From left to right, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, United Arab Emirates' Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani stand together during the signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords, in which Bahrain and the UAE recognize Israel at the White House in Washington, D.C., on September 15. File Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | License Photo
BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 1 (UPI) -- Arab-Israeli normalization, which accelerated last summer under pressure by former U.S. President Donald Trump, is likely to slow, experts say, after President Joe Biden restored relations with the Palestinians and renewed support for a two-state solution.
In a sudden turn of events starting in August, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco broke years of Arab consensus and signed separate peace agreements with Israel.
In line with the Arab peace initiative drawn up by Saudi Arabia in 2002, normalization of relations with Israel was conditional on ending its occupation of Palestinian territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, in addition to Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights and a small Lebanese border area.
Unlike Egypt and Jordan, which signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively, the four Arab newcomers do not share a border with Israel and never engaged in a war against it. They joined the new normalization process to secure their own interests, encouraged by promises from Washington for diplomatic favors and weapons deals: recognizing Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, supplying the UAE with advanced weapons and removing Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But there was also the fact that Iran has become the "enemy" and poses more threat than Israel because of its nuclear ambitions, creation of Shiite armed militias and expansion in the region.
However, Trump's departure likely puts a brake on the normalization trend.
"Such a process is likely to slow down under the Biden administration, which is not showing the same interest like Trump, who blackmailed some Arab countries to normalize ties with Israel by offering them lots of free gifts," Oraib Rantawi, founder and director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies, told UPI.
No doubt, Rantawi said, Biden will support any new normalization step but will not spend much time and effort to push other Arab states to follow suit. "The process will continue, but not in an accelerated pace and without blackmail."
Officials in the Biden administration have voiced support for normalization deals between Israel and Arab countries but emphasized that they are not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which remains a priority.
During a call last week with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the administration's commitment to the two-state solution as the best way to "ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state."
Osama Hamdan, a senior leader with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in charge of the group's international relations, argued that Trump exerted "real pressure to break" Arab normalization conditions to force the Palestinians to "accept what they have always refused."
"They thought the Palestinian position will collapse...This did not happen," Hamdan told UPI.
With President Joe Biden moving toward re-engaging with the Palestinians, resuming diplomatic ties and restoring U.S. aid that was suspended under Trump, the Palestinians maintained their right for an independent and sovereign state based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, as part of a comprehensive peace with Israel.
Although U.S. pressures have decreased, Hamdan believes Biden will not rescind Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Hamdan said the "most dangerous" aspect of the new normalization process was "to weaken Arab support of Palestinian demands."
"Israel does not want just to normalize political or cultural ties but to go as far as forming a new alliance in the region," he said.
Israeli i24News reported Thursday that Israel is in talks with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE to establish a four-nation defense alliance. Such negotiations were not confirmed officially.
Saudi Arabia, which reportedly has clandestine ties with Israel, appeared in no rush to establish full diplomatic relations, despite pressure from the Trump administration. That will happen as part of a peace deal that will deliver a Palestinian state, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said in December.
Oman seemed unwilling to formalize full-fledged ties with Israel, although it never hid their relations. In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Gulf country to discuss Middle East peace initiatives with late ruler Sultan Qaboos. Late Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres paid separate visits to Muscat in 1994 and 1996.
"Oman, of course, does not want its ties with Israel to result in a sharp deterioration in relations with Iran," Rantawi said. Keen to maintain its neutrality, balanced relations with regional countries and a mediating role between Tehran and Washington, Oman has no "serious interest" in such a normalization move.
Speculation has been high in recent months about whether war-torn Syria is ready to recognize Israel. A Moscow-mediated prisoner swap between the two countries on Feb. 19 that reportedly included Israel buying COVID-19 vaccines from Russia for the Syrian regime raised the possibility again.
"The talk about Israel-Syria normalization is meant to test the waters with [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad in exchange for him staying in power," Michel Nawfal, an expert on Middle East Affairs and former editor in-chief of the Institute for Palestinian Studies, told UPI.
Syria, which is facing numerous challenges amid 10 years of war, has to find ways to deal with its acute economic crisis and secure funds for its reconstruction and return of its refugees.
It was Russia and Iran that saved Assad militarily but they are not able to "rescue him from the socio-economic impasse," Rantawi said. "Assad is well aware of that and to avoid a political settlement that would open the door for concessions and participation of other Syrian parties in power, he could possibly jump into negotiations with Israel."
Would the new normalization deals secure "warm relations" and people-to-people engagement contrary to the "cold peace" with Egypt and Jordan that failed to gain popular support?
To create a new reality in the region, Israel should become a "normal state," change its policies and recognize an independent Palestinian state to achieve "a real reconciliation" with the Arabs in line with their 2002 peace initiative, Nawfal said.
"The new states that normalize ties do not represent all the Arabs and all the Muslims," he said, referring to the growing Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which encourages individuals, nations and organizations to boycott Israel over settlement building and human rights violations and pressure it to comply with international law.
BDS, launched in 2005, is supported by unions, academic associations, churches and grass-roots movements across the world. However, it has been attacked as anti-Semitic by the conservative AJC Jewish group, while the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee aggressively promoted anti-BDS legislation in the United States.
"This is a phenomenon, a deeply rooted legitimate movement, that constitutes a great challenge to Israel, targeting its image in the world and its influence within Western societies," Nawfal said. "The struggle will continue, taking different shapes, as long as Israel remains an occupier and an apartheid regime."