The recent wave of public normalizations of relations between Arab states and Israel – the Abraham Accords between United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in September 2020, the agreement with Sudan in October, and the renewal of relations with Morocco in December – are indicators of an extremely significant change in Middle East political and strategic dynamics which has occurred over the past decade or more.
Overt normalization of relations is the middle, not the beginning, of a process. It stems from a long-lasting congruence of interests between Israel and the conservative alignment of states in the Arab world. The cohesion of this alignment – which includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt under President al-Sisi, Bahrain and Morocco – was solidified after 2013. Its main preoccupation, in response to the dynamics unleashed by the 2010-2011 popular uprisings, was and is confronting domestic challenges to the regimes’ legitimacy and authority. Key partners in this grouping have long had deep, discreet cooperation with Israel regarding the threat of Iran. Close, operational cooperation between Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi developed especially in 2015, surrounding their joint political campaign to counter the Obama Administration’s approval of the Iran nuclear deal. These states have found also common ground with Israel on facing challenges stemming from Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood (including Hamas), and political Islam in general; Egypt has cooperated closely with Israel on containing Hamas and on combating Islamic State (IS) affiliates in Sinai. Israel has been increasingly seen by these regimes as a source of support for internal security, and surveillance technology and expertise, as well.
The turbulence in the Middle East catalyzed by the disintegration of Iraq in 2003, and the emergence of a new and younger generation of leadership in the region, have led most Arab regimes in the region to largely abandon the cloak of pan-Arab rhetoric and speak openly of their pursuit of national interests. This, combined with the general comprehension that solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on significant territorial exchange between two states is not likely in the short to medium term; the de-facto bifurcation of Palestine into two divergent and loosely-linked political entities; and the freezing of Palestinian political dynamics, has led to a marginalization of the Palestinian issue in regional politics. This marginalization, added to the existence of youthful publics less preoccupied with historical narratives, ostensibly freed these countries from the paradigm making bilateral relations with Israel contingent on progress regarding the Palestinian issue. However, as many of these essays illustrate, the willingness of the leaderships to engage openly with Israel is not often shared by the public and other components of the elites, a fact that serves as a brake for many regimes to open (or deeper) normalization.
Two developments associated with the United States created the direct context and momentum for the normalization agreements to emerge. The first was the understanding among key American allies in the region – Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE – that the United States seeks to bring to an end its costly direct military involvement in the region, which has existed for twenty years. This is both due to U.S. domestic fatigue and unhappiness with the high human and material costs, and its desire to concentrate both on domestic issues and on other geostrategic threats. It is also due to the reduced importance of Middle East energy sources for the U.S. and its allies. It has therefore become more important for these regional powers to compensate for a reduced U.S. military involvement, and to create a regionally-based power alignment which will at least partially fulfill the balancing role played by the U.S. during the past twenty years.
The second was the Trump Administration, which pushed for a regional alignment against Iran and normalization with Israel as key elements of its foreign policy agenda, especially in its final year. It also clearly conveyed its disinterest in continuing the traditional U.S. policy of supporting a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, opposing settlements, and Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank, as well as the linkage of Arab bilateral relations with Israel to resolution of the Palestinian issue. The Trump Administration’s “hard sell,” and its willingness to provide valuable inducements in return for open normalization in order to ensure a measure of legacy of success in foreign policy, created the stage and timeframe for the overt “leap forward” in Israeli-Arab relations in the past half year.
There is much speculation regarding which states will be next to improve relations with Israel, what their considerations will be, and how the development of relations will unfold between Israel and those countries that have already undertaken to improve relations with it. This collection of short essays seeks to provide some insight into these questions.
A few preliminary words on the scope of this publication: There are 22 member states in the Arab League. Researchers from the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) analyze fourteen of them and their attitudes towards normalization with Israel in this volume. It includes those countries which have not yet normalized, but might do so – or are widely reported as poised to do so – in the next few years. In addition, while Egypt of course has had full diplomatic relations with Israel for over forty years, its regional importance dictated that its attitudes toward the current trend be examined in depth. Two of the countries which are examined – Sudan and Morocco – have begun the process of normalization, but are still in the midst of it, and have not yet taken some cardinal steps. Non-state Sunni jihadi organizations (al-Qaeda and the IS) – which have been one of the major influences in the region over the past two decades have been included. And as a research organization based in Israel, it is incumbent on the Moshe Dayan Center to examine the highly significant position regarding normalization of the Arab minority in Israel.
Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain were not included. They have already established full diplomatic relations with Israel and are therefore less relevant for a study aimed at assessing the potential future of normalization. Four other Arab countries are assessed to be so far from normalization that they are irrelevant for a study concentrating on the short- to medium-term: Syria and Lebanon are too embroiled with Iran and with internal turmoil, and their relations with Israel too fraught, to be viable candidates at this time. The political systems of Yemen and Libya are too fractured, and they are too enmeshed in the intra-regional struggles, to be relevant currently. And Comoros, while a member of the Arab League, is too marginal to the region to be included.
This article is part of The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel.
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