The Arab World Just Handed Netanyahu Its Most Powerful Weapon

There was something unprecedented about the latest escalation between Israel and Hezbollah – and it's got nothing to do with firepower. 

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For the first time in the Israeli-Arab conflict, significant Arab officials (and mouthpieces for Arab regimes) openly and unabashedly took Israel’s side over their fellow Arabs, while others fell silent. 

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister attacked Lebanon's government for "standing by, watching battles taking place on its borders," the UAE foreign minister said – in a dig at Hezbollah – "The decision to make war, peace or stability should be the decision of the state," Saudi regime loyalists cheered and applauded Israel’s attack on "the ugly face of Iran," and the crown prince of Gulf Likudnik trolls, Mohammed Saud, declared: "Netanyahu knows what to do against Hezbollah."

Bahrain foreign minister tweetTwitter

Not long ago, such full-throated support for Israel from states and their subjects who don’t even officially recognize Israel would have been astonishing. Not long ago it was the expectation that any even tentative references to Israel had to be justified by – at least – paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, or the peace process. 

One word has changed it all: Iran.

"Iran" has become a catch-all term to justify Arab regimes inching closer to Israel. It’s a word that triggers primitive sentiments of hate, fear, anger and Arab pride against "Persian hegemony," overtaking Arab sympathy with the Palestinians, in the clearest statement of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

But this dramatic shift in how Israeli-Arab normalization is being played out and marketed is critically dangerous. Not only will there be a backlash against the the protagonists of this sell-out; premature and unconditional normalization will essentially kill whatever prospects remain for Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

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This is why.

There have been three "traditional" paradigms for Israeli-Arab normalization to play a pivotal role in the peace process and stabilizing the Middle East.

The most common form used to be the paradigm of normalization as a reward. Its obvious example is the reward of full diplomatic relations to Israel, conditioned on accepting the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative – ending the occupation.

But this has become stagnant; too little effort has been exerted to push it forward, and the Israeli public doesn’t feel any urgent need to pursue it – or has forgotten about the whole theoretical process altogether.

That stagnation opened the door for an alternative tactic: normalization as an incentive for Israel to exhibit seriousness towards peace, and to create momentum to kickstart a more serious peace process – but before any specific advances had been signed and sealed.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the Knesset in November 1977.GPO

Although Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to the Israeli Knesset is often conjured up to recall this strategy’s potency. But his charismatic and unifying (albeit still controversial) leadership has no current representative in the region, nor his pan-Arab identity whose fading accelerated even more after the 2011 Arab spring.

Imitating Sadat’s gesture would these days be ersatz and counterproductive. Frequent semi-official Arab delegations visiting Israel make few waves: they enjoy little or no primetime Israeli attention, but they certainly provoke Palestinian anger and frustration.

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The third type is the popular normalization paradigm between the Israelis and Arabs. The underlying idea is to build peace from the ground up, building trust face-to-face, in parallel to the activities of the political elites, to show the authentic acceptance Israel would receive should it end its occupation. 

However, decades of people-to-people initiatives have had little impact, because the basic conditions of the conflict have not changed. Despite the occasional staged pro-normalization "popular" Arab initiatives, Israel is still widely perceived in the Arab world as a malevolent force, more concerned with empowering brutal Arab dictators than benefitting the Arab public. 

But all three historic paradigms have now been overtaken by a fourth normalization paradigm. This paradigm embraces the humiliating, defeatist path of normalizing relations with Israel regardless of, and untethered from, any progress on the Palestinian front, because: Iran.

Arab regimes are running towards no-conditions normalization under the pretext of forging a united front against the exaggerated fear of “the Iranian danger” to the region.

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos receives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat, Oman, October 26, 2018.AP

A Saudi diplomat explained to me one of the more unwholesome motivations behind ensuring Israel’s inclusion: the anti-Semitic conspiracist belief that "the way to the U.S. begins in Tel-Aviv…because Jews control the world." 

Shifting the normalization discourse far away from Israeli-Palestinian peace towards an urgent military alliance with Israel against "the common threat of Iran" has reversed the dynamics of the normalization process: Rather than gatekeepers to accepting Israel’s integration into the region, the Arab regimes are now demolishing any barrier to Israel’s cooperation and allyship.

This new paradigm is more akin to a diplomatic conquest. Rather than a dynamic in which Israel is shown the future benefits of peacemaking – what Arab countries could offer Israel should the occupation be ended – is no longer relevant. It’s what Israel can offer Arab regimes, right now that matters – security collaboration, intelligence, military force.

What a victory for Benjamin Netanyahu: he can present himself as the pioneer who broke the normalization game and exposed its fragility, while offering a vision of another new Middle East which doesn’t require any practical or ideological retreat vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Along the way, he accumulates domestic political capital by framing himself as a King who can twist Arab leaders’ arms, humiliating – if not forcing – them into submission. 

Indeed, it’s a common belief in the Arab world that Netanyahu deliberately humiliates Arab officials engaged in normalization, whether this is grounded in fact or not. When Oman’s Foreign Minister secretly visited Netanyahu when they were both visiting Warsaw, Israeli journalists were waiting in the basement to capture footage of Oman’s FM timidly sneaking into the hotel from the back entrance; this was perceived as a classic of the genre. 

– Barak Ravid tweet

Exclusive: The Foreign Ministerr of Oman Yusuf Bin Alawi arriving at what was supposed to be a secret meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Warsaw

— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) February 13, 2019

Within Israel, Netanyahu’s Arabic-speaking mouthpieces amplify the ridicule, sarcastically "calling out" Arab leaders on social media for their "treason" and weakness, whenever they engage in normalization. 

Added to that, the role of the Mossad in setting up the back channels that lead to Israeli politicians meeting Gulf leaders – despite being part of the secret service’s brief in states where no diplomatic relations exist – gives the impression that this form of normalization is part of a black ops scheme whose real purpose is still covert.

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But even if you remove the Palestinians from the normalization equation, it’s not the win-win situation it appears. 

Arab leaders have willingly shot themselves in the foot. Cosying up to Israel, they’re  now seen as fragile, illegitimate and desperate to secure their thrones by paying tribute to "King Bibi" and President Donald Trump, rather than advancing the declared aim of this normalization – the welfare of their people and protecting them from the "Iranian danger."

And they’re ignoring the depth of Arab popular solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Netanyahu himself has admitted that the biggest threat to normalization is grassroots Arab opposition: "The greatest obstacle to the expansion of peace today is not found in the leaders of the countries around us. The obstacle is public opinion on the Arab street," he declared at the event marking the 40th anniversary of Sadat’s Knesset speech. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the opening of the G20 leaders summit, Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 30, 2018 SERGIO MORAES/ REUTERS

Why have open acts of normalization by Saudi Arabia been so tentative? Because Mohammed bin Salman knows it would trigger an explosive backlash throughout the Arab and Muslim world – and against himself.

Normalization without any progress on Palestine is a trap: covert cooperation is fine, but public acts have to be kept occasional, and contained, for fear of a potentially destabilizing public outcry.

For any peace process, the implications are severe. Israeli-Arab normalization has always been one of the last bargaining chips Palestinians retained in peace negotiations. Losing that leverage leaves Palestinians cornered, isolated and in despair, increasing the possibility of an explosion of chaos in the occupied territories.

A far preferable route would be to shift the normalization discourse to focus more on how solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would contribute to regional stability and opportunity rather than desperately seeking to remove the Palestinians as an obstacle to normalization. 

Arab regimes that actually want to contribute meaningfully to solving the conflict would be pushing Israel to accept multi-national peace mediation (including Arab states) to solve the conflict, or an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit in Egypt for Arab states, the EU, the U.S. and other international players. 

The Trump administration and many Arab regimes, not least in the Gulf, want to sweep the Palestinian struggle under a rug while deepening their unconditional embrace of Israel. That’s normalization by force, not by conviction, popular support or justice – and it’s a surefire recipe for eventually normalizing even more hate and violent rejectionism.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2