Normalising relations with Israel will not benefit Gulf states

Normalisation at the expense of the Palestinians would only embolden Israel's government and anger the Arab street.

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    Israel's Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks together with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman in this handout provided by the Israel Prime Minister Office [Reuters]
    Israel's Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks together with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman in this handout provided by the Israel Prime Minister Office [Reuters]

    The November 11 Israeli raid on Gaza that resulted in the deaths of seven Palestinians, a senior Hamas commander and an Israeli officer was a spectacular failure. The botched covert operation caused embarrassment not just for Israel, but also for Egypt and the UN, who have been attempting to broker a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel. The image of Qatar, which has been providing crucial aid to Gaza to stabilise the situation and give way to peace efforts, has also been damaged as a result of the debacle.

    At first glance, the timing of the raid may have seemed odd, as it came in the wake of concerted efforts to normalise relations between Israel and the Gulf states. However, it did not surprise anyone familiar with Israel's unreliability and unpredictability - it proved yet again that a leopard cannot change its spots.

    Rapid steps towards normalisation 

    In recent weeks, Israeli administration has been on a grand crusade for normalisation.

    Benjamin Netanyahu's surprise trip to Oman on October 25 marked the first visit by an Israeli leader to the sultanate, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, in over two decades. Meanwhile, Bahrain and Israel are believed to be holding secret talks in preparation for establishing diplomatic relations.

    On October 25, Qatari authorities broke with Arab sporting protocol and allowed Israeli flags to be displayed at the 48th World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Doha. On October 28, Miri Regev, Israel's hardline Minister for Culture and Sports, attended a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, at which the Israeli national anthem was played. Two days later, Israel's Communications Minister Ayoub Kara gave a speech in Dubai.

    Attempts at normalisation between Israel and the Gulf states are not new. Many Arab states have long believed the road to American validation runs through Israel. This was the main driver behind Qatar's decision to permit the opening of an Israeli trade office in Doha in the 1990s. 

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    What is new this time around is the momentum behind the flurry of diplomatic activity, which signals the ratcheting up of American pressures for normalisation between the Gulf States and Israel. The bold and uncompromising support for Israel displayed by President Donald Trump, coupled with his clear interest in mobilising a grand coalition to oppose Iran, have left little room for hesitation for Gulf states when it comes to accepting a level of relationship with Israel. That space shrunk further when Saudi Arabia, with the support of Abu Dhabi, imposed a blockade on Qatar in June 2017, fragmenting the unity of the GCC. Riyadh put further pressure on other Gulf states to normalise their relations with Israel this year when it formed a diplomatic alliance with Washington and Tel Aviv to protect its beleaguered Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair. 

    Normalisation at the expense of the Palestinians 

    It is evident that any progress in Gulf-Israel relations can only happen at the expense of the Palestinians. 

    Israel's normalisation drive aims to abort once and for all the Saudi-brokered Arab Peace Initiative - the ten-sentence proposal endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 calling for the normalisation of relations between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee problem.

    Israel has already found some success in this strategy. It convinced Riyadh to show support for a peace deal that would completely bypass the issue of occupied Palestinian lands - something that until recently stood as the main barrier in front of Arab-Israeli normalisation. Saudi Arabia's de facto leader MBS declared in April that the Palestinians should "accept Trump's proposals or shut up" - implying the ongoing occupation is no longer seen by Riyadh as an impassable obstacle to normalisation.

    Oman's intentions 

    The fact that Oman- a Gulf country that takes pride in its ability to go against the Saudi tide when necessary - is driving the Gulf-Israeli normalisation efforts, however, indicates that the Palestinian leadership may not be completely bypassed in the ongoing normalisation process. 

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    Oman is unlikely to have submitted to Israeli and American pressure for unconditional normalisation. The Sultanate, which is known for its willingness to offer a platform for constructive mediation in regional disputes, probably hoped to achieve more than just normalising its relations with Tel Aviv when it agreed to host Netanyahu in Muscat. In fact, Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi travelled to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas only a day after Netanyahu's visit, indicating that Oman's decision to officially welcome Netanyahu was not intended to be at the expense of the Palestinians.

    Still, before attempting to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, Oman should examine Netanyahu and his government's extreme right-wing politics critically and consider Israel's well-established record of unreliability and unpredictability. 

    Lessons to bear in mind before edging closer to normalisation

    There are several lessons that Oman and other Gulf states should bear in mind before edging any closer to normalisation with Israel:

    Firstly, Arab leaders need to understand what Netanyahu and his ministers are trying to achieve with their visits to their countries. Israel wants its statehood to be recognised across the world and Israeli officials' visits to Arab states massively help these efforts. Since the 1991 Madrid Conference, Israel has managed to slowly widen its international network and gain recognition among states in Asia, Africa and elsewhere on the basis that it has already engaged the Palestinians in a peace process. By pretending to be eager for peace and normalisation, it gained the recognition of several important states, including India and the Vatican, even though the peace process was stillborn. It has since perpetrated three wars on Gaza but did not lose much recognition, as most states find it hard to sever established bilateral relations. 

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    Secondly, Netanyahu is no Yitzhak Rabin. He did not hesitate to slap the Omanis in the face by attacking Gaza only days after they rolled out the red carpet to welcome him in Muscat. And the November 11 assassination raid followed a week in which Israel approved the building of 20,000 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim and ordered a massively disproportionate retaliation in Gaza, bringing the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in 2018 to over 200. These actions send a message to any nascent allies in the Gulf that they must work with Israel according to its terms and conditions and that exchanging official visits should not be misunderstood as a softening in posture towards the Palestinians. In this sense, Arab states need to understand that any unconditional exchange of visits with Israel will inevitably strengthen the hand of dominant right-wing forces in the country and embolden them to do more. 

    Thirdly, being a populist leader, Netanyahu is fully conscious of the fact that, in the age of social media, global public opinion is rapidly shifting against Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement had relative success in the US and largely won the battle of public opinion in Europe, making him feel threatened. In this environment, normalisation with Arab states would give much-needed leverage to the Israeli PM and allow him to push forward his diplomatic efforts aimed at securing elite approval. The relationship between his administration and most Arab states would most likely be framed in the context of competition over public opinion. This means, if Oman and others continue their rapprochement with Israel, Netanyahu will make sure the world is watching - the Gulf states will need to brace themselves for unflattering leaks and media attention orchestrated by Israel.

    Despite all this, some Gulf states, desperate for Western approval after being rocked by the fallout of the Khashoggi affair, are likely to go much further than the current spate of ministerial visits and sports diplomacy, without placing any condition for progress on the Palestinian front. Normalisation with Israel will always be a hard sell and the Arab Street will never buy into it. It is a dangerous game to play for the Gulf's unelected rulers, especially so soon after the, albeit unsuccessful, Arab Spring which demonstrated what people power can do in the region. There is a lot to learn from the experiences of Egypt and Jordan - their leaders may have signed peace treaties with Israel, yet decades later, Egyptian and Jordanian people's perception of Israel remains the same. Ultimately, if normalisation is not part of a bigger picture of peace and stability, it will not benefit anyone and can only discredit those who take the first steps towards dialogue with Israel.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.  


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