On June 12, an unusual article appeared on the pages of Israel’s popular tabloid, Yediot Aharonot, authored by Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington. In the article, Otaiba described at length the publicly known steps of normalization the UAE has undertaken in recent years, and warned that Israeli annexation of the West Bank “will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with [the] UAE.” Leaders of Arab Gulf regimes now decry the attempt to implement the vision of the Israeli Right, which aims to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. But it is exactly the policies of the Arab Gulf regimes, through their normalization of ties with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, that directly contributed to the rise of the Israeli Right and made this annexation more likely.
Over the past decade, Arab Gulf regimes warmed ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE expanded cooperation with Israel in various fields, including weapons and spyware sales, military training, intelligence sharing, and joint diplomatic efforts concerning mutual interests. In recent years, these regimes took unprecedented steps to normalize relations with Israel, such as allowing overflight rights for Israeli airlines, taking part in military exercises alongside the Israeli Air Force, welcoming top-ranking Israeli officials on their soil, publicly engaging with Israeli officials in conferences, and changing the tone of coverage and discussion of Israel in state media. Otaiba personally cultivated a close relationship with the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, one of the main proponents of annexation.
A new set of priorities
In taking these steps toward normalization, Gulf leaders were driven by a new set of priorities, which meant neglecting the Palestinian cause that has become increasingly marginal not just in Arab, but also international, discourse over the past decade, given the political upheavals in the Middle East, conflicts, grave human rights abuses, and waves of displacement.
This new set of priorities crystalized over the past two decades, as the fears of the Israeli leadership and that of most Gulf states gradually came into alignment. Iran’s increasing influence in the Middle East following the 2003 Iraq War, and even more so after the Arab uprisings starting in late 2010 changed the calculus in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and other capitals. The main threats they identified were Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist regimes (particularly Qatar and Turkey), and the people of the region seeking a role in governing themselves. Israel, similarly to these Gulf regimes, viewed the Arab uprisings with suspicion, fearing their transformation into “Islamist winters.” Israeli officials have consistently expressed skepticism about the Arabs’ ability to establish democracies, and particularly ones that will not be overtaken by Islamists.
While previously Arab states tied normalization to making progress on the Palestinian question, the past decade saw Israel moving away from ending the occupation. Since 2000, Israeli politics, public discourse, and policies have all shifted to the Right: settlement growth ballooned, the blockade of Gaza remains suffocating, and multiple laws intended to weaken civil society, the independence of the media, and the Supreme Court were passed. These changes do not appear to have deterred the Gulf regimes from taking ever bolder steps toward normalization.
Domestic and external factors
This shift in Israeli politics stems from multiple domestic factors. Over the past 20 years, the Israeli Jewish public clearly moved to the Right. This change can be explained by multiple developments: the radicalizing effect of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s following the collapse of the peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); the absence of peace negotiations throughout this period; demographic change with the growth of the ultra-orthodox community and passing away of older Israelis, who tend to be more moderate than younger Israelis; the uninterrupted control of the Israeli Right over the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Communications, which facilitated the injection of right-wing content into both curricula and mainstream media discourse; and the 10-year reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during which he increasingly adopted anti-democratic rhetoric and behavior to remain in power, changing the norms of political behavior in Israel.
But there are also external factors that significantly contributed to the collapse of the Israeli Left and center, and the decision of Gulf regimes to gradually normalize relations with Israel prior to the end of the occupation was a major factor in the process. Normalization dealt a death blow to the ailing Israeli Left. The Second Intifada increased the importance of security concerns over hopes for peace, greatly diminishing the Israeli Left, which is seen as soft on security. Yet polls show that the Israeli public still wants peace, not just security. This was the Israeli Left’s major competitive advantage.
Prior to the normalization, only the Left was able to offer a credible vision for peace, which entailed ending the occupation in return for acceptance and normalization of relations with the Arab world. The steps undertaken by Gulf regimes undermined this argument. The Israeli Right proved that Israelis can have their cake and eat it too — not make concessions to the Palestinians, which are perceived as a source of security threats, and still gain peace. Normalization encourages Israel to maintain its military rule over millions of Palestinians. It can now get what it desires — recognition and acceptance by neighboring countries — without paying anything in return, that is, ending the occupation or even merely engaging in serious negotiations
Unable to offer an alternative to the Israeli Right, the Left’s power shrank further and further with every passing election. The normalization by Arab regimes, coupled with global inattention to the Palestinian cause, the inability of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to gain steam, and the strong support by President Donald Trump for Netanyahu’s right-wing policies all reaffirmed to the Israeli public that the warnings of the Israeli Left about looming international isolation were baseless. The progressive Israeli camp was left with neither a vision nor an effective boogeyman.
The erosion of the Israeli Left was accompanied by the rise of Israel’s far-right and the popularization of the idea of annexation. The concept of annexing parts or all of the West Bank was once a fringe idea in Israeli politics. Only in 2013 did the far-right party Jewish Home begin advocating for it, and only in 2017 did the central committee of Netanyahu’s party, a body made up of hardline members, vote to make annexation of the West Bank the official position of the Likud.
Heated internal debate over annexation
Otaiba’s article appeared in the context of a heated internal debate in Israel concerning the annexation of parts of the West Bank. The annexation debate became part of the mainstream discourse due to Netanyahu’s attempt to court right-wing voters ahead of Israel’s second election in 2019. On Sept. 10, a week before the election, Netanyahu announced that if elected, he would annex the Jordan Valley. He had intended to announce the annexation itself, but was pulled back from the brink by Israel’s real opposition these days, the military establishment and Shin Bet, which warned of grave security repercussions.
What was supposed to be Israel’s political opposition to Netanyahu’s prolonged reign, the Israeli center, did not offer an alternative vision on the Palestinian issue. In the third round of elections, Blue and White, the centrist coalition, also embraced the idea of annexation of the Jordan Valley, but vowed to do so with international (but not Palestinian) agreement. This political opposition fractured after the elections, with almost half of Blue and White Knesset members joining Netanyahu’s government.
Annexation of parts of the West Bank became a real possibility and not merely an election slogan with the rollout of the “Deal of the Century” by the Trump administration on Jan. 28, 2020, in a move perceived as intending to help Netanyahu’s election chances. The plan reduces Palestine to a small proto-state, and appears to have been designed to ensure its rejection by the Palestinians. In such an event, the plan allows for Israel to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank. The ambassadors of three Gulf states to Washington were in attendance when the plan was rolled out, granting it a degree of Arab legitimacy: Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE.
This implicit backing of the “Deal of the Century,” coupled with the muted response of the Gulf regimes to Trump’s decisions to recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, likely encouraged Israel’s leadership to seriously consider the annexation of parts of the West Bank. If those moves did not spark a crisis, Netanyahu had reason to hope the same would hold true when it comes to the annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Arab Gulf regimes are now reaping what they have sown. They made the decision to prioritize countering the Iranian threat, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the people of the region, at the expense of the Palestinians. Their protestation against the annexation plan rings hollow after they spent years normalizing relations with the Israeli government while it entrenched its abusive military rule over the Palestinians. Even Otaiba’s article merely threatened to halt further progress down the path of normalization, not end ties between the countries. If Israel indeed goes through with the annexation of parts of the West Bank, Gulf regimes will only have themselves to blame.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute focusing on the Levant, and a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, a progressive Israeli-Palestinian think-tank. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael.
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