Israel’s New Diplomatic Moment

Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2020

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory in Monday’s Israeli election, the third since April, following two inconclusive results. Although Mr. Netanyahu may be frustrated in his attempt to form a government, his Likud Party won 36 seats, a strong showing. During the campaign, Likud candidates stressed their support for President Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, unveiled in January. The plan won’t bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but it may expose deeper processes of change under way in the Middle East. It could even advance those changes—and Israel stands to benefit.

Both the Palestinian cause and the broader Arab political bloc that long championed it are in disarray. The Palestinians are divided geographically, each group locked in with divergent interests and strategies.

Gaza has been ruled as an Islamist enclave by Hamas for 13 years. The movement’s first generation of leaders is now retiring; Khaled Mashal stepped down in 2017 and is set to spend his golden years in his villa in Doha, Qatar. The upshot is that Hamas-controlled Gaza is no longer a provisional entity. Hamas maintains its rule as an example of uncompromising Islamist resistance to Israel, trimmed where necessary according to the needs of Egypt and Qatar, who respectively control access to and financing of the Hamas enclave.

Palestinians in the West Bank live mainly under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority, which is run by an unpopular but immovable elite. President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t held an election since 2005, and security is handled between his Jordan-trained police force and the Israel Defense Forces. Mr. Abbas pursues a strategy of denouncing Israeli policy in all available forums while quietly cooperating with the security structures that keep Hamas and other Islamists at bay.

Jerusalem’s Palestinians remain in a kind of limbo.  Israel continues to place barriers before their acquisition of full citizenship, and large discrepancies exist in allocation of municipal funds.  Still, something is stirring from below. The number of Jerusalem Palestinians electing to educate their children in schools offering the Israeli matriculation exam is tripling each year.   Hebrew language courses are flourishing. Given the choice between attachment to a stable, first world entity and absorption into the corrupt, dysfunctional PA, Jerusalem’s Palestinians appear to be voting with their feet.

This trend is yet more clear with regard to the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. The furious reaction by the residents of the ‘Triangle’ area to the Trump Plan’s suggestion that a future Palestinian state might include their region encapsulates it.

There remain potential unifying factors.  Religious issues, and perceptions of a threat to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem are common to all these populations. The high turnout of Arab Israeli voters in the elections, and the impressive showing of the Arab Joint List may be partly connected to concerns regarding the Trump Plan.

But the pattern of compartmentalization, and clearly different perceptions of interest among the compartments, is unmistakable.

This decline is reflected in broader trends. The Palestinian cause was the great standard of Arab nationalism. Until not so long ago, a ‘rejection front’ of Arab nationalist police states remained to uphold this banner.  Among these, Saddam’s Iraq is now a distant memory.  Bashar Assad presides over rubble in Syria. Gaddhafi’s Libya is broken up.  Egypt is today a strategic partner of Israel.

The eclipse of the power edifice and many of the assumptions that stood behind the Palestinian cause, meanwhile, is raising new possibilities.

The Arab League in Cairo predictably rejected the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan.  The responses of individual member states, specifically in the Gulf,  were rather more nuanced.

Emirati ambassador to the US Yusuf Otaiba tweeted after the plan’s release that it was  ‘a serious initiative that addresses many issues raised over the years,’ and is ‘an important starting point.’  Otaiba, along with the ambassadors of Bahrain and Oman, attended Trump’s unveiling of the plan.  UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin-Zayed, meanwhile, on December 19 retweeted an article in the Spectator magazine about an emergent alliance between Israel and the Gulf states.

These Gulf monarchies have clear practical interests in closer relations with Israel, centering on shared concerns regarding Iran and Sunni political Islam.

The need to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause constitutes a barrier to closer relations.  But a stance which encourages the Palestinians to ‘work with’ the Trump plan, while criticizing some parts of it, could offer the narrow passage needed for Gulf states to simultaneously continue moving toward Israel while denying that they have betrayed their fraternal obligations.

The possibility being discussed is not that of formal diplomatic relations. Rather, the talk behind the scenes is of ‘non-belligerency’ agreements, open economic and business ties, overflights, visits of trade delegations.

Supporters of maximalist Palestinian goals may yet take heart in the presence of new friends.  Iran and Turkey, in their different ways, are continuing the fight. Iran supplies the missiles and rockets that enable its clients in south Lebanon and Gaza to be more than merely an irritant to Israel.   Turkey domiciles active Hamas structures on its own soil.  It is also engaged in a ‘soft war’ in Jerusalem, investing in property, NGOs and projects intended to reverse the process of normalization.

But the taking up by these rising non-Arab states of the  Arab world’s traditional banner only confirms the changes that have taken place.  The old Arab order is gone.  Trump’s plan may yet usher its departure into the daylight. And a newly re-elected Netanyahu will be hoping to reap the resulting diplomatic fruits.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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