Is the Arab world moving closer to normalisation with Israel?
TUNIS - The question of whether to normalise ties with Israel is increasingly contentious across the Arab world.
The issue has been made even more controversial by the United States’ 2017 move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its recent declaration that Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law.
These quick, unilateral manoeuvres, which break with decades of international law, indicate Washington and Tel Aviv are betting that Arab countries are now too preoccupied with their own national grievances to focus on Palestine.
But is this really the case?
A closer look at the region shows that Arab countries, by and large, remain highly supportive of Palestine and that normalisation is a long way off.
One country that is especially affected by the Palestinians’ plight is Jordan, which hosts an estimated 2 million UN-registered Palestinian refugees. Jordan, which knows its 1994 peace treaty with Israel is effectively dead in the minds of its people, is threatened by the United States’ recent moves because they undermine Palestinians’ potential “right of return,” angering an already unsettled population.
Under pressure from Jordanian MPs and anti-normalisation movements, the government has taken a tough line in response, reclaiming two areas, Baqoura and al-Ghamr that were leased to Israel for 25 years and cancelling an interfaith conference that was scheduled to include an Israeli delegation.
In other Arab countries that do not have ties with Israel, there is even greater concern about normalisation.
In Tunisia, which once served as the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the issue came to the fore during recent presidential elections.
One contender for the presidency, Nabil Karoui, was accused of hiring a former Mossad agent as a campaign lobbyist. Karoui’s rival, now President Kais Saied, took a hardline stance against Israel, even saying that anyone who normalises ties with Tel Aviv should be considred guilty of “high treason.”
Saied’s victory was in part attributed to his embrace of the Palestinian cause but others voiced concern that he merely used their plight to gain political momentum.
So far, the newly elected president seems to have no clear objective for how to achieve his stated goal of “liberating Palestine.” He has done nothing regarding Palestine-Israel except revive public debate.
Other signs of public resentment towards engagement with Israel include the backlash to Egyptian actor Amr Waked appearing in a film alongside Israeli actor Gal Gadot.
Waked, known for being a strong supporter of Palestine, drew widespread criticism in the Arab world after proudly announcing he would appear in “Wonder Woman 1984” with Gadot.
Disappointed fans began tweeting “#NormalisationisTreason” on Twitter.
Statements seen as supportive of normalisation at the inaugural meeting of the Arab Council for Regional Integration in London also received significant pushback.
The London gathering, which brought together Arab journalists, artists, politicians, diplomats and Quranic scholars, put forward the view that isolating Israel had cost Arab nations billions in trade. The participants, according to a report by the New York Times, stated that anti-normalisation had undercut Palestinian efforts to build institutions for a future state and torn at the Arab social fabric, as rival ethnic, religious and national leaders increasingly apply tactics that were first tested against Israel.
Those comments were naturally criticised by Arab activists and observers as out of line. Husam Zomlot, who leads the Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom and led Palestine’s mission to Washington until the Trump administration closed its office, belittled the new council’s members as an “extreme fringe of isolated individuals.”
Saying so, Zomlot appears to have failed to spot changing dynamics and the fact that geopolitical shifts have imposed a new reality on the region. In recent years, some Arab countries have, in fact, raised the idea of “reordering” regional threats, even if it comes at the expense of the Palestinian cause. This strategy has gained traction due to the growing threat of Iran, its proxies and other radical terror groups and, by the same token, shared strategic interests with Israel.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, agrees with Israel that Iran and its proxies must be contained. Saudi Arabia views these proxies as a menace to Yemen, Syria and Iraq, while Israel views Iran’s Hezbollah proxy as a threat to its very existence.
Israel and some Arab countries also see eye to eye on other issues. Saudi Arabia, for example, considers Hamas just as dangerous as Israel does, because it believes it is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.
This alignment of interests has led to diplomatic strides, though often kept secret by Arab officials.
One of the most significant came in 2018, when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Oman and met with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said in Muscat.
Then, in late October this year, Israel participated in the Bahrain conference for maritime security aimed at countering Iranian and Houthi attacks.
Later that month, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz revealed that one of the goals of a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates was to participate in the international coalition to provide security protection for the trade routes in the Gulf.
On November 18, the Israeli Foreign Ministry announced that Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate” would be screened at the Women’s Film Festival in Jerusalem in December. Mansour is expected to fly into the city for the festival, hosted by Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon.
Then, on November 26, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry hosted a delegation of Arab journalists, including from countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations, in an attempt to chip away at anti-Israel sentiment in the Middle East.
Another Gulf country, Qatar, has also been courting Israel, though its reasons for cosying up to Tel Aviv are quite different.
Doha, facing a boycott from the Arab quartet — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — over its alleged support for terror groups knows that to survive it needs to create new ties with Israel and maintain its alliance with Western countries, based on the premise that "a friend with everyone is a friend without enemies."
In late September, Qatar hosted Israeli sports teams and even allowed the Israeli flag to be raised in Doha. This triggered an angry reaction from Hamas, which released a statement reminding Qatar of the crimes and violations of “the Israeli occupation" and of the "tight siege on Gaza."
The flurry of moves towards rapprochement has not gone unnoticed in the Arab-Muslim region and some have deemed the moves as attempts to test the Arab public's response and possibly evolving stance towards "normalisation."
But Arabs are unlikely to give up on the Palestinian cause any time soon. As long as Israel continues its oppressive policies and brazen violations of international law, normalisation will remain off the table, despite the tentative moves of some Arab countries.
Ultimately, real change in Palestine will not be possible until the world comes to view the Palestinian cause as a universal cause, until we collectively realise that people, regardless of their origin or religion, must be protected from having their rights abused and their land occupied. Before that time comes, any talk of normalisation should be taken with a big pinch of salt and could encourage charlatans or terrorists to use the Israel-Palestine issue to advance their agendas.