What will normalization with the Arab world mean for Israel?
August 21, 2020
(JNS) — Israel is set to sign a historic agreement with the United Arab Emirates that would see the two Middle Eastern nations officially strike diplomatic relations and exchange embassies.
The move represents a major validation of the Netanyahu inside-out regional peace doctrine. For years, Israel’s senior statesman has argued that it would not be a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that would be the key to peace in the greater region, but rather that peace with the greater Arab world will increase the chances of an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Netanyahu has met numerous times with Arab leaders, making the case for formal relations with the Jewish state.
Both U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed their hope in separate press conferences that the deal struck between Israel and the Emirates will soon be followed by similar deals with other Gulf states.
Whether such deals will materialize remains to be seen, as does the meaning of normalization.
In the past several decades, Israel has signed formal peace agreements with two of its immediate neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. The treaties have led to mutually beneficial security and economic cooperation with both countries.
Yet the treaties have proven fragile, and have not led the populations of either Arab nation to view Israel or the Jewish people more favorably.
With the United Arab Emirates — a nation far from Israel’s borders — normalization brings the potential for new economic opportunities, which will include direct flights between the two nations.
Towards the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011, the reasonably stable regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak collapsed and was quickly replaced by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt appeared to be in tatters as Egyptians repeatedly sabotaged a pipeline bringing natural gas from Sinai into Israel, and armaments well above the agreed-upon limits made their way towards Israel’s border. Tourism for thousands of Israelis accustomed to vacationing in Egypt’s Red Sea resorts and at the pyramids in Giza ground to a halt.
Had it not been for the sudden takeover by current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, it is likely the treaty would have completely fallen apart. El-Sisi is committed to maintaining peace with Israel and has signed a deal to import natural gas from Israel — a reversal of the previous agreement — made possible by Israel’s newly exploited large natural gas reserves.
With Jordan, Israeli security cooperation remains instrumental in keeping the pro-Western regime of King Abdullah in power. In return, Israel gains a strategic buffer zone against radical forces further to the east. Israel similarly provides Jordan with natural gas, and perhaps more importantly, with critical water resources that if halted would send Jordan into crisis.
Even so, relations are tense at best. Abdullah routinely rails publicly against Israeli policies, in order to appease a population that is estimated to be nearly 70 percent Palestinian. Jordan often recalls its ambassador and the Jordanian government recently opted not to allow Israeli farmers to renew a 25-year lease on territories adjacent to the border. No one in the small trickle of Jewish visitors into Jordan is allowed to bring prayer shawls or phylacteries (tefillin) into the country.
And just as happened to Egypt’s Mubarak, should Abdullah lose his grip on power in Jordan, it is extremely likely that relations between the two nations would further deteriorate despite the formal treaty.
Yet with the United Arab Emirates normalization brings the potential for new economic opportunities, which will include direct flights between the two nations.
More importantly, the Emirates represents a forward base against the new partners’ common enemy: Iran. Perhaps more than any other issue, it is the regional ambitions and nuclear progress of Iran that is bringing Sunni Arab states closer to Israel.
It remains unclear how the two new allies will work towards diffusing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and constant attempts at regional hegemony. It also remains unclear whether or not a mass of Sunni states will soon join the Emirates in this peace gesture, and whether a true regional peace will materialize.
At present, the secondary goal of the Netanyahu regional peace doctrine — ending the conflict with Palestinians — remains beyond the horizon.
At the heart of the dispute remains Israeli sovereignty over territories it captured from Jordan in 1967 and from which Jordan relinquished all claims to in its formal peace agreement with Israel in 1994.
For the purposes of sealing this new agreement with the UAE, Israel has temporarily halted plans to formally extend its sovereignty over Jewish settlements of the West Bank. In a tweet announcing the agreement, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan wrote that “during a call with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories.”
It is difficult to understand how true peace with any Arab nation can be reached if they refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty over lands apportioned to Jews as part of its ancestral heritage, mandated for a Jewish state by the League of Nations and then captured by the modern State of Israel in a defensive war.
Yet with all the questions, what stands clear is Israel’s emerging strength as a technological, economic and military power, and the understanding that it will not be defeated on the battlefield.
Arab states are finally beginning to recognize what the Jewish people have known since Israel defeated multiple Arab armies in 1948, 1967 and 1973: Israel is in the Middle East to stay. And the benefits of aligning with the Jewish state outweigh any of the arguments that favor standing against the region’s strongest nation.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.