What is behind the sudden rush by four Arab states to normalise relations with Israel after decades of animosity, and what do countries like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan hope to achieve from embracing the Zionist state? Indeed, what are Israel’s immediate and long-term objectives in seeking ties with such countries? After all, they are not bordering it nor have they ever engaged in any military confrontation with it as a colonial outpost?
Recent history provides some answers.
When the late Anwar Sadat visited Israel in 1977, breaking the League of Arab States’ resolution adopted after the 1967 Khartoum Summit, famously known as the “Three No’s”: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel”, he wanted to liberate Egyptian land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel, then, an outcast by all Arab countries, was facing difficult times in having normal diplomatic relations with many other countries, including most African and Latin American states. Arab solidarity succeeded, diplomatically, in isolating the Zionists, exposing them as the oppressor of the Palestinian people and occupier of Arab land in Palestine and beyond.
Israel’s main objective, then, was to break through this isolation and reach out to as many countries as possible and the best way to do that was through having relations with any Arab country, let alone Egypt—the biggest and strongest Arab country that fought four wars against the Zionist state.
Having peace with Egypt meant eliminating any new war with it. The Israeli policy makers knew, too, that the rest of the Arab world, minus Egypt, would be too weak to threaten it in the long term as long as it was bankrolled by the United States.
However, the peace between Cairo and Tel Aviv remained “cold peace” and still is, even today. It failed to make headway to become a grassroots issue, openly discussed, let alone embraced, by the Egyptians. A tiny minority of Egypt’s over 100 million people welcome the recognition of Israel, simply because their solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and four wars against Israel remain sources of pride for every one of them, including the younger generation born after the last war of 1973.
A good example of this public rejection of Israel is the case of Mohamed Ramadan, an actor and rapper, and how he was scorned and condemned for appearing with an Israeli singer in a picture shared on social media. This happened in 2020, 41 years after the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, first signed at Camp David. Egyptian elites and ordinary people were outraged and called for Ramadan to be sanctioned—an indication of the deep resentment Egyptians have towards Israel. Indeed, Egypt today has more economic and trade links to Israel but that is government business, having little impact on the minds of ordinary Egyptians.
In a 2019-2020 survey, 85 per cent of Egyptians said they oppose any diplomatic relations with Israel which explains why Ramadan was met with contempt and anger because of that picture. To the overwhelming majority of Arabs in Egypt and beyond, Israel is still the threatening enemy and should be boycotted by Arab states.
This public rejection is directly connected to the Palestinian people’s suffering at the hands of apartheid Israel. Israel, on the other hand, continues to commit every imaginable atrocity against the Palestinians making any already remote chance of the Arab public accepting it, even more remote.
This is one main reason why Zionist Israel is seeking a different kind of peace with other Arab countries like UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Israel’s objective, now, is not peace as opposed to war as it was when it signed the Peace Treaty with Egypt. Its behaviour over the last two decades says it does not want peace in this sense.
Instead, Israel is seeking to hollow out the historical narrative of the entire conflict in Palestine and gradually replacing it with its own narrative that says Palestine is, indeed, the promised land of the Jewish people and Palestinians never existed as a nation. This is based on the long-held Zionist belief that Palestine was, indeed, a land without people for people (the Jewish Diaspora) without land. For this to hold, it must remain a pure Jewish state and continuously expanding—not necessarily by occupying more Arab lands but by gaining foothold in their minds through twisting history. For Israel peace, now, means normalisation at any cost at the expense of the Palestinians.
Because it is nearly impossible to sell such an idea among the Arabs, this new narrative has to find the right place where the emotional, religious, historical and social connections to Palestine are weakest. Countries like the UAE and Bahrain, both of which have never fought a war with Israel and both are far away from Palestine are only perfect starting grounds.
If the Israeli wars back in the 1960s and 1970s were about military superiority, war now is about rewriting history itself and winning Arab minds through fallacy.
The best way to do this is through private initiatives that seek to link businesses in Israel with the Arab world—particularly the UAE and Bahrain. This, in part, explains how quickly many UAE business and millionaires, encouraged by their government, are making their “pilgrimage” to Israel as the promised land of business. After all profit, without any strings attached, is what many businesses seek.
There are also two other factors at play here: one, the idea that Iran, not Israel, is the new enemy. This makes Israel a natural ally to countries like the UAE and Bahrain which are unable to protect themselves, given their proximity to Iran. And, two, the idea, supported by Saudi Arabia and manufactured by the United States, that says the Shia threat coming from Shia majority Iran is a more serious threat against which allies should line up, based on their shared enemy; i.e., Iran.
This, in fact, is part of the United States and Israeli regional policy most of which has nothing to do with Wahabi Saudi Arabia or Sunni UAE and Bahrain. Indeed Iran’s policy is not always friendly, but this is normal in international politics and not necessarily religiously driven. However, history has shown that Iran, unlike Israel, is not the constant threat to its neighbours.
Israel’s new Arab friends believe they are getting more favours from Washington by embracing the Israeli occupier. This explains why Sudan and Morocco are normalising ties with Israel—in fact, the former US President, Donald Trump, made normalisation with Israel a condition for rapprochement between Washington-Khartoum.
Faced with huge public rejection, none of the new “normalisers” will ever seeking their peoples’ approval of ties with Israel through a referendum, for example.
This is only reinforcing the fact that the majority of Arabs in every single country will never accept any peace with apartheid Israel, unless their Palestinian brothers enjoy their rights.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.