What’s keeping Arab leaders from official thaw with Tel Aviv?

Alwaght – Diplomatic normalization with some Arab states has been a project pursued since the foundation of the Israeli regime in 1948. Over half a century of effort brought Tel Aviv no considerable success amid a desperate need for Tel Aviv to enter a thaw with the Arab world to gain its regional and international legitimacy.

Until now, only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, –mainly because of historical reasons, the 1960s developments, and the Arab Israeli wars– have established official diplomatic ties with the Israeli regime. But the occupying entity remains unrecognized by more than 10 Arab states in the Persian Gulf and generally in West Asia region, a status many argue, is a proof that the decades-long Israeli normalization attempts have failed.

At a regional level, Tel Aviv now lacks legitimacy and at the international level, its occupation and violation have pushed its traditional allies, mainly Europeans, to decline to be as staunch supporters as before.

On the other side, over the past few years, and precisely since the rise to power of King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Saudi Arabia, there have been contradicting news about Riyadh’s campaign of conviction among the fellow Arab states to establish diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.

Over the past two years, news reports emerged about “unofficial” meetings between the two sides’ diplomats. The last report was published in November 2018 by the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli Hebrew-language paper, which said, while giving the news of a meeting between the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a pro-Israel American delegation, that the meeting carried a message of a new chapter of relations between Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Earlier, the Israeli daily wrote, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked Trump administration to shield bin Salman against the pressures on him following the brutal murder of his prominent critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October.

The meeting came after a series of efforts to Normalize ties between the Arab states and Tel Aviv. The delegation visited Saudi Arabia after meeting with Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, the UAE crown prince. A few days earlier, bin Zayed had invited the Israeli Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev to visit Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi. A month after the American delegation visit, the Israeli PM traveled to Oman and met with the Omani leaders who avoided giving the meeting much publicity to reduce the home controversy surrounding it.

Tel Aviv leaders, using some Arab states with a close relationship with the US, try to break a 70-year-old isolation and legitimacy crisis. But the other side of the efforts, the Arab rulers, are walking very cautiously. Despite publicizing the meetings, they have not yet announced establishing official ties with the Israeli regime.

A set of factors keep some parties, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, from making the relations official. Here they are:

Fear of public backlash

Certainly, what so far kept the Arab leaders from announcing a thaw with the Israelis is a fear of Arab public backlash. Despite their pro-Western leaderships, the Arab states have communities potentially revolutionary and anti-Western. This was apparent in Tunisia before and after the revolution. The former dictator Zine El Abedin Ben Ali held the most official and brazen relations with the Israeli regime before the 2010 revolution. After the revolution that ousted Ben Ali, the new government and constitution, under public demands, criminalized through a draft bill any travel or ties to the occupied Palestinian territories, though the bill declined to become law under some Western lobbies and political groups’ pressures. Despite that, the anti-Israeli sentiments remain lofty in the North African nation.

A similar example can be found in post-revolution Egypt. The political analysts suggest that such powerful anti-Israeli sentiments exist in other Arab nations, the Persian Gulf region included.

Fear of home instability and political collapse

In the despotic and highly dependent monarchies of Persian Gulf region, political volatility and even collapse are the most important outcomes of public reaction to a thaw with the Israeli regime. The accumulated political and social dissent need a catalyser as strong as the news of normalization with the Israeli regime to transform into sweeping revolutions too resounding to be controlled by the unpopular governments. The current stability in the Arab countries is largely delicate. With regard to piled-up discontentment, any official stance about normalization with Tel Aviv can bring about high political costs and even unpredicted consequences.

Fear of regional position loss

The key Arab players in the normalization process are afraid that the publicity of a thaw will harm their regional position and their weight in the Muslim world. Since the occupation of Palestine, the Muslim countries with largest passion and support to the Palestinian cause secured the biggest influence among the regional public opinion. This influence supports a tendency by the regional countries to become key players and even secure the role of leadership in the Muslim world. Examples are post-revolution Iran and Erdogan-ruled Turkey. The two made their way to the top by supporting the ideal of freedom of Palestine from the yoke of Israeli occupation. On the opposite side stands Egypt that lost its “mother of Arabs” title and its leadership status suffered severely after it, under President Anwar Sadat, entered a normalization process with the Israeli regime.

Arab division in treating Tel Aviv

On the other side, the Arab states are far from united in fully embracing Tel Aviv or rejecting it. After Netanyahu visit to Oman, some Kuwait lawmakers strongly reacted. Iraq’s parliament called for recognition of the right of a Palestinian state to exist before further normalization moves. Although Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain set up unofficial ties with the Israeli regime, none of them has yet dared to openly announce it, with each waiting for thaw process to be inaugurated by other fellow Arab countries to weigh up the conditions before any move. This polyphony among the Arabs and a will to sacrifice others to assess the public reactions delay publicizing diplomatic relations despite the unofficial contacts. As long as this division towards treating Tel Aviv exists among the Arab rulers, the Israeli-Arab thaw remains hostage to an impasse.