To many, Israel’s recent peace deals with other nations may come as surprise, given that these are mainly nations that had previously pledged not to recognise Israel. In reality, these moves should have been expected, and it is likely that other nations will follow. But what caused this inundation of nations to recognise this previous regional pariah on the world stage? Arab-Israeli normalisation, in hindsight, appears to be almost inevitable as the normalisation of relations seems to officiate changes that were already occurring in the Middle East; namely, a shift away from a focus on Palestine and towards Iran, which has surely become a common enemy over which many of the Gulf nations can unite.
Israel has established diplomatic relations with four Arab nations in 2020: Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan. Each country had different motivations behind such a decision. For Bahrain, normalising relations with Israel is more about weakening Iranian influence than about strengthening Israel. Bahrain has previously accused Iran of trying to involve themselves in their internal affairs and trying to push members of the Shi’a population to overthrow the Sunni government. Bahrain’s recognition of Israel formalises the creation of an anti-Iranian coalition within the Middle East. Iranian expansion is perceived to be the greatest threat to all of these nations due, in large part, to the religious schism between Sunni and Shi’a that exists in the region. Iran appears to be winning this territorial battle, thus removing Israel from its position as the key regional threat. Furthermore, Israeli interests are so closely aligned with those of other Gulf nations that refusing to recognise Israel not only no longer makes sense, but also seems to have become a mere formality. The peace deals between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel represent a mere continuation of a barely concealed positive relationship, allowing them to codify what was already in practice and allowing the nations to trade and convene more openly.
Morocco, on the other hand, is influenced by American incentives; namely, the US’s decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty in the highly disputed western Sahara. For context, Morocco had previously fought a 15-year war against the Polisario Front (a regional independence movement). This ended in 1991 with a UN brokered truce, leaving the region on the UN’s decolonisation list of non-self-governing territories, much to Morocco’s chagrin. As such, America’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the region is huge news for the nation as it legitimises their claim, counteracting the lack of support on this matter from the UN. Additionally, the timing of this recognition (December 2020) is particularly important because—while peace was officially brokered almost three decades ago—Morocco actively broke this truce by sending troops into no man’s land in November, an action that many fear will reignite violence in the region. As such, American support may allow the Moroccans to win a potential war before it has even begun.
Sudan is similarly influenced by its own unique considerations, particularly as it is facing increasingly hard times economically and politically, which may be alleviated by recognising Israel. Sudan’s struggling economy, with its rapidly growing inflation alongside its plummeting currency, comes as a result of great political upheaval, and has only been aggravated by the coronavirus’s impact on the nation. The US has offered Sudan billions of dollars in financial aid, and has promised to remove the nation from the US list of countries accused of promoting terrorism in exchange for Sudan’s recognition of Israel. For Sudan, these terms represent a possible lifeline for the struggling nation, one which they are more than willing to take in exchange for recognising Israel, who is of far less a threat to them than the threat of economic collapse. While Sudanese officials are desperate to emphasise how their decision to recognise Israel has nothing to do with their removal from the US terrorism list, this appears to be unlikely, as being on the list has previously blocked them from foreign financial aid and debt relief. It should be noted that a condition for being removed from the list is the payment of 335 million USD as compensation for Sudan’s alleged role in bombing US embassies in Africa in 1998, which indicates that this action had other dimensions not regarding the Israel question. However, considering both the timing and the positive financial implications for Sudan of being removed, it is more likely that this decision was made by the US to pressure Sudan into agreeing to ties with Israel.
While any nation in the Arab world establishing official diplomatic relations with Israel is big news, Sudan doing so is a particularly symbolic gesture. Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, is where Arab powers had previously met in 1967 to formally establish their anti-Israel policy: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. As such, the support of the Sudanese is a major win for Netanyahu, as it signifies a rolling back of all these policies as, in his own words, Netanyahu called this the beginning of “a new era”. Netanyahu’s claim is somewhat of an oversimplification of the situation, implying that Sudan’s decision is more about accepting Israel, rather than the desperate attempt of a fragile transitional government to survive incredible economic and social hardship.
Yet, to say that this isn’t the beginning of a new era would be unfair. What all these examples of diplomatic recognition reflect is an era wherein Israel’s success in the Israeli-Palestine conflict is treated as a foregone conclusion. While many of these nations express their continued support for Palestine, with the Moroccan king stating that their recognition of Israel does ‘not in any manner affect Morocco’s ongoing and sustained commitment to the just Palestine cause’ being just one example, this appears to be a purely symbolic gesture. It is meant to appease popular opinion, which, for the most part, the writer believes is in favour of the Palestinian people. The fact that these nations claim to support Palestine after officially recognising Israel renders their claims empty, as these deals seem to act to weaken the Palestinian position and leave them more vulnerable than before.
These nations recognise that public favour still firmly remains with the Palestinians, with many past protests in Sudan against Israeli military activity likely foreshadowing more protests over this new development. But this should not come as a shock; the entire movement of Arab nations diplomatically recognising Israel is an almost entirely top-down call, with the diplomatic interests and motivations of each respective nation taking precedence over the interests of their citizens. This is certainly the case for Bahrain, a nation run by a Sunni monarchy controlling a majority Shi’a population who, for the most part, wield very little political influence. In this case the move to support Israel and, in so doing, form an anti-Iranian coalition, can be interpreted as an active attempt to prevent Iranian influence from encouraging the Shi’a population to take any form of political control.
America’s role in the normalising of relations with Israel appears to largely be a desperate, last ditch attempt by the Trump administration to garner support with pro-Israel, evangelical voters. With so much political, social and economic upheaval occuring domestically throughout Trump’s presidency (particularly during 2020), the Trump administration sought to remind their citizens of America’s strength abroad. Not only were most of these peace agreements made in the run-up to the US election, but Trump himself used them as an opportunity to emphasise his strength compared to his political rival, Joe Biden, asking Netanyahu: ‘do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal?’ Perhaps Netanyahu’s response – ‘uh… one thing I can tell you is, we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America’ highlights how every country has their own independent and unique motivations in this matter, and will act in whichever way will secure those aims.
Ultimately, these Arab nations appear to be vocally pro-Palestine while implementing pro-Israeli policy in an attempt to appease their respective populations, and at the same time, also meeting their national political wants and needs. Whether such a tactic will be effective, only time will tell.