Normalization Survives Despite the Gaza War

The current Israeli war on Gaza, now well into its fourth deadly month, has cast a calamitous shadow over the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, as well as over the Arab world, the wider Middle East, and the world at large. To be sure, the situation prevailing in the region in the pre-October 7, 2023, period—that of unadulterated Israeli hubris and unambiguous sidelining of Palestinians and their rights—has for all intents and purposes ended in unbridled violence. Israel’s killing machine continues to claim Palestinian lives—with some 23,000 killed and more than 59,000 injured thus far—and to make the Gaza Strip “uninhabitable,” according to the United Nations. Almost two million people, the overwhelming majority of Gaza’s population, are now displaced because of Israeli bombardment and the destruction or damage of about 70 percent of all homes and more than half of all buildings in the territory.

And yet, the Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel in 2020 through the Abraham Accords—the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Morocco—insist on adhering to their normalization deals with the Zionist state, supposedly because that is the only way to bring peace to the Middle East region. For them, rescinding the accords and suspending their recognition of Israel is untenable and may signal that their original reasoning for opening relations with Israel despite its apartheid was misguided and wrong. Indeed, in the face of ongoing carnage in Gaza and public threats by Israeli politicians to dispossess and displace Gazans, the normalizers are adhering to their decisions, seemingly regardless of what happens to the Palestinians and to their right to live in peace and an independent state.

The UAE: A Most Steadfast Normalizer

Riding on the Trump administration’s promise of regionwide peace and economic wellbeing as well as aiming to advance their own interests, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain eagerly and enthusiastically signed the Abraham Accords in September 2020 and established open diplomatic relations with Israel. Morocco followed suit in December of that year after the Trump administration recognized the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The UAE, a most steadfast signatory, saw normalization with Israel mostly in economic terms; bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $6 billion between 2020 and 2023. Bahrain considered normalization a boost to its national security and a defense against Iran. Morocco used its peace deal to coax Israel in 2023 into recognizing its disputed sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Today, all three countries find themselves needing to justify their adherence to normalization while issuing necessary platitudes about reaching a ceasefire in Gaza, protecting civilians, and respecting international law.

Today, all three countries find themselves needing to justify their adherence to normalization.

UAE’s leaders continue to express their belief that normalization with Israel was the right decision. In January 2024, nearly three months after the start of the Gaza war, Emirati diplomatic advisor Anwar Gargash stated that while his country is working to alleviate conditions in Gaza, “[T]he UAE has taken a strategic decision, and strategic decisions are long-term.” He added that the Arab world’s confrontation with Israel has not succeeded. But the truism about strategic decisions does not obviate the fact that the UAE chose to normalize relations after it decided that it was no longer bound by solidarity with Palestinians or by helping them attain their rights. Weeks before Hamas’s October 7 attack, Gargash himself blamed the Palestinians for failing to do “anything” with his country’s support, and stated that such failure had helped prompt the UAE to normalize relations with Israel. By blaming the Palestinians, Gargash ignored the reality of Palestinian weakness vis-à-vis Israel and the imbalance of power between the two, US bias in favor of Israel, and the Arab world’s broad abandonment of the Palestinians.

The UAE was among the few Arab countries to immediately condemn Hamas’s attack on Israel, on October 8 calling it a “grave and serious escalation.” And a few days later, during a vote on a Russian resolution before the United Nations Security Council, UAE Permanent Representative Lana Nusseibeh was determined in urging the international community to address the issue of Palestinian rights, while still condemning Hamas. Nusseibeh stated that Hamas “does not represent the Palestinian people or the people of Gaza”—and warned against the possibility of a wider regional conflict.

Condemning the initial Hamas attack and reminding the world that the organization does not represent the Palestinian people are two prongs of an attempt to delegitimize it as an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood—which is hated by UAE leaders—and as Gaza’s ruler. After the start of the 2011 Arab Spring, the UAE became a leading counter-revolutionary force in the Arab world and has worked hard to destabilize and defeat Islamist parties that Abu Dhabi believes benefited from the collapse of authoritarian regimes. Opposing Hamas thus is part of the UAE’s agenda of fighting Islamist forces. In addition, the UAE may have a ‘horse in the race’ in discussions—led primarily by the Biden administration—about the ‘day after’ the current war. Mohammed Dahlan, who commanded the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security force in Gaza in the 1990s, now lives in exile in the UAE and works as an advisor to President Mohammed bin Zayed, and may very well be in the running to govern the Strip after the end of hostilities. Preserving relations with Israel thus helps the UAE influence Palestinian affairs.

Bahrain: Walking a Tightrope

To be sure, the UAE’s position on the Gaza war reflects a schizophrenia animating the stances of many Arab countries that reject the Israeli current campaign but are unable to change the trajectory of events. Such is the case with Bahrain, the tiny island nation in the Gulf that hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa used his keynote address at last November’s Manama Dialogue to condemn the Hamas attack on Israel, calling it “barbaric,” and to call for the release of hostages, but also to criticize Israel’s conduct of the war. The Bahraini government (unlike the UAE) recalled its ambassador to Israel on November 2 and initially allowed citizens to mount limited pro-Palestine protests. However, in late December, the government cracked down on dissent, arresting scores of protestors including children.

Bahrain is walking a tightrope, trying to bridge the chasm between its pro-Palestinian public and the government’s relations with Israel and the United States.

Bahrain is walking a tightrope, trying to bridge the chasm between its pro-Palestinian public and the government’s relations with Israel and the United States. Accommodating its public, the majority of whom are Shia Muslims, gives the Sunni monarchy domestic stability and may help lessen Iranian influence inside the Kingdom. Hosting the US Fifth Fleet provides Bahrain with insurance and a certain degree of flexibility in how it responds to regional issues. So does its membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council whose states, like Bahrain, are trying to balance their public’s anti-Israel sentiments with their security ties to the United States. Incidentally, Bahrain is the only Arab country to officially join the new US-led “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” an international coalition to protect maritime shipping in the Red Sea against attacks by Yemen’s Houthis. At this moment of heightened regional tension, Bahrain’s participation indicates a willingness to lean more in the direction of what it believes to be its security partners’ interests, as opposed to domestic public opinion.

Morocco: Blunting Public Pressure

Among the three 2020 normalizers, Morocco, with its relatively open political environment, has allowed  its citizens more latitude to protest Israel’s war. Tens of thousands of protestors in Morocco’s cities have expressed their opposition to the war and called on the government to end its normalization with Israel. Still, the government arrested some demonstrators in Casablanca and Meknes. The protests brought together different political factions, including liberals and Islamists, in a unified show of force against normalization and in favor of a ceasefire. Also notable was the regret belatedly expressed by former prime minister and leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party Salaheddin el-Othmani for signing the normalization deal in December 2020.  In a November 2023 interview, Othmani stated that he was pressured by higher authorities (likely he meant King Mohammed VI), and that as premier, he had no choice but to sign the document.

The percentage of Moroccans who say the Palestine cause is a pan-Arab issue rose from 59% in 2022 to 95% today.

Morocco has witnessed a sizeable increase in public opinion opposed to recognition of Israel, from 67 percent in 2022 to 78 percent in early January, according to a recent poll conducted by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. The percentage of Moroccans who say the Palestine cause is a pan-Arab issue and not strictly a Palestinian one rose from 59 percent in 2022 to 95 percent today. Still, it is unlikely that the Moroccan government will respond to popular demands for suspending normalization with Israel. Such a step could not only result in Tel Aviv’s rescinding its recognition of the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, but it also would have a negative impact on Rabat’s relationship with Washington, which was instrumental in arranging the normalization deal in the first place.

Normalization Will Survive Gaza

Just as the peace treaties that Egypt and Jordan signed with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively, have survived many trying crises and conflicts, the Abraham Accords of 2020 are likely to weather the current war in Gaza. All normalizing states will continue to defend their relations with Israel as sovereign decisions that may not be abrogated, suspended, or ignored. At the same time, they will continue to proclaim their support for a Palestinian state and opposition to Israel’s conduct of the war on Gaza, to provide humanitarian assistance to the needy in the Strip, and to participate in international forums calling for a ceasefire to spare human life. Indeed, this conclusion was supported by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s declaration after his recent trip to the Middle East, that normalization is a shared wish among the countries he visited, with the important proviso that the Palestinians have a political horizon of a state of their own.

Factors shaping these regimes’ position on maintaining relations with Israel despite its transgressions include political and economic interests, fear of security threats, and ironclad relationships with the United States. In the present circumstances, the Palestine cause—and specifically the task of securing Palestinian rights or helping to end the Gaza war—is a difficult burden to bear. What should remain firm and unalterable is a Palestinian commitment to the cause of liberation and nationhood, whatever the interests and agendas of the states of the Arab world may be.

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.