The normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced earlier this month is a relatively minor adjustment in relations between two countries that were never at war and have been growing closer for years, but it heralds the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict as we thought we knew it.
Of course, with no major wars between Israel and any of the 21 Arab League member states (not counting the Palestinian Authority) in nearly half a century, and no minor ones in nearly four decades, there wasn’t much of an Arab-Israeli conflict left to end. But with the exception of Egypt and Jordan, which normalized relations years ago in return for American military aid and economic subsidies, the Arab world had remained united in rejecting diplomatic recognition of Israel until it withdrew from territories captured during the 1967 Six-Day War, a quid pro quo explicitly sanctioned by the Arab League in 2002. Conventional wisdom held that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian-inhabited West Bank and Gaza Strip was such a visceral affront to Arabs everywhere that normalizing relations with the Jewish state would entail too high a political price for any Arab government to contemplate.
The Israel-UAE agreement and regional reaction to it underscore that the fate of the Palestinians is no longer an overriding political concern for most Arab regimes. This is partly because it is no longer a salient concern of their subjects, according to James Zogby, whose polling firm has conducted regular surveys of public opinion in major Arab countries for years. The latest survey in September 2019, he notes, revealed that there has been a sea change in attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which “ranked in the bottom tier of priorities in every country.”
That’s not to say Arabs don’t sympathize with the Palestinian predicament or view Israel with distaste, just that doing something about it isn’t high on the wish list of what ordinary citizens want from their rulers, and hasn’t been for years. During the 2011 Arab Spring anti-Israeli slogans were scarce in the mass demonstrations that brought down Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The insurgents who nearly toppled Syrian President Bashar Assad ignored the Palestinian cause altogether, as did the Libyan revolutionaries who vanquished Muammar Gaddafi.
Even Arab Islamists have been revealed in recent years to be less gung-ho about Israel than one might expect. When Egypt’s newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi railed against the “tragedy of the age” and the victimization of a people dear to “the hearts” of his countrymen in a September 2012 address to the United Nations General Assembly, he was speaking about the Alawite-dominated, Iranian-backed Assad regime (which at that time had barely gotten started mass-murdering its subjects), not Israel.
The only Arab Islamists presently engaged in the fight against Israel are those that derive patronage from actors outside the Arab world (primarily Iran) and operate in failed-state environments where that patronage can be readily converted into political and economic power. Hamas and Hezbollah are the most notable cases, but even they have carefully modulated their “resistance” to Israel to achieve other goals (e.g., overturning the decades-long political dominance of the Palestine Liberation Organization and controlling the Lebanese government, respectively). Outside of Iran’s patronage networks, even the most radical and violent Arab Islamist groups—notably Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS)—have largely ignored Israel in favor of other fish to fry.
Nevertheless, popular hostility to Israel in the Arab world is still strong enough that, all else being equal, few of its despotic rulers would be inclined to normalize relations with Israel were there not increasingly much to gain. For many Arab states, the strategic benefits of cooperation with Israel have vastly increased amid the rising threats posed by Iran and Turkey and American disengagement from the Middle East. The Obama administration’s accommodation of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and refusal to act forcefully against Iranian aggression in Syria led to widespread recognition that Arab regimes are on their own in confronting Iran’s bid for regional hegemony. For all of the Trump administration’s anti-Iranian bluster, its disengagement from Syria and weak response to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf last year left staunchly pro-American Arab governments in the lurch.
Under these circumstances, Israel’s growing military, economic and diplomatic strength, hands-on experience fighting Iranian proxies and zero possibility of disengaging from the region have made it an increasingly indispensable ally in combating Iran’s regional ambitions.
Far-reaching, multifaceted sub-rosa security cooperation between Arab leaders and Israel has been underway for years and was bound to eventually result in diplomatic normalization. As Gwynne Dyer explains, these hitherto furtive alignments with Israel become a “much more convincing deterrent” against Iran if Arab and Israeli leaders are “actually seen together in public occasionally.”
Now that the UAE has broken the Arab taboo against normalization with Israel, other Arab states will be inclined to do so in ways consistent with their interests. Some, like the UAE (which just reinforced its alignment against Turkey by deploying four F-16s to Crete), will become full-bore allies of Israel. A few, like Syria and Houthi-ruled Yemen, will remain openly hostile. Most will run the gamut between these extremes. As the remaining 19 Arab League member states reach various degrees of accommodation with Israel, at least some of world’s 12 non-Arab states that don’t recognize Israel (nine of them majority Muslim) will reassess their boycott of the Jewish state.
How the collapse of Arab solidarity against Israel will affect the pursuit of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is hotly debated. Insofar as fear of global isolation has fueled Israel’s willingness to compromise with the Palestinians, it’s not going to sweeten the pot. However, while Michael Oren’s claim that Israel will be more likely to make concessions if it is “secure in its newfound relations with the Arab world” is far-fetched, it’s not inconceivable that Israel’s “newfound” relations will increase the willingness of Palestinian leaders to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state and drop their demand for the so-called “right of return”—the biggest stumbling block in past negotiations.
The most likely scenario, however, is that Palestinian leaders continue on the rejectionist path with support from the likes of Iran, Turkey and the militantly anti-Zionist global left. Anti-Semitism, Islamic supremacism and authoritarianism will continue to make the world a dangerous place for its lone Jewish state long after the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict ends with a whimper, but the danger will be more manageable.
Gary C. Gambill is general editor of the Middle East Forum.