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Is Peace Breaking Out in the Middle East- or is it a Mirage?

Actualizado: 23 dic 2020

A veces, se puede establecer una bonita amistad con tan solo unos minutos de sentida conversación. Hace algunos meses, tuve el inmenso gusto de conectarme con Furkan Javaid gracias a ese emocionante mundo de viajeros extremos al que pertenecemos. Compartimos la misma sensibilidad por la historia, las culturas y el futuro de la humanidad. Ambos somos orgullosos miembros de nuestras comunidades y, si bien venimos de mundos distantes y quizás opuestos, es más lo que nos une y nos acerca. Furkan es, como decimos en "mame lashon", un mentsch.

How 14 Arab countries could soon recognise Israel- and what that means for Middle East Peace.

By Furkan Javaid

Earlier this year, I was in the last semester of my master’s degree at SOAS-University of London. SOAS, originally the ‘School of Oriental and African Studies,’ is the destination of choice for those of us passionate about studying Asia, Africa, and the Middle East ‘beyond the headlines.’

Back in February, during a discussion in my ‘Contemporary Politics of the Middle East’ class, the professor suggested that, beyond Egypt and Jordan, no Arab countries would make peace with Israel in the coming years. Israel, in his view, was accelerating the dispossession of Palestinians, the Arab people would not accept this, and thus Arab leaders would be nervous about taking steps towards peace. Did anybody disagree with that, he asked? Nervously, I put my hand up. Why nervously? Well, I knew what I was about to say would not be popular with the professor, and would be unpalatable to many of my classmates. Unfortunately the emotive issue of Israel-Palestine causes people to view things one-dimensionally, whichever side of the conflict they are on. But I felt the need to inject a dose of reality to the debate.

Does Israel exist as a secure home for the world’s Jews after centuries of exile, or is it a settler-colonialist project to reclaim the biblical Kingdom of Israel and Judah?

I answered the professor’s question with two questions of my own. ‘Did Binyamin Netanyahu not meet with Sultan Qaboos of Oman in Muscat in October 2018?’ The professor could not deny this. And so, I continued, ‘Were there riots in the streets following this meeting- whether in Muscat, Baghdad. Damascus or Beirut?’ Clearly there were not. I then articulated my main point- when a face-to-face meeting between Arab and Israeli leaders causes no reaction at all, even amongst the most militant quarters, this sort of meeting becomes unexceptional. It is thus incorrect to say that ‘no Arab country would make peace with Israel for fear of upsetting their citizens.’ My opinion at the time was that those Arab countries with no direct conflict with Israel would soon be recognising the Jewish State, driven by their own priorities and self-interest.

I do not claim to be Nostradamus. I was not predicting anything, simply expressing a viewpoint that is often lost in the emotion surrounding Israel-Palestine. But just a few short months later I was proved right. The United Arab Emirates recognised Israel, followed quickly by Bahrain. Formerly unthinkable, Sudan then followed and just a few short days ago, Morocco.

Why did these countries recognise Israel?

It goes back to the core of my argument back in February. Self-interest. The UAE and Bahrain are extremely nervous of their large and aggressive neighbour across the Gulf. Facilitated by the Trump Administration, with sweeteners such as the sale of F-35 fighter aircraft to the UAE, and never having had a ‘shooting war’ with Israel, it was not a difficult step for them to normalise relations. The geopolitical logic of an anti-Iranian coalition is unassailable. Sudan, with its economy crippled, recognised Israel for US sanctions relief. Morocco, already had low-level relations with Israel, but by normalising relations with Israel, it got US recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara. Along with Egypt and Jordan, so far six sovereign Arab nations now recognise Israel.

The Future Recognition Roadmap

When the UAE normalised relations, I did a quick analysis of which countries were likely to follow. Just considering their political concerns, history and priorities, I concluded that potentially 14 of the 22 Arab League states COULD (not necessarily ‘would’) recognise Israel within 12-15 months- that’s by the end of 2021.

There are dependencies, of course.

The countries most likely to recognise Israel are those that have history with Israel or Jews generally. Mauritania and Tunisia fall into this category. Mauritania previously had diplomatic relations with Israel, suspended in 2009 following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Tunisia has a well-established, visible Jewish community, and for several decades, kippah-wearing European Jews have travelled freely to Tunisia for business, tourism or cultural reasons.

Mauritania and Tunisia would make it 8 Israel-recognising Arab League members.

Qatar and Oman are interesting. As mentioned, the Late Sultan Qaboos hosted Netanyahu, and Oman has historically maintained friendly relations with conflicting parties. For example, it has good relations with Iran, with whom it shares custody of the strategically crucial Strait of Hormuz. Yet it is also home to a significant US military presence, including the Thumrait Airbase. So Oman would be my candidate to be the next to recognise Israel. The only thing stopping them would be the fact that the new Sultan, Haitham, is widely seen as a caretaker and may not have the authority to do so, particularly if it causes friction with Iran.

Qatar may not seem like an obvious candidate to normalise relations with Israel, with its support for Islamist movements, including Hamas. It also proactively ruled out normalisation in reaction to the UAE’s move earlier this year. But it is important to look below the surface. From the Mid-1990s to 2009, Qatar and Israel had low-level relations. Qatar severed these in 2009 for the same reason as Mauritania. Even now, when Israel and Hamas need to talk, they often do so via Qatari channels. Additionally, the outgoing Trump Administration’s efforts to resolve the embargo of Qatar by its neighbours could well include a condition to recognise Israel. Much like Sudan and Morocco, Qatar could get something it wants with American sponsorship in exchange for normalisation with Israel. Qatari self-interest would take priority over maintaining its untenable position on the Palestinian issue.

If Oman and Qatar do recognise Israel, that would be 10 Arab League members.

Four additional countries could join them, depending on Saudi actions.

For those who follow Saudi affairs, it is well known that the Saudis and Israel have been cooperating for several years in their common cause to neutralise Iran’s regional influence. Most evidently, last month reports indicated that Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen secretly flew to Neom, Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS). The meeting was initially confirmed on the Israeli side, denied on the Saudi side, and then denied by both parties. But there is little doubt that the meeting took place.

I point this out because it is clear that Saudi self-interest, as the major Sunni Muslim regional power seeking to neutralise a militant and nuclear armed Shia Muslim Iran, aligns with Israel’s. ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’, they say. In fact, Bahrain’s recognition of Israel can be seen as only taking place with Saudi blessing, to see if there would be any significant backlash.

So surely, given all of this, Saudi Arabia is on board with recognising Israel, right? Well, it is not that simple. If it was up to MBS, it would likely already have happened. However, though he may be the de facto ruler, his father Salman is still King. Salman is the last of the generation of Saudi royals who were young men in 1948 when Israel was created. He, along with his predecessors former kings Abdullah, Fahd, Khalid, Faisal and Saud viewed it as a personal failure that Israel came to exist at all. It would thus be extremely difficult for Salman to allow formal recognition of Israel. It could happen, but I don’t think it will while he is alive. However, he is in his mid-80s.

Whenever Saudi Arabia does formally recognise Israel, a small wave of recognitions could then take place. In addition the Kingdom itself, Comoros, Djibouti and Kuwait will likely follow the Saudi lead. Bringing the total of Arab countries recognising Israel to 14. As an aside, Saudi recognition would likely lead to non-Arab Muslim-majority countries with economic dependency on Saudi Arabia to follow suit. These include Pakistan and Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, which, between them, account for over half a billion of the world’s Muslims.

If things play out in this way, only Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Algeria, Yemen and Libya would not recognise Israel. All are countries which have either had direct conflict with Israel, or have internal issues preventing them from altering their status quo.

The 22nd member of the Arab League is the Palestinian Authority which, in a supreme irony, actually has recognised Israel since 1993!

But Is It a Mirage?

The logic above suggests that Israel may soon be widely recognised by countries with which it was, technically at least, at war. But does ‘recognition’ mean ‘peace?’ Is the whole thing a tenuous arrangement, driven by self-interest today which could disappear tomorrow? Is the it a mirage?

My view is it might be, but it is still not a bad thing. The important thing about recognition is that gives a formal channel for dialogue, and potentially avoiding a real war. Nobody can say that the 41 year old peace between Egypt and Israel is an unqualified success. There has been mutual suspicion, people-to-people contact has been limited, and acceptance of the peace has not been popular amongst significant parts of both populations. Yet it can be seen as a success for the following reason: there has been no armed conflict between Egypt and Israel since 1973! Surely, that is a good thing. A Cold Peace is better than a Hot War.

But whether the more recent rapprochement between Israel and its near neighbours becomes a deeper relationship is actually dependant with how Israel responds to this opportunity.

Even as thousands of Israelis spend the Hanukkah holiday in Dubai, it is notable that recent surveys show 56% of Emarati citizens do not approve of their country’s normalisation of relations. Fair-minded Israelis, and indeed Diaspora Jews, should reflect upon why this is. And beyond that, what can be done about it.

Scholars of the Middle East will tell you that geopolitical considerations may result in peace treaties and mutual recognition, but Arab hearts and minds will not be won until there is a fair solution to the Palestinian issue. I do not propose in this short article to suggest what that solution should be- how can I succeed where seasoned diplomats have failed?

But I do invite readers to consider three questions:

1. Is it in Israel’s interests to rule over several million Palestinians as an occupying power, engaging in the moral compromises that such occupation requires?

2. Does Israel exist as a secure home for the world’s Jews after centuries of exile, or is it a settler-colonialist project to reclaim the biblical Kingdom of Israel and Judah?

3. Based on the two questions above, is it perhaps in Israel’s interests to enable a viable, territorially contiguous Palestinian state rather than a series of disconnected enclaves?

I am neither Arab nor Israeli. I do not have a horse in this race. But I know how I would hope most readers would answer the above questions.

So, I do see an opportunity. If 14 Arab nations recognise Israel, then these diplomatic relationships can be used as a channel to have a meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians on, dare we dream, a permanent, mutually acceptable resolution. Many of the countries that would recognise Israel in the above scenario provide financial support to the Palestinians, and thus have some leverage. They can help broker this dialogue.

The starting point of any peace talks should not be the farcical Trump Plan of 2020 with its patently pro-Israel outlook. You do not gain a lasting peace with an unviable solution. Rather, a more meaningful place to start would be the Camp David 2000 proposals, or even the Olmert Peace Efforts of 2006-2008. The world has shifted since those proposals first proved unsuccessful. They were not acceptable then, but they may be now. Who would have dreamed in 2000 or 2008 that Israel would be widely recognised by Arab countries even without a resolution to the Palestinian issue?

And that is the biggest impact of the wave of recognitions. That, instead of following a bilateral resolution between Palestinians and Israelis, it might in fact help to broker one. These recognitions might be a first step to a bigger prize. But that prize will not be achieved without a fair settlement for the Palestinians.

Opinions expressed are those of the author.


Biography: Furkan Javaid is a historian of the Modern Middle East. His specialist focus is on the Arab Gulf States, and in particular the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has additionally written several papers on pre- and post-revolutonary Iran and on Israel-Palestine. In particular, he wrote a well-received paper on the spatial and ethno-religious geography of the Jerusalem Municipality.

Furkan is British, of Pakistani and Kenyan-Asian heritage. His father’s work outside the U.K. meant he had lived in 7 countries by his 18th birthday He later worked in 5 countries himself. Furkan’s background, along with early exposure to several cultures, uniquely places him to appreciate multiple, often conflicting, viewpoints on geopolitical issues. A practicing Muslim, Furkan is a great proponent of interfaith dialogue and tolerance. He speaks six languages to varying degrees of fluency.

In 1990, Furkan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame, a pre-eminent US Catholic institution. He then pursued a successful 28-year corporate career in public accounting, international banking, shipping, and most significantly, 21 years as a senior executive in the rapidly evolving telecommunications industry. Furkan’s work with industry-leading telecoms multinationals took him from the U.K. to Ghana, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

In 2018, Furkan achieved his aspiration of retiring from the corporate world before his 50th birthday and devoting himself to a deep analytical study of the geo-strategically critical Middle East region. In 2020, Furkan graduated with a Master’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS- University of London, earning a distinction for his dissertation entitled: ‘ARAMCO, America, and the Emergent Saudi State (1933-76): Decolonising the Narrative.’

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