Arab Normalization With Israel

Palestine Center Brief No. 324 (March 7, 2019)

By Mohamed Mohamed

In a recent US-led conference in Warsaw, Poland on “peace and security” in the Middle East, Gulf Arab states appear to have cozied up even more with Israel. This conference has been widely viewed as an American attempt to incite greater world opposition to Iran, which is something that Israel and a number of Arab countries completely support.

In a video leaked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia can be heard strongly criticizing Iran and essentially supporting Israel. At one point, the Bahraini representative says that the Iran “challenge” is more “toxic” than the “Israel-Palestine” issue, and that if it wasn’t for Iran, the issue with Israel would have been much closer to being solved. In reality, Israel is the primary reason why the issue has not been resolved.

Both Israel and these Gulf Arab countries claim that Iran is a huge threat to their security. But Israel is “widely understood” to possess around 100 to 200 nuclear warheads, while Iran has none.

Israel’s air force is also one of the strongest in the world, and definitely the strongest in the Middle East, and it frequently flaunts the capabilities of its anti-missile systems such as “Iron Dome.” Of course, Israel (and presumably, the Gulf Arab countries) also have the full backing of US military forces.

Economic sanctions are also crippling Iran. Coupled with the massive military force that it would face, Iran simply cannot afford to start a war against Israel or its allies. Therefore, it is clear that Israel is exaggerating the “existential threat” from Iran.

So why does Israel inflate this so-called threat from Iran? Because Iran is just a pretext and smokescreen to distract from more than 70 years of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Exaggerating the Iranian threat helps Israel to normalize relations with Arab states, and this indirectly helps it to delegitimize Palestinian grievances against it.

Historically, the Palestinian struggle has been a great concern for the Arab (and Muslim) world. When Arab and Muslim states begin to normalize relations with Israel, it implies that Israel’s persecution of Palestinians is not much of an issue and can be overlooked. In March 2019, even former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf called for diplomatic relations with Israel (unsurprisingly speaking from the UAE).

This is precisely what Israel wants and needs, especially as it faces pressure from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, greater international scrutiny of its actions (such as its illegal settlement enterprise), growing negative global public opinion, and even increasing criticism from both American Jews and the American public at large. Israel needs the approval of countries that have historically been against it (at least in rhetoric), so that it can continue to dominate Palestinians and violate their basic human rights to benefit itself.

In October 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Oman and met with the country’s leader, Sultan Qaboos. A day after this visit, Omani Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi essentially called on other Gulf countries to accept Israel as a normal state in the Middle East: “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. The world is also aware of this fact. Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as others states] and also bear the same obligations.”

But Israel does not bear the same “obligations” of other states. At least 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem are effectively under Israeli military control. As stateless people living under occupation, these Palestinians are not entitled to many of the fundamental rights and protections that Israeli citizens enjoy. They face restrictions on their movement, theft of their land and property, unequal access to basic services such as water and electricity, imprisonment without charges, collective punishment, extrajudicial killings, and many other unacceptable human rights violations, including all-out war. To make matters worse, the roughly 1.7 million Palestinians that do hold Israeli citizenship face “institutional, legal, and societal discrimination,” as noted in a 2010 US State Department report on human rights.

In January 2019, the Omani Foreign Minister went even further and said that if Palestinians and Israelis are interested in peace, “they should look to the future and do not talk about the past.” Of course, this is very easy for Oman to say. Oman did not suffer the dispossession and exile of hundreds of thousands of its people, nor the military occupation and siege of millions, nor did its people face the vicious discrimination that Palestinians have suffered for more than 70 years. As the historical perpetrators of crimes against Palestinians, Israelis would be the only ones to benefit from not discussing the past.

It is important to note that although some of these states are attempting to normalize relations with Israel, the majority of Arab and Muslim people do not approve of these attempts. This was made clear in the past few days in Amman, Jordan at the 29th Conference of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is a meeting of the heads of Arab parliaments that seeks to build consensus on regional issues.

As the speaker of Kuwait’s parliament said, “We, as representatives of our people, must unanimously declare: no to the normalization of relations with [Israel]…Any step toward the normalization of relations must be regarded as politically illegal and morally reprehensible.” The problem is that the leaders making decisions to normalize do this because they do not have real sovereignty and control of their foreign policy. They must do as they are told by the world’s superpower and protector of Israeli interests, the US.

But the fact is, countries that are normalizing relations with Israel have already fallen into a trap. For example, the statements made by the Gulf leaders in Warsaw were made in what was supposed to be a closed-door meeting, yet Netanyahu’s office still leaked the video footage for his own political gain and to benefit Israeli interests. It is doubtful that those leaders wanted their comments to be made public. On many occasions, Israel has even treated the US, its greatest ally and benefactor, in a selfish, exploitative, disrespectful, or outright hostile manner. It is all but guaranteed that Israel will treat normalizing countries as pawns and manipulate them much more.

It is mind-blowing that Bahrain, which is smaller in area than the West Bank governorate of Ramallah and has been an independent country less than the amount of time that Palestinians have been living under brutal Israeli occupation, would try to lecture to Palestinians and the rest of the world that Iran (or any other country) has been more of an obstacle to peace than Israel itself.

It is also ironic that while a Western country such as Ireland has taken a principled stand in support of Palestinian human rights (by moving towards criminalizing commercial activity with illegal Israeli settlements), some Arab and Muslim countries are moving in the opposite direction and positioning themselves on the wrong side of history. Regardless of these normalizing efforts, Palestinians will not accept any pretend “deal” imposed on them by external actors, whether they are Arab, Muslim, or anything else.


Mohamed Mohamed is the Executive Director of the Palestine Center. 

The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.