Advancing and re-framing Israeli-Arab normalization -opinion

A year after the signing of the Abraham Accords, the normalization process is at a crucial crossroads between becoming a game changer in Israel-Arab relations.

 Billboards commemorating one year to the Abraham Accords signed between the UAE and Israel, September 14, 2021.  (photo credit: DANIEL AHARONI, SHACHAR SIGAL)
Billboards commemorating one year to the Abraham Accords signed between the UAE and Israel, September 14, 2021.

A year after the signing of the Abraham Accords, the normalization process is at a crucial crossroads between becoming a game changer in Israel-Arab relations and becoming yet another marginal event in the long history of the Israeli-Arab conflict. 

On the one hand the agreement is a relative success in building ties between institutions, such as ministries and the business communities in Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. It had an undeniable effect on the volume of commerce between the countries. In a matter of one year, the UAE has become one of Israel’s top 20 trade partners. In addition, it encouraged a wave of Israeli tourism to the UAE.

Nevertheless, tourism and photo-ops aside, the accords have yet to fulfill the great expectations envisioned by their architects a year ago: They did not create a domino effect of spreading normalization with Israel around the Arab world or a united regional front vis-à-vis Iran’s military efforts. Specifically, they failed to change the basic public perception in the Arab world toward Israel and Israelis. 

There are two main reasons for this unfulfilled potential – first, the relatively low prioritization of the accords by the Biden administration. Despite its stated support for the normalization process, the current administration does not show much enthusiasm in promoting one of the main hallmarks of the Trump administration, as seen in its decision not to appoint a special envoy for the normalization process. Facing a gradual process of decrease in US involvement in the Middle East, several countries that perceived normalization with Israel as means to improve relations with the US are now focusing their efforts elsewhere. 

But the major obstacle to turning the accords into a game-changer is the illusion upon which they were built – the concept that Israel’s relations with the Arab world can be completely detached from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main motivations in signing the accords was to isolate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by preventing it from becoming a condition for building relations with the Arab world. In the months following its signing, the marginalization of the Palestinian issue led many Israelis to feel as if the events shaping Israel’s future in the Middle East are taking place in Abu Dhabi and Manama instead of in Gaza and Sheikh Jarrah. 

This illusion was violently broken a few months ago during the last Gaza war. The recent escalation demonstrated that while relations with the Gulf were improving, the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on everyday life in Israel is only getting worse as violence spilled over from the occupied territories and into to Israel. As for the accords – the normalization process survived the recent escalation but their momentum was stopped and the already limited public support for them in the Arab world declined further. 

THIS CRUCIAL crossroads for the normalization process presents a special opportunity for Europe, and Germany specifically, to take an active role not only in supporting the normalization process but also in changing its course.

The reduced US involvement in the process creates a vacuum that Europe can, and should, fill. Against the original intentions of Netanyahu and US president Donald Trump, European proactive involvement could help leverage the normalization process to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. 

In the initial phase, Europe can help in incorporating the normalization states into the economic development of West Bank and Gaza. It can help create a multilateral framework that will include Israel, the UAE and the Palestinian Authority with the aim of tackling the two main urgent economic needs – the long-term development of Gaza and confronting the growing economic crisis in the West Bank.

In this context, Europe could help improve UAE-PA relations, which have deteriorated since the signing of the Abraham Accords. A European initiative could build on the Lapid-Bennett government’s change of attitude towards the PA and its recent support of the large-scale economic development of Gaza. 

But the economy is not enough. In order to create a long-term political effect Germany should take upon itself the role of a back channel mediator advancing diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab countries in return for Israeli trust-building steps towards the Palestinians (such as a freeze on settlement building).

Such involvement will connect Israel’s willingness to offer some compromises to support the expansion of normalization with Arab nations’ need to connect the initiation of diplomatic ties with advancing on the Palestinian topic. Germany’s facilitation services have already proved useful when Foreign Minister Heiko Maas hosted the first meeting of the foreign ministers of the UAE and Israel following the signing of the accords in Berlin. 

Another interesting direction could be a German initiative to create an advisory forum involving the normalization countries (including Egypt and Jordan) and several international actors to assist in Israel-Palestinian conflict prevention, and advise on current issues such as tension reduction in Jerusalem. This initiative could later be developed into a platform to re-initiate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. 

The German government, whatever its future composition may be, should take upon itself promoting normalization as a central foreign policy goal. This mission relates directly to two major advantages of Germany as a foreign policy actor – utilizing economic development as a tool to promote peace, and conducting back-channel diplomacy.

Above all it relates to the concept of multilateralism in foreign policy which Germany represents on the global stage – after all, who can speak better of the advantages of regional integration in promoting peace than Germany and the EU. 

Originally published in German in taz.

The writer is the CEO of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.