JAMES ZOGBY, SULTAN BARAKAT
Normalization Doesn’t Advance Peace
By Dr. James Zogby
FOR AS LONG AS I CAN RECALL, Israelis have sought recognition and acceptance from the Arab world without reciprocity. At times, they have made the argument that if the Arab states simply recognized them as a normal state in the Middle East then they would feel secure enough to make accommodations with the Palestinians.
In 2002, in an effort to test Israel’s commitment to achieving a comprehensive peace that would result in its recognition and acceptance, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced an Arab Peace Initiative. The API, which was later unanimously endorsed by the Arab League, contained the following elements:
If Israel were to agree to a full withdrawal from the occupied territories to the pre-June 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem and an agreed upon solution for the Palestinian refugee problem; in exchange, the Arab states will consider the Arab-Israeli conflict over and will sign a comprehensive peace agreement and establish normal relations with the state of Israel.
Giving lie to their interest in finding a peaceful and just solution to the conflict, Israel has repeatedly rejected the API, insisting that the Arab states normalize without preconditions. Not only the Israelis have pushed this line, but key figures from various U.S. administrations have also encouraged Arab leaders to turn the API “upside down” and move toward recognition and normalization first. In making their case, U.S. policy-makers have used the Israeli argument that if the Israelis felt more secure they would be more open to compromise with the Palestinians.
Time and again, however, we have seen clear evidence that this is simply not true—normalization with Israel doesn’t advance peace. It merely emboldens them to consolidate their annexation of Palestinian land. Each time a concession has been made by the Arabs, what the Israelis have done is “pocket it,” refuse to reciprocate, and continue on their merry way, while demanding still more concessions.
A FEW EXAMPLES COME TO MIND
During the lead up to the Madrid Peace Conference, the Bush administration proposed to the Arab states that they offer “sweetener” to the Israelis which they hoped might entice the Israelis to be more accommodating. What they suggested was that if the Arabs agreed to end their secondary boycott of businesses that did business in Israel, then the administration would press the Israelis to accept a freeze on settlement construction in the occupied territories. I know about this first hand, since I had discussions with several Arab foreign ministers at that time. Several key Arab governments informed the U.S. administration that they would do so. The secondary boycott was ended. The Madrid Peace Conference happened. But the settlement freeze never materialized.
I remember, in 1994, making my first trip with a delegation of Arab-American and American Jewish business leaders to Israel/Palestine as co-chair of Builders for Peace, a project launched by Vice President Al Gore. On that visit, I saw visual evidence of the betrayal that had occurred at Madrid. As we passed Tel Aviv on our first night in the region, one of the Jewish members of our group marveled at the signs on buildings in the city advertising Korean and Japanese companies now doing business in Israel. He noted that just a few years earlier none of those companies had been there. Madrid and the end of the secondary boycott had brought them to Israel.
The next day as we left Jerusalem heading toward Ramallah, we could see on hill after hill settlement construction taking place at a feverish pace. When I commented on this, an American Jewish leader responded defensively that he had been told by the Israelis that this wasn’t settlement expansion, it was merely “natural growth” of existing settlements—even though the new construction was taking place on different hills and was completing a ring of “Jewish-only” housing that was circling East Jerusalem, severing it from the rest of the West Bank. The secondary boycott ended, the settlements had not.
Later that same year, I went to Casablanca to chair a session on the Palestinian economy at the first regionwide economic summit—one of the fruits of the Oslo accords. The Israeli business delegation was there in full force. They were so obviously delighted to be in an Arab country mingling with business leaders from across the Arab world. At times, it was almost embarrassing to watch, as they a little too eagerly sought to have their pictures taken with any Arab they saw dressed in a thobe and keffiyeh.
The following year’s summit took place in Amman. But there was a difference. Palestinian political leaders were there, as were the representatives of the American and Israeli governments and their business communities. But Palestinian businessmen and women from the occupied territories were not present. Israel had denied them exit permits, and so they were not allowed to cross the Allenby Bridge to attend the summit that had been only made possible by the Palestinian endorsement of the Oslo accords. It was as if the Palestinians had opened the door to the Arab world, allowing the Israelis to enter. The Israelis entered, and then promptly shut the door behind them.
While in Amman, I fought back and insisted that if the Palestinians couldn’t come to us, then we would bring our group of business leaders to them. We met a few days later in a hotel in Jerusalem. Present were representatives of our business delegation, and U.S. and Israeli government representatives. We waited for more than an hour and a half for the Palestinian business leaders to come. Finally, we received a call from the Palestinians, who informed us that they were stuck at a checkpoint because the occupation authorities were refusing them permission to enter the city. The Israeli government officials who were present apologized. The planned meeting adjourned. And that was the end.
What comes through so clearly from these examples and others is that the Israelis have simply never operated in good faith vis-à-vis their dealings with the Arab world, and most especially with the Palestinians. They take and they do not reciprocate. That is why I say, “Don’t be fooled. Normalization doesn’t advance peace, and it most certainly doesn’t advance Palestinian rights.”
Dr. James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC. Posted on Nov. 3, 2018 in Washington Watch.
Normalizing Relations with Israel Will Not Benefit Gulf States
By Sultan Barakat
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 U.N., 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 stabilize 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 normalize 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.
IN RECENT WEEKS, ISRAELI ADMINISTRATION HAS BEEN ON A GRAND CRUSADE FOR NORMALIZATIONBinyamin Netanyahu’s surprise trip to Oman on Oct. 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 Oct. 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 Oct. 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 normalization 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.
What is new this time around is the momentum behind the flurry of diplomatic activity, which signals the ratcheting up of American pressures for normalization between the Gulf states and Israel. The bold and uncompromising support for Israel displayed by President Donald Trump, coupled with his clear interest in mobilizing 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 normalize 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.
NORMALIZATION 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 normalization 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 normalization 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 normalization. Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader MBS [reportedly] 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 normalization.
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 normalization efforts, however, indicates that the Palestinian leadership may not be completely bypassed in the ongoing normalization process.
Oman is unlikely to have submitted to Israeli and American pressure for unconditional normalization. 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 normalizing 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 NORMALIZATION
There are several lessons that Oman and other Gulf states should bear in mind before edging any closer to normalization 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 recognized 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 normalization, 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.
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 Nov. 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 toward 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 U.S. and largely won the battle of public opinion in Europe, making him feel threatened. In this environment, normalization with Arab states would give much-needed leverage to the Israeli prime minister 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.
Normalization 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 normalization 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 toward dialogue with Israel.