Israel’s Normalization with Arab States Slows as Repression of Palestinians Rises

Israel’s extreme right-wing government and its draconian policies toward the Palestinians have slowed down efforts to expand the so-called Abraham Accords, a process that saw several Arab states establish diplomatic relations with Israel in late 2020. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped that Saudi Arabia would join these accords during his current premiership, but Israeli policies such as raids on the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, in addition to continued settlement building and ongoing raids and killings of Palestinians, have led Riyadh to hit the pause button, despite reported intelligence cooperation between the two countries. Even states that have long had diplomatic ties with Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, have sharply increased their criticism of Israeli policies. These developments show that the Palestinian issue retains its saliency throughout the Arab world and that as long as the present Israeli government remains in office and continues its escalation of the military occupation of the Palestinian territories, it is unlikely that Israeli normalization with Arab states will continue to move ahead with the same stride.

The Abraham Accords, Supported by Two Administrations

During the presidency of Donald Trump, the previous Netanyahu-led government received many political gifts from Washington, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv, closing the PLO office in Washington, cutting US aid to the Palestinian Authority and to UNRWA (a UN organization that has aided Palestinian refugees and their families since 1949), and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But perhaps the biggest gift of all was US assistance in helping Israel forge diplomatic ties with several Arab states, namely the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, as part of the so-called Abraham Accords, without any mention of ending the occupation or respecting Palestinian human rights.

Although Biden was highly critical of Trump’s foreign policy, he did not change its course in regards to Palestine and Israel.

Although President Joe Biden was highly critical of much of his predecessor’s foreign policy, he did not change its course in US policy toward Palestine and Israel, except for restoring financial aid to the Palestinians. The Biden team not only embraced the Abraham Accords, but sought to build on them. One Biden administration official stated, “We’ve worked to strengthen the existing Abraham Accords, and we are working quietly but quite assiduously to expand the Abraham Accords.”

Much of this effort by the Biden administration was done during the Israeli government led by Yair Lapid, a centrist political figure. In 2022, the US supported a meeting in Israel’s Negev Desert that included the foreign ministers of the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, Egypt, and Israel. In addition, after the signing of the accords, about 150,000 Israeli tourists visited the UAE in the last ten months of 2022, while 200,000 Israeli tourists visited Morocco that same year. Israeli businesspeople have also sought deals in these two countries, and Morocco has reportedly purchased advanced drones, other military equipment, and cybersecurity products from Israel.

Who is at the Steering Wheel?

However, the advent of the new Netanyahu-led government in December 2022, in which he included far-right political figures such as Itamar Ben-Gvir as the new national security minister and Bezalel Smotrich as finance minister, has posed a severe challenge to Israel’s outreach to the Arab world. Ben-Gvir had previously been convicted of anti-Arab racism and of supporting the banned Kach terrorist group, while Smotrich, a right-wing settler leader, is also known for his incendiary anti-Arab remarks. For example, two years ago he told Palestinian legislators that it was a “mistake that [former Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.” In his current position, Smotrich is also responsible for overseeing settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu somehow believed he could control these two far-right cabinet ministers, claiming that his hands “are firmly on the steering wheel,” meaning that he is the one who makes policy. However, once Ben-Gvir and Smotrich settled into their new positions, this claim proved to be much more ephemeral. Only days into his job, Ben-Gvir, with many security guards in tow,

marched up to the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary, also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound) in Jerusalem, a provocative move that challenged Jordanian custodianship over the area (considered the third holiest site in Islam), and that provoked much Palestinian anger. The march was somewhat similar to that of Israeli leader Ariel Sharon who did the same in 2000 to stymie the peace process efforts of then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a provocation that sparked the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising).

Anti-Palestinian measures taken by Netanyahu’s government indicated that Israel’s formal outreach to Saudi Arabia was in trouble.

Although Netanyahu reportedly approved Ben-Gvir’s visit to the holy site (which Jews refer to as the Temple Mount), he probably did not anticipate the extent of the backlash. The UAE postponed Netanyahu’s planned visit to Abu Dhabi as a result. Netanyahu did not sack Ben-Gvir from the cabinet, however, because he needed his party’s support for the controversial judiciary changes that he wants to institute, which would, among other things, protect him from corruption charges while he is prime minister. While these judicial proposals stirred up widespread anger and protests within Israel, especially among those on the left and center of the political spectrum, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich pursued their own agendas, such as continued settlement building, legalizing unsanctioned settlement outposts, and making provocative speeches and remarks.

At the same time, Netanyahu made no secret of the fact that he wants Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords, as formally establishing relations with Riyadh would be a big foreign policy prize. Although some behind-the-scenes intelligence cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel has reportedly continued, the anti-Palestinian measures taken by the government in its first two months in office, such as a raid in the West Bank city of Jenin that killed nine people, indicated that Israel’s formal outreach to Saudi Arabia was in trouble.

In late January, Saudi Arabia warned that the situation between Israel and the Palestinians was slipping into a “dangerous escalation” as civilians from both sides were being killed. It said that the Saudi government “condemns all [acts] that target civilians and confirm [sic] the importance of ending escalation, reviving the peace process and ending occupation.” Although this statement was somewhat even-handed, the fact that it mentioned the need to end the occupation indicates that Saudi Arabia blamed Israel more than the Palestinians for the violence. And in subsequent weeks, the Saudis issued even more condemnations of Israeli actions.

Impact of Increasing Violence 

Events in February, March, and April of this year have set back normalization even further. On February 26, a mob of angry settlers, reacting to the killings of two of their own,

rampaged through and torched the town of Huwwara and three nearby villages in the West Bank, an outbreak during which one Palestinian was shot dead and 350 were injured. Israeli security forces reportedly stood by while the violence by Israeli settler extremists took place against Palestinians. Adding fuel to the fire, a few days later Smotrich stated that Huwwara should be “wiped out,” a comment that drew widespread international and regional condemnation. Although Smotrich later rescinded his remark, probably under pressure from Netanyahu, no one doubts that such remarks reflect his true feelings.

Smotrich further enflamed tensions when he gave a speech in Paris to a right-wing Zionist organization, in which he said that there is “no such thing” as a Palestinian people. Adding insult to injury, he spoke from a lectern on which was featured an inaccurate map of Israel that included not only all of the West Bank but all of Jordan too. This map was formerly the symbol of the right-wing Herut Party led by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Not surprisingly, the Jordanian government strongly condemned both the speech and the map.

By January 26, 2023, Israel under its far-right government had already killed five times as many Palestinians as it did during the same period in 2022, many of them children. And as of March 23, Israel had killed 86 Palestinians, signaling that 2023 will likely far outstrip 2022 when it comes to Palestinian deaths. But it was the Israeli raids on two consecutive nights in early April—during the holy month of Ramadan—inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem that touched off the most severe condemnations. Claiming that a group of Palestinian youths had locked themselves inside the mosque, Israeli police attempted to clear the area using batons, stun grenades, and rubber bullets to strike at worshippers. Close to 40 people were injured and between 300 and 400 were arrested. The storming of the revered mosque was especially shocking, not only to Palestinians but to Muslims throughout the region as well, as the site is the location where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven.

Netanyahu has found out the hard way that normalization of relations with the Arab world still depend on the Palestinian cause.

The Al-Aqsa incident led the Saudi Foreign Ministry to issue a statement condemning the “blatant storming” of the mosque and rejecting “these practices that undermine peace efforts and contradict international principles in respect of religious sanctities.” Again, the Saudi statement added that it supports efforts to end “the occupation.”

Meanwhile, the UAE, a country that has probably developed the closest links to Israel in recent years, sharply criticized Smotrich’s comments on the existence of the Palestinians. The UAE government had sent one of its top officials, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, to Israel in late March to personally warn Netanyahu that the actions of his government were putting strains on the Israeli-UAE relationship.

In Morocco, the Islamist opposition party, PJD (Justice and Development Party) sharply criticized the Moroccan foreign minister for allegedly defending Israel while it commits “criminal aggression against our Palestinian brothers.” On the defensive, the office of King Mohammed the VI then accused the PJD of “irresponsible excesses” and said that the government’s position toward the Palestinian issue is “irreversible.”

Even countries like Egypt and Jordan, which have longstanding diplomatic ties to Israel, felt compelled to issue sharp statements. Cairo charged that the “occupying power responsible for this dangerous escalation,” could undermine Egypt’s “truce efforts,” a reference to Egypt’s role in mediating between Hamas and Israel, for example after the latter’s war on Gaza in May 2021. Jordan, meanwhile, has been especially critical of Israeli policies of late. King Abdullah said in early April that Muslims have a “duty…to deter Israeli escalations” in Jerusalem, and also, in reference to recent attacks on Christian sites in Jerusalem by Jewish extremists, called on Israel to stop the displacement of Christians and the attacks on their holy sites and property. The king’s foreign minister was even more forceful, saying, “The brutal Israeli attack on peaceful worshippers at Al-Aqsa is an abominable act that violates all laws [and] human values.”

Public Pressure and Other Factors

To be sure, all of these Arab governments are worried about a public backlash. Although some analysts claim that the Palestinian issue had declined in importance and that several of these governments opted to pursue their own interests at the expense Palestinian rights, such as forming a coalition against Iran, many governments were clearly jumping ahead of their people in terms of developing ties to Israel. Although normalization with Israel may promise to bring  economic and military benefits to some Arab states, such as an influx of Israeli tourists and businesses, public attitudes are still critical of Israel in the absence of a just resolution for the Palestinians. According to the 2022 Arab Public Opinion Index, about 84 percent of the poll’s respondents said that Israel remains a security threat, and 76 percent said that the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs. It is likely that the actions of the Israeli government in the first few months of 2023 have caused both of these percentages to become even higher today.

In early March 2023, the New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia would be willing to normalize relations with Israel, provided that the United States helps it develop a civilian nuclear program, in addition to selling it weapons with fewer restrictions attached. In 2022, it was also reported in the press that the Biden administration was seeking to broker a deal whereby Israel and Saudi Arabia would develop formal diplomatic relations. Whether or not such efforts were indeed serious, they now seem to be on hold because of Israeli provocations and policies against the Palestinians under Netanyahu’s new right-wing government. Moreover, given the tensions between the current US and Israeli governments over the judiciary proposal and Israel’s extreme rightward shift, the Biden administration may not be in the mood to do Netanyahu any favors at this point. And given the rather rocky relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration’s standing in Riyadh may not be so favorable as to broker a deal in any case.

Netanyahu in a Bind of His Own Making

In forming his extreme right-wing coalition in late 2022, Netanyahu may have initially believed he could have it all: a stable government, an overhaul of the judiciary that would allow him to evade his corruption charges, a friendly US administration, and an expansion of the Abraham Accords. But things clearly have not turned out the way he had hoped. He remains dependent on the extreme right to keep his majority in the Knesset, which allows leaders of this movement to shape the government’s policies, especially toward the Palestinians and the Israeli settlers who regularly enact violence against them.

For example, Ben-Gvir on April 10 joined a massive march of settlers to the evacuated settler outpost of Evyatar in the West Bank to underscore the need, in their view, to legalize such settlements. The march was met by Palestinians throwing stones at the marchers and Israeli troops firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at the Palestinians, resulting in 19 injuries. Such acts, which are likely to continue, will only bring the Israeli government more regional and international criticism and will work to keep normalization with Arab states on hold. Meanwhile, relations with the Biden administration remain strained, primarily over the judiciary issue but also because it sees statements and policies by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as inflaming the Israeli-Palestinian tensions that it wants to dampen. Tellingly, Biden has refused to issue Netanyahu a formal White House invitation.

Netanyahu has found out the hard way that outreach and the normalization of relations with the Arab world still depend on the Palestinian cause, especially in times of heightened violence, and despite his attempt to sweep this unresolved issue under the rug.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.