OpinionMiddle East

A non-aggression pact is a good place to start

Israel’s policy of breaking the linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and normalizing ties with the Arab world will help lead to full normalization.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz is seen during an election campaign tour of the Likud Party in Jerusalem on Sept. 16, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz is seen during an election campaign tour of the Likud Party in Jerusalem on Sept. 16, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Yoni Ben Menachem
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

According to senior diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, Israel is trying to advance a non-aggression agreement with four Arab countries that do not currently have diplomatic relations with Israel. These countries are Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

Such an agreement would be a stepping-stone towards full normalization between Israel and these four countries, which already have ties behind the scenes.

The proposed agreement includes maintaining friendly ties between Israel and these Arab countries based on U.N. treaties and international law, and the adoption of steps required to prevent hostile actions, such as the threat of war or terror activities, violence or incitement.

The agreement prohibits the signatories from joining or assisting alliances or organizations with a third party of a military nature.

The United States is trying to help Israel with this process. American sources state that U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Victoria Coates met with the ambassadors of the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Morocco in Washington, where she explained the new Israeli initiative to them and asked for their response. The ambassadors told her that they would convey the message to the political leaderships in their countries, and would respond as soon as possible.

None of the four countries mentioned above denied the media reports on this issue.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz initiated the process in coordination with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2019, when Katz met with Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin-Alawi and UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Karkash.

An Israeli delegation, comprised of representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council, the Defense Ministry and the Justice Ministry then set off for Washington for talks to try to advance the initiative.

President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” peace plan is currently in deep freeze because of the political situation in Israel. Currently, Israel has a transitional government, and it may well need to conduct a third round of elections. However, foreign policy does not exist in a vacuum, and Foreign Minister Katz is still attempting to advance his initiative.

There is a “window of opportunity” open at the moment for everything connected to Israel’s relations with the Gulf States, with whom it shares interests in the face of the Iranian threat. This threat is all too real, as was demonstrated by Iran’s attack on Saudi oil installations on Sept. 14.

Israel is not concealing its efforts to achieve normalization with Arab countries; Netanyahu announced in November 2019 that Israel maintains covert ties with at least six Arab countries. On Dec. 1, the Foreign Ministry issued an official announcement that a delegation would pay an official visit to Dubai to arrange Israel’s participation in the “Expo 2020” international exhibition there.

An additional path to normalization with the Gulf states is via discussions on security and freedom of transit in the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

Arab sources report that Saudi Arabia is supporting Bahrain on the diplomatic and media fronts regarding this issue. On Oct. 21, Bahrain held a committee meeting on the issue of freedom of transit in the Gulf, attended by an Israeli delegation.

This committee meeting took place following the “Warsaw Committee to Promote Peace and Security in the Middle East” in February 2019, which was led by the United States and attended by 60 countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman. The meeting’s agenda was listed as “terrorism and extremism, missile development and proliferation, maritime trade and security, and threats posed by proxy groups across the region.”

The Palestinian Authority is very angry about Gulf States’ policy of establishing relations with Israel before a permanent settlement has been reached between Israel and the Palestinians. P.A. sources claim that this is a violation of decisions reached by the Arab Summit and the Arab League.

The Gulf states, which fear Iran and want closer ties with the United States and Israel, are ignoring Palestinian anger and are slowly moving toward normalization with Israel without giving it an official or public stamp so as not to anger the Palestinians further.

Senior P.A. sources state that the Gulf states should open their eyes after the attacks on the Saudi oil installations and understand that no good will come from the Trump administration, which they argue failed to protect Saudi Arabia from Iran.

According to them, the United States did not protect the Arab regimes from the Arab Spring either, which is why, for example, President Hosni Mubarak’s government fell in Egypt.

Yet, the Gulf states do not accept the Palestinian claims; their fear of Iran is overriding. They believe Trump’s hands are tied by his desire to run in the next presidential elections. Some of them believe that if he wins the elections, he will change his stance regarding protecting them from Iran.

At the same time, secret and public visits continue between Israeli and Arab representatives. Netanyahu visited Oman in October 2018 and Katz visited the UAE in June 2019.

According to unconfirmed reports in some Arab media outlets, Netanyahu has also met secretly with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Similarly, some Gulf states have hosted Israeli sports teams, and even played the “Hatikvah” anthem when the Israeli teams won.

Israel’s attempt to advance a non-aggression agreement with four Arab countries is significant. This message should filter through to the Arab world and to the Palestinians who seek to block the normalization of relations with Israel.

Israel’s policy of breaking the linkage established by the Palestinians between normalizing relations with Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is correct. The Palestinian problem no longer leads the Arab countries’ list of priorities. The Iranian danger has overtaken it, and in any case, the Palestinian arena is divided between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with the Palestinian leadership unable to reach a national agreement that would allow serious negotiations with Israel, the results of which would be binding upon all Palestinians.

The moderate Arab countries are following Israel’s offensive policy against Iranian entrenchment in Syria and the military attacks ascribed to Israel against Iranian targets. There is no doubt that this affects their relationship with Israel, which is proving itself to be a critical regional force that does not fear to confront Iran. It is worthwhile for them to ally with Israel even in secret and to coordinate efforts to halt Iranian influence.

Yoni Ben-Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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