Israeli-Arab Normalizations: An Inflexion Point for the Middle Eastern Politics
Between September 2020 and January 2021, Israel has signed no less than four normalization deals with Arab countries: the UAE, Bahrein, Morocco and Sudan. These treaties are partly the legacy of the last months of Trump’s mandate, as the President actively participated in the talks and proposed compensations to Morocco and Sudan for their recognition of the Hebrew state. Many Arab countries are thus now loosely allied with Israel, which contributes to isolating Iran, and leaves the Palestinian question aside. Brandon Friedman, Director of Research at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, shares an Israeli perspective on these deals and their implications for the region.
What are the implications of the recent “normalization” process engaged between Israel and some Arab states? And how much of a reconciliation do these normalizations entail?
For Israel, there are four main implications of the normalization deals
The first two are primarily political/symbolic, while the last two provide concrete material rewards. However, broadly speaking, it is important to point out that the deals put Israel’s relations with the Arab world on entirely new historical footing. Israel is no longer politically isolated and estranged in its wider neighborhood. From the outermost geographic reaches of the region (Morocco and Sudan) to the Arabian Peninsula (Bahrain and the UAE) and closer to home at its borders (Egypt and Jordan), Israel now has three concentric rings of official regional partners. This in and of itself is a sea change for Israel.
First, the deals demonstrated that Israel does not need to make peace with the Palestinians to normalize its relations with Arab countries. Indeed, it was a longstanding belief that the fruits of formal diplomatic and economic relations would not be possible without first finding a solution to the conflict. The normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain have debunked that argument and paved the way for other non-Arab Muslim countries to potentially normalize ties with Israel in pursuit of their interests. Nevertheless, it is also important to point out that the normalization deals with Sudan and Morocco were far more transactional than the deals with the UAE and Bahrain. There is still significant public opposition to the normalization deals in both Morocco and Sudan. Therefore, it is fair to expect “normal” relations with Morocco and Sudan to evolve more slowly and unevenly than Israel’s relations with Bahrain and the UAE.
Second, the deal also further disproves the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root source of instability in the region another long held belief. There are regional wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen that have lasted a decade or more. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has played no role in generating or sustaining these conflicts. Moreover, Israel’s partnership with the US doesn’t weaken American legitimacy in the region (as American General David Petraeus argued in 2010), instead it has served as a model that Arab countries like the UAE have tried to emulate. Nevertheless, it is also important to acknowledge that Arab public opinions remain deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, and this issue will likely constrain Israel’s future opportunities to build on these initial normalization deals.
Third, the deal provides Israel with the means to maintain official representation in the Arab Gulf, just a short distance from the shores of its major adversary in the region, Iran. It promises strategic cooperation with UAE and Bahrain, which nearly brings Israel as close to Iran’s borders as Iran is to Israel’s borders with its partners in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. For the last decade, Israel has fought a low-scale war with Iran in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. There is some concern that Iran’s partners in Yemen may target Israel, as well. Strategic cooperation with Bahrain and the UAE provide Israel with convenient access to Iran’s longest border along the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. Further, the normalization deal with Sudan should also end Sudan’s strategic cooperation with Iran, which took place under the ousted al-Bashir regime. Bashir’s government had permitted Hamas and Iran to smuggle Iranian weapons through Sudan into Sinai and Gaza. It is however important to point out that Israelis will also be vulnerable to Iran in Bahrain and the UAE, and perhaps Sudan as well. Tens of thousands of Israeli tourists have flooded into the Gulf in the aftermath of the normalization deals, and it will be difficult to fully protect them if Iran is intent on targeting them. Iran has a history of hostage taking, and this should be a cause for concern.
Fourth, the investment and trade deals with the UAE and Bahrain represent significant economic opportunities for Israel’s high tech industry, as well as its military-defense and tourism industries. In particular, there are major joint investment opportunities in cyberdefense, fintech, foodtech, water desalination, and renewable energy. For Israel, the investment opportunities have generated enormous anticipation. However there should also be concern regarding the potential for sensitive dual use advanced technologies ending up in the hands of third parties, particularly given the Emirates’ history as a regional entrepot.
Finally, the normalization deals with UAE and Bahrain, and to some extent Morocco, do not appear to be the kind of “cold peace” Israel has with Egypt and Jordan. In the UAE and Bahrain there appears to be a public will to engage in cultural, people-to-people exchange. Israeli society’s deep cultural ties with Morocco (due to a large Israeli immigration from Morocco after Israeli independence) also suggest a potential for a people-to-people connection that transcends the politics of the normalization deal.
For the Arab states, there are also four main implications of the normalization deals
First, they anticipate the US military downsizing in the Middle East. They represent an attempt to bring Israel and certain Arab states into closer security partnership in anticipation of a less forward engaged US military in the region in the future. Indeed, the US has made a reduced military presence in the Middle East a point of emphasis since 2010. More recently, Donald Trump drew down forces from Afghanistan and Syria and was looking to draw down US forces from Iraq as well. In September 2017, there were 54,000 plus troops in the Middle East. It is widely expected that the Biden administration will seek to further downsize the US presence in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf, in order to better focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Bahrain is the home to the American Fifth Fleet and the UAE is home to Al Dhafra Air Base. The US also maintains a substantial presence at bases in Kuwait and Qatar in the Gulf. Therefore, Bahrain and the UAE may be using the normalization agreements and the new (January 16, 2021) US designation as a “Major Security Partner”, as a means to better position themselves to retain US forces/bases if and when a US downsizing occurs. Further, the “Major Security Partner” designation also suggests that the Trump administration viewed these normalization agreements as a step toward creating a new US led security architecture in the region that more explicitly connects Israel with pro-US Arab regimes. The Trump administration’s incorporation of Israel into US Central Command (on January 14, 2021), whose forward command center is at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, is another indication of this intent.
Second, and relatedly, the UAE and Bahrain indeed both see Israel as an asset in confronting Iranian aggression. The normalization agreements make this anti-Iranian front more explicit, and the UAE and Bahrain may hope it will enhance deterrence vis-a-vis Iran. For Bahrain, this may be the primary reason for joining the Abraham Accords. Beyond deterrence, strategic relations with Israel prospectively create formal channels for the UAE and Bahrain to coordinate with Israel on intelligence sharing, missile defense, arms and high tech sales, and military operational coordination and support. All of these areas have important implications in the effort to confront Iran’s regional expansion.
Third, these deals help the Arab states manage their relations with the US during a delicate period of intensifying Sino-American rivalry in which some of them are also expanding their relations with China. Indeed, the Israeli-Arab normalization eases this process during a period in which the UAE becomes more deeply integrated with China’s financial, trade, investment, and energy markets. For example, the UAE accounts for 28% of China’s non-oil trade with the region. At the same time, the UAE has been positioning itself to be a Chinese security sub-contractor in the Horn of Africa
Fourth, in many cases, the US paid a “price” to seal the normalization deal. The transactional factor was important and to the extent it is fulfilled it may be the decisive implication of the deal for each of the Arab parties. Therefore, as a whole, for the Arab states these deals were as much about the US as they were about Israel. Indeed, Morocco has been promised long sought US recognition of its sovereignty in the Western Sahara; Sudan has been lifted from US state sponsor of terrorism list and bilateral and multilateral investment will be unfrozen; and the UAE has been promised the US sale of its coveted F-35 fighter jet to the Emirates.
With which countries can we expect Israel to work towards “normalization” next?
It is probably wise to view the normalization deals as a Trump phenomenon. It is unlikely that normalizing with Israel is going to deliver the same return from the US under the Biden administration that it did during the Trump administration.
While countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Oman have been discussed in the media due to their need for US trade and investment, it seems unlikely that the Biden administration is offering the terms they are looking for. In the case of Pakistan and Indonesia, there is also significant public opposition to a normalization deal with Israel that must be taken into account. Saudi Arabia is a special case. It is unlikely to normalize with Israel while King Salman is alive, but it will also be facing a great deal of pressure from a Democratic US Congress that is unhappy with its human rights record and its war in Yemen, and so Saudi Arabia may use normalization with Israel to blunt the effects of a broader political crisis in the Saudi-US partnership.
What can Israel expect from a Biden presidency, compared to the current American administration?
We can expect an initial period of tension in the Israeli-American relationship, particularly as the Biden administration attempts to return to the JCPOA early. Israel is at the beginning of an election cycle, so at the same time that Iran is pressuring the US to go back to the deal (without revisions), Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely conduct a very public campaign against the JCPOA and will likely demand major revisions to the deal. The Iranian nuclear issue is of paramount importance to Israel, and the potential for friction and even confrontation on how it is handled is likely to affect the dynamics of the Israeli-American relationship throughout the Biden presidency. A lot will depend on what happens in the March 2021 Israeli elections. There is likely to be little initial pressure from the Biden administration on the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking front, particularly given the election in Israel. The Palestinians have also declared an election cycle (May – Legislative Council, July – Presidency, August – PLO National Council) during 2021, but it remains to be seen if it takes place. However, it is reasonable to expect the Biden administration to take a hard line with any Israeli settlement construction during its term in office.