Analysis |

Where Will the Middle East’s Normalization Roulette Land Next?

An air of reconciliation isn't confined to relations between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries, but it is also sprouting between Arab countries themselves

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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An Emirati journalist awaits a flyDubai flight from Tel Aviv, Israel, at Dubai International Airport, Nov. 26, 2020.
An Emirati journalist awaits a flyDubai flight from Tel Aviv, Israel, at Dubai International Airport, Nov. 26, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Jon Gambrell
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The gamblers have already laid down their chips on the roulette wheel and are waiting anxiously to see where the ball will land. Oman? Saudi Arabia? Maybe Indonesia, or even Pakistan, Bangladesh or Malaysia? It seems the important question isn’t any longer who will be the next in line to sign a normalization agreement with Israel, but rather when.

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The CEO of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, Adam Boehler, said last week that the United States could increase its development aid to Indonesia by $1-2 billion more. In an interview with Bloomberg, Boehler revealed that the United States is talking to Indonesia about recognizing Israel, but Indonesia denied it was planning on normalizing relations with Israel, but similar denials were made by Sudan, Morocco, Oman and Qatar before establishing ties with Israel.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. About 86 percent of its 267 million residents are Muslims, the vast majority of them Sunni, and it is a senior member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The organization has 57 member states, which have a total population of over 1.8 billion people. The organization does have any operative authority, and most of its power lies in its reflecting the sentiments of Muslims on contemporary problems.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wave at photographers during their meeting at Bogor Presidential Palace in Bogor, West Java, October 29, 2020.Credit: Indonesian Presidential Palace via AP

One of the group’s decisions was to boycott Israeli products, and it has discussed the possibility of breaking off relations with any country that recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It supports a two-state solution and has attacked Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies on annexation. But in practice, every Muslim country has acted according to its own interests, and it is hard to find even a single case in which a Muslim country has justified its approach to Israel or the U.S. by the need to obey the group’s decisions. Nonetheless, the prospect of Israel’s breakthrough into non-Arab Muslim countries has importance beyond the economic or strategic interests – all the more so when one of the members of the organization is Iran.

It seems that the atmosphere of reconciliation is not just between Israel and Arab countries, and maybe the rest of the Muslim countries; it is also sprouting between Arab countries themselves. Over the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been negotiating, with the mediation of the U.S. and Kuwait, the possibility of ending the boycott on Qatar, imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Saudi King Salman told officials on Saturday to invite the ruler of Qatar, the emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to a summit of Gulf states on January 5 in Riyadh. After three years of Qatar being under an economic, air and sea blockade, such a personal invitation is an important breakthrough.

The invitation does not depend on the emir following and implementing the 13 conditions that the boycotting nations imposed on Qatar in order for it to return to being a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Even the United Arab Emirates, which has held a strict position and has opposed letting Qatar participate, has changed its reasoning and announced that “the entire country, the government and the people, is working to adopt the ties of brotherhood between the peoples of the Gulf states.” Egypt, for its part, has announced that it supports the efforts for reconciliation being promoted by Kuwait and hopes that the agreement that is reached settles all the reasons for the crisis.

A number of Arab media outlets may have described this position as “raising the white flag in favor of Qatar,” but commentators have said that this reconciliation should have come earlier and that the boycott has damaged cooperation and solidarity between Arab nations. Solidarity is not a quality that characterizes the relations between Arab countries, but it does serve as a code word for the recognition of the futility of this conflict.

Signs of reconciliation are also popping up in the relations between Turkey and a number of Arab countries. Even Saudi Arabia, which imposed an unofficial economic boycott on goods from Turkey, declares that there is no boycott, and never was. King Salman himself called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the day before the G-20 summit in Riyadh in November – a gesture that he did not make toward any other leader of a member country. All this was in addition to the “important” meeting in November between the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers at the summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) shows the way to King Salman of Saudi Arabia (L) during the family photo of the 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit in Istanbul, April 14, 2016. Credit: OZAN KOSE / AFP

Maybe Syria will come out ahead from the new atmosphere, too: the UAE and Bahrain have reopened their diplomatic missions in Damascus, and Syria is receiving deliveries of dollars to strengthen the Assad regime. Arab commentators are already wondering why Syria is not being brought back into the fold of the Arab people, if relations with Israel are being normalized. It is also worth examining, in relation to this, the public signals from Erdogan toward Israel, which are not unrelated to his diplomatic campaign with Arab countries.

As of now, these reconciliation movements are advancing with the speed of an iceberg, and it is still too early to set off the fireworks in celebration, but it is possible that they are enough to reflect a new trend. It is ironic that all this is going on at the same time Donald Trump is still president – but these movements are intended to prepare the ground for the entry of Joe Biden into the White House, even though Biden has yet to flesh out his future policy in the Middle East, except for his intention on returning to the nuclear deal with Iran.

It will be interesting to see how an American president who has not yet moved into the Oval Office has already caused diplomatic developments just because of the fear that he will inflict a painful strategic blow on those who managed to maneuver Trump and his partners in crime. This is a concern that could provide an enormous strategic opportunity for Biden and the entire region.

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