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Normalization with the Arab World

Encouraging signs of a shifting paradigm

Bavly image

The normalization agreements that Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are of great importance by themselves-and even more significant in the wider, regional context.  

They are the result of a change in a deeply seated paradigm that has remained at the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict for over half a century. 

For decades, and despite the peace agreements signed with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), the Arab world maintained that as long as the Palestinian issue remained unresolved, they would not normalize relations with Israel. The Palestinians urged the Arab League to maintain this position as leverage over Israel. 

The model started to shift a decade ago with the Arab Spring, which wreaked havoc across the region. The threat of turmoil continues to hang above the heads of Arab leaders, who now have to contend with popular unrest in the digital age, much harder to repress than in the past. 

At the same time, Iran gained strength as it plowed through on its nuclear program in parallel to its ever-growing efforts to destabilize moderate Sunni regimes across the Middle East through subversion and state-sponsored terrorism. In this situation, moderate Sunni regimes, especially in the Persian Gulf (but not only there), saw the sands under their feet begin to shift.  

Domestically, they see conflict and revolt looming ahead. Externally, they see the threat of Iran. And in the meantime, in the center of the Middle East, Israel was thriving with the "Start-Up Nation" and ever-expanding commercial and diplomatic relations with China, India, Brazil, and African nations. Suddenly, the Palestinian issue became a stumbling block for the moderate Arab regimes on issues of security, expanding trade and ties with the U.S. 

Once the U.S. administration presented a draft of a comprehensive peace plan that bypassed the Palestinian issue instead of tackling it head-on, these regimes were ready to move forward and relinquish the old model that put the Palestinian issue first. At last, they put their own interests-strategic, commercial, and economic-ahead of the Palestinian issue. 

This is unnerving to the Palestinians, who view these moves as a betrayal of their cause undermining their limited negotiating capital. But the truth is that for the UAE, for Bahrain, and possibly for Oman and others, the benefits of ties with Israel outweigh the drawbacks. 

That is not to say that they are abandoning the Palestinians. In fact, they are making sure to state that the Palestinian issue needs to be resolved justly. At the same time, the U.S. peace plan does include significant gains for the Palestinians-once they decide to resume negotiations-including statehood, aid, and trade. 

The Arab regimes now opening up relations with Israel are telling the Palestinians that they exacted a concession from Israel-which renounces, or at least postpones, annexation of swaths of land in the West Bank claimed by the Palestinians. 

The big elephant (or camel) in the room is Saudi Arabia. As the self-styled leader of the Sunni bloc arrayed against Iran, it gave its explicit green light to the UAE and Bahrain to make peace with Israel. Will Saudi Arabia be next? 

The answer is "yes, but…" Yes, sometime down the road Saudi Arabia will make peace with Israel for the same reasons the others have made peace with us-for strategic, economic, and other reasons. But Saudi Arabia is different from the UAE and Bahrain in its leadership position in the Sunni world and its support for the Palestinian cause. The time will come, and Saudi Arabia will probably move forward even if the Palestinians remain intransigent, but it will take more time.  

As for the Palestinian leadership, it must now reckon with a shifting reality. There are two possible courses the leadership can take: join the change and make their own demands from Israel, the U.S., and the Arab world, or fight against normalization and lose its potential benefits. The Palestinians must choose their path wisely or be left behind yet again. 

A shifting paradigm is changing the face of the Middle East, and its ramifications are bound to be far wider than just two agreements with the UAE and Bahrain. Even as the Palestinian issue remains very much at play, the Middle East as we've known it will likely never be the same. 

Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office. 

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