25 June 2022

Saturday, 12:36


Israel's dialogue with the Arab world is changing geopolitics in the Middle East



The end of 2021 went down in history with a number of significant geopolitical events in the Middle East, particularly, the ongoing normalisation of Israel's relations with the Arab world. Remarkably, the world media and political experts have rightly dubbed the first ever visit of the Israeli prime minister to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a historical event.


Bennett in the UAE

The Arab-Israeli relations began dramatically changing with the signing in Washington of the so-called Abraham Accords on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain in September 2020. The mastermind behind the conclusion of the document that got its name from Abraham—one of the most revered saints and prophets in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a preacher of the monotheistic faith—was the then US President Donald Trump known as a master of big deals. A little later, he also initiated the signing of similar agreements between Israel, Sudan, and Morocco.

Prior to the conclusion of the Abraham Accords, Israel's dialogue with the Arab countries was mainly limited to relations with Egypt, Jordan, and partially (without diplomatic relations) with Oman. Unsurprisingly, the agreement was condemned in most other Arab states, which were unhappy with the four’s rapprochement with Israel against the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. According to it, normal relations of the Arab countries with Israel would be possible only after the return of the territories occupied by the latter during the Six Day War: the Golan Heights to Syria, the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem to Palestine. However, the events have since developed in a different direction. The growing public awareness in the Arab world of the impossibility of ignoring and non-recognition of Israel and the entailing geopolitical realities resulted in establishing concrete relations with the Jewish state. The first official visit of the Israeli prime minister to the UAE was another breakthrough along the course of events.

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel and the UAE have taken a number of fundamental and important steps to foster bilateral cooperation. In particular, they established direct air communication, signed several agreements on cooperation, and opened respective embassies in Abu Dhabi and in Tel Aviv.

During the visit, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held talks with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the de facto ruler of the UAE, and the Emirati Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The leaders made a number of quite meaningful statements as well. In short, they boil down to the fact that the visit of the Israeli prime minister to the UAE will have a positive impact on stabilising the situation in the entire Middle East in the interests of the peoples of the two states and the entire region. The Israeli prime minister set the tone for his visit even before leaving for Abu Dhabi. In his interview with the UAE news agency he said that his visit "reflects the essence of the new reality taking place in the region" and that Israel and the UAE are ready to "work together to ensure a better future for our children."

Obviously, speaking of the "new reality", Bennett was referring to major changes in the context of Israel's relations with the Arab world. And there are, indeed, good reasons for such statements.


Issue of Palestine

In fact, many Arab countries are increasingly reluctant to view the issue of Palestine—Israel's major concern—as a problem to be solved by the entire Arab world. After all, the absolute majority of Arab states have defended this thesis for many decades, since the inception of the State of Israel in 1948. The same position has been consistently supported by the League of Arab States—the main organisational structure symbolising the solidarity of Arab nations.

Apparently, the Abraham Accords set a new trend in the foreign policy of the Arab states. The development of ties with Israel by both the ‘veterans’ (Egypt and Jordan) and the new (the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan) participants of the Arab-Israeli coexistence demonstrates that an increasing number of Arab countries are ready to sacrifice the idea of national solidarity to own state interests. Obviously, the number of supporters of this trend will gradually increase. For example, one of the most influential Arab states is Saudi Arabia, which, despite regularly bringing forward the rights of the Palestinian people as a condition for establishing relations with Israel, practically does not mind developing political relations with the latter to a certain extent. By the way, for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, the aircraft of the Israeli prime minister flew over the Saudi territory en route to the UAE.

At the same time, it is believed that by normalising relations with Israel, the Arab states expect that the former softens its policy towards Palestine. For example, after the signing of a peace treaty with Egypt back in 1979, Israel returned the occupied territories of this Arab country, including the Sinai Peninsula, to Cairo. Therefore, individual Arab states hope that if Israel establishes good-neighbourly relations with the Arab world, it will make concessions and even agree to return to the 1967 borders and hand over the eastern part of Jerusalem to Palestinians as their capital city. However, the existing realities and strategic priorities of the Israeli foreign policy (so far) do not give grounds to assume such a turn of events. For now, Israel shows an interest in establishing normal bilateral relations with the Arab states, without linking this perspective to the settlement of the Palestinian conflict.

Considering the above and despite the tendency to establish an Arab-Israeli dialogue in bilateral formats, which was also confirmed by the first visit of the Israeli prime minister to the UAE, we cannot expect the establishment of a lasting peace in the Middle East, between Israel and the entire Arab world. Because the issue of Palestine remains a strategic obstacle in the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli truce, although it becomes increasingly less significant in the relations of the Jewish state with individual Arab countries, as evidenced by the extremely negative reaction of the Palestinian Authority to the rapprochement of the UAE with Israel.


Iranian factor

Meanwhile, in addition to Palestine, there is another side that is quite unhappy with the rapprochement of individual Arab states, including the UAE, with Israel. This is Iran, which was one of the main factors behind the conclusion of the Abraham Accords and the normalisation of dialogue between Israel and the Arab world.

Indeed, it was the intention to contain Iran with its growing regional ambitions that played a key role in pushing the policies of individual Arab states to convergence with Israel. On the other end of this process was Washington, which still considers the development of Arab-Israeli relations as a key factor of pressure on Iran in order to strengthen its position in the Middle East.

Apparently, each of the Arab states prompted by the Americans to come to terms with Israel has its own scores to settle with Iran. Because of Tehran's support for the Houthi movement in Yemen, for example. The Arab coalition, including in particular the UAE and Bahrain, which have recently established diplomatic relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which openly prefers a tactical alliance with the Jewish state amid confrontation with Iran, has spent many years fighting against the Houthis. After all, the winner of this confrontation will become a leading state among the other states of the Persian Gulf region and will increase its influence in the Middle East and the entire Muslim world. That is why the Arab-Israeli cooperation also covers strategic areas, which is expressed not only in the actual solidarity of the Arab states with Israel in its attempt to prevent Iran’s nuclear program, but also in the development of military-technical projects. Thus, there is talk of Israel's military supplies to the UAE and even the development of a joint defense system against Iran with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

So, it is not surprising that Tehran is furious about the Abraham Accords and sharply criticises Bennett's visit to the UAE as one of the steps taken "against the interests of the Islamic Ummah, the people of the region, and the Arab states." Being the only state in the world that threatens to destroy Israel, Iran is well aware that one of the goals of the Arab-Israeli cooperation is the suppression of Iran.

However, Iran’s resistance cannot reverse the trend of events taking place between Israel and the Arab states. Like a videoconference of the heads of the foreign ministries of the US, Israel, and Morocco on the occasion of the first anniversary of restoration of diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Morocco and the State of Israel, which took place on December 22.

Morocco resumed official relations with Israel two decades after they were severed by the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada. During the past year, Morocco and Israel have been developing a partnership, which the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called "an achievement that deepens ties, partnerships and opportunities to achieve common goals." Remarkably, the Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita accepted during the videoconference an invitation from his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid to visit Israel "as soon as possible".

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Morocco in November 2021. During the visit, the parties signed a security pact, followed by reports of Israeli defense technology supplies to Morocco. In fact, the Moroccan-Israeli military-technical cooperation aims to support Rabat in opposition with Algeria. The latter traditionally competes with Morocco in North Africa and is one of the Arab countries that still resist building relations with Israel. This aspect is an additional indicator of the ambiguity and multi-layered nature of the Middle East panorama. And Israel's ongoing dialogue with the Arab states becomes increasingly tangible as one of the components of this mosaic, contrary to the tradition of hostility that has taken deep roots over the past seventy years.