Normalization of relations between some Arab countries and the occupier state of Israel has quickened recently, with meetings, visits, and the publication of articles in Israeli newspapers. In October 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his first public visit to the Sultanate of Oman, followed by a meeting with the President of the Sovereign Council of Sudan, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, in Uganda in early 2020.
Last June 12, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth published an article by the Emirati ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, titled “Annexation will be a serious setback for better relations with the Arab world.” This article came just three days after an Emirati plane landed at Ben Gurion airport, which the UAE claimed was carrying an aid shipment to the Palestinian people to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic. It was clear that this is just a smokescreen, because the Palestinian Authority has denied receiving this aid due to a lack of UAE coordination. On June 17, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash participated in the virtual annual conference of the American Jewish Committee, and delivered a speech in which he said, “Communication with Israel is important and will lead to better results than other paths followed in the past.”
Indicators of Arab Normalization with Israel
For decades, Arab countries have considered Israel an enemy state, and committed themselves to reject all forms of normalization with it until a comprehensive and just solution to the Palestinian issue was reached. Egypt opened the door to normalization by unilaterally signing peace treaties with Israel in 1979 without requiring a solution to the question of Palestinian, the basis of the conflict with Zionism; the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Agreement with Israel in 1993; and Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. Yet, the Arab position remained somewhat consistent regarding the normalization of relations with Israel.
Neither the Jordanian and Egyptian peace with Israel nor the Oslo agreement contributed to solving the Palestinian issue. Israel has in fact grown more extreme and has intensified the scale of its occupation. It has become clear that normalization has had nothing to do with finding a solution to the Palestinian question or achieving justice in Palestine, but is about national interests, and that Israel understood normalization as an acceptance of Zionism, racism and settlement policy. In March 2002, the Beirut Arab Summit adopted the Arab Peace Initiative (API) put forward by the late Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, and proposed peace with Israel on the conditions of its full withdraw from the Arab territories occupied in June 1967, including the Golan Heights, a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Although there is a long history of secret relations between many Arab countries and Israel, the steps toward normalization have taken an unusually hastened and public turn recently, despite Israel’s continued refusal to implement the terms of the API. This normalization has played out on economic, commercial, security, military, cultural and even sporting levels. Trade and economic normalization between Israel and the Arab countries has grown significantly in recent years. According to Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics data, Israeli exports of goods and services to MENA markets are estimated at a total of about 7 billion dollars annually, including more than one billion dollars to the Arab Gulf countries. The Middle East and North Africa region imports about 7 percent of total Israeli exports while exporting 6 percent of total Israeli imports of goods and services.
The situation is no different for the Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel. In September 2016, the Jordanian National Electric Power Company and the American company Noble Energy announced their signing of an agreement to import liquefied natural gas from Israel worth $10 billion. In February 2018, the Egyptian company, Dolphinus, through Noble Energy, announced the signing of an agreement with the Israeli Delek Drilling LP worth $15 billion, under which the latter would supply Egypt with natural gas. In January 2019, Egypt announced the establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which includes seven countries, including Israel, with the aim of establishing a regional gas market to secure supply and demand for member states. In terms of intelligence and security, some Arab countries are believed to be major recipients of Israeli military and intelligence technology, as well as security services.
Intelligence and security relations between the UAE and Israel go back several years. In 2008 the Critical National Infrastructure Authority, which ensures security and safety for vital facilities in Abu Dhabi, signed an $816 million contract with AGT International, a Swiss company owned by Israeli businessman Matti Kochavi, to purchase surveillance equipment for “critical assets such as oilfields and other strategic sites” in the UAE. The same company provided Abu Dhabi with three drones, aimed at strengthening its intelligence and security capabilities and supplied Abu Dhabi Police with a central security monitoring system known as the Falcon Eye, which was officially launched in July 2016.
Marking the beginning of Israeli intelligence and security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, in August 2012, Riyadh used a group of international cybersecurity companies, including an Israeli company to protect information and stop the attack on Saudi Aramco, as infiltrators penetrated 30,000 company devices using a virus called “Shimon” which disrupted and stopped the production of Saudi oil.
The Gulf Arab states have recently increased interest in buying advanced intelligence technology made in Israel to spy on their political opponents and monitor and track their activities. In May 2019, the operators of WhatsApp accused the Israeli NSO group of using Pegasus’ spying technology to penetrate the application to monitor journalists, activists, and human rights activists, and sell the information to Saudi Arabia. In August 2018, the UAE purchased advanced technology from the same group to hack mobile phones in order to spy on its opponents. In January 2020, prior to an Israeli court’s hearing of Amnesty International’s lawsuit against the Israeli NSO group, AI said that Israel should revoke its granting the latter an export license because its products were used in malicious attacks on human rights activists in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and the UAE.
Militarily, many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, participate in military exercises alongside Israel, the most important of which being the Red Flag exercise of advanced air combat that is supervised by the US Air Force. In March 2017 and April 2019, the UAE Air Force participated in military exercises known as “Iniohos” in Greece, in which Israel also participated.
Due to the threat of Iran, Israel’s relations with some Arab Gulf states have strengthened. In August 2019, Israel’s then-Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, stated that Israel is part of an international coalition to protect cargo ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz. The coalition was established by the United States and includes Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain, Britain, Australia, and Albania and aims to enhance the security and safety of commercial ships passing through the maritime corridors. This statement is consistent with the assessment of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who in April 2018 told Time magazine when asked about the compatibility of Saudi interests with Israel that “We have a common enemy, and it seems that we have a lot of potential areas to have economic cooperation.”
This means that relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Israel are now transcending normalization to become an alliance offering mutual services, not just to confront Iran. These countries know that Israel will not confront Iran for their sake, but they are coordinating and cooperating in influencing the policies of the United States in the region: abandoning the nuclear agreement with Iran, supporting the military coup in Egypt, defending Mohammed bin Salman after the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as sharing the common fear of the demand for democracy in the Arab region.
On the diplomatic, cultural, and sporting level, Arab normalization with Israel has also witnessed remarkable growth. Israel’s then-Minister of Culture and Sports, Miri Regev, visited Abu Dhabi in October 2018. At the same time, the Israeli Minister of Communications, Ayoob Kara, participated in the “Plenipotentiary Conference” held in Dubai. Foreign Minister Katz visited Abu Dhabi in July 2019 to attend the United Nations’ environment conference. A delegation from the Israeli Ministry of Justice headed by the Israeli Deputy Attorney General, Dina Zilber, also visited Abu Dhabi to participate in an international anti-corruption conference in December 2019, in addition to the emergence of Israeli delegations at international sports competitions, and international cultural, economic and scientific conferences in Arab capitals, such as Abu Dhabi, Manama, Doha, Tunis, and Marrakech.
On the other hand, Gulf figures close to their governments made visits to occupied Palestine and met with Israeli officials; the most prominent of whom was retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki who met with the official in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dore Gold, at the King David Hotel in Occupied Jerusalem in July 2016. This was followed by a visit from the “This is Bahrain” delegation in December 2017.
Public relations normalization has also developed, with Arab officials attending international conferences alongside Israeli officials. On February 13-14, 2019, a group of Arab and Israeli officials attended the Ministerial Conference to “Promote Peace and Security in the Middle East,” which was held in Warsaw, and was aimed at forming an international coalition to confront Iran. On June 25-26, 2019, the Bahraini capital, Manama, hosted the workshop titled: “Peace to Prosperity,” which supposedly presented an economic “vision” for the Palestinian people. In July 2019, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, met with the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Israel Katz, in Washington. On January 28, 2020, Bahrain’s Ambassador to Washington Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khalifa, UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, and Oman’s Ambassador Hunaina Al-Mughairy attended the conference held by US President Donald Trump to announce the details of the political part of his plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, known as the “Deal of the Century.”
Arab countries, especially the Arab Gulf states, for various domestic and foreign policy reasons are headed towards normalizing relations with Israel a just solution to the Palestinian issue is reached. These regimes believe that normalization with Israel helps them protect their security and brings them closer to Washington, regardless of the position of the Palestinians or their own citizens toward this normalization. A large majority of Arabs still refuses to recognize Israel.
The relations of some countries with Israel were strengthened to the point of alliance before even establishing diplomatic relations. Thus, the term normalization falls short of description, but the focus remains on the steps to normalize relations given the intense sensitivity of Arab public opinion against them. It seems clear that this position has not been affected by the concerns and internal issues of the Arab public. The relationship with Israel is driven by the regimes’ calculations, not the peoples’. Moreover, Arab public opinion realizes that peace with Israel did not bring prosperity to the peoples of the Arab states that already signed agreements with it and that this peace was one of the obstacles to reforms in the political system. The Arab peoples consider the Palestinian cause––as the last remnant of colonialism––to be the cause of all Arabs, a situation that Arab regimes will not succeed in changing. one which concerns the Arab nation as a whole, something that the Arab regimes have been unable to change.
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An earlier version of this paper was published on June 21, 2020 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.