Once again on the question of normalization with Israel

Azmi Bishara

The New Arab  /  September 28, 2023

Arab normalization with Israel, motivated by narrow interests, sidelines the Palestinian cause, with moral decay, economic disappointment, and the reinforcement of Israel’s settler-colonialism and apartheid its only outcome, writes Azmi Bishara

For some reason, the term ‘normalization’ has been translated into Arabic using the word “Tatbi’”, derived from the Arabic word tabi’i or natural, when in English, the term derives from normal, which means usual or ordinary rather than natural.

Regardless, the Israeli governments have wholeheartedly embraced the usage of this term, in no less enthusiasm than their emphasis on the peace agreements with the Arab states which they fear would remain superficial and ceremonial if relations are not also fully normalized. Indeed, the quest here is to entrench settler-colonialism in the Arab region and recast it by normalizing a system of violent power and domination that contradicts all that is natural and normal. This way, the people of the region should be tamed to accept normal relations with Israel without a just solution of the issue of Palestine and to get used to occupation and apartheid.

The African nations that had boycotted South Africa, refusing to normalize relations with the apartheid regime, were much more impoverished than the Arab nations and more in need of economic ties with the abnormal entity in their neighbourhood. These African states were neither more democratic nor less authoritarian than the Arab states of today, yet the Africans, both peoples and regimes, unanimously agreed on opposition to racism and colonialism.

Undoubtedly, apartheid South Africa – and Israel, which remained its staunch ally until the very end – had been a holdover of the era of colonialism. In our region, the unanimity regarding the stance on Israeli occupation, the last remaining unresolved instance of colonialism, at least inasmuch as it was once expressed publicly, has faded.

If we put aside here the moral stance – which should never be put aside except for the sake of argument – and consider instead normalization as a purportedly practical and pragmatic move, we find that in reality, even then, it is not a justification. This applies to both the countries bordering Palestine and those who were never officially part of any wars related to Palestine.

Indeed, the thinking that Israel can help strengthen or secure relations between normalizing Arab regimes, and the United States, is mired in delusions. This kind of logic leads to endless extortion, while those who put their internal affairs in order and preserve a minimum level of stability – we are not even saying justice – and act responsibly in matters of foreign policy can make a compelling argument of credibility in East and West.

In terms of the economy, a brief look at the states that have normalized relations with Israel since the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel shows that relations with Israel are not an answer to economic hardships in any country, nor an alternative to social justice and rational economic policies.

The leaders of Arab nations know this. Those among them who met with Israeli counterparts have experienced their persistent, prying, and nosey approach, and realized that their end goal is to exploit and take advantage rather than benefit or offer the Arabs something in return.

The Arab leaders rushing in this direction are doing so because they want Israel to be an ally for them in the West against their more proximate foes. Consider as a recent example of that how the race for rapprochement with Israel came from Libya and Sudan. In both cases, the motivation was internal rivalries. Each party to the internal conflicts in Libya and Sudan fears that their rivals could beat them to this ‘glory’. Meanwhile, it is too obvious for all that regional conflicts and animosities are encouraging a competition to woo the United States and Israel, such as in the Gulf and Morocco.

But can normalizing ties with Israel help resolve the Arabs’ internal conflicts, or does it actually fuel them?

It is self-evident that all normalization is taking place at the expense of the Palestinian people. Still, we need to go further and consider whether making unreciprocated concessions to Israel is at the expense of the broader Arab nation and Arab peoples. To answer this, one only has to quickly scan the state of affairs in the region to notice the combination of political and moral decadence, by the yawning gap between the peoples and the regimes seeking normalization in the context of this decadence.

Let’s say the Arab regimes do not want to be bothered by arguments proving the justness of the cause of Palestine, which are convincing arguments indeed to large segments of the American public opinion. Then, consider the ‘pragmatic’ argument against normalization that can be put to the ageing President Biden, who will not gain a single vote from his push for normalization, pressuring the Arab states out of his sheer convictions or out of the old cold-war conceptions of hegemony based on stability of authoritarian allies: In short, every Arab step taken to normalize relations with Israel has so far only made Israel more extreme, intransigent, and convinced that only the logic of might is right works with the Arabs, as they keep climbing down from one peace initiative to another with fewer conditions attached.

With the present extremist government in Israel, this trend is even starker: Indeed, normalization would be rewarding the practices of the Israeli government and Israeli fundamentalist nationalist-religious settlers for whom even an unjust peace with the Arabs is not a priority. Even Biden could be convinced by this argument, yet those Arabs desiring normalization will not make use of it because they have ulterior motives. They are ever looking for justifications for it rather than an off-ramp.

There, normalizing regimes do not need to discuss any claimed benefits for the Palestinians due to their policies. All agreements have demonstrated that the marginalization of the Palestinian cause is their direct outcome because they are based on the premise that normal relations with Israel are possible without resolving the question of Palestine. It also endorses Israel’s perspective present since the Nakba, which holds that Palestine is marginal in the context of what was once called the Arab-Israeli conflict, a conflict that continues only from the perspective of Arab peoples but not their ruling regimes.

The truth is that the Palestinian cause is not present in the motives of normalization-seeking Arabs, neither positively nor negatively. Rather, the crux revolves around their demands and expectations from the United States. This cannot be camouflaged by photoshoots with Mahmoud Abbas, or even with Hamas leaders, nor by wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh – all a repugnant, hackneyed ritual. Israel is not asked to give up its expanding project of settlements  – nor the unity of its governing coalition – for the sake of any such peace agreements. So, it has to be at the expense of the Palestinians.

Even with no relevance for the Palestinian cause in their calculations, some normalization-seeking Arabs justify their engagement with, and concessions to Israel by attacking the Palestinians and even Arabs in general. Almost all normalization processes have included propaganda campaigns artfully papering over the gap between what a moral ethos demands and their praxis, between convictions and actions, with an incredible sense of cognitive dissonance designed to silence the conscience and manipulate convictions. All this as part of the moral, political, and cultural decadence in whose context normalization is embedded.

In the declassified archives about the region, we find a considerable number of Arab leaders had contacts with the Zionist movement before the Nakba and with Israeli officials in its aftermath. The only near total interruption in this trend happened during the tenure of ruling pan-Arab parties.

However, Anwar Sadat took a step further than those who had secret relations with Israel when he signed peace and normalization accords with Israel, reducing the issue to one of bilateral border settlements. In the following period, Egypt was expelled from the Arab League, which relocated its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis, and the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front was created to oppose this trajectory.

Yet this trajectory resumed. Such official ‘fronts’ are no longer established, nor are anti-normalization conferences held. Some now argue that normalization with Israel is a matter of national sovereignty, as though the fundamental question here is the legal prerogative of states to conclude bilateral peace treaties. But the issue is not a technical, legal one; it is political and moral, and this is the heart of the opposition to many sovereign decisions made by states, from waging war to concluding peace agreements.

The Palestinian issue has not been solved, but it is becoming less amenable to exploitation by the Arab regimes. On the other hand, Israel, as it insists on expanding settlements and annexing territory, has transfigured its settler occupation to an apartheid system in the heart of the Arab region. This can never become natural or normal, and it will be impossible to brainwash the Arab peoples into accepting it.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer