The recent outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence raised renewed discussion on how Arab states that inked normalization agreements with Israel in 2020 can advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The “new normalizers” (UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco) may be weighing the pros and cons of heavily involving themselves in efforts to resolve this protracted conflict but should not dismiss the opportunity. They can and should play a more proactive and constructive role, which would enhance regional stability and prosperity and advance the normalizers’ own interests. It will be up to the international community, the Palestinians and regional stakeholders to bring them into the peacemaking fold.
Normalization and the Conflict
In 2020, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco made the decision to establish relations with Israel for their own reasons, independent of the Palestinian question. The UAE considered normalization with Israel a crucial step to advance its own national security and relations with the United States, including to realize a long-held desire to acquire F-35s and other advanced weapons. Bahrain also felt that normalization with Israel would significantly advance relations with the Washington along with its national interests. In exchange for re-establishing relations with Israel, Morocco was rewarded with U.S. support for its position on one of the country’s most important issues: the Western Sahara. Similarly transactional, Sudan was taken off the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and given legal immunity from prosecution for terrorist incidents in U.S. courts.
In the Middle East, the decisions were controversial for their lack of connection to the Palestinian cause, contradicting a longstanding paradigm. The UAE was the only country that successfully linked normalization with a clear and specific demand of Israel: that the country suspend its plans to annex 30 percent of the West Bank in the context of the Trump Middle East peace plan. Ultimately, Israel’s decision to not proceed with annexation last summer was driven by a number of domestic and international factors, but the UAE normalization agreement was instrumental.
Palestinian Exasperation, Israeli Jubilation
The Palestinians felt blindsided by the UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel. Their assessment was that they had been robbed of an important negotiation card — the Palestinians’ Arab allies willingness to establish relations with Israel — necessary to pressure Israel to make concessions in accordance with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. They also feared that this may just be the beginning of Arab or Islamic countries joining the fold due to U.S. pressure or other considerations.
Initially aggressive in their reaction, Palestinian leadership later toned down their rhetoric as they internalized what they have been unwilling to admit for years: resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has declined in priority for many countries in the region and beyond. Nonetheless, it remains at the heart of regional peace and stability even as a multitude of conflicts and crises — particularly in the last decade — have forced regional states to shift priorities and focus on more issues they viewed as more pressing.
Relations between the UAE and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have been deteriorating for years, culminating in a major confrontation after the announcement of the normalization agreement. Tensions with Bahrain also worsened in 2019, after Bahrain hosted the Manama economic workshop in late June 2020 in the context of the Trump plan. Relations have since improved marginally. In contrast, as a result of a phone call between the King of Morocco and Abbas, Palestinian-Moroccan relations did not publicly deteriorate. Further, Palestinian leadership was also sympathetic to Sudan’s predicament, given the country’s dire need to be removed from the U.S. terrorism list after the 2019 revolution.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elated by Israel’s new regional ties, trying (in vain) to leverage these agreements into victory in Israel’s recent parliamentary elections. Appealing to the Israeli far right, Netanyahu argued that these agreements ushered in a new era of “peace for peace,” without need for Israeli concessions. Netanyahu also trumpeted Iran as the region’s primary and unifying threat, seeming to suggest that the Palestinian question is no longer of importance.
The State of the Normalization Agreements
Several Emirati experts have reported that the UAE’s decision to establish relations will not be reversed by troubling developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These reports also recognize that the Emirates’ decision is based on the conviction that an end to conflict through peaceful means is the ultimate objective and that the war on Gaza is a huge challenge to this approach.
Similarly, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco will not sever relations with Israel because of the recent conflagration. Therefore, the focus should be on examining how these relations and their evolution can advance Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects. This is a question of political will for the “new normalizers” and is also dependent on the way in which the Palestinian leadership conducts its relations with these countries.
Relations between the new normalizers and Israel are advancing at varying speeds. Israeli relations with the UAE flourished quickly. The UAE announced it was setting up a $10 billion investment fund aimed at strategic sectors in Israel. Tens of thousands of Israelis visited the UAE and Israel continued to promote tourism despite the ongoing conflict. They agreed to cooperate on sensitive issues like education, research in artificial intelligence and COVID, on trade targeting $4 billion a year, taxation, daily direct flights and more.
Relations with Bahrain and Morocco are advancing at a slower pace, as these states calibrate foreign and domestic politics with national interests. Sudan has been the most cautious, which is understandable given its ongoing transition. All new normalizers have faced setbacks during the honeymoon period — even the euphoric Emiratis expressed anger with Netanyahu for trying to use leverage these relations in his election campaign, and have tried to quiet some news coverage of the deepening relationship.
Where to Go from here?
It is generally recognized that the fruits of the normalization agreements, as affirmed by an Emirati scholar, “will not be complete without finding a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue.” It is likely the case that the early stages of normalization are when the new normalizers will have the highest leverage to influence Israeli policy. Three factors will be crucial in how this situation evolves:
- The role of the United States and the EU: The Biden administration has expressed hope that normalization agreements can build bridges and contribute to a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Washington should encourage the new normalizers to advance relations with Israel in a manner that enhances the prospects of peace, advocating that further expansion of Israeli-Arab state relations be linked to asks of Israel to take and refrain from certain actions that serve to promote or undermine the prospects of two states, respectively. This can include ceasing unilateral steps such as settlement expansion, or violations of the status quo arrangement on the Holy Esplanade, an arrangement reaffirmed by former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2015. It could also include incentivizing Israel to take forward-leaning steps on Gaza reconstruction and transfer of West Bank territory to Palestinian Authority control. The EU can also play a role toward this objective including through linking advancements in its relationship with Israelis and Palestinians to clear incentives and disincentives for both sides to ensure that their policies are contributing to achieving peace. The Middle East’s evolving bilateral and multilateral relations have provided new cards to encourage productive steps and discourage destructive steps. These cards can and should be skillfully played.
- The role of Palestinian leadership: Palestinian leadership must get its house in order in relation to good governance and corruption as well as achieving national reconciliation. It should resume efforts to hold elections at the earliest possible opportunity to reflect its seriousness toward reform and toward facing its legitimacy deficit. It also needs to have a candid dialogue with the normalizers to examine how it can leverage their new relations with Israel to achieve concessions that serve the interest of peace. This will also be instrumental in restoring declining political and financial support from countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UAE’s demurral to comment on whether it contacted Israel to try to calm the recent violence is an example of the necessity of improving these ties. Furthermore, Egyptian effort to achieve Palestinian reconciliation would greatly benefit from the support of the new normalizers and Qatar.
- The role of key Arab countries, in particular Egypt and Jordan: Cairo and Amman can play an important role because of their extensive experience in dealing with Israel, having sustained peace agreements with the country for 44 and 26 years, respectively. A coordinating mechanism consisting of Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco would be instrumental. An important addition to this body would be Saudi Arabia — the initiator of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and, to Israelis, the “jewel in the crown” of regional relations. Saudi Arabia has also made gestures toward Israel by allowing Israeli commercial planes to cross Saudi airspace during flights to the UAE and Bahrain, but has indicated that it will normalize relations only “if we are able to deliver a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders that gives the Palestinians dignity and gives them their rights.” Saudi involvement in a mechanism coordinating steps toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict would be a powerful incentive for the Israelis to consider constructive steps toward peace.
The seven countries in this coordination group would work with the Palestinians and the Israelis to synchronize advancing relations with advancements toward peace. The multi-state body can also work with the United States and the EU and build on the efforts of other cooperative mechanisms like the Munich Group (Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany), which recently suggested confidence-building measures both sides can take in preparation for more ambitious future steps. The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) on the Palestinian Economy can also play an important role. It met in February 2021 to support Palestinian economic development with an eye toward improving the situation in Gaza. At this meeting, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to advancing prosperity, security and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians and to preserve the prospects of a negotiated two-state solution in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state.
This will be a daunting task. Egypt and Jordan should play a role in initiating a dialogue or perhaps even mediating efforts to reduce tensions and difficulties between the Palestinian leadership and any of the normalizing countries in a manner that can foster an environment conducive to peacemaking, especially in preparation for a new phase in Israeli politics.