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In recent years, a noticeable shift has taken place between Israel and the Sunni Arab world: the scope of common interests between them has widened, and they have found themselves successfully cooperating on a number of strategically important issues, such as security, energy, and the sharing of natural resources. Although most of these efforts take place behind the scenes, some have happened in the public eye. Only a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for the Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff to give an exclusive interview to Saudi media, as Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot did in November of last year, confirming Israel’s willingness “to exchange information with the moderate Arab nations, including intelligences” and noting that on certain matters, “there is complete agreement between us and Saudi Arabia.”
But to grasp the opportunity that now lies before Israel and the Sunni Arab world, we must first examine their relationship in the broader historical context of Israeli–Arab relations, in the current state of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and in light of the recent political changes within the Middle East as a whole.
Until the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1960s, the Palestinian quest for self-determination was no more than one layer in the broader clash between Israel and the Arab countries. The Sunni Arab world simply refused to accept the establishment of the Jewish state, as exemplified by its marked resistance to the UN’s 1947 plan to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jewish leadership accepted this plan, but the region’s determined opposition confirmed that its interest in preventing the emergence of the Jewish state trumped its commitment to self-determination for the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine.
Even after Israel announced its statehood in 1948 and defeated the Arab countries in its war of independence, it continued to be seen as a foreign and temporary intruder that had to be ousted. The Palestinian issue was the Arab world’s main weapon against Israel. They were careful to demonstrate their commitment to the problem, while maximizing their potential gains from the situation. Besides serving as a means to weaken Israel, advancing the Palestinian cause allowed the Arab regimes to deflect domestic criticism and unrest and to establish a pan-Arab consensus against what they perceived as an external Zionist enemy threatening the Arab umma. This helped to create unity in the Arab world, where the numerous contradictions among its constituent identities (religious, ethnic, tribal, and so forth) prevented them from rallying around any other issue.
The commitment by Arab countries to the Palestinian issue has consistently been most noticeable in matters that served Arab, but not necessarily Palestinian, interests. Take for example the Arab states’ response to the flood of refugees after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, when over 700,000 Palestinians fled the land—some to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but others to the surrounding Sunni Arab countries. The latter were often barred from entry and the opportunity to integrate. Instead, the Arab states insisted that the refugees return to the territory of Israel. Although this policy severely harmed the Palestinians who were kept in refugee camps, often in difficult conditions, it served a double interest for the Arab countries: if the “return” were implemented, the Zionist project would be demographically destroyed, but until then, and for as long as the refugees remained in Arab territory, the countries housing the camps received economic aid and compensation.
Evidence of this agenda is seen in the changing role assumed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians in the Near East (UNRWA), whose original mandate was to provide temporary assistance, until the end of 1950, for refugees to rebuild their lives elsewhere in the Middle East. Under pressure from the Arab states, which refused to settle the refugees in their territories while demanding more assistance to maintain them, UNRWA became a huge bureaucratic welfare mechanism that perpetuated the problem it was set up to solve. Even today, the humanitarian plight of the descendants of the refugees (who do not meet the original UN definition of a refugee) is maintained for political reasons.
Another example of the double standard is the Arab countries’ mistreatment of Palestinians within their own borders. Considered a secondary class, Palestinians face obstacles in obtaining work permits, are often barred from acquiring citizenship, and encounter routine discrimination. In recent years, there has been strong criticism of the fact that the Arab world has ignored the rights of the Palestinian masses within their own countries, and is careful to deal only with matters that can be used to condemn Israel.
The Arab nations have also used the Palestinian issue to deflect responsibility for resolving the conflict. Egypt, for example, was the first to officially recognize Israel and sign a peace treaty with it in 1979. Cairo demonstrated its commitment and responsibility to the Palestinian issue by insisting that the Camp David Accords, which preceded the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty, should include a reference to future Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. Cairo, however, completely rid itself of any responsibility for Gaza, and did so even when Gaza was still under its control before Israel captured it during the Six-Day War in 1967. Through these actions, Egypt conveyed that its commitment to the Palestinian issue was only valid provided Israel bore the actual burden of resolving it.
Jordan withdrew from any demand for Palestinian representation when in 1988 it surrendered its claim to sovereignty in the West Bank. In the name of recognizing the Palestinian right to wage a struggle for independence, the King announced that he was cutting all administrative and judicial ties with the West Bank (apart from custody of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem). Thus, responsibility for dealing with the issue was placed squarely at Israel’s door, in a way that for the first time defined the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as a bilateral issue. Three years later, at the Madrid peace conference, a final but unsuccessful attempt was made to discuss the Israeli–Palestinian conflict within a multilateral framework, before it gravitated toward bilateral discussions between Israel and the PLO.
In 2002, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, then the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and from 2005 until 2015 the King, began to revisit the idea of a regional framework for peace. His timing, however, was not coincidental. In the months after 9/11, it was revealed that 15 of the 19 terrorists involved in the attacks had been Saudi citizens. Riyadh found itself under American scrutiny and it urgently needed to expunge its image as an “exporter of terror” in order to maintain its strategic alliance with the United States, which was critical to its security. At the same time, the wave of Palestinian terror underway since September 2000 incited demonstrations all over the Arab world, upsetting regional stability and the energy market, which is a foundation of the Saudi economy and regime stability. Promoting peace and calming the region, even if only for the sake of appearances, became a Saudi interest; hence the birth of the Arab Peace Initiative (API).
The initiative was a political proposal to end the Arab–Israeli conflict. It presented Israel with a set of demands: pull back to the pre-Six-Day War lines; withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and Judea and Samaria, including East Jerusalem; find a just and agreed solution to the issue of the refugees; and consent to the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state in the territories from which Israel withdraws (except for the Golan Heights), with its capital in East Jerusalem. If these terms were met, the Arab nations would announce an end to the conflict, sign a comprehensive peace treaty, and for the first time, normalize their relations with Israel for the sake of security, stability, and prosperity for future generations.
The reality, however, was that the dictated demands were highly problematic for Israel, which rejected the initiative. Even if there were some in Israel who welcomed the Arabs’ forthcoming attitude, as reflected in the document, Israel always stressed that it would not accept dictated terms. The Arab countries, for their part, ratified their support for the initiative repeatedly over the years. This both earned them international credit and allowed them to demonstrate their commitment to the Palestinians while keeping their distance from the actual conflict. That is why from the Israeli point of view, the API, although it shows potential, is ultimately a flawed initiative, one that would require a change to its demands for it to be realistically tenable.
The Middle East has undergone a dramatic shift, given the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS), chaos stemming from stateless Libya, and civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, among others. The Arab states, which are a pragmatic lot, can thus no longer claim that the Palestinian issue is the region’s top priority, given the weight of its new challenges.
Saudi Arabia, for example, is busy with its regional power struggle against Iran, fighting a proxy war in Yemen and pushing back against Tehran’s destabilizing nuclear aspirations and quest for regional hegemony. Egypt is embroiled in a harsh and lengthy war against ISIS in the Sinai and is concerned by the organization’s spread within Libya to the area near its border. In Jordan, the ruling Hashemite regime’s primary challenge is to maintain control of the Kingdom by keeping it stable. ISIS, although weakened, retains a presence in the region and has established sleeper cells within Jordan. The Kingdom must also grapple with over one million refugees from Syria who now account for over 15 percent of the country’s population.
The Arab people likewise see the Palestinian issue as a less pressing concern. An annual survey of young people in the Arab world, conducted by ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, revealed that the respondents considered the region’s main threats to be ISIS, as well as high unemployment, partly because the latter contributes to the growth of the former. Another top threat was non-Salafist extremism from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group founded in Egypt but primarily sponsored today by Turkey. Meanwhile, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was rated eighth, down from seventh place in last year’s survey.
Not only are the Arab states less concerned with the Palestinians today, they are also fed up with their inability to resolve their own political infighting. Since 2007, when Fatah and Hamas clashed violently over how to govern the territory, the two political rivals have repeatedly failed to mend their rifts. Their lack of progress, save for the power-sharing agreement that the two signed late last year, has frustrated the countries facilitating the reconciliation attempts, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Even last year’s deal remains in doubt. Many officials within the Sunni Arab states are skeptical about its viability.
Most Arab nations generally regard Hamas as radical and find its positions far too extreme. In the first week of May 2017, just a few days after its release, the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi press responded dismissively to Hamas’ new charter, in which it reaffirmed the militant principles of its organization. In fact, they mocked and sharply criticized the document for its vague and contradictory language, and derided Hamas for its unrealistic refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Fatah, particularly its leader Mahmoud Abbas, is likewise unpopular among the Sunni Arab states, some of which have expressed open and active support for his rivals in the PLO. In 2016, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE tried to promote a reconciliation between Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan, a former Fatah leader whom Abbas had exiled in 2011. This was meant to be the first step toward a comprehensive regional process of reconciling Fatah and Hamas and eventually even reaching a settlement with Israel. But Abbas refused to play along, and increasingly engaged in acts that went against Egypt’s interests and also undermined the relative stability of the Strip (such as reducing Gaza’s electricity supply in mid-2017 in order to pressure Hamas). Since then, the four countries, mainly Egypt, began to publicly support Dahlan over Abbas. Dahlan is now considered by both Egypt and the Hamas leadership as the only figure who can serve as a bridge between them, and he is therefore the favored successor of Abbas.
On top of this growing frustration with the Palestinian leadership, the Arab states (along with other donors) have reduced their financial assistance to the territory. According to data from the Palestinian Treasury Ministry and the2017 Budget, total foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority was about $1.2 billion a year between 2007 and 2012, but that figure dropped to $1 billion in 2013. In 2015, as in 2016, aid amounted to less than $800 million. The Palestinian Authority expects that it received less than $700 million in foreign aid in 2017. As for the Arab world’s contribution to the total amount of foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, that has declined from about 39 percent annually in 2012–2016 to roughly one-quarter in 2017.
To be clear, the Palestinian issue may have fallen lower on the list of priorities, but it still enjoys a special status in the Arab world. It is the only issue that can present at least the appearance of “Arab unity.” In recent years, there have been a number of critical differences among the Arab League’s 22 members. To preserve a common cause, the Palestinian issue occupies a respectable position in all discussions at Arab League meetings.
At the same time that their interest in the Palestinian issue has declined, the Arab states have found their strategic interests increasingly overlapping with Israel’s. The most prominent of these shared opportunities lie in the field of security. Israel currently cooperates closely with Egypt and Jordan, among a few others, to protect against fundamentalist elements such as ISIS. In 2013, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi appealed to the Israeli government, so that he could reinforce his troops in the Sinai to fight ISIS, even though doing so exceeded the demilitarization restrictions enshrined in the military annex of the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty. Another prominent example of the Arab region’s partnership with Israel is in Egypt’s strategic decision to return the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in 2016. These two dots in the Straits of Tiran originally belonged to the Saudis but were transferred to Egypt in 1950. Returning them to the Saudis required Israel’s approval. For many years Israel had opposed such a move, but gave its full support in 2016 after both Egypt and Saudi Arabia committed, under U.S. brokering, to preserve Israel’s free access to the Red Sea through the Straits of Tiran.
More opportunities await in the economic arena. The Sunni states could make great gains in brokering energy deals and trade pacts with Israel, as well as from boosting foreign investment in each other’s countries. In 2016, for example, Israel signed a $10 billion gas deal with Jordan, under which it will ship 1.6 trillion cubic feet of gas over 15 years from one of its gas fields in the Mediterranean. In November 2017 a delegation representing Israel’s Tamar gas field came to Cairo in order to discuss possible gas imports into Egypt.
Another important element that the region must work on jointly is climate change. The desiccation in the Fertile Crescent and across the African continent has led to recurring droughts and growing water shortages. Egypt has been deeply mired in conflicts centered around the distribution of water from the Nile River. It is worth noting that in Syria, the 2011 Arab Spring riots took place amidst water shortages. Israel’s expertise in water management, desert agriculture, and strengthening food security could be of use to all the surrounding countries and contribute to regional stability. For example, given its experience in desalination, Israel is already providing large amounts of water to Jordan, as well as to the Palestinians in Gaza and Judea and Samaria. Under Article 6 of their peace treaty, Israel and Jordan are obliged to cooperate in maintaining and developing water sources. Due to the severe water shortage in the Kingdom, the Israeli government decided in 2014 to increase the amount it provided by 50 percent; a new desalination plant is about to be built north of Aqaba, designed to supply 80–100 million cubic meters of water annually, to be equally divided between Israel and Jordan. Finally, the two nations have also collaborated on a number of agricultural projects.
As a result, in the eyes of the pragmatic Arab world, Israel has gradually transformed itself from a “problem” into a provider of solutions to the region’s many crises. The first signs that the Sunni nations were seriously shifting their view of Israel appeared during the Arab Spring in 2011, when voices began calling for the revitalizing of a regional initiative for normalizing relations with Israel. Soon after, Israel began putting out feelers through secret channels to assess Arab willingness to start a conversation on the subject. Confidence-building measures were proposed, such as Israeli flights over the Gulf states and the opening up of economic relations. In 2013, the then Prime Minister of Qatar, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, announced at a meeting between a special delegation of the Arab League and then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he had refined his position on the return to the lines of June 4, 1967. Instead of dictating that the lines from before the Six-Day War serve as the borders for any future agreement, al-Thani noted that it was possible to include a comparable and mutually agreed “minor swap of the land.”
Over this past year, there has been a brave attempt by the Egyptian delegation to make the Arab Peace Initiative more relevant at the Arab League summit. It proposed that the closing declaration of the summit should state “taking note of the Arab Peace Initiative” instead of “reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative.” This formulation recognizes the limitations of the current initiative and indicates a willingness to move on to a more effective discussion. This proposal was supported by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Secretary General of the Arab League Ahmed Abu el-Gheyt, who said, “The Middle East peace process is stuck” and required “new ideas with which to resolve the crises in the region.” In the end, however, the Palestinian delegation strongly opposed this change in wording. As El-Gheyt described it, the Palestinians were “extremely unyielding.”
Another positive sign appeared about a month later. The Egyptian newspaper, Al-Masri Al-Yawm, published a lengthy debate between its owner, the businessman Salah Diab, and an Egyptian physician named Yahya Nour Al-Din Taraf on whether Israel should join the Arab League, should the Palestinian conflict someday reach a resolution. Then in May 2017 the Wall Street Journal reported that an “unreleased discussion paper shared among several Gulf countries” outlined an offer, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for a route to normalization in which Israel would demonstrate its commitment to resolving the Palestinian conflict by freezing construction in certain areas in the West Bank (outside the settlement blocs) and relaxing trade restrictions within the Gaza Strip. These are just some examples of a new momentum in the Arab world in promoting regional dialogue and possible rapprochement with Israel.
Despite the growing readiness, the overlapping interests, and the many instances of private cooperation, the pragmatic Arab regimes are wary of being seen publicly as overly keen on normalization before the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been resolved. Their citizens would widely and strongly oppose such a move and perceive it as an abandonment and betrayal of their Palestinian brethren. Even Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic relations with Israel and have cooperated quietly but extensively over security and intelligence matters, are careful not to appear too openly conciliatory toward Israel. In this spirit, Jordan’s King Abdullah remarked at the opening of the Arab League summit in March 2017 that there would be no peace or stability in the region without a just and sustainable resolution of the Palestinian issue by way of a two-state solution.
Arab states, which already face numerous internal security and economic threats to their stability, are not eager to anger their citizens by engaging with Israel publically. What’s more, Iran, in its quest for hegemony in the Middle East, would surely use any sign of rapprochement with Israel to further inflame the Palestinian conflict. Iran would likely question the legitimacy of the Sunni regimes, accuse them of abandoning the Palestinians, and charge them with committing heresy against Islam by cooperating with Israel and the United States. The Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, cannot allow themselves to give Iran or Turkey any openings to amass political capital in the region.
That is why any talk of normalization must be predicated on the understanding that while Israel would benefit greatly by making any rapprochement public, the Arab regimes would not, or at least not right away. In fact, they derive much more from keeping cooperation under the table, which means they would require considerable incentives to publicize these relations.
The main obstacle to normalization is public opinion in the Arab world, which “obliges” Arab regimes to put a solution of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute before normalization. This hurdle must be overcome, either by settling the conflict or by persuading the Arab world that it is worth separating the artificial linkage between the two issues.
Because of the complexity of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the sense of an impasse, and above all, the large gaps in understanding between the two sides, it is illusory to believe that the regional momentum between Israel and the Arab states is sufficient to bring an end to the conflict. Moreover, and almost paradoxically, linking normalization to a solution of the conflict only pushes its settlement further away, because it apportions most of the pressure to Israel and removes from the Palestinians (for whom normalization is not an incentive) a sense of responsibility and even encourages them to be more stubborn in their position, assuming that time is on their side. That is why the Palestinians exert so much pressure on the Arab states not to move toward normalization, for fear of losing a significant bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel. So far, conditioning normalization on resolving the conflict has not brought its settlement any closer, and instead has obstructed other moves that would benefit the entire region.
Of course, there should be no illusions that normalization releases Israel from having to deal with the Palestinian issue. It is neither possible nor desirable to avoid it, but positioning it as an inherent obstacle to any rapprochement with the Arab world is not effective and has even, during a critical period such as now, put at risk the interests of the entire pragmatic camp in the Middle East. Therefore, it is important to stop and “recalculate the route,” taking the two issues separately.
Accordingly, the time has come to recognize that treating the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as an obstacle toward normalization is but an artificial construction designed to serve certain strategic interests. But a force of critical mass interest can shatter this illusion. Indeed, the current geopolitical conditions have created a critical mass of new and overlapping interests between Israel and the Arab countries, and there is now a historic opportunity to promote a process of normalization. Such an initiative would be complex, but if it were to be launched wisely and fairly, it would benefit the whole region, including the Palestinians.
Today, normalization with Israel in itself serves authentic interests in the pragmatic Arab world. Leaders of these countries understand this, and it has led to closer ties behind the scenes. However, in order to maximize the security, economic, and cultural benefits for all parties, closer ties must become public. The pragmatic Arab camp will benefit from a loyal ally that can provide significant help in the campaign against regional threats, and add to their international prestige, while Israel will finally gain broad recognition and legitimacy as an integral and constructive part of the Middle East. In addition, establishing closer relations to the Arab states as a whole will strengthen Israel’s bilateral relations with its current peace treaty partners, Egypt and Jordan, and strengthen their status in the Arab world. Finally, the whole of the Middle East will gain from greater regional stability as security improves and the economy grows through increased trade and foreign investment. Economic prosperity is a stabilizing factor in itself, and is therefore another reason for greater cooperation between the pragmatic Arab camp and Israel.
It is clear that rejecting normalization does not bring an end to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict any closer. But gradual rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world could help Israel and the Palestinians to build mutual trust and find an area of common interests that might lead to a renewal of frank, serious, and more effective negotiations. The purpose of closer ties with the Arab world is not to impose a peace treaty “over the heads of the Palestinians,” as such a treaty would be useless. The goal must be to channel national energy and resources to common issues, where the parties involved demonstrate willingness and sincere interest to resolve them in a way that benefits all parties. The dispute with the Palestinians under their current leadership does not meet these criteria. If Israel is currently considering an approach to a regional framework, it is doing so in the wake of the failure of the direct channel with the Palestinians and in view of the severe lack of trust that led to the present impasse. It is possible that future gains from normalization, which will benefit the entire region, including the Palestinians, will improve relations between Israel and the Arab states, and thus make the fruits of peace more tangible. Better ties could act as an incentive to both the Palestinians and Israel to break through the current stalled process and renew serious negotiations to end the conflict in the long run.
Ostensibly, the Palestinian cause is the only issue that allows the Arab world to present a united stance, but this is just a semblance of unity, and as such, its power will significantly decline. Arab countries must consider whether this empty show is still worthwhile, particularly in a period when they can benefit greatly from Israel building on other common denominators around issues such as water treatment, desert agriculture, food security, improved living standards, and so on. Furthermore, if a breakthrough is ultimately achieved in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as a result of closer relations between Israel and the Sunni camp, this would represent a sweeping victory for it over Iran. Such an achievement would also harm Iran’s allies within the radical camp and raise the stature of the pragmatic camp within the international community.
This scenario may seem optimistic but it need not remain a pipe dream. Making it a reality depends on a deep change of awareness around the image of the state of Israel in the eyes of the Arab world, and with respect to the false barrier imposed by the Palestinian dispute in particular. Such a shift requires a leadership with the vision and political courage to make a real effort to change the minds of the broad Arab public toward Israel. The Arab regimes must embark on a long, slow process to end the demonization of Israel and to prepare hearts and minds for closer relations. This can be helped by mutual gestures, such as creating direct telecommunications links, issuing special visas for businessmen or sport delegations, allowing overflight rights, and organizing sporting and cultural events, among others. It should also be helped by gradual and calculated confidence-building measures, and above all, support for the required changes in the education systems. At the same time, Israel, for its part, can promote economic and infrastructure projects for the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria, including construction projects, such as spatial planning for Area C, creating industrial zones, and even building another city.
Although this is a difficult and complex process, it is certainly possible, and its first seeds are already evident. Jordan, for example, has recently changed its textbooks to include maps of Israel. Syrian individuals have publicly expressed gratitude for the medical treatment and humanitarian assistance they received from Israel and Israelis, including through initiatives such as “Just Beyond Our Border,” which aims to assist Syrian refugees fleeing war. Civilian activities such as these are very important in breaking down walls, but ultimately it is not possible to prepare the ground without courageous leadership on all sides.
Arab countries have a growing interest in establishing new relations and areas of cooperation with Israel, and in making existing relations warmer and more open. Of course the Palestinian issue remains a hurdle. If Palestinian leaders are ready to integrate into a regional effort, and agree in good faith to a renewal of negotiations for ending the dispute, Israel will welcome them. But hinging normalization on the resolution of this intractable conflict has not brought the region any closer to a solution; what it has done is to make both the Arab states and Israel hostages to a conflict that has no solution on the horizon. It is therefore time for the pragmatic Arab camp to abandon this formula, which has so far led only to stagnation, and instead to seriously examine steps toward gradual normalization that will help to build the mutual trust that the region so desperately needs.