Burgeoning Arab-Israeli Normalization? Not Quite What You Think

Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev visits the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Photo taken on October 28, 2018.

Efforts reported in the pages of The New York Times and advanced by diplomatic actors are the most recent episode in a long saga of outside-in attempts at normalization between the Arab states and Israel. Such initiatives, however, get the fundamental sequence of peace-making backwards. Despite eliciting attention from diplomatic actors seeking to advance this agenda, any building of Arab-Israeli ties that ignores public wishes and opinions is unlikely to succeed no matter how much hype is manufactured in the process.

Delighting Israeli Officials

“Arab thinkers”—this is how The New York Times described a “small new group of liberal-minded” individuals from across the Middle East who “are pushing to engage with Israel” because they believe “boycotting Israel is a failure, and has only helped that country while damaging Arab nations that have long shunned the Jewish state.”

The group calls itself the Arab Council for Regional Integration and is largely made up of individuals with little to no following. The article, however, portrays them as brave contrarians risking everything to go against prevailing opinion in an Arab world that is purported to be vehemently and irrationally anti-Israel. It is the sort of narrative that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs loves to promote, which might explain why so many of the verified Twitter accounts that promoted the article positively were linked to said ministry. Included were the accounts of the Deputy Head of Information Production at the ministry, its Deputy Spokesman, its Arabic language account, and current or former Israeli diplomats serving in Azerbaijan, Germany, France, Sweden, the Czech Republic, South Africa, New York, and Washington, DC.

It is the sort of narrative that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs loves to promote, which might explain why so many of the verified Twitter accounts that promoted the article positively were linked to said ministry.

But while the narrative put forward in the article certainly serves the agenda of Israel’s international messaging, it is not clear that the Israeli state itself was behind the effort. Rather, that distinction belongs to a group called “The Center for Peace Communications.” Little is known about this relatively new group with an innocuous sounding name. But the New York Times article includes a correction noting that it was this center, and not the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)—which it had earlier misidentified—that was the sponsor of the conference that gathered this group of individuals. A glance at the website of the Center for Peace Communications suggests why one might get the two organizations confused. The first person listed on the center’s board of directors is Dennis Ross, a “Distinguished Fellow” at WINEP. The center’s president, Joseph Braude, has ties to WINEP as well. His most recent book, published by the institute, presents a strategy for pursuing normalization with Israel. On its website, WINEP describes the book by Braude as “the first step in establishing the Center for Peace Communications.” In the book, Braude calls for the creation of a list of Arab voices supporting normalization and urges that to help these figures, “Israelis and Americans need to know more about them.”

Where could one go to begin compiling such a list? This is Braude’s first suggestion: “One example of a source is the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Arabic Facebook page of 1.7 million followers, containing tens of thousands of discussion participants, a third of whom convey warmth toward Israel.” Braude concludes by calling for the creation of a “central hub” to coordinate the normalization efforts, which he lays out in nearly 200 pages. This hub is very much like what The Center for Peace Communications became; in other words, this center was helped into existence by WINEP (which itself was helped into existence by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC). WINEP was founded in 1985 and its founding board chair was Barbi Weinberg, whose husband Larry was the President of AIPAC. WINEP’s founding executive director was a former director of research at AIPAC, Martin Indyk, who is also a former US ambassador to Israel and a special envoy for relations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

What Were They Thinking?

The effort coordinated by Braude and The Center for Peace Communications is aligned with the promotion of the so-called “outside-in approach” to Middle East peace. It calls for achieving Arab-Israeli peace and normalization as a first step to attaining Israeli-Palestinian peace. This approach suggests that if Israel can achieve a separate peace or normalization with more Arab states, the Palestinians would become in a weaker position and would be forced to concede to terms that have historically been to their detriment. The traditional sequence and formula, as laid out in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, had been that the Arab states would extend peace and normalization to Israel once the latter arrived at a just peace with the Palestinians. Outside-in takes this sequence and reverses it—hence the name.

The traditional sequence and formula, as laid out in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, had been that the Arab states would extend peace and normalization to Israel once the latter arrived at a just peace with the Palestinians.

The biggest problem with the outside-in approach is represented by the majority of the hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims who oppose the idea of their governments normalizing ties with Israel without justice for Palestinians. About 90 percent of respondents in the Arab Opinion Index named Israel as the biggest threat facing them in the region. When asked whether they would support their own country’s normalization with Israel, 87 percent of respondents rejected it. Further, among Palestinians in particular, the strategy of boycott is widely supported; in polls conducted as recently as this fall, 83 percent supported the local and international movement to boycott Israel.

The Middle East has been governed by repressive regimes and rocked by multiple uprisings, civil wars, regional and international disputes, and ethno-religious conflict for decades. The region is diverse and so are the perspectives of the various states and their respective populations. Yet despite such division, some perspectives stand the test of time; to wit, sympathy and support for Palestinians is perhaps the most widely shared, sustained, and unifying perspective across the entire region.

Not Just Israeli Diplomats

While Israeli diplomats were the first to respond and promote the article as soon as it came out, the biggest boost the story likely received was from an American diplomat—America’s top diplomat, in fact. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shared it with a call to end boycotts of Israel. His tweet read: “It’s time for Arab countries to abandon boycotts and engage #Israel. #MiddleEast divisions = instability. Arab thinkers who risk their lives to bravely advocate a regional vision of peace and coexistence shouldn’t face retribution. We need dialogue.”

This is important for a few reasons. First, as secretary of state, Pompeo’s voice brings in the weight of US policy in a way that is second only to that of the president of the United States. In addition, this also comes at a time when reports are surfacing around a potential non-belligerence agreement between Israel and certain Arab states. Citing US, Israeli, and Arab sources, Axios reported that “the White House approached several Arab states to encourage them to reach non-belligerence agreements with Israel.” The report claims that the president’s deputy national security advisor, Victoria Coates, met with representatives of the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Morocco in an effort to further an initiative by the Israeli foreign minister, who reportedly met with his Omani and Emirati counterparts at the UN General Assembly meeting last September.

Last week, Pompeo was scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Lisbon during a trip to both Portugal and Morocco. After attending the NATO summit in London, there was an opportunity for Pompeo and Netanyahu to advance the normalization agenda with one of the nations, Morocco, with which the Israeli Foreign Ministry had been allegedly laying the groundwork. Netanyahu also was looking for a diplomatic coup that the embattled prime minister, facing indictment in Israel, could hang his hat on in the midst of an ongoing domestic political battle over government formation that has lasted almost an entire year. Israeli media reports suggested that Netanyahu sought to tag along with Pompeo to Morocco where he could meet with King Mohammed VI to secure the diplomatic breakthrough and propaganda coup that he sought, but that the king refused. This report, while officially unconfirmed by all parties, seems to be supported by the fact that Pompeo’s scheduled meeting with the king was abruptly canceled with no clear explanation as to why.

Israeli media reports suggested that Netanyahu sought to tag along with Pompeo to Morocco where he could meet with King Mohammed VI to secure the diplomatic breakthrough and propaganda coup that he sought, but that the king refused.

A week ahead of the scheduled meeting, US officials reportedly confirmed that one of the goals of the Pompeo trip to Morocco was to advance normalized ties with Israel. A statement issued by the Moroccan King on the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, coming just two days after this report and days before the scheduled meeting with Pompeo, poured ice-cold water on the initiative and provided some clarity as to why the king would reject a meeting with Netanyahu. Writing to express the Moroccan people’s “solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and reaffirm the Kingdom of Morocco’s immutable position and unwavering support for the Palestinians,” the statement also made clear the following:

In recent years, successive crises in the Middle East have deflected attention from the Palestinian question. The settlement of the Palestinian problem is the backbone of regional stability. Therefore, I wish to insist on the need to put this question back at the centre of international priorities, and to refrain from giving in to the fait accompli, which serves no one.

It is common knowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially a political dispute. No other approach, however important, may provide an alternative to a comprehensive, equitable political solution that is consistent with international legitimacy resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.

“Outside-in” Left Outside in the Cold

Time and again, a certain frenzy of publicity seems to be manufactured around the possibility of normalization breakthroughs and, seemingly without fail, it ends up being little more than hype. While superficial efforts at normalization are likely to continue and proliferate, real peace is made between people, not regimes and their select validators. One need only look at the current status of the peace deal between Israel and Jordan. Despite having been signed some 25 years ago, it is as cold as ever. Jordan recently declined to renew a land-leasing agreement (that was part of the arrangement at the time) and has continued to come into tension with Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians in general, its detention of Jordanian nationals, its threats to annex the Jordan valley, and its continued colonization of Jerusalem and the holy sites.

Efforts to advance Israeli relations with Arab states will continue to collide with the actual desires and aspirations of the people in those states, often creating additional strains between regimes and their people in a region where such tensions are often hovering between boiling point and welling forth.

If the Israeli government and its supporters are looking for propaganda efforts, desultory and half-baked normalization schemes might seem like an attractive option. But if they have any interest in actually advancing durable peace, they would be wise to seek a just resolution with Palestinians themselves, recognizing their rights as a people, and pursuing relations with Arab and Muslim populations throughout the region and not just with the often fragile regimes that rule them.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here