Israeli extremism means that there are fewer opportunities for Arab normalisation

Adnan Abu Amer

Middle East Monitor  /  April 4, 2023

There are concerns in Israel that the path towards normalisation with more Arab countries is no longer smooth in light of the planned legislation to suit the extreme far-right in the coalition government. Added to this is the stepping up of action to annex the occupied West Bank, and the escalation of tension with the Palestinians. Any or all can damage diplomatic relations and Israel’s democratic credibility; normalisation could grind to a halt.

Until recently, things were looking good for Israel. It has strengthened its security cooperation with Egypt, agreed to supply gas to its neighbour and joined the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. It has also restored relations with Jordan, and renewed the political relationship at a high level, while exchanging ambassadors with Turkey. The peak was when Israel signed normalisation agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, boosting economic, security, energy and tourism cooperation.

These developments led to the integration of Israel into regional military manoeuvres under US Central Command, and the establishment of the Negev Forum with participation by the US, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt, which laid the foundation for regional activity among members in various civil fields. Normalisation reached Sudan and Israel’s next goal was to normalise with Saudi Arabia.

Despite all of this, no significant progress has been made to resolve the Palestinian issue, and now Israel has a far-right coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Provocations at Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem have escalated; there is increased settler violence and more racist statements by ministers; and the disengagement law has been cancelled, allowing settlers to go back to illegal settlements from which they were removed in 2005. All of these government moves harm Israel’s regional relationships.

The faltering of normalisation was clear when Netanyahu’s visit to the UAE was “postponed”, and Abu Dhabi condemned his government’s provocative activities in the West Bank and froze defence procurement deals. Morocco postponed visits by Israeli ministers and decided to postpone, until further notice, the Negev Forum; it too expressed its concern about Israeli incitement. Jordan and Saudi Arabia both condemned recent statements by Israeli Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich. Jordan summoned the Israeli ambassador to express its displeasure.

These are just examples of regional responses to Israeli actions, which confirm that Arab countries are exerting pressure to rein-in normalisation. They fear that continuing normalisation will undermine their own legitimacy, and they are not that strong, given their economic difficulties post-Arab Spring.

Israel’s National Security Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs might be promoting agreements with Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinians and the US in summits held in Aqaba and Sharm El-Sheikh to prevent an escalation of tension, but government ministers are still working to violate these understandings with actions and statements contrary to the spirit of normalisation. Indeed, the cancellation of the disengagement law is a violation of Israel’s commitment to the US, undermining the regional perception that the road to Washington passes through Tel Aviv.

Israelis see the opportunity for normalisation with Saudi Arabia fading away, after Riyadh realised that its demands for US security guarantees and agreement to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes will not be accepted by America and Israel. The Saudis have opted to secure their eastern approaches instead by reviving relations with Iran, while condemning Israel’s hard-line policies. The Kingdom has thus been removed from the list of potential countries for normalisation, for now, at least.

The impression among Israelis is that the signatories to the normalisation agreements have an interest in sticking to the terms in isolation from what is happening within occupied Palestine. At the same time, though, they are watching the Israeli government’s efforts to calm things down. However, bringing the Palestinian cause back to centre stage regionally and internationally challenges normalisation, and deters other Arab countries from getting involved in the process. This requires Israel’s attention.

Israel’s assessment is that it is incorrect to say that normalisation with the Arab countries is separate from the conflict with the Palestinians. More than two years down the normalisation line, it is clear that the Palestinian cause has returned to the forefront of the Arab world agenda. Evidence for this is the fact that the increase in Palestinian resistance actions and Israeli aggression in the West Bank has not gone unnoticed by the Gulf states.

Palestine and Israeli policies both put normalisation agreements to the test. Normalised countries are concerned about the Palestinians, but are keen to strengthen economic and security relations with Israel. This was evident through the “postponement” of Netanyahu’s planned visit to the UAE after far-right minister Itamar bin Gvir stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque in January.

Given the tense UAE-Israel relations since Ben-Gvir’s stunt, a trend has emerged to improve relations between the UAE and the Palestinians, who saw normalisation with Israel as a betrayal and a stab in the back. Relations between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv declined further after the vicious settler attack on the village of Huwara near Nablus, and Smotrich’s statement about wiping it off the map. There is growing dissatisfaction with the attitude of the occupation state, and no confidence in Netanyahu’s “reassurances” because he is believed to be controlled by the extremists in his coalition.

Saudi support for stronger links with Israel has waned, not least due to Smotrich’s comments, which were described by the foreign ministry in Riyadh as “racist and irresponsible [reflecting] the violence and extremism against the Palestinians.” Now is not the time for normalisation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, say its supporters.

Israeli extremism means that there are already fewer opportunities for Arab normalisation. And although recent developments do not jeopardise the normalisation agreements, and do not close the door to more countries signing such deals, if tension continues in occupied Palestine, especially any change in the status of Al-Aqsa Mosque, there may be a freeze in relations between Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. If that happens, normalisation will stop.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza