Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan display their copies of signed agreements while US President Donald Trump looks on, at the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, at the White House in Washington, DC, Sept. 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Tom Brenner.
A future Gaza war will not derail Arab-Muslim normalization with Israel. The theory that Palestinian-Israeli peace dictates Israel’s wider acceptance in the Arab and Muslim region no longer holds true. The Palestinian conflict remains significant, but does not preclude Israel’s integration into the Arab-Muslim expanse around it.
The direst prediction of them all — the death of the Abraham Accords after the latest Gaza war — never came close.
On the contrary, a stream of actions involving major Muslim nations, stretching from Kazakhstan to Egypt, and from Sudan to Morocco, immediately after the recent escalation, indicate subtle shifts in the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The biggest one could be the decoupling of the Palestinian-Israel peace process and Israel’s wider regional relations.
The United Arab Emirates has just received the first Israeli foreign minister in Abu Dhabi. Eight Muslim nations and Israel were part of the US-led Sea Breeze military drills in the Black Sea recently. The Muslim nation of Kazakhstan, a member state of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), dedicated a memorial to Jews just days after the recent Gaza war. And that war was still raging when Sudan reaped the fruits of its normalization with Israel (among other positive policies), through international debt-relief commitments in Paris on May 17.
A week later, President Ilham Aliev celebrated “the strong ties” between Azerbaijan and Israel, and proudly declared that Baku has “full access to sophisticated Israeli weaponry.” Egypt sent the first invitation in 13 years to an Israeli foreign minister to visit Cairo.
In March, OIC membership applicant Kosovo became the first Muslim nation to move its embassy to Jerusalem. When Gaza erupted two months later, Kosovo did not reconsider. Nor did the OIC or any member state take significant punitive action against Israel. [The multilateral organization did slap Kosovo on the wrist for that move, though].
There is also Bangladesh — days after the Gaza ceasefire — removing the Israel exclusion from its passport and telling the Palestinian ambassador: “We are a sovereign country; we will decide what to do.” Although the country has no diplomatic ties with Israel, the timing of the gesture is important.
Normalization is here to stay, and Israel is no longer the enemy in many strategic circles across the wider Middle East. Predictions of the Abraham Accords’ demise were premature. Hamas and Iran, and a long list of right-wing parties, leftist nationalists, and populist leaders (like President Erdogan in Turkey and Prime Minister Imran Khan in Pakistan) find few buyers in the region for their anti-normalization pitch.
Perceptions about Israel changed between 2011 and 2020 in regional national security circles. Israel’s reputation in technology, its precision strikes in Syria, the role of its weaponry in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and its alleged covert actions on Iran’s nuclear program have had the combined effect of forcing some policy planners in the region to see a robust Israeli role in collaborative regional security.
In interviews with two security officials in two countries neighboring Iran in January and May last year, they said that they indirectly rely on Israel to counter Iran’s influence, which they believe they cannot do alone. Officials in the region will not say this openly, but journalists have heard variations of this view from government, military, and intelligence officials in background briefings within the past five years.
But a word of caution: Israel should not stretch its luck.
While the dynamics have changed, a repeat of the Gaza conflict, renewed unrest in Jerusalem, and fresh images of Palestinian women and children scuffling with strong-looking, impressively attired Israeli soldiers will strain the luck of Israel’s many good friends in the region, empower hard-liners, and could slow new ties.
But if Israel shows its new friends that it can deftly handle the conflict with the Palestinians, then it can expect help from its new support network in the region to pressure Palestinian leaders to enact necessary reforms, focus on opportunities for young Palestinians, and shun violence. The idea that Arabs should nudge Palestinians toward moderation is another brewing trend in moderate Arab countries that has the potential to change the Arab approach toward the Palestinian issue, depending again on how Israel plays its cards.
Ahmed Quraishi a journalist who covers national security issues in the MENA region. Twitter @_AhmedQuraishi