Normalizations Must Be Nurtured and Act as a Model for Other Nations

{Previously published in The Israel Gulf Report}

During a visit to Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Dubai two years ago, it became clear to me that the people and leadership of the Gulf States were not only amenable but anxious to develop relations with Israel, harboring no deep resentments. My group included two Israelis with dual citizenship, and when it was revealed they were Israelis, only cordial relations followed. But normalization still seemed a bridge too far to cross in the immediate future.

The magnitude and potential of the new ground-breaking normalization agreements with Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, and Sudan, should not be taken for granted. Success is not inevitable, as all parties must take extreme care to nurture, maintain, and grow these relationships for regional stability, where predatory nations like Iran will be on the look-out for cracks in relationships to undo this process.

Critics have disparaged normalization as only transactional relationships, not based on interests that are long-lasting. What they fail to see is that almost all international diplomatic relationships are created and sustained not by the goodness of nation-states but with the expectation of mutual benefit to advance both nations’ interests. One exception was the American recognition of Israel in 1948, an almost entirely valued-based diplomatic recognition by President Truman, where his American State department made a strong case to throw Israel under the bus for Arab oil. 

Today’s new normalization agreements are essential for all of the parties’ economic interests and security benefits. First world economies like Dubai and Israel can quickly take advantage of each other’s expertise and access to the world. At the other end of the spectrum, Sudan got off the American terror watch list by recognizing Israel and would be smart to let Israel help advance its third world economy.

Muslim majority nations that don’t prioritize Islamism realize that Israel is a necessary addition not only for economic and security interests but also because it will help advance their relations with America, still the only democratic superpower in the world. Despite its Islamism, even Turkey has maintained strong economic ties with Israel, although Turkish President Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman Islamism and hegemonic goals outweigh the return to a normal relationship.

Today’s new normalization agreements are essential for all of the parties’ economic interests and security benefits. 

Once the taboo of making peace with Israel is not held hostage to Palestinian intransigence, other Muslim nations will follow. However, for normalizations to be long-lasting, they must include the people-to-people interactions that are now occurring with Bahrain and the UAE. It cannot just be the military-to-military or leadership-to-leadership relationships that define the cold peace between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. 

The new normalization agreements should prompt the Egyptians and Jordanians not just to use Israel for their intelligence and security interests but to put their toe in the water to begin to end the endemic anti-Jewish rhetoric that permeates their government-controlled media, schools, and mosques. It will lead to a more sustainable relationship for their self-interests, based on human interactions between ordinary citizens to break down the barriers of hate. 

Turning Egyptian and Jordanian normalization with the Jewish state warm after years of demonization and scapegoating will require overcoming difficult obstacles and the need for American leadership. They must come to see that the coldness of the current “cold peace” is against their long-term survival. With the rise of political Islamism from Iran, Turkey, and Qatar, and the failing states in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria, moderate Muslim nations need Israel as much as Israel needs them. 

The nurturing of the seedlings of reconciliation and normalization could easily be disrupted from both within and outside their countries. At present, the fear of Iran is the glue that holds together the new relationships between the Gulf states and Israel, as well as the cold peace with Egypt and Jordan. But as with everything in the Middle East, new and unanticipated challenges will emerge that will require the creation of crisis teams to deal with all types of contingencies and threats so that the relationships can be kept on a sound footing. 

America is turning east to confront China, and Muslim nations know that they may be more self-reliant than in the past. Cruise missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and Shiite militias undermining fragile states like Iraq are likely to increase, bringing instability and the possibility of regional war ever closer. That is why the normalization process’ success is necessary for the stability of the moderate Sunni nations. They will need to work in concert with Israel when Iran decides to cross a line that could set the region on fire. 

Iran is in Israel’s backyard in the Golan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Gaza, while the Gulf states know that they are no match for Iran if the American military leaves the region. They will need to develop some publicly expressed security alignment with the most effective military force in Israel as a hazard warning to Iran.

Hopefully, President-elect Biden and his new foreign policy team will value the new diplomatic relationships and not neglect them simply because the Trump administration created them. I America wants to pivot east and minimize its footprint in the Middle East, it will need to nurture the new normalization while working to develop new ones. Putting their efforts into a return to Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution is the wrong path forward for Middle East stability at this time. And yes, transactional relationships are just fine as long as the people to people component is included. 

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House of Representatives, and their foreign policy advisers. He is Senior Editor for Security at The Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post. His work appears in The Hill, RealClearWorld, Defense News, JTA, JNS, Thinc., the Forward, and Israel Hayom, among others.

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