Analysis

At the Arab League, 'Normalization' With Israel Isn't a Dirty Word

The summit in Jordan this week has proved that a solution to the Palestinian problem is the group's main goal. Meanwhile, the concept of a 'pro-Western axis' has become an anachronism.

Saudi King Salman at the Arab League summit, March 2017.
Reuters / Muhammad Hamed

A very surprising welcome by Jordan’s King Abdullah awaited Saudi King Salman at the Arab League Summit: Salman was greeted by a 21-gun salute, very unusual at Arab summits. The London-based Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat devoted an entire column to the history of the salute, but it seems the piece had less to do with history and more with the agreement signed between the two countries: Saudi Arabia will provide its economically stricken neighbor with a few billion dollars in aid.

As usual at Arab summits, agreements reached on the sidelines were more important than the plenary sessions with their predictable speeches.

Years ago the Arab League stopped being a framework for solutions to Middle Eastern conflicts. Its importance, if any, is in creating an Arab consensus that relies on the lowest common denominator. This consensus is based on two main ideas: a political solution to the Palestinian problem and reining in Iran’s influence.

In 2002, the peace initiative led by Saudi Arabia became the definitive basis for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document was adopted by the United Nations and U.S. administrations including that of President Donald Trump, who in an unusual move sent his special envoy Jason Greenblatt to the Arab League summit.

The Arab initiative, the first of the summit's 15 final declarations, discusses a willingness for normalization with Israel in exchange for withdrawal from all occupied territories. Normalization has long stopped being a dirty word. The N-word might prove tempting for Israel, and not merely be seen as propaganda that blames Israel.

A few days before the summit, Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and others talked about a possible surprise from the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia and a few other countries. The surprise was interpreted as an Arab willingness to reformulate the equation “territories for peace” temporarily giving up the demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Greenblatt gets busy

That was what Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi was hoping for when he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this month. But two days before the summit, Abbas said he was unwilling to present a plan or update the Arab initiative. On the other hand, demands by radical leaders and movements to abolish the plan were quashed.

Trump still hasn’t presented a road map other than to say he wants a deal that will quickly resolve the conflict. But he shattered the image that his administration would stay away or at best merely support Israel’s positions. Not only is there no agreement over settlement construction, Trump’s envoy is expected to spend many more days in the region talking with Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders about moving ahead on negotiations.

The next significant meeting is on Monday in Washington between Trump and Sissi, who arrives in the U.S. capital after Greenblatt heard from Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on the kingdom’s position; meanwhile, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have thawed.

If the Arab countries have agreed on a stance regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, things are more complicated regarding Iran. Some Arab countries like Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Iraq and of course Syria have strong ties with Iran. The Saudis also know that any solution to the war in Syria will require Iranian agreement, and this will be conditioned on Arab agreement that President Bashar Assad will remain in office.

While the summit’s concluding statement didn’t mention Assad, it did mention the decisions of the Geneva conferences and the 2015 UN Resolution 2254 as a source of authority for resolving the Syrian crisis. This shows that the Arab position is conforming to the active involvement of Russia, which supports Assad, not to mention acknowledgement that Iran will be part of the solution.

This means Israel’s aspiration to join a “moderate” anti-Iranian and pro-American bloc isn't necessarily realistic because the Arab countries see no connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their positions on Iran.

Russia's foothold

Paradoxically, there is agreement between the Arab countries and Iran, and between Iran and the United States, about the war against the Islamic State and radical Islamist groups, which both Tehran and Washington consider terror organizations.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to worry as much that the Trump administration might embrace Iran at Saudi Arabia’s expense, as it suspected the Obama administration would do. But the coalition Saudi Arabia has established, which includes Turkey and does flourishing business with Iran, can't ensure that Iran will be marginalized especially after this week, when Iran authorized Russia to use its bases to attack targets in Syria.

According to a report this month, Russia’s foothold in the Middle East now  extends to the Egyptian-Libyan border, amid closer ties with Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar. Russia denied the report that it had deployed forces in Libya but said it was working to “ensure quiet” in that country. Moscow also has its eye on Libya’s oil fields and the potential for investing in a dismembered country lacking a unified army.

The strengthening of ties between Russia and Egypt, where Moscow plans to build a nuclear plant for electricity production, and military ties between Egypt and Haftar, are undermining the Saudis' efforts to lead in the region.

These are the sort of alliances the Arab League can’t influence; it is being supplanted by coordination efforts between Arab countries, whether two at a time or more. In any case, if in the past it was enough to co-opt one or two Arab countries to the American position like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, developments in recent years are a much greater challenge to Western or Russian diplomacy. The concept of a “pro-Western axis” has become an anachronism.

Moreover, the term “West” no longer necessarily represents a unified American-European Union stance, and this rift is expected to widen under Trump. Thus the marketing of a “pro-Western Arab coalition” including Israel is only a turn of phrase, not a realistic strategy.