Opinion

How Far Can Netanyahu Take Israel's Romance With the Arab World?

Despite warm receptions in Oman and Abu Dhabi, Israel shouldn't over-state the strength of its Gulf alliances. A common enemy like Iran can produce photo-ops and covert collaboration - but that isn't normalization

Benjamin Netanyahu with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman; the two met in Muscat on October 26, 2018.
GPO via Reuters

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of apparent breakthroughs in Israel’s foreign relations with the Arab world. A week ago, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman, an Arab monarchy with which Israel lacks formal diplomatic ties.

>> Netanyahu's Next Stop on Gulf Tour Emerges: Bahrain

The following weekend, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev was present at an international judoka tournament in Abu Dhabi where Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, was played for Israeli medal winners, a sharp departure from the Egyptian judoka who snubbed the offer of a handshake by his Israeli completitor in 2016. 

Days after, Emirati officials accompanied Regev on a tour of their capital’s Grand Mosque, although the UAE, like 29 other Arab and Muslim states, does not recognize Israel. Minister of Communications Minister Ayoub Kara was also in the Emirates, although his trip was for a meeting of a United Nations agency.

Culture Minister Miri Regev visits the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 28, 2018.
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

Some have leveraged these developments to question the axiom that Israel’s international standing will suffer as the country drifts further and further away from a negotiated two-state solution. The Mitvim Institute’s recently released 2018 Israeli Foreign Policy Index showed that 49 percent of Israelis think a breakthrough with the Arab states is achievable even absent movement on the Palestinian track. On Wednesday, U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt also praised this apparent progress. 

Such sentiment – that Israel's relations with the Arab world are flourishing, rather than being diminished, by the lack of progress in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians - seems to gain traction whenever a Gulf Arab state makes even the most basic gesture toward the Jewish state.

But it was never quite so simple.

Israel’s position in the world is stronger today than it was for most of the country’s history. Netanyahu deserves some credit for this, but the groundwork for this shift occurred over two decades ago.

Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev shakes hands with Mohamed Bin Tha'loob Al Derai, the President of UAE Wrestling Judo & Kickboxing Federation in Abu Dhabi, Oct. 27, 2018.
Kamran Jebreili,AP

The Arab League boycotted Israel from the country’s founding, reaffirming its intransigent stance under the 1967 Khartoum Declaration. The Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites (except Romania) severed relations with Israel following the Six Day War, and 25 African states broke ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Spain and Portugal did not recognize Israel until 1986 and 1977 respectively, after the collapse of fascist governments in both countries. Major powers like India and the People’s Republic of China did not establish official relations with Israel until the 1990s.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict especially, only have an immediate impact on a small number of countries. Israel’s relative isolation during its formative years was reflective of Arab state and Soviet influence, as well as communist, anti-colonial, and non-aligned political commitments in developing nations.

The end of the Cold War rendered these alliances obsolete, opening Israel to the world. This wasn’t the work of any one Israeli leader, but a side-effect of broader geopolitical events.

But the Arab and Muslim countries remained obstinate. Their quarrel with Israel was direct, not an extension of the East-West superpower struggle. Ultimately, Israel’s victory in the 1967 war removed the Jewish state’s total erasure as an objective for all but the most radical regimes, namely Syria and Iraq (later joined by Iran after the Islamic Revolution).

But it also opened up the question of Palestinian statehood on the newly occupied territories, especially after the 1980s: the catastrophe in Lebanon, the First Intifada, and the Palestinian declaration of independence. Progress on the Palestinian front would yield progress in regional integration. On the flipside, stagnation would keep the Arab world at arms length, and Israel’s ties with Egypt and Jordan would never evolve past a cold peace.

Reuters

The heady days of the Oslo peace process saw officials in the Labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres as guests in many countries that lacked relations with Israel. Like Netanyahu, Peres and Rabin visited Oman, but not just Oman. Morocco and Indonesia also welcomed the Israeli leader. Bahrain hosted an Israeli minister in 1994. As prime minister, Peres also traveled to Qatar.

It’s useful to juxtapose the circumstances informing Israeli foreign policy advancements in the 1990s versus today’s developments. Rabin and Peres were riding the wave of optimism surrounding a reinvigorated peace process. That diplomacy yielded real, lasting improvements. For instance, in 1994, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council stopped enforcing most elements of the Arab League boycott and ceased urging other countries to do the same.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1994.
Yaakov Sa'ar/GPO

Thus, in a way, Netanyahu is instrumentalizing the products of a peace process he vehemently opposed two decades ago, and has partly helped upend today.

But Netanyahu has also benefited from regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies. While the confrontation with Iran takes clear precedence over the Palestinian question in terms of immediate impact and importance to the Arab states, it will not last forever and so its benefits for Israel will likely prove ephemeral. A relationship that is a function of present circumstances is the basis for a tactical arrangement, not a lasting peace.

Recall that before Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, Iran attempted to do the same thing. Israel coordinated its attack on their shared enemy with Tehran, and even continued arms sales to the Islamic Republic into the 1980s - well after the fall of the Shah. Where are the fruits of that alliance today?

A common enemy can produce some meetings and covert collaboration, but only a final status agreement with the Palestinians can inspire normalization. Jordan’s recent termination of leases on two small territories to Israel under the 1994 peace treaty, a concession to the country’s massive anti-Israel movement, is evidence of that.

Demonstrators carry signs and Palestinian flags during a 'Chicago Coalition for Justice in Palestine' protest in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, May 15, 2018.
Bloomberg

Moreover, minor steps taken with hereditary dictatorships will do nothing to address ambivalence toward Israel among Western audiences or popular boycott campaigns. While BDS has little tangible impact on Israel, anti-Israel campaigns understandably perturb Israelis who crave normalcy.

Despite the real gains made by Israel’s government over the weekend and in previous years, Israel’s position vis-a-vis the Arab world is anything but normal. Playing a country’s national anthem at an international sporting event signals the most basic level of decorum, opening a trade office is pretty standard fare, and leaders exchange visits regularly.

Indeed, some of what is being touted as progress with the Arab states has little to do with the Arabs themselves. Ayoub Kara’s visit to the Emirates, as well as this week’s visit to Oman by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, are for conferences organized by multilateral institutions, not their host governments. And Regev’s time in the UAE came after the International Judo Federation threatened to cancel last weekend’s competition if it did not treat all participating countries equally, a hazard which would undermine the Emirates’ aspiration to be a global cultural hub.

That right-wing Israeli leaders and their supporters now fawn over the Gulf states for undertaking relatively simple steps only underscores the enormous room for growth that still remains. Israeli leaders could exploit the situation with Iran and recent minor openings to build Arab state support on the back of progress toward a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. But absent momentum with the Palestinians, sustainable growth with the rest of the Arab world will remain elusive.

Evan Gottesman is the Associate Director of Policy and Communications at Israel Policy Forum. His work has previously been published by The National Interest, The Diplomat, World Policy Journal, The Jerusalem Post, and ETH Zürich's Center for Security Studies. Twitter: @EvanGottesman