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Normalizing Israeli-Arab relations: Diplomatic coup or unholy alliance?

Has the pan-Arabism that animated the foreign policy of much of the Arab world been sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik?

Middle EastHuman Rights

The flags of the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Bahrain flutter along a road in Netanya, Israel, September 14, 2020. Photo courtesy the Institute for Cultural Relations Policy.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a centrepiece of world politics and security studies since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Its origins lie in the late-nineteenth century, when the birth of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism hinged on competing claims to land between Jews and the Palestinians. This tension has drawn other Arab states into the conflict, particularly during the 1970s when the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip intensified. Israel has also occupied East Jerusalem, which many Palestinians want for the capital of a future state, an aim endorsed by the Arab League at the 2002 Beirut Summit.

According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, the ongoing subjugation of the Palestinian people by Israel amounts to a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which it refers to as apartheid. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, two other prominent non-governmental organizations, have also echoed this claim. Just last month, in its latest report to the United Nations, the International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School joined the chorus of condemnation, agreeing that Israel’s actions against the Palestinian population are tantamount to a regime of apartheid.

Despite these statements, Israel has recently made some appreciable strides in strengthening relations with its Arab neighbours, states that have historically been united in their opposition to Israel and over who is to blame for the plight of its Arab minority. In August 2020, President Trump announced the brokering of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to normalize full bilateral economic and diplomatic relations. The deal was greeted with less enthusiasm by the Arab masses within Israel and the occupied territories, and by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who called it “a betrayal to the Palestinian cause.”

In March 2022, Israel forged ahead to restore relations with Egypt, Morocco, and Bahrain. Meeting at a landmark regional summit in the southern Negev Desert, representatives pledged to expand cooperation to include energy, environmental and security matters, and to deepen normalization agreements with other Arab countries. This fledging alliance, which was formed with a long-term ambition to establish a permanent rotating forum, also discussed Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, which are especially relevant given the still raging war between the Saudi-UAE coalition and Yemen’s Houthi rebels (Iran is widely accused of backing the Houthis).

According to Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy, the Negev summit showed a willingness on the part of Israel and the Arab countries “to explore a future in which Washington is no longer the ultimate guarantor of security.” Amidst the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, for example, Egypt used the summit to declare its neutrality in the war, making clear to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken the strategic significance of its relations with Russia—a clear recognition that the US is no longer the only recognized superpower in the Middle East.

The bigger question, however, remains whether the Arab states in question are, through this reinforced cooperation agreement, reneging on long-standing “Arab values” which historically united them in periods of crisis. Some believe that this renewed partnership will only serve to make it more difficult to achieve a lasting peace in Israel or to ensure statehood and national sovereignty for Palestinians. Others feel that Israel is taking the necessary steps to ensure its security and become a more prominent regional player, even if this means building alliances with previously sworn enemies.

The rapidly consolidating ties between Israel and the Arab countries can be explained domestically as well as geopolitically. On the domestic front, the 2011 Arab Spring left the surviving regimes across much of the Arab world gasping for air, rethinking their governance strategies, and bolstering surveillance and national security measures. From a geopolitical perspective, the continued integration of Arab governments into the US-Israeli alliance is intended to restrain Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels, and forces of the battered Syrian regime. As a result, strengthening ties with Israel enables these states to acquire the technology and other resources necessary to maintain surveillance over their domestic populations while undercutting Iran’s ambitions to achieve regional hegemony.

By embarking on this partnership, it would appear that the Arab states have reneged on their previous position of “no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no peace with Israel” to acknowledge, endorse, and accept the regional coordinating role of Israel in the Middle East. This would be reassuring to many within Israel that their country has gained some level of broad support and may in fact become a key regional actor alongside the United States. Yet, while the Palestinians were left out of this partnership, representatives from the US and Morocco reiterated the two-state solution as the endgame to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes a Palestinian state and has no intention to restart peace talks. The appropriate solution to what the prime minister termed as a recent wave of “murderous terrorism” is through unilateral action, such as annexing territory in the West Bank.

The move by Israel to boost ties with its Arab allies without including the Palestinians is both a sign that the status quo is firmly in favour of Israel and that the idea of pan-Arabism that characterized the foreign policy of much of the Arab world has been sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik and geopolitical considerations. Moreover, the majority of Arab countries believe that the activist foreign policy that dominated their approach towards Israel during the twentieth century and into the second decade of the twenty-first century has lost significance due to shifting regional dynamics.

As the Palestinians feel increasingly isolated after decades of brutal occupation, the danger of increased violence looms over the region. There is little doubt that the evolving regional configuration that is being shaped by the thaw in relations between Israel and its new Arab partners will inevitably bolster Hamas’s position among Palestinians. The Palestinians could also ally with other regional powers such as Iran in the short term, which could create a security dilemma for Israel and its Arab allies, as they would be forced to compete with Iran for influence in the region. This could lead to increased tensions and conflict between different coalitions or future alliances forged for mutual gain.

Will the Middle East return as one of the theatres of great power rivalry? Incipient multipolarity, the war in Ukraine and the rise of China could combine to make this more likely. Ultimately, though, the decision by the Arab states to normalize relations with Israel should be viewed as a major shift in the Arab world’s stance on a long-standing conflict. That the Arab countries have downgraded the significance of the Palestinian issue shows the change in the organizing principles of the Arab League and exposes the fissure at the heart of intra-Arab relations.

Nesteha Mohamed is a master’s student in the Social Justice program at Lakehead University.

Benjamin Maiangwa is Assistant Professor in the department of Political Science at Lakehead University.

Alfred P. B. Kiadii graduated from the University of Liberia with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 2018.

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