Perspective 58. Israel and Arab States: A Radical New Departure?
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's visit to the United Arab Emirates underlines the emergence of open ties between Israel and the broader Arab world. Last year diplomatic relations were established between Israel and four Arab nations. Did this mark a radical new departure -- as well as a diplomatic triumph for Benjamin Netanyahu (then Israel's Prime Minister) -- and Donald Trump as U.S. President?
No. The establishment of Israeli relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan is part of a long process dating back to the 1967 war.
In perspective, Arab states played only a peripheral role in the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine before the 1948 war. Only when neighboring Arab states intervened militarily that year did they become the front line of what became known then, but is no longer, the Arab-Israel conflict. Other Arab states, even then, played token roles in the conflict though they subscribed to the non-recognition and boycott of the new Jewish state.
After the 1967 war the Palestinians re-emerged as the key player versus Israel, and front-line states began a slow process of disengagement. With pan-Arab ideology on the decline, Israel's Arab neighbors put their own interests --such as the return of territory occupied by Israel in 1967 -- ahead of unqualified adherence to the Palestinian cause.
During the 1990s Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized each other and accepted, at least in theory, a framework for resolution. This enabled Arab states to withdraw yet further. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel; one should remember that Israeli diplomatic relations with key Arab states have in fact existed for three decades.
Israel has also had official relations with the Palestinian Authority during this time, even if they are dismal relations.
Following this lead, other Arab states also established relations with Israel: Morocco in 1994; Oman, Qatar, and Tunisia in 1996, and Mauretania in 1999. Unfortunately these relations ended when the first intifada broke out in 2000, or when Netanyahu came to power in 2009.
Other Arab states, having little at stake, withheld recognition of Israel pending final settlement of the Palestinian issue. The Arab League in 2002 offered Israel full diplomatic relations for acceptance of a two-state solution with full withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and "just settlement" of the refugee issue. Israel under Ariel Sharon -- and later under Netanyahu -- rejected the Arab League offer as a basis for negotiation.
Nevertheless, informal ties and unofficial trade developed over the years. When in Dubai a few years ago, I was startled to see a kiosk selling Ahava cosmetics, from Israel, in the world's largest shopping mall.
Fear of a nuclear Iran has hastened the process in recent years, especially in Gulf nations like the UAE. It is unlikely that UAE or Bahrain would have proceeded without a green light from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are withholding formal recognition for now, but by all accounts informal cooperation has flourished behind the curtain.
There are reports that Netanyahu met secretly the Muhammed bin Salman, the dominant Saudi figure, in November last year. The reports were vigorously denied by the Saudis, which only lends credence to their probable reliability.