Israelis deeply divided on Arab normalisation

The Israeli centre has shown more understanding that normalisation will be tied to progress towards a Palestinian state, whereas the far right opposes any concessions

The Abraham Accords signing ceremony event on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sept. 15, 2020
The Abraham Accords signing ceremony event on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sept. 15, 2020

Israelis deeply divided on Arab normalisation

Polls in Israel rarely show large majorities in support of any programme or political movement, but a few weeks before the UAE took the unprecedented step of normalising ties with Israel, a poll showed a whopping 80% of Israelis supported the idea.

The deal came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was advancing a new bill to annex the occupied West Bank, raising significant tensions. But the dangerous project supported by the Israeli PM was abandoned for the sake of what came to be known as the Abraham Accords.

The poll showed a wide majority supported giving up on the divisive bill if it meant paving the way to normalising ties with Abu Dhabi.

This showed Israelis truly embraced normalisation and highlighted a deeper desire for regional integration. However, the motivations behind the wide support for the Abraham Accords differ from one side of the political spectrum to the other.

Support for the 2020 agreements was unprecedented because Israel had few concessions to make. The annexation debate was largely manufactured by Netanyahu for electoral purposes, to create a wide gap between his right-wing allies and the centre-left camp and consolidate support from the far right.

More broadly, renouncing an unrealised project isn’t the same as making deeper and more lasting concessions—the kind of concessions that will be needed in any future deal.

Divisive issue

The years that followed showed that the real question behind normalisation—namely, what compromises Israel was ready to make for any future deal—remains highly divisive among Israelis.

Sure, the prospect of opening up to the region is one most would support in Israel, but divisions reappeared when this prospect was attached to a “price”— concessions towards the Palestinians.

At no time has this question been more critical than now, after the worst attacks Israel suffered and the massive Israeli response in Gaza.

It is clear that part of the Israeli political spectrum embraced the agreements because it would (in their mind) serve to further bury the Palestinian cause.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands at an overview of the Israeli settlement of Har Homa (background) on February 20, 2020.

Read more: Netanyahu centres reelection bid on burying two-state solution

Chief among them is Israel’s Premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has maintained time and time again that the process of normalisation would never require any revival of the peace process with the Palestinians.

Just a few weeks before the 7 October attacks, the Israeli PM said Palestinians should not have a “veto” over future normalisation.

On several occasions, he has been even clearer, voicing what may be his true belief: that normalisation with the Arab world would decrease the need for any kind of diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Just weeks before the attacks, Netanyahu was willing to make concessions to nab an agreement with Saudi Arabia. The deal—reportedly being brokered by the Biden administration at the time—even included a de facto US stamp of approval and material support for a Saudi nuclear programme.

This idea raised eyebrows among part of the Israeli security apparatus, which is wary of the risk of further nuclear proliferation in the region—even in friendly states.

Yet, Netanyahu was willing to consider and approve such a deal. But when it came to possible concessions to Palestinians, the Israel PM said no.

Of course, this is partly to pander to his far-right allies, Ben Gvir and Smotrich. Israel’s far-right duo has categorically rejected any effort to improve the lives of Palestinians or to strengthen the Palestinian Authority—the only Palestinian counter-weight to Hamas.

The least enthusiastic

The far right in Israel is the political faction least enthusiastic about the idea of normalisation. Smotrich himself was a major supporter of efforts to annex the occupied West Bank, which were thwarted through the Abraham Accords.

As the buzz around a possible deal with Saudi Arabia grew louder last September, Ben Gvir threatened to leave the Netanyahu-led coalition.

“If there will be concessions for the Palestinians”, Ben Gvir warned, “we will not remain in the government”.

Smotrich was more subtle, saying he would agree to a formula of “peace for peace”, i.e. Israel making peace with Saudi Arabia in exchange for Saudi Arabia making peace with Israel (though the two are not formally at war).

In Netanyahu's mind, the Abraham Accords proved that Arab states would eventually have to accept Israel's existence.

The implicit idea behind this "peace for peace" formula is that a deal to normalise ties should be enough by itself and not require the 'other' peace—the one with the Palestinians.

But blaming Netanyahu's far-right allies for his unwillingness to budge on the Palestinians gives Netanyahu a pass he does not deserve.

Netanyahu's opposition is more profound, going back to the very core of his ideology, itself the brainchild of one of the leading founders of the Israeli right-wing, Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

In one of his key essays, Jabotinsky (whose secretary was none other than Netanyahu's father) theorised that Arabs would only come to the table of negotiation and accept Israel's existence if Israel deployed an "Iron Wall" and never relent.

In Netanyahu's mind, the Abraham Accords were the materialisation of this prophecy (as he interpreted it)—namely that if Israel stood firm, countries in the region would eventually have to accept its existence.

This explains why, even after 7 October and amidst clear signs that Saudi Arabia (and the US) would request a significant step towards peace, Netanyahu has remained unwilling to entertain such ideas.

Not simply because he is beholden to his far-right allies but because this would go against the very reason behind his support for normalisation.

More concretely, if Netanyahu's objection was simply tied to those of his coalition partners, he could have tried to change his coalition.

At the time (before 7 October), officials belonging to the main opposition party led by Yair Lapid said his party would likely support a deal (understand one that gave concessions to the Palestinians) if presented to the Knesset.

(L-R)Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan after signing the Abraham Accords on 15 September 2020.

This would have put Netanyahu in a bind, to be sure, as Lapid had no intention of entering the government to replace Netanyahu's far-right ally.

But the historic nature of an agreement with Saudi Arabia could have justified this leap into the unknown if we were talking about any other politician in Israel rather than Netanyahu.

This also showed that there are, in Israel, parties like Lapid's who understand and are willing to tie the Arab-Israeli conflict (and its resolution through normalisation) to progress on the Palestinian file.

The more flexible 

The Israeli centre has shown more flexibility and an understanding that normalisation will be tied to progress towards peace and a Palestinian state.

Yet perhaps the main issue is that the Israeli public isn't aware of how tied the two questions are nowadays. The Abraham Accords did remove the threat of annexation, but few Israelis remember it as such.

Years of Netanyahu-led claims that the normalisation process was unrelated to the conflict with the Palestinians have also left a lasting impression that won't be so easily offset.

The Israeli public is often overlooked in this debate, but a critical point will be whether Israelis themselves will accept the need to compromise and find a path back to the peace process, in part to advance better ties with the region.

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