Towards the normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel?

While most of the Arab countries do not officially recognize the state of Israel over the latter’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, common concerns in the past thirty years over regionals issues have brought the different parties closer. However, The announcement of Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu on July 1st, 2020 to unveil the details of his plan to annex the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley– regarding the Trump’s Middle East plan could bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a point of no return.

A relationship oscillating between the status quo and revisionist aim

Prior to the creation of Israel in 1948, Zionists supporters, looking to establish a Jewish state were willing to change the status quo-with Arab states. Once Israel self-declared itself, the situation took a 180-degree turn and Arab countries advocated a total war to recover the entire Palestinian territory. However, as Arab defeats occurred (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973), their governments started to recognize the pre-1967 border. Eventually, after the cold peace during much of the 1980s, the Madrid Conference introduced a fresh Arab-Israeli dialogue which included bilateral negotiations and a parallel track supporting multilateral agreements with the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In addition to Egypt which officially recognized Israel at the eve of the Camp David Accords, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, and Jordan joined the path of peace and reconciliation with Israel. In May 1996, Israel intensified the process of normalization with the Gulf states and opened trade representation offices in Oman and Qatar to develop economic, scientific, and commercial relations. This period marked an important shift for Israel’s foreign policy, where for the first five decades of its existence, its main concern was not linked to direct conventional military threat. The growing influence of Iran and Tukey as regional powers also accompanied the path towards normalizations as the Schmittian logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my ally” became the leading policy of the Middle-East.

The polarization of the region over the Arab cause

The convergence of interest and the new geopolitical reality of the region created new perspectives and priorities as most of the Gulf states considered the Egyptian-Israeli peace and stabilization process as a positive development for the region that could help to contain the influence of the Islamic republic of Iran. While Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has affirmed that “Palestinians and Israelis have the right to their own land.”, Bahrain’s king denounced the Arab boycott of Israel, which lead to the declaration of the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that “there is an alignment of Israel and other countries in the Middle East that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. Certainly in my lifetime, I never saw anything like it and I’m at the age of the State of Israel more or less, so it’s an extraordinary thing”. Overall Israel shared with the oil monarchies a firm opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and its quest for regional hegemony, a wariness over Washington’s Middle East policy, and concerns towards the rise of terrorism in the region. The Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002 and 2007 which has been ensured at the Arab League summit, while it was not enough for Israel, was too much of compromises for Iran and its allies. This resulted in the polarization of the region between the camp led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan promoting peace initiatives with Israel on the one hand against Iran and its allies -including Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza- maintaining their hostilities towards Israel on the other hand.

Recrudescence of tensions and the so-called “Peace to prosperity”

While further normalization in the economic political and cultural field would help Israel to be better recognized in the region, and on an international scale, Arabs states have much more to lose to further officialize their relations. As most of the states get what they need through their unformal relationship with Israel, going further in the peace process would go against the public opinions of Arab populations which still support the Palestinian cause. The illegal Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories has been a major obstacle in forging peace deals and fostering – diplomatic relationships with Arab countries. This commitment has recently been recently reiterated by Arab states as they warned that any further annexation by Israel in regard to the Trump peace plan of the West Bank and the Jordan valley would “definitely, and immediately, reverse all of the Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world”. Before violating another time international law that would jeopardize peace negotiations with the whole region, Israel should also consider the internal consequences of such a move. While Hamas, an Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip, threaten the Israeli authorities that annexation of parts of the West Bank would constitute “a declaration of war“, more and more Palestinians could yield to more extreme initiatives leading to a third intifada. In fact, by annexing the Jordan Valley and the settlements in the West Bank, the Israeli government would encircle the Palestinians by cutting off their access to the Jordan River and depriving them of essential agricultural lands and resources. Palestinians already living in non-contiguous towns and villages would be further isolated in urban enclaves.

The need for mutual recognition between Palestinians and Israelis

While the United States, under the cover of Trump, had offered unconditional support to the Israeli enlargement project, the majority of the international community and Arab states are opposed to the continued occupation of Palestinian territories and recalled that such colonization is a strict violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibited the transfer of settlers into occupied territory. Given the increasing construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the military occupation that had already existed for more than half a century, and the implementation of the American peace plan, the situation of Palestinians becomes more alarming. As the relation between Israel and the Arab states is closely linked to the status of Palestine, another annexation would jeopardize decades of soft diplomacy and normalization. The roadmap to establish a sustainable peacemaking process could include some of the following concrete policy recommendations:

  • As a mediator, the US should refrain to put on the table an alternative peace plan to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does not mention the illegal settlements of Israel, do not allow the right of Palestinians refugees to return to their land and exacerbate religious tension by referring to Israel as a “Jewish state”.
  • The Arab community, under the organization Arab League (AL), has a key role in pushing forwards a stable environment fostering multilateral peace talks between the different parties. That is why the AL should reiterate its commitment to normalizing relations with Israel in the light of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal.
  • Ending the occupier-occupied relationship and pushing forward the mutual recognition of Israelis and Palestinians is a priority to bring stability and a sustainable peace in the region. In this sense both parties must acknowledging the mutual deep historical and religious ties to the land.
  • In this sense, Israel must stop denying the Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination, and should stop violating international law by creating more settlements in Palestinians territories. A two states solution on the basis of UN Resolution 181, also known as the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and considering the pre-1967 border would be a great way to foster mutual recognition
  • On the other hand, Palestinians should renounce to extremism and violence. Consolidating a central Palestinian authority and leadership capable to bring effective authority and control over all Palestinians lands should be a priority to reestablish credible partner for the Israeli government and the international community.
About the Author

Clément Gibon is currently an undergraduate student at the university of Poitiers pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science and literature. He took part in the Erasmus exchange program at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (2019, Lebanon) and at the Karl-Franzens Universität Graz (2020, Austria). He is a contributing writer for the online French magazine “La revue géopolitique”, where he focuses on issues related to the MENA region, international security and peacemaking in post-conflict societies.