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September 23, 2020 5:48 am

Israel’s March to Normalization: Two Ambassadors See Risks Ahead

avatar by Allan Marks

Opinion

The national flags of Israel and the United Arab Emirates flutter along a highway following the agreement to formalize ties between the two countries, in Netanya, Israel August 17, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Nir Elias.

Israel normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kosovo alters political dynamics in the Middle East, though not entirely as intended.

If the peace dove were to fly roughly 2,000 kilometers from Jerusalem, she would land in either Abu Dhabi or Belgrade in Serbia. That is the same distance as Istanbul to Tehran, Frankfurt to Moscow, or Boston to Miami. With a flurry of new diplomatic announcements, the world feels like a smaller place of late.

In ceremonies at the White House this month, documents were signed that resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and mutual diplomatic recognition between Israel and Kosovo.

As Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and the United States initialed the “Abraham Accords” on September 15, 2020, I interviewed two former ambassadors — one Israeli and one American — to discuss the implications of Israel’s march to normalization.

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Israeli Ambassador Arthur Koll and US Ambassador Cameron Munter, who overlapped as diplomats in Serbia, took opposing positions in 2008 in response to Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia, consistent with their nations’ policies at the time. The United States and most European countries quickly recognized Kosovo. Israel, like other countries (including China, Cyprus, Spain, and Russia) sided with Serbia in opposition to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

On September 4, 2020, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed separate letters with US President Donald Trump committing to limited economic normalization. Tacked on at the end of each letter, an incongruous short paragraph brought Israel into the Balkan dispute. In that clause, Serbia, long a close partner of Israel, committed to moving its embassy to Jerusalem; while Kosovo agreed to mutual diplomatic ties with Israel and to opening an embassy in Jerusalem. Israel is not a party to the letters. Serbia’s president has since stated that formal Israeli recognition of Kosovo could severely damage bilateral relations. Israeli recognition of Kosovo also complicates Israeli-Palestinian relations, insofar as it runs counter to Israel’s stated opposition to unilateral declarations of sovereignty.

In contrast, the accords reached by Israel with the UAE and Bahrain, with US encouragement, constitute significant milestones in broadening the quiet alignment of interests between Israel and the two Gulf states. These are the first normalization treaties Israel has signed with an Arab state since the treaties of 1994 with Jordan and 1979 with Egypt. At a stroke, the new agreements make open economic and intelligence cooperation possible — mainly in opposition to Iran. This transparency comes at the expense of Palestinian nationalism, which for the UAE and Bahrain now takes a back seat to regional security and investment.

Assessing Israel’s normalization with Kosovo, the UAE, and Bahrain, Ambassadors Koll and Munter offered insights about what these steps signify. These are some of the key takeaways from the retired diplomats’ discussion:

The Gulf Arab agreements highlight the limits of US power in the region. Diplomacy is a long, grueling process of ironing out the details. The perception that the United States — withdrawing from Syria and Iraq and giving up on the Palestinians — lacks engagement has made the Gulf states turn to Israel against the twin regional threats of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States, lacking any long-term, coherent strategic plan, is no longer seen as a “broker that can knock heads together,” nor viewed as a neutral arbiter in resolving Middle East conflicts. The US administration shows little patience for the type of sustained diplomacy required to build durable relationships and confidence. Look for closer Israeli cooperation with traditional Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Oman, and (less openly) Saudi Arabia to confront emboldened regional powers like Iran (and its proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon) and Turkey (aligned in support of political Islam with Qatar and Hamas in Gaza).

Domestic politics, not any new diplomatic breakthrough, drove these announcements. It is unclear how the letters signed by Serbia and Kosovo help them, and they awkwardly create complications for Israel. The normalization letters appear to be driven by the US president’s desire to show some foreign policy successes before the November election, with provisions on Israel designed to build electoral support from right-wing Jews and pro-Israel evangelical Christians in the United States. Serbia and Kosovo recommitted to the European Union-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue in a September 7 joint statement with EU High Representative Josep Borrell, stating that “they attach the highest priority to EU integration.” Meanwhile, the EU reminded everyone that Jerusalem embassy pledges outside of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process run counter to EU policy. Politics in mind, Israel’s decision to suspend controversial Jordan Valley annexation efforts created an opportunity for the UAE to invite normalization, highlighted in a June 2020 op-ed by Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the United States, in Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. That gambit allowed Israeli and US leaders to salvage a face-saving diplomatic “win” from a failed “peace” plan.

The Palestinian situation could worsen. Two Gulf Arab states have established diplomatic ties with Israel without any preconditions for the Palestinians, other than Israel agreeing to suspend annexation of disputed territories (which was already on hold). The Palestinian Authority may have a new incentive to seek creative dialogue with Israel. Alternatively, the Palestinians may remain divided and Netanyahu — never showing zeal for the Palestinian peace process — will continue to neglect them. Doing so could reactivate Palestinian resistance to the status quo and further set back resolution of the issues of sovereignty, security, and an equitable peace. Taking that course risks a repeat of 2000, when Israeli trade offices that had opened optimistically in Qatar and Morocco in the 1990s were shuttered in the wake of the Second Intifada, and Israel faced isolation internationally and terrorism at home.

Until Israeli-Palestinian relations are dealt with directly and comprehensively, Israel’s security and international relations remain fragile. These recent international agreements will further the goal of peace only if followed by sustained diplomatic efforts and a shared commitment to building trust on all sides.

Allan Marks is a publishing adjunct at the MirYam Institute. He earned a BA in International Studies from Johns Hopkins University and a JD from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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