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Sunday, 16 June 2024
Arab “normalisation” with Israel spreads – but to what end?
Ian Black

It was Bahrain that turned out to be next – after the UAE – in normalising relations with Israel. The announcement from President Donald Trump on September 11 was fairly predictable – given the existing and increasingly visible links between the two countries and the familiar motive of wanting to please Washington.

 And just short of a month after the dramatic news about Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Binyamin Netanyahu it was not surprising that the follow-up was communicated by the Twitterer-in-chief in the Oval Office, who is seeking a second term in November - and clearly hoping to add it to the list of his achievements.

 Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the US, summarized the latest development on social media: “Israel waited 26 years to make peace with a 3rd Arab country and only 29 days to make peace with a 4th. Thanks to the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain for this historic breakthrough and to @POTUS Trump for confronting and helping transform our region for the better. More to come!”

 Israel signed its peace treaties with neighbouring Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 after years of hostility punctuated by wars. On September 15, in the White House, it will be the turn of the two Gulf states, which have never participated in any hostile action. But their act will still be judged in historic terms.

 The UAE’s official position is that the normalization decision was taken in order to prevent Netanyahu’s long-threatened annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank and that it remains committed to the creation of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state. The Israeli premier, however, has made clear that his unilateral move has only been postponed. Settlement activity, meanwhile, continues apace.

 For their part, Palestinians are outraged by what they describe as a stab-in-the-back and the abandonment of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, unveiled by the then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah when the second intifada was at its violent peak. Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent spokeswoman, praised those Bahrainis who saw normalisation as betrayal.

 Some observers believe that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, has been strengthened by these moves: “The decision by the UAE to normalise relations with Israel brought home to all Palestinians the need for unity and cooperation because the entire Palestinian national movement was now in danger,” wrote the veteran journalist Daoud Kuttab. But that may be wishful thinking.

 Since mid-August speculation has been rife in the Gulf, Israel and beyond about who would follow the UAE. Bahrain was always most likely. It June 2019 it hosted the economic summit that was part of Trump’s “deal of the century.” And Manama, like Abu Dhabi, started to have informal relations with Israel in the wake of the Oslo agreement with the PLO in 1993.

 Shared hostility to Iran is a significant part of the story, certainly since the second Lebanon War of 2006. Bahrain was the first Arab state to ban Hizbullah. Its close military ties to the US create a strong motive to cultivate a good image in Washington. It fits precisely the description of an Israeli diplomat that his country’s relations with the Gulf states is a function of fear of Iran and the Arabs’ belief in Israel’s influence in the US.

 In addition, the presence of a small indigenous Jewish community (of Iraqi origin) is unique in the Gulf, and has provided an interfaith route for people-to-people contacts. In May 2018 the Bahraini foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed, declared that Israel had the right to defend itself after Iranian forces in Syria fired more than a dozen missiles at Israeli targets on the occupied Golan Heights. His widely-reported comments were lauded by Israel as a show of “historic support for the State of Israel in the face of Iranian aggression reflects the new coalition being created in the Middle East.”

 The benefits of the changing regional landscape are starting to become apparent: the UAE’s

University of Artificial Intelligence has already signed an agreement with Israel’s renowned Weizmann Institute of Science. Israel has already been invited to attend the (Covid-postponed) Expo2020 in Dubai next year. Travel, investment and economic ties will also become easier.

 “The potential wedding of Gulf petrodollars with Israel’s technological prowess could herald an economic bonanza, especially if and when the coronavirus pandemic is contained,” was the view of columnist Chemi Shalev in the liberal daily Haaretz.

 Even dovish Israelis – including fierce critics of Netanyahu – are pleased at their increasing recognition by Arab states. But they have serious doubts about the value in resolving differences closer to home. Nir Baram: a rising Israeli literary star, tweeted: “Well done Bahrain. Just one thing: does normalisation change the fact that there are millions of Jews and Palestinians who need to live together, with equal rights? Peace agreements with distant countries won’t make the Palestinians disappear nor the fact that no-one has any idea how we will live together in 20 or 30 years. And we should have.”