columnMiddle East

Will Israel’s West Bank move torpedo normalization with the Arab world?

An article by a Gulf state diplomat warns that Netanyahu’s plans will endanger diplomatic breakthroughs, one of his greatest achievements. Is that a good reason to change course?

UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba. Credit: Embassy of the United Arab Emirates.
UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba. Credit: Embassy of the United Arab Emirates.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Finally, someone has come up with a coherent argument against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to extend Israeli law to West Bank settlements. After listening to critiques from Israeli leftists, liberal American Jews and Democratic members of the House and Senate that were rooted in outdated thinking about the conflict with the Palestinians and the peace process, an Arab diplomat has come up with an objection worth considering.

The op-ed article published in Yediot Achronot by Yousef Al Otaiba, a Minister of State of the United Arab Emirates and the UAE Ambassador to the United States, spoke directly to the concerns of most Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state. The article was blunt in sending a message to Netanyahu about what the UAE and presumably other moderate Arab nations were thinking about his plans. As far as Al Otaiba was concerned, Israel had a choice: “annexation or normalization.”

According to him, Israel’s hopes of continuing to develop normal relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds will be “upended.” Should Israel go ahead despite these warnings, they should expect no more “direct links,” “expanded markets” and “growing acceptance.”

One of the most underreported stories about the Middle East in the last decade has been the manner in which the Sunni Arab world has both embraced Israel and largely abandoned the cause of the Palestinians. The Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, view Israel as a tacit ally against the country that poses a real threat to their security: Iran. These countries have become tired of Palestinian rejectionism over the years and seek an exit ramp from their traditional position as enabler and funder of Palestinian extremism.

The pace of normalization was accelerated by President Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran. But it was primarily motivated by Arab self-interest. Israel is a powerful military force and a lucrative trading partner. Normalization was not an Arab gift to the Jewish state that was the result of a fundamental change of heart about their feelings about Zionism. It was a matter of cold calculation, not a policy based on a sudden shift of public opinion.

But while worries about normalization constitute the most serious argument against Netanyahu’s plans about the settlements, it’s not likely to deter the prime minister. Nor should it cause the Trump administration to send a signal to Jerusalem to put the brakes on any talk of implementing the scheme.

Until now, most of the criticism of the measure has been couched in language that was difficult to take seriously. American Jewish groups and Democrats who are critical of President Donald Trump and Netanyahu have denounced the idea primarily on the grounds that it would make a two-state solution to the conflict impossible and consequently mean that Israel was on the road to becoming an apartheid state.

But that’s untrue.

If the Palestinians wanted an independent state alongside Israel, they could still have one. Even if the Israelis extended their law into all of the 30 percent of the territory on which the settlements and their environs exist—allowed for by the Trump plan—that still leaves plenty of land for a Palestinian state, albeit one that is smaller than they would like, as well as demilitarized. Of course, the Palestinians had many prior opportunities to have a larger state approximating the 1967 lines when they were offered one by former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak (in 2000 and 2001) and Ehud Olmert (in 2008).

Instead, they rejected every offer, including the chance to negotiate an even sweeter deal during the Obama administration, just as they have also turned down Trump’s offers to talk. The Palestinians aren’t really interested in such a state. Indeed, one of the most telling points about the Al Otaiba column was that he did not demand a Palestinian state or even mention it as a goal. He merely wants Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians, and supports “greater autonomy and investment” for them.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that what Israel would be doing is not annexation since the land belonged to no other sovereign entity. Nor is it “Palestinian land,” as the territory in question is disputed land to which both Jews and Arabs have claims that need to be negotiated.

However, applying Israeli sovereignty to the settlements in the heart of the Jewish homeland, with the approval of the Trump administration, will, as was the case with Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, be a milestone achievement that will make it even harder for the Jewish state’s enemies to go on dreaming of their destruction.

The UAE op-ed was a political act inspired by Netanyahu’s opponents and designed to undermine Trump’s support for Israeli actions. But there are two reasons to discount such threats.

The first is that it is doubtful that the unrest the ambassador predicts will be as serious as he claims. The Palestinian Authority is having trouble ginning up even token protests about the measure since it will have very little impact on Arab lives. The notion of the Palestinians starting a self-destructive intifada because of change in status of areas that they already know are always going to be held by the Israelis is unlikely.

Nor will the Arab world suddenly fall in love again with Palestinian rejectionism, or be tempted to subsidize the pointless politics and terror promoted by both Fatah and Hamas. They may put relations with Israel on hold for a while, but there is no going back to the past when they considered themselves at war with the one state in the region that they can count on against Iran or to help hold off Islamist terror groups.

The other reason is likely to disappoint many Israelis who really believe that full normalization, including free travel and trade with most Arab states and diplomatic relations, is on the horizon.

The reason why Al Otaiba is making even this limited gesture towards the Palestinians is because normalization between Israel and the Arab states is a top-down phenomena. Even in countries with formal peace treaties with Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, Israel is deeply unpopular. Anti-Semitic sentiment throughout the Arab and Muslim world remains high. As much as some Arab leaders want close relations with Israel, the odds are these ties will always, even in the best of times, be more likely to be conducted under the table rather than in the open.

The benefits of increased normalization would be significant, but the difference between cooler relations with the Gulf states after a so-called annexation and those that might develop without it are not as great as many Israelis and even figures in the Trump administration might think.

Sensible Arab nations like the UAE won’t really fight Israel or the Trump administration because of an application of Israel law in some parts of the West Bank where Jews now live. Nor is it likely that the move will start a war. And it won’t even doom a two-solution that was already no longer a realistic possibility a decade ago.

Israel has the right to act on the settlements, and the Trump administration would be wise not to be bluffed out of supporting the measure because of false fears of repercussions not likely to come at much cost. Though the UAE’s arguments are more serious than the ones against Netanyahu heard from his liberal critics, there is still no good reason for Israel to throw a golden opportunity to make history and solidify its hold on lands that it will never relinquish.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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