The recent reports in the Israeli media concerning hostility toward Israel during the World Cup in Qatar surprised many Israelis. But it shouldn’t. The Israeli-Arab relationship has undergone fascinating changes and upheavals, resulting in the Abraham Accords. Much has already been said about the change among a number of Arab countries regarding the way they view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its weight in their strategic decision-making.
The consequences of the Arab Spring, the Iranian threat to national interests, especially those of the Gulf countries, as well as the changes in American foreign policy, led, as we know, to the Abraham Accords, and to a wave of normalization to which we are not accustomed. However, the situation is much more complex. In fact, one can look at three main patterns of normalization between Israel and the Arab world.
What are the three main patterns of normalization?
The countries with which Israel has peace agreements in place are Egypt and Jordan. Despite the stable and solid peace between Israel and these two countries, little has changed concerning their normalization with Israel. The two countries, although different in some ways, both paint normalization with Israel in an uninviting and undesirable light.
Together, they see a clear link between the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the thaw in their relationship with Israel. They also draw a clear distinction between the strategic relationship, which serves their national interests, and normalization, which, in their view does not serve their vital interests.
The countries of the Abraham Accords – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – hold an opposing view, when it comes to the relationship between them and Israel. They promote cooperation in a wide variety of fields; political, security and civil. Israelis are welcomed in these three countries, and as mentioned above, the current, warm relationship between them and Israel serves their interests, despite the lack of progress and political relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Countries, such as Qatar, still maintain the position that there is an affinity between progress in the relationship with Israel and the Palestinian conflict. Qatar leads in many respects in this regard, despite having an intense dialogue with Israel concerning Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This demonstrates a common interest, although vast differences of opinion between them, regarding the place of political Islam in the region remain.
It is possible to add to this group, countries like Oman, Kuwait and even Tunisia, all of which are in no hurry to improve relations with Israel. In practice, for these countries, there is still a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their relationship with Israel.
A special relationship concerns Saudi Arabia, and the dilemma it faces regarding an open dialogue with Israel. Admittedly, in the past few years, there have been significant changes in its approach to Israel. These were evidenced by Saudi Arabia giving the green light to its closest allies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to sign the Abraham Accords, something which had previously been frowned upon.
However, despite speculation surrounding ongoing steps toward normalization, the Saudi Kingdom likes to underscore the connection that still exists between progress with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its bilateral relations with Israel. There is evidence to show that there are internal debates between the various powers in Saudi Arabia regarding the way Israel should be dealt with, but for the time being, the tendency to act cautiously in this regard is increasing, particularly in light of its special position in the Arab and Islamic arena.
IN RECENT days, Saudi speakers have emphasized the Arab peace initiative by referencing the normalization of relations with Israel and the progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A fascinating insight into the above discussion can be found in the article of Abdulaziz Alkhamis, on the Arabic website of Sky News. In his article, Alkhamis, a prominent Saudi journalist and intellectual analyzed the two main approaches to the question of normalization with Israel. He distinguishes between the approach that internalizes the changes that have taken place in the Middle East in recent years, which in his opinion require the tightening of relations with Israel and the approach in which an affinity still exists between the Palestinian issue and the question of relations with Israel.
In his view, the pressure on Israel to resolve the Palestinian conflict has shifted from a military issue to a political one. Improving relations with Israel at this time serves both Arab interests and possibly, the Palestinian cause. Incidentally, Alkhamis used the Lebanese-Israeli agreement concerning the maritime border to illustrate his views. His article reflects some of the opinions in Saudi Arabia regarding the proper and desirable policies concerning Israel.
In any event, despite the impressive developments taking place between Israel and some of the Arab countries, it is clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a central issue, which affects attitudes on the Arab “streets” as well as the official attitude toward Israel. It is not surprising, therefore, that such views were expressed in Qatar, which brazenly emphasizes the link between a closer relationship with Israel and progress in resolving the Palestinian problem.
These voices should remind anyone who has forgotten, that despite the reduction in the centrality of the Palestinian issue in recent years, it still evokes harsh feelings in the Arab arena. It’s essential for public opinion in Israel to realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not vanished.
Moreover, the improved relationship with the Arab world, which is borne out in the Abraham Accords, should strengthen Israel’s self-confidence.
The improved Israeli-Arab relationship can and should proceed along political lines between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, despite, and perhaps even more so now, considering the twilight of Mahmoud Abbas’s rule.
The writer has served in a range of diplomatic roles including ambassador to Cyprus, and positions in Cairo and London, and was director of the Foreign Ministry’s department responsible for the Palestinian arena and Jordan. Currently, he lectures in the Political Science Department at the Jezreel Valley College and is a policy fellow at Mitvim Institute.