The meeting in Saudi Arabia between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is the most important and dangerous step so far along the path of Arab normalisation with the occupation state. Although it did not coincide with a public or an official agreement, or even announcement, as happened with the UAE and Bahrain deals, it remains the most significant of all normalisation moves.
Saudi Arabia is the most important and wealthiest Arab country, and it controls many Arab policies. It also dominates the Arab League in partnership with Egypt, as well as a number of international forums that represent the Islamic world. The Kingdom takes the lead in speaking in the name of Sunni Muslims because of the historical role it plays in its custodianship of the Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah. It has the largest oil reserves in the world, and is the largest consumer market in the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with Bin Salman in the presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, confirmed that Riyadh has entered the normalisation game. Moreover, it suggests that the wave of Gulf normalisation was not simply an attempt to give US President Donald Trump’s election campaign a foreign policy boost, as many believed.
Trump probably wants to provide the largest possible number of gifts to Israel at the expense of the Arabs before he leaves the White House. This is why in only four years he has taken 14 decisions in support of the occupation against the Palestinians, and he now wants to race against time by opening direct normalisation talks with the largest possible number of Arab countries.
There are some important questions that need to be asked about this. What, for example, does each side want from the other, and why are the Israelis and the Gulf countries flocking to establish official and public relations?
In the Gulf, the motive for normalisation has become clear. The regimes want to obtain Israeli protection against all potential threats, including any that Iran might pose, as well as popular revolutions such as the Arab Spring. This protection is what Trump has talked about publicly, which the US will not continue to provide free of charge. The Gulf has started to pay for it, and normalisation with the colonial-occupation state is only part of the bill.More important questions may be about what Israel wants from the Gulf States and what its interests are. This should be considered carefully and thoroughly.
On the political level, through normalisation with the Gulf States, Israel is stripping the Palestinians of their traditional and historical support, as the latter have been important backers of the Palestinians, politically and financially, for many decades, on the official and popular levels. Most of the donations that flowed into Palestinian coffers during the first Intifada (1987-1993) and the second, Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-2005) came from the Gulf. Those funding sources are now drying up. The Palestinian Authority is under pressure across the Arab world to make more concessions to the Israeli occupation.
Israel wants to bypass the Palestinians and Jordanians regarding the issue of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, hence the search for an Arab and Islamic alternative that could adopt custodianship of the holy sites currently held by Jordan and take thus determine their fate. The only viable candidate for this role would be Saudi Arabia, by virtue of its existing custodianship of Makkah and Madinah, and its important and dominant role in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which tries to lead in the representation of Muslims around in the world, with its 57 member states.
Furthermore, Israel wants to benefit from the Gulf markets as they are the largest and most important in the region. Israeli products have been reaching these markets over the past three decades with great difficulty through two channels, Jordan and Egypt. With the new normalisation deals, Israel is guaranteeing its industrial superiority in the long term, thanks to strong regional markets ready to consume its products.
Like the rest of the world, Israel is suffering from a suffocating economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. It wants to overcome this crisis, which experts predict will continue for the next four years. Normalisation with the Gulf countries will open the door to major investment funds, mainly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have three out of the ten largest sovereign funds in the world. These are promised investments that will flow to Tel Aviv.
In conclusion, this wave of Gulf normalisation with the occupation state means widespread gains for Israel and a weakening of the Palestinians and their position, with Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque under particular threat. The normalisers in the Arab world, meanwhile, will only get to keep their government positions protected by the Israelis and the Americans, but nothing else of substance.
Translated from The New Khalij, 24 November 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.