palestinians of the potential benefits of the deal. The growing relations are, therefore, going to impact Palestine in a powerful way. “All countries and institutions must boycott the extremist government of Israel and impose a siege on it because of its settlement activities, its occupation of Palestinian land,” said Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior Palestinian official.
One important reason for this pressure being felt in the Palestine is that the Arab discourse on Palestinian struggle against Israel will change due to greater security cooperation between Israel and the Arab states. For instance, Chad president pointed out that Israel had supplied weapons to his country during its war with the northern rebels, adding further that “We have a shared struggle against the sickening evil of this century, which is terrorism.”
Now, when it comes to terrorism as a ‘shared concern’, it means countries like Chad will be looking at the Palestinian struggle not as genuine resistance against occupation, but as terrorism, of the kind Chad itself is facing from terrorist outfits. For the Palestinians, therefore, being equated with terrorists would not only be akin to accepting Israel’s discourse, but also de-legitimising their own struggle at the same time.
A full-scale de-legitimisation of Palestinian struggle could be seen when Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Salman impressed upon the Palestinians in April 2018 to either come to the table or “shut up”, implying thereby that the only option for the Palestinians was to either accept a US-Israeli handpicked deal or remain in a permanent state of subjugation, having no (legitimate) recourse to armed resistance.
To a greater extent, the reason why Israel has massively upped its diplomatic activity and why Israel has become a lot more acceptable to the Arab world without even first resolving the Palestinian issue is the central role that Israel and the principal Arab states are to play in the US-led grand coalition against Iran, as also its primary allies, China and Russia; hence, the US pressure on the Arab states to mend ties with Israel if they want greater American support against Iran.
This has already led to a successful Israeli targeted hitting of Saudi brokered Arab-Peace initiative issued in 2002, calling for the normalisation of relations between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem. Obviously, the Arab Peace Initiative is now a forgotten thing, and the US-Israel “deal of the century” has overtaken regional politics due to greater convergence between Israel and Saudia Arabia, as also other principal gulf states, over an Iranian resurgence through wars in Syria and Yemen.
But the normalisation process for the Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, is not just normalisation; it is a gamble that can blow-back in a powerful fashion. For instance, a 2017 poll by the Arab American Institute, based in the US, showed that only two percent of Saudis and one percent of Emiratis favoured an anti-Iran alliance with Israel if Palestinian rights were not addressed first, indicating that a non-resolution or an imposed resolution of the Palestine issue would find it very hard to win the hearts and minds of the Arab streets.
But the Arab elite’s increasing dependence on the US, greatly exemplified through Trump’s blatant support for Saudi Arabia even after the now fully exposed involvement of Saudi elite in Khashoggi’s murder, shows that they no longer have enough leverage to design a separate and more democratic peace plan, let alone put pressure on the US for a just resolution of the conflict, and are most likely to end up opening up more and more space through frequent high-level diplomatic visits for a US-Israel handpicked “deal of the century.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.