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Israel and the Gulf states: On the way to normalization

The Gulf states no longer fear normalization with Israel, and are promoting it in a slow process in tandem with the crafting of President Trump’s “deal of the century.”

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.

The news about Israel’s participation in the Expo 2020 international exhibition, to be held in Dubai this October, has spread like wildfire in the Arab world as the unveiling of details of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” draws near.

At the exhibition, Israel will present its achievements in the fields of water, medicine, technology and information, highlighting the spirit of Israeli innovation.

Opponents of the new American peace plan—with the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas at the forefront—are tracking every sign of open normalization between Israel and the moderate Arab states. It is now the United Arab Emirates’ turn for their opprobrium.

Israel has been openly and proudly publicizing its upcoming participation in the Dubai event. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement lauding Israel’s participation, noting: “This is another expression of Israel’s rising status in the world and in the region.”

In response, Hamas issued a statement calling Israel’s participation in Dubai a “dangerous development.” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohari demanded that the UAE not allow it because “it encourages the Israeli crimes and constitutes a violation of the resolutions of the recent Arab Summit in Tunisia.”

The P.A. likewise protested against Israel’s participation in the exhibition. Nabil Shaath, the international affairs adviser to P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas, said the P.A. would officially raise the matter with the UAE, and that letting Israel participate entails “violating the resolutions of the Arab League foreign ministers and flouting the Palestinian position.”

Shaath underlined: “Normalization with Israel is a grave mistake for any Arab state.”

Over the past two months, the covert normalization process between Israel and the Gulf states has begun to emerge in tandem with the process of crafting Trump’s “deal of the century.” Open normalization is reported to be an integral part of that deal.

Israel has begun to take part openly in sports and cultural activities in Arab countries including the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

Not to be forgotten in this context is Netanyahu’s official visit to Oman in October last year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos in the Omani capital of Muscat on Oct. 26, 2018. Credit: Press TV-Iran.

One state that has avoided publicly hosting Israeli delegations is Saudi Arabia. The Arab world is certain, however, that behind the scenes there are very close diplomatic and security ties between Israel and the Saudi royal palace, and that these will go public the moment it becomes possible for Saudi Arabia, which shows high sensitivity to the issue.

The attitude of the Emirates

The UAE does not appear overly upset by the Palestinian denunciations and the protest against Israel’s participation in Expo 2020.

Last March, Anwar Karakash, the UAE’s state minister for foreign affairs, called for “an opening of the Arab world toward Israel” and said that “the relations between the Arab states and Israel must undergo a change to achieve progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Some in the Arab world saw this as acceptance of the Israeli position that normalization between Israel and Arab states need not depend on reaching a permanent Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and that relations ought to develop naturally because Israel has no conflict with any Arab state and has peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt.

The UAE is ignoring the Arab League resolutions that ban open normalization with Israel, as well as the resolutions of the Arab Summit. Other Gulf states are moving in the same direction. They know that these resolutions are “toothless,” and that their interest in cooperation with Israel and its supporter, the United States, is much more important given the dangers posed to them by Iran and the Islamic State.

Senior P.A. officials claim that the background to the UAE’s favorable attitude towards Israel is its quiet support, and Saudi Arabia’s secret support, for Trump’s peace deal—notwithstanding the two states’ public declarations and their ostensible backing for the Arab Peace Initiative instead of Trump’s deal.

The disputes between the UAE on the one hand and the Palestinians and some Arab states on the other came to the fore in the emergency meeting of the Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on April 21, 2019.

The UAE has been pushing more overtly than any other Arab state for open normalization with Israel.

P.A. officials claim that the UAE got a green light for this from Saudi Arabia, which wants to propitiate Trump, and that the groundwork is being laid for a more advanced stage in which Israel will be the Arab states’ strong friend against the Iranian danger.

These Palestinian officials say the tables have turned. The regional situation has changed in Israel’s favor, and the Gulf states now regard the Palestinians and the Palestinian problem as a big obstacle to forging closer ties with Israel and the Trump administration.

Israel is pursuing the right policy

Normalization with the Arab states should be promoted, drawn from the darkness into the light of day. Because of the Iranian danger, some Arab states have overcome the hurdle of fear that the Palestinians set up, and no longer see open normalization with Israel as much of a problem.

It is worth recalling the important words of Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi after Netanyahu’s visit to Oman: “Israel is an existing fact in the Middle East, and everyone understands that. The world, too, is aware of the fact, and perhaps the time has come to relate to it accordingly.”

The Arab rulers respect power and desire Israel’s and the Trump administration’s support. They see, on the one hand, how Israel has been attacking the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria with the full backing of the United States and even a certain coordination with Russia, and, on the other, Abbas’s rejectionist policy towards any compromise with Israel, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been turning the Gaza Strip into an Iranian stronghold.

The conditions for open normalization between the Gulf States and Israel are gradually ripening, and Israel should encourage any possible cooperation with them. This is an important process that can help the Palestinians understand that Israel is a fact of life and that even the Arab states, apart from Egypt and Jordan that have already signed peace treaties with it, are getting accustomed to Israel’s presence in the Middle East and have come to terms with it.

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.

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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