Arab-Israeli Normalization and What it Means for Palestine

The 1967 Arab League summit issued the “three no’s”—no recognition of, no peace with, and no negotiations with Israel. Upheld for decades, these maxims represented  the long-standing taboo surrounding contact between Arab states and Israel. However, in recent years, the publicization of diplomatic ties between Israel and several of its once-hostile Arab neighbors suggests emerging trade relations and new alliances in the region. At the helm of these recent integration efforts, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have been collectively styled as the “new normalizers” of Arab-Israeli relations.

In 2020, the new normalizers signed the Abraham Accords, marking the emergence of ratified relations with Israel. Held in the United States during the Trump administration, the signing of the agreement was said to be non-representative of each state’s existing position on the issue of Palestinian self-determination. Rather, the Abraham Accords simply establish diplomatic and economic relations to promote cooperation in areas such as tourism, trade, technology, security, and energy.

The Arab world’s attitude toward a regional incorporation of Israel is bisected. On the one hand, policies such as the Abraham Accords encourage peace in the region by spurring economic integration and geopolitical cooperation. As such, normalization presents a channel for fruitful multilateralism in the Middle East. Conversely, a critical implication of these efforts is the extreme marginalization of Palestine. Such an outcome would exacerbate the asymmetric power balance in its conflict with Israel and debilitate the nation’s claim to the territory.

Accordingly, the Palestinian reaction to policies facilitating Arab-Israeli normalization has been outspokenly negative. Palestinian leaders took action to signal their dissatisfaction with Arab allies’ accommodation of Israel. In 2020, the Palestinian Authority (PA) withdrew its ambassadors from the UAE after Emirati and Israeli governments inaugurated a set of infrastructure and business deals. Though the PA eventually reinstated its ambassadors, the nation’s disapproval of its Arab ally’s actions was undeniably potent. One spokesperson from the PA described the deal as a “betrayal of Jerusalem”, and the ensuing narrative of the UAE’s abandonment of Palestine blemishes the Emirati reputation among other Arab states.

Arab states’ shift towards comity with Israel poses a strategic challenge to Palestine which takes effect in several stages. Firstly, this shift dissolves one of Palestine’s few points of leverage against Israel. The expectation was that Arab states would only normalize with Israel after the establishment of a Palestinian state, the end of its occupation, or at the very least some culminating agreement between the two parties. However, the reduction of Palestinian bargaining power due to Arab states’ premature normalization, deepens the existing asymmetric power dynamic between Israel and Palestine.

As a result, policies like the Abraham Accords give rise to the possibility that Palestine will be muscled into greater concessions on issues disputed with Israel. Khalid Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, suggests that Palestine’s weakened international bargaining capacity leads the prospects of a two-state solution to fall through. Therefore, increased Arab-Israeli normalization may also induce the total erasure of Palestine.

Palestinians’ general consensus asserts that increased Arab-Israeli compromise poses a harrowing existential threat to the Palestinian national project. However, Arab States’ rationale for their participation in normalization agreements claims quite the opposite. The UAE, in particular, suggests that harmonizing with Israel will enable economic and diplomatic incentives for Israel to cooperate with Palestinian interests. Accordingly, on Aug. 13 of 2020, a joint Israeli-Emirati announcement detailed that Israel would temporarily suspend its plans to forcefully annex areas of the West Bank.

Despite the agreement’s potential as a first step towards continued peace in the region, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed, in a press conference, his persisting commitment to applying Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank after such international pressures subside.

Aside from economic opportunities, the appeal of Arab-Israeli assimilation lies in the benefits of its strategic implications. For instance, increasingly amicable attitudes toward Israel creates a greater capacity for the region to unite against the common threat of Iran. Reducing Arab states’ need for implicit agreements with Israel, official policies such as the Abraham accords establish the foundation for a legitimate regional alliance and cooperative protocols.

Israel’s close partnership with the United States also implies that normalized relations are an opportunity to strengthen Arab-U.S. ties. As such, Arab states’ ratified diplomacy with Israel further welcomes U.S. presence in the Middle East as a powerful ally and counterbalancing measure against Iran. Furthermore, the UAE in particular has a special interest in securing sophisticated American weapons. Therefore, the Emirates’ firm position alongside Israel gives it credibility as an influential actor aligned with U.S. interests. This raises the likelihood of the UAE’s access to American arms deals.

The recent normalization of Arab-Israeli relations demonstrates two critical and conflicting points. First, is that withholding regional accommodation of Israel has been a crucial component in Palestine’s effort to secure international recognition of its autonomy and statehood. Secondly, the appearance of these new agreements illustrates that Israel observes opportunities and threats beyond Palestine, which overlap with its Arab neighbors who are willing to concede its solidarity with Palestine to some extent.
Hence, the new normalizers are faced with the issue of compensating the pursuit of these overlapping interests with the pressure to demonstrate support for the Palestinians. One possible method to do so is by incorporating Palestine in the integration efforts carried out with Israel. For instance, added value for investments in economic ventures specifically involving Palestine would allow the state to adjacently experience the benefits of peaceful relations. However, the potential existential cost to Palestine of its Arab neighbors’ assimilation of Israel may be too great for any such economic stimulation to remedy.

Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy Jerusalem.

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