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Israel woos Arab States amid signs of warming ties

Reuters | Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Omani Sultan Qaboos.

There have been several signs of a deepening of ties between Israel and Arab states over recent days, suggesting a normalisation of relations is on the cards. But will this be at the Palestinians’ expense?

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From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman – the first since 1996 by a leader of the Jewish state – to that of Israel’s culture and sport minister Miri Regev to Abu Dhabi – where the Israeli anthem was played in the course of a judo tournament – the increasingly conspicuous signs of the warming relations between the Jewish state and Gulf countries have become all the more obvious over recent days.

This approach is a key priority for Netanyahu, driven by a realist view of geopolitics that sees a convergence of interests in the face of a common enemy: Iran, which Israel regards as an existential threat, and which Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies regard as the Middle East’s monstrous Shia menace.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly on September 27, Netanyahu made this agenda explicit: “By empowering Iran, [the nuclear deal formally known as the JCPOA] brought Israel and many Arab states closer together than ever before in an intimacy and friendship that I have not seen in my lifetime and would have been unimaginable a few years ago.”

Netanyahu continued: “Israel deeply values these new friendships and I hope the day will soon arrive when Israel will be able to expand peace, a formal peace, beyond Egypt and Jordan to other Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians.”

‘Look at me, here I am, right next to you’

The Israeli prime minister went to Oman with a large delegation – notably including the director of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, and national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. According to Khaled Gharabli, an international relations analyst at FRANCE 24, Netanyahu was sending a very clear message to Iran, which he is extremely keen to isolate: “You can see on a map that Oman is just across the Arabian Gulf from Iran – and so by going there with that kind of delegation, how Netanyahu is saying to Tehran ‘here I am, right in front of you’. This was a strategic message of the highest order.”

From Oman – a geopolitically unaligned country dubbed “the Geneva of the Middle East” for its role as a mediator in the region’s disputes – Netanyahu was showing its Arab neighbours the kind of benefits they could reap from deepening ties with Israel. As his office put it, the visit was “a significant step” in the prime minister’s policy of “deepening relations with the region's countries while leveraging Israel's advantages in security, technology and economic matters”.

But, in addition to his agenda of isolating Iran, Netanyahu “wants to succeed where his predecessors have failed, by normalising relations with the Arab states”, said Gharabli. “In being seen with Arab leaders, creating the conditions for normalisation, he hopes to change the average Arab citizen’s perception of Israel.”

MBS’s support for Israelis ‘living on their own land’

Last week, the leader of the Jewish state unveiled the outlines of this strategy. “We’ve always thought that we would open the door to peace with the Arab world at large if we solved the Palestinian problem,” he said. But it is “perhaps more true that if you open up to the Arab world and normalise relations, that will eventually open the door to reconciliation and peace with the Palestinians”.

Having been dragged into the struggle for influence between Riyadh and Tehran, Arab leaders no longer seem to think of normalisation as a taboo. Nevertheless, this normalisation has historically been regarded as dependent on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At a security summit in Bahrain last week, the Omani foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah made a remarkable statement. “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this,” he said. “The world is also aware of this fact. Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as other states] and also bear the same obligations.” Bahrain’s foreign minister endorsed these remarks, even if his Saudi counterpart was somewhat more circumspect. Analysts say that such pro-Israeli statements from Gulf states are made with Riyadh’s tacit approval.

In an April 2018 interview with American magazine The Atlantic, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known by his initials MBS), voiced his support for Israelis living “on their own land”. The Wahhabi monarchy’s strongman went on to fuel speculation about closer ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv by stating that, “There are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan."

‘The liquidation of the Palestinian cause’

In response to these developments, several Palestinian officials have expressed concern over recent days about Arab countries normalising ties with Israel. They even suspect the United States of driving this rapprochement – which Fatah describes as “dangerous” – in order to pave the way for what Donald Trump called the “deal of the century” to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In exchange for withdrawing from the Iran deal – to Israel’s and the Gulf States’ shared satisfaction – the US president expects every player in the region to support his peace plan.

“We’re seeing some bizarre initiatives, taking place in the shadow of Israeli colonisation and the campaign of repression aimed at the Palestinian people,” said Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative (the largely secular ‘third force’ in Palestinian politics). “It’s now clear that Trump’s deal of the century includes an Israeli understanding with the Arabs and the liquidation of the Palestinian cause,” he told FRANCE 24.

Barghouti argued that Netanyahu’s gambit is doomed to fail: “He’s wrong if he thinks he can normalise relations with Arab countries without a green light from the Palestinians. Without that green light, there will be no deal of the century, and no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

This article was adapted from the original in French

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