Israel Emboldened by Talk of Deepening Relations with Arab Neighbors

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Following the normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain, regional observers have turned their attention to the possibility of a further thawing of relations between Israel and its neighbors, even going so far as to suggest that Saudi Arabia and Lebanon may be getting ready to turn the page. Perhaps emboldened by such talk, some in Israel have gone so far as to declare that the Palestinian question no longer poses an obstacle to Israel’s relations with its neighbors and is therefore not of primary importance anymore. However, looking at recent public-opinion surveys across the region, it appears that Israel’s image and the approval of the normalization deals in the Arab street and social media are quite low. The Palestinian question still ranks as one of the most important obstacles for a deepening of the relationship with the state of Israel.

Published last month by the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Jazirah and subsequently posted by Al Arabiya, Mohammed Al Shaikh’s op-ed was seen by many in the region as tacit approval by the Saudi authorities of the UAE-Bahrain deal with Israel and perhaps as a prelude to rapprochement between the Saudis and the Israeli government: “It is up to us, and not to the governments of the Levant, Iraq, and North Africa, to assess the threats surrounding us and to set our priorities. The problem with the majority of the Levant countries, and all Palestinian factions, is that they insist [on acting] as our custodians and set[ting] our priorities for us. They claim that mullah-ruled Iran and Erdogan’s Turkey do not constitute the threat Israel does. This custodianship is arbitrary, and we reject it altogether…. [W]e, in the Gulf states, deem the comprehensive development of our states as a top priority. Israel is an advanced country with a leading position in all aspects, and we believe if we make way for peaceful cooperation with it, we will benefit from its advancement.”

Reports of a face-to-face meeting between Israeli and Lebanese officials to discuss maritime border issues are also seen as a positive development and a prelude to better relations between the two countries. As Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, argues in a Yedioth Ahronoth op-ed, they “are a clear loss for the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group, which has so far prevented negotiations. Not only because it opposes any direct dialogue with Israel, but also because its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, long ago realized that if he wanted to launch a military campaign against Israel, he would have to argue that it was in defense of Lebanese national interests…. The negotiations set a precedent. Direct talks on one subject could lead to more on other matters too. Neighboring countries, enemies or not, inevitably share common interests. A peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon is a long way off. But any normalization agreement between the two states is a good sign.”

An editorial by The National, authored a few days prior to this week’s Israeli-Lebanese talks, considered the planned meeting groundbreaking. It added that, taken together with Syria’s Bashar Al Assad’s omission of the Palestinian question in a statement on the likelihood of peace with Israel, it is clear that the Palestinian leadership must be willing to seek a compromise with Israel, sooner rather than later: “In recent weeks, there have been feeble signs that this inflexibility is giving way to dialogue, though for mainly pragmatic reasons. In the coming days, a Lebanese delegation is set to meet with Israeli officials for US-mediated talks to define the maritime borders of the two countries, which sit on potentially gas-rich areas. And last week, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad told Russian media that peace with Israel is conditioned on the return of the occupied Golan Heights, without mentioning Palestinian affairs. Palestinians and Israelis long for peace and a dignified life. Their respective leaderships must heed their demands, and ensure that whatever bitterness lies between them, the arc of their shared history bends towards peace.”

Palestinian government officials feel that they have been let down by many of their erstwhile supporters and need to look for additional allies to put pressure on Israel. This explains comments made by the Palestinian Foreign Minister during a Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (part of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly), as reported by the Palestinian website Al Wafa: “Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Riyad al-Maliki said today that the critical situation in occupied Palestine, including East Jerusalem, reflects the serious shortcomings of the international system, whereby the international community only condemns rather than takes action to prevent the Israeli violations of the Palestinian human rights. Speaking via videoconference to the Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, as part of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, al-Maliki… called on the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement ‘to support our call to combat the Israeli practices with positive joint action,’ adding that ‘Israel’s impunity does not threaten Palestine alone, but rather threatens the repercussions of this immunity as well as our international system’.”

Some Palestinians have turned their attention to the US presidential elections suggesting that a Biden victory may give the Palestinian cause a boost. Writing for the Daily Sabah, Palestinian author Najla Shahwan hopes that a Biden administration will at least level to some degree the playing field between the Palestinians and the Israelis: “Palestinian leaders hope Democrat Biden, if elected, will tone down Washington’s pro-Israel policies and Palestinian-Americans have been backing his campaign for a critical change toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…. He pledged to restore diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and push both sides toward a two-state solution, reiterating his opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed West Bank annexation while vowing not to reduce or withhold U.S. military aid to the Jewish state…. Although Democrats have failed previously to turn their rhetoric about a two-state solution into reality, Palestinians hope that Biden can bring about a real change this time and not only preserve the status quo.”

But a future Biden administration may find a much more confident interlocutor in Israel when it comes the Palestinian question. Talk of normalization seems to have emboldened some Israeli observers who now suggest it is time to move beyond negotiations based on the principle of land for peace. Such is the argument put forward by Zalman Shoval who in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post declared such a principle all but dead following the recent developments: “The White House peace-signing ceremony between Israel and United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also underscored the historic fallacy of the Peace Now movement and its basic premise…. Symbolically – and perhaps as an auspicious worrying sign, the rockets fired at southern Israel at the same time as the peace agreements were signed, reminded us that Israel still has enemies – and, that comprehensive peace still depends on Israel’s ability to defend itself by itself and maintain its overall advantage – militarily, technologically and scientifically – over its adversaries. The doctrines of Peace Now were never as irrelevant as they are now. Time has come even for them to move on.”

Similarly, Felice Friedson, president and CEO of The Media Line news agency, also writing for the Jerusalem Post, sees the recent evolution of the Saudi domestic and foreign policies as “setting the Saudi stage for normalization…. Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the West and recent public recognition of Jews in the Middle East did not begin overnight. There have been many contacts between Saudi and American officials and businesses opening people-to-people channels that include interfacing with Jews in the region and beyond…. Normalization requires many steps, and recognizing not only the trial balloons but also the tangible public changes is vital to the kingdom’s re-branding. It will not come overnight and it will not come without mistakes. But nods and winks toward the Jewish state provide reason to believe the stage is being set for tectonic change.”

In the final analysis, however, it is important to remember that while official or semi-official stances toward the state of Israel may be softening, the country still has a major image problem in the region, which may slow down or halt altogether the current thawing. The 2019-20 Arab Opinion Index, a yearly public opinion surveys across the Arab world with respondents in 13 Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania) revealed, among other results, that “22% of the public believe that Israel is the most threatening to the security of their countries…. The largest bloc in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Mauritania believes that Israel is the most threatening to their respective countries. 47% of the respondents in the Mashreq countries said that Israel is the main threat to their countries. While 27% of the Arab Gulf region respondents stated that Iran is the first threat. For threats facing the Arab region, Israel occupied the first place as a threat to the Arab region in the eyes of the respondents from all countries, and from each country separately.”

The Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren reports additional concerning reports regarding the image of Israel in the Arab social media, which according to a report by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry found that when it came to normalization agreements “An overwhelming majority of social media posts in the Arab world… were negative. According to the nine-page report, based on a survey commissioned by the Strategic Affairs Ministry, 81 percent of Arab social media users had ‘negative’ comments about the so-called Abraham Accords, while 8% had ‘very negative’ views. Only 5% viewed them in a positive light…. In response, the ministry has recommended launching an online campaign ‘to change Israel’s perception, with a focus on the Arab world.”

It is clear that even though government officials may be willing to move toward warmer relations with Israel, despite the lack of progress on the Palestinian questions, the majority of the Arab population still see the resolution of the conflict as essential. Citing a recent Zogby poll of over 4,000 individuals from the region, including Palestinians and Israelis, The National’s editorial pointed out “that most Arabs believe the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be solved in the near future”, adding that “eight in 10 of individuals surveyed from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel believe that resolving the conflict is still important.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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