The divide over normalisation with Israel

The Arab street might seem oblivious to what is happening on the Palestinian front and might not be paying much attention to internal squabbles among Palestinians.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Shifting geopolitics. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) meets with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said in Muscat, October 26. (Netanyahu’s Twitter account)
Shifting geopolitics. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) meets with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said in Muscat, October 26. (Netanyahu’s Twitter account)

Whenever an Israeli official steps off the plane in an Arab country, the topic of normalisation with his country flares up and official propaganda machines start promoting the collapse of the taboo wall with Israel.

The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation reported that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu intended to pay an official visit to Sudan and that there were state officials working to build relations with Khartoum. Observers quickly pointed out the remarkable developments in official relations between Israel and other Arab countries.

Sudanese authorities formally denied the news but that does not mean the normalisation train is going to remain stalled at the Khartoum station or any other Arab station. The sheer size and importance of changes in the region and the interests and advantages that can be reaped from relations with Israel might impose some to accept what had been taboo.

Israel is presenting itself as a safety valve in the confrontation with Iran and that might open doors to it in the Arab world, especially now that the Palestinian cause has become desperately complicated and has been receding in priority for many countries.

Israel has made great efforts to normalise relations with Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan, which have signed peace agreements with it. Israel has achieved relative success, at least at the official level, which enabled it to maintain a degree of political warmth by having all sides observe diplomatic norms and traditions.

Israel, however, has failed to achieve any breakthrough at the grass-roots level. Anti-normalisation sentiment and voices rule the day in most Arab capitals, with Cairo and Amman topping the list.

Recent developments in conflicts in the Middle East have played in favour of Israel, however, so much so that even the forces that raised the banner of ending Israeli statehood, such as Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and various Islamic groups, found it necessary to deal with the country indirectly to resolve some crises.

Iran and Hezbollah have delegated Russia as an intermediary with Israel on their behalf to address some problems in the Syrian arena. Extremist Islamic groups had no qualms about cooperating with Israel or getting aid from it. Even Hamas has used the Egyptian, Qatari and UN channels to negotiate with Israel to end the siege of Gaza and implement a truce there.

Talking loud and big is no longer useful in the current context in the Middle East because the balance of power is on the side of Israel. This, however, does not mean that the Arab world must bow and accept Israeli occupation of Arab lands or give in to its political, economic and cultural demands. Rather, it is important to be pragmatic and deal with the situation realistically.

If all else fails, there is always the popular resistance card that can be relied upon to push for an acceptable settlement of the Palestinian question. This card is expected to face more challenges in coming stages.

The Arab street might seem oblivious to what is happening on the Palestinian front and might not be paying much attention to internal squabbles among Palestinians. Still, many sectors of Arab societies draw a red line on dealing with Israel. People’s expectations might have fallen but their aversion towards Israel remains, as evidenced in occasional political trials.

Overall, people could not care less about Israel’s ambitions to open up to Arab countries but the general pathos in Arab societies refuses to respond to Israeli advances. That is why many Arab capitals, which have been forced to open political doors with Tel Aviv under harsh regional circumstances, use popular opposition to Israel as justification for not giving in to US and Israeli enticements and pressure to develop relations any further with Israel.

Cairo, for example, has long resisted US and Israeli temptations and pressures under the pretext that it must heed the popular refusal to have anything to do with Israel.

Israel faces a big problem in that context. By deliberately bringing up progress in its relations with the Arab world, Israel provokes many social sectors and reignites feelings of rejection in Arab societies. In Egypt, the Journalists Syndicate, known for its tough positions on Israel, began to revive the so-called Egyptian Committee to Combat Normalisation. Some members of the committee were collecting signatures for an assembly at the earliest opportunity.

The Egyptian government ignored the move, even though it has harsh stands towards all attempts to gather or demonstrate. In this case, however, it found it fitting to convey a message indicating that its position on normalising relations with Israel has not changed: It accepts it openly but rejects it in secret. The government is also implying that it can control the situation so it does not turn into a hot domestic issue.

Some Arab governments consider preserving the card of popular rejection of Israel to be of great importance. They find it difficult to let go of it because it is the last weapon to neutralise political ambitions with Israel amid the blatant imbalance in regional power balances.

 

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