Litmus test for Israeli-Arab normalization comes as early as next week

There was a time when all Arab leaders would have been united in the concept that settlement building and peace-making could not go hand-in-hand.

The Israeli national flag flutters as apartments are seen in the background in the Israeli settlement of Efrat in the West Bank August 18, 2020. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
The Israeli national flag flutters as apartments are seen in the background in the Israeli settlement of Efrat in the West Bank August 18, 2020.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Israel’s announcement of the pending advancement of plans for more than 4,430 new West Bank settlement homes appeared to drop without a ripple in the diplomatic waters that surround the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
True, the Palestinians issued dire statements, warning that such construction was akin to annexation. Therefore, they noted that the normalization agreements between Israel and the two Arab states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had not, as promised, halted or even suspended West Bank annexation.
“We really should be ‘grateful’ to the UAE for ‘stopping’ annexation,” PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi wrote in a tongue-in-cheek tweet. “Take off your blinders & recognize the criminal nature of your new bedfellow! Complicity is also criminal!”
Turkey also spoke out. But when Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz gave an interview to Al Arabiya television Monday, he didn’t side with the Palestinians on this matter. Instead, in an unusual manner, he slammed their leadership for their criticism of the UAE and Bahrain deals, even though his own country has not similarly signed an agreement with Israel.
There was a time when all Arab leaders would have been united in the concept that settlement building and peace-making could not go hand-in-hand.
It was not just Saudi Arabia that was passive. The planned trilateral meeting between the German, Emirati and Israeli foreign ministers designed to advance bilateral ties between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi continued as planned in Berlin on Tuesday.
Palestinian businessman Bashar Masri had just spoken of how the UAE and Bahrain could use their new agreements to pressure Israel to halt settlement activity.
But none of that was apparent in Berlin, where the three foreign ministers in their public statements made no mention of settlements when they spoke of peace.
The absence of the settlements as a conceptual stumbling block to peace was markedly different than in the Obama era, where former US secretary of state John Kerry blamed the failure of the last round of talks with the Palestinians in 2014 on an announcement with regard to 700 new Jewish homes in east Jerusalem, noting that “poof that was the moment” when the process came to a halt.
That kind of an understanding had not always existed. Israel built settlement homes during the Oslo process while simultaneously holding peace talks with the Palestinians. In the year 2000, the last of the Clinton administration, ground was broken for 4,965 new settler homes under the leadership of former prime minister Ehud Barak.
The annual rate of settler building has never reached that same height since. In the year of the Annapolis process, 2008, under former president George Bush, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics recorded 2,332 starts. In 2014, when Kerry fingered settlement building as an issue, the number of starts stood at 1,680.
The question that has dogged the nascent Israeli-Arab peace deals is whether or not those agreements will be hostage to the concept of settlements as a stumbling block, or whether or not they will proceed.
BAHRAIN AND Emirati officials have spoken strongly against the formal annexation of West Bank settlements, holding out a vision of two states at the pre-1967 lines. But the future of the stability of the normalization deals depends in part on whether or not events in the West Bank or in the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict can shake or destroy the new fledged relationships.
For the deals to hold, they would have to, in some ways, be immune to outside factors, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The last months have been unusual, in that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who campaigned on annexation and settlement development, has not allowed plans for Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria to advance or be authorized once a new government was formed in May.
So there has been nothing to test the newly created peace.
Settler leaders who noted that the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria has not met since February warned of a de facto freeze.
The scheduled planning meeting did not assuage those concerns. Although it lobbied heavily for the meeting to be scheduled, the Yesha Council did not issue a congratulatory note upon hearing that an agenda had been posted, in part because it remains skeptical that it would really take place.
Perhaps it was that same skepticism that prevented any public response from the UAE or Bahrain. With so much at stake, there is a difference between a planned meeting and a real one.
Or perhaps, the era in which settlements are a stumbling block to peace has truly ended. At the end of the day, one of the cornerstone pillars of the deals rests on the answer to that question.
It’s an answer that can only be revealed through a series of small tests, as events in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem and Gaza unfold.
The first of those tests will take place next week when the planning council meets in a small room in a military base sandwiched between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Beit El settlements.
The smiles and the handshakes in Washington and Berlin were nice.
But in some ways, it is only if that meeting is held, and plans are approved, without any corresponding hiccups to the normalization process, that one can truly say, that the process has started.
Reuters contributed to this report.