Thawing time

After the UAE, who is next to normalise relations with Israel?

By Maxime Perez

Posted on September 3, 2020 11:40

After the United Arab Emirates, other Arab countries are tempted to initiate a diplomatic rapprochement with Israel.

But this development encouraged by Washington comes up against the taboo of ‘the Palestinian question’. What if everything had already been sealed on 28 January 2020 in the East Room of the White House?

After three years of work, US President Donald Trump finally unveiled his plan to seal peace between Israel and Palestine. The audience generously applauded each of his comments, followed by those of a beaming Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, who was standing beside Trump.

In this closed-door session, the presence of the ambassadors of Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a major event. “This is a serious initiative. The only way to guarantee a lasting solution is to reach an agreement with all the concerned parties ,” explained Yousef al-Oteiba, Abu Dhabi’s representative in Washington.

For many months, this close adviser to Prince Mohammed ben Zayed had been conducting secret negotiations with US officials. He argues that Iran’s expansionism justifies an alliance between Sunni countries and Israel in the Middle East, in line with the Warsaw Conference in February 2019.

Diplomatic deal

The issue at stake here is a non-aggression pact promoted by US national security adviser Victoria Coates. The UAE was waiting for an excuse to sign up for it. This came at the end of June. As the Netanyahu government prepared to annex part of the West Bank, al-Oteiba alerted his White House interlocutors, Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz.

His message was unequivocal: If the Israeli government renounced its territorial takeover, the Gulf monarchy would begin the process of normalising relations.

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On 12 August, by telephone, Trump, Netanyahu and Sheikh ben Zayed approved the outlines of this diplomatic deal. In order to dampen hostile reactions, Abu Dhabi opted for skillful communication: in addition to “defusing a time bomb”, this agreement made it possible to “save the two-state solution”. In fact, the UAE became the third Arab country to sign a peace accord with Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

Whether described as historic or treacherous, the “Abraham Accords” come as no surprise to observers in the region. “This is the natural evolution of a long process,” says Meir Masri, an expert on the Arab world and lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Relations have existed between the two states for some 20 years. Moreover, it corresponds quite well to the foreign policy of the Emirates, which is known for its openness.”

Bahrain and Oman expected to follow suit

Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and confidant, is convinced that the UAE-Israel pact can serve as an “icebreaker” and create a domino effect with other countries. So what will be next on the list?

Because they have been approached by the US administration, two additional states are expected to follow suit, starting with Bahrain. In June 2019, Manama brought together the main players in the region around a conference focusing on the economic development of the future Palestinian state and presented it as the economic component of the ‘Trump Plan’.

The micro-kingdom, which is in Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence, was also one of the first countries to welcome the normalisation agreement with the UAE. Finally, its foreign affairs minister, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifah, has repeatedly defended Israel’s right to defend itself against Iran. “We expect Bahrain to follow the UAE and sign a peace agreement with us,” said an Israeli source.

Another case seems imminent: Oman. The Sultanate, an island of stability in the Middle East, has pursued policy and diplomacy that is relatively independent of the major regional powers. This has helped the country to become a respected mediator. Thus, when in October 2018, the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said welcomed Netanyahu to his royal palace in Muscat, criticism remained relatively moderate. His death did not alter the government’s attempts at rapprochement. For several weeks, contacts between Omani and Israeli officials have intensified.

A boost for Netanyahu

At first glance, these diplomatic gains are a boost for Netanyahu, who is struggling on the domestic front and whose corruption trial is entering a crucial phase. They also mark the triumph of his doctrine. For several years, “Bibi” has been campaigning against the idea that the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict is a prerequisite for any normalisation.

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“This is much more a tactic than a long-term strategy. Netanyahu exploits pressure points such as fear of Iran or annoyance with the Palestinian leadership. But certain taboos remain due to the fact that Arab public opinion is far from the spirit of openness of government leaders towards Israel,” argued Michael Horowitz of the geopolitical consulting agency Le Beck, based in Bahrain.

Sudanese denial and confusion in Morocco

This gap was apparent in late August, when a spokesman for the Sudanese foreign ministry implicitly acknowledged the existence of contacts with Israel. After a few hours, Khartoum published an official denial and announced the dismissal of Haider Badawi.

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While not looking unfavourably on the emergence of a Sunni Arab alliance with the Israeli state, Saudi Arabia has shown that it is subject to the same limitations. Its position is that there will be no normalisation without peace with the Palestinians.

“Engaging in such a process would be dangerous for the Saudis because their country is a center of the Islamic world and the custodian of holy places like Mecca. Even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gives the impression that it is taking a back seat, it remains a mobilising force, especially in the jihadist ranks,” explained Horowitz.

In Morocco, where Trump’s son-in-law was due to visit in late August, the head of government Saadeddine El-Othmani first denied insistent rumors about the normalisation of relations between the kingdom and Israel. “We refuse any normalisation with the Zionist entity because it would encourage it to go further in violating the rights of the Palestinian people,” he told members of his Parti de la Justice et du Dévéloppement party on 23 August, before specifying a few days later that he was not speaking on behalf of the government.

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