"At the moment we're in a process of normalization with the Arab world without progress in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians… Arab states are looking for a connection with the strong. Cultivating strengths gives us diplomatic power,” then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli diplomats back in December 2018, soon after his visit to Oman, where he met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Four years later, this assertion is still true – the normalization between Israel and the Arab states is moving forward, and there is still no prospect of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
Yet, recent statements by the Saudi leadership, as well as a fresh poll conducted by The Washington Institute for Near East Studies, show that Netanyahu’s assumption regarding the irrelevance of the “weak,” i.e. the Palestinians, and the Arab states' attraction to Israel's "strength" is largely wrong.
Back in 2020, some 69 percent of UAE respondents and 46 percent of Bahrain respondents told the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation that they approve of the Abraham Accords, an agreements seeking to normalize ties between Israel and Arab states. According to the same poll, 35 percent of Saudis and 36 percent of Qataris also showed support for the Accords at the time. Now, according to The Washington Institute poll, the percentage of those who see the agreement in a positive light hovers between 19-25 percent in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE. Disapproval rates for business or sports ties with Israelis now stand at 58 percent in Bahrain, 60 percent in Saudi Arabia and 55 percent in the UAE, which is actually an improvement compared to pre-Abraham Accord rates, but still remain quite high despite the rapid growth in trade relations, academic and scientific agreements, tourism and investment.
Surveys conducted in recent years in the region also show high rates of support for resolving the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict: In 2020 more than 80 percent of 3,600 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and the UAE surveyed by Zogby Research Services and Sky News Arabia said that a resolution to the conflict remained important. Despite anti-Palestinian campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, Arab respondents have repeatedly indicated that they were in favor of normalizing relations with Israel if practical steps were to be taken to promote peace with the Palestinians.
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Similarly, young Egyptians who participated in a limited poll back in 1982 (the poll was conducted by Egyptian Professor Abdul-Monem Al-Mashat and published in The Middle East Journal) showed support for the Camp David accords – 66 percent of respondents held a positive view of the peace treaty, while 42 percent supported the process of normalization with Israel. Since then, the support for normalization with Israel has dropped dramatically and despite some rapprochement during the last few years it remains extremely low. While anti-Israeli and antisemitic propaganda in Egyptian media definitely played a role, many Egyptians quote the lack of progress in resolving the Palestinian issue as a reason for their disapproval for a thaw with Israel. Approval for ties with Israel falls dramatically during military operations and turmoil in Gaza and West Bank.
So what should Israel make of recent statements, polls and research with regard to public opinion on the Abraham Accords in the Arab world ? First, it should acknowledge that Palestinians matter and that their plight is still well heard across the Arab world. While Israel is no longer considered to be an enemy by many Arab rulers, Israeli leadership should not mistake the growing interest in formal or non-formal ties with Jerusalem as disregard for the Palestinians. The lack of political horizon, settlement expansion and violence are seen not only in Ramallah, but also in Arab capitals. Any turmoil in Jerusalem will pour more ice water on the enthusiasm over the new relationship with Israel. The Abraham Accords will probably survive the upheaval and the lack of progress on the Palestinian track, just as the Camp David accords survived despite two wars in Lebanon, two intifadas and two hits on nuclear reactors in the Arab world, but their potential might be compromised, and the circle of “normalizers” will not expand.
Supporters of peace with the Palestinians in Israel know that this peace is important regardless of the additional perks. Those who oppose it or think that conflict management is enough should know that the Arab world is watching, and that despite its own problems, it still cares.
Ksenia Svetlova is a former Knesset member. She currently serves as a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a director of Israel-Middle East program at Mitvim Institute.