Economic, trade and cultural normalisation of relations with Israel, let alone political normalisation and security cooperation, has always been criminalised by the Arab states. However, this did not prevent Arab capitals and individuals from sneaking under the radar and establishing relations and communication with the racist, occupation state. This began very early on, even before the establishment of Israel, during the time of the Zionist terror gangs that became the nascent state’s government; it continued in one form or another after the 1948 Nakba.
The Arab boycott of Israel began with the punishment of any party that dealt with Israel, including companies, institutions and individuals. However, its iron fist approach began to lessen and the Arab governments began to shrink their list of those targeted, reducing it to cover Israeli companies and institutions only. This was before the boycott process began a new phase of “dismantlement”, as these governments allowed dealings with Israeli companies with Western partners or were run by a Jewish-Israeli capitalist investing abroad. This finally reached the level of accepting a third party acting as a mediator between the buyer and the seller.
With the launch of the Madrid path to peace in the nineties, specifically after the signing of the Oslo Accords and Wadi Araba Treaty, and before that the Camp David Accords, the boycott process declined, as many Arab states opened Israeli business offices in their capitals which openly hoisted the Israeli flag. They also began mutual visits and security and trade cooperation up until the Second Intifada in 2000, when the doors of these offices were closed, at least officially; the channels of communication and exchange stayed open, though.
Over the past few years, and always in the context of the Arab Spring revolutions and the growth of the Iranian expansion in the area, voices in the Arab region have grown louder in promoting relations with Israel. Such relations were justified by these people at times by claims that Iran is the more dangerous enemy, and at other times by the fact that the Palestinian conflict is just another dispute in the Middle East, and is not the Arabs’ main cause or mother of all causes in the region.
These voices found their justifications in the positions and policies of the Palestinian Authority, claiming that they couldn’t be “more Catholic than the Pope himself” and that they are only accepting what the Palestinian leadership has accepted. They did not distinguish between the shortage of options and enforced behaviour of prisoners and their own entirely optional relationship with Israel, which is motivated mainly by the desire to get closer to Washington and the pro-Israel lobby groups. The latter are, after all, very influential in US foreign policy circles. Courting Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, their rights and the justice of their cause, has become one of the most important credentials submitted by Arab leaders (not only their ambassadors) to the White House.
The intensification of the geopolitical doctrinal conflict in the region coincided with the shedding of the “mask of shame” from many Arab and Muslim faces. Public appearances in the company of Israeli leaders, intellectuals and security officials at international forums and organisations has become commonplace and a source of pride, not embarrassment.
Indeed, meeting with Israeli generals on “their” land has become a matter viewed as far-sightedness and insightfulness on the part of the Arab leaders, not the shameful submission of the defeated to the victorious that it really is. While some were embarrassed by these meetings and visits and denied there being any official nature to them, the news from Israel indicates that some very senior-level visits have taken place.
Thus we have seen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman gloating that we are only seeing the tip of the large iceberg that signifies the relations that Sunni Arab governments have with Israel. I am certain that the hidden conducts and links with Israel are much greater in number and deeper than what we are seeing. What’s more, we are now hearing the self-same pro-normalisation voices starting to condemn any and all boycotts of Israel.
This has coincided with the hoisting of Israeli flags during the Kurdish independence referendum marches and festivals in Iraq, which was met with widespread condemnation — rightly so — by the Arab general public. It was used by Arab regionalists and factionalists to condemn the “second Israel” planned to be established in northern Iraq.
However, we have not heard the same condemnation of the similarly pro-Israel words and actions of Arab governments, nor any objection to the behaviour of Arab political figures who have visited Israel and promoted relations with it, before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein; and before or after the deterioration of the Syrian armed opposition. It is as if normalisation with Israel is a sin only for the Iraqi Kurds and permissible for all Arabs.
The official Arab position on normalisation with Israel is essentially a defeated Arab way of abandoning the peace initiative agreed at the 2002 Beirut summit. It also suggests an official position leaning towards acceptance of Israel’s request to reduce the demands stipulated in the initiative and starting to implement them from Z to A, rather than from A to Z. This path was first proposed on the eve of the Dead Sea summit and is now being implemented in New York via unprecedented meetings with Netanyahu, always in the context of responding to Trump’s initiative based on the idea of the “regional approach” to resolve the Palestinian conflict.
In short, it is not unlikely for anyone willing to turn the Arab peace initiative upside down and read it from the bottom to the top to quietly and move quickly from criminalising normalisation to condemning — and then criminalising — a boycott of Israel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.