Normalisation ‒ The New Norm in the Middle East

Over the course of a few months the well-established link between supporting the Palestinian cause and opposing normalisation with Israel has been severed. All four of the Arab states that have so far signed up to the Abraham Accords ‒ the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco ‒ have vowed continued support for Palestinian aspirations while pursuing normalisation of relations with Israel.

Once upon a time “normalisation” (“tatbia” in Arabic) was the worst term of abuse available to hardline supporters of the Palestinian cause. It branded any form of joint activity between Palestinians and Israelis a form of treachery. So embedded in Palestinian thinking was it, that normalisation became an indictable offence under Palestinian Authority (PA) legislation. Merely allowing four Israeli neighbours to attend his son’s wedding cost one Palestinian his job in the education ministry and his position as council chief of his West Bank village.

Under the definition promulgated by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, any attempt to normalise relations between Palestinians and Israelis meant undermining the armed struggle. Any action, it said, “that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalise relations,” and so any form of cooperation or dialogue with Israelis had to be viewed as collaboration with the enemy. In short, it was incumbent on all Palestinians to oppose normalisation, implying that all had to support continual conflict.

This world-view explains the violent reaction of PA president Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership to the announcement in August 2020 of the first Abraham Accord ‒ the normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“The Palestinian leadership rejects the actions of the Emirati government,” thundered PA spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh on Palestine TV, “considering it a betrayal of the Palestinian people…” Recalling its UAE ambassador in protest, the PA demanded that the UAE “immediately retract” and, certain that it would receive the backing of Arab states in its condemnation of the UAE’s action, requested an immediate emergency meeting of the Arab League.

The Arab League, however, was in no hurry to discuss the issue. The idea of an emergency session was rejected, and the PA were told to wait for the next scheduled regular meeting of the League which was a month away, in mid-September. When the matter did finally reach the floor, PA foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki opened by demanding a complete rejection of the normalisation deal.

“This meeting must release a decision rejecting this step,” said al-Maliki. “Otherwise, we will be seen as giving it our blessing, or conspiring with it, or attempting to cover it up.”

Given that several Arab states such as Egypt and Bahrain had already indicated their support for the deal, al-Maliki’s suggestion seemed unlikely to succeed. Nor did it, and the meeting rejected the PA resolution.

A month later, when Bahrain joined its Gulf neighbour in its own normalisation deal with Israel, the PA made similar noises. The agreement was “a stab in the back of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people”, said Ahmad Majdalani, the PA’s social affairs minister. This protest, too, failed to arouse the enthusiasm, or the support, of the Arab world. It was becoming obvious, even to hardliners within the PA leadership, that the idea of normalising relations with Israel was sweeping all before it.

PA president Mahmoud Abbas must have realised that normalisation had become the flavour of the month, and that the PA’s violent reaction had achieved nothing. Accordingly he changed tack, and has embarked on an attempt to repair relations with Arab nations and win the goodwill of the Biden administration.

So when Sudan and later Morocco subscribed to the Abraham Accords, the PA offered no reaction at all.  On November 17, 2020 the PA suddenly announced that it was restoring suspended relations with Israel and resuming security coordination on the West Bank. It also resumed accepting the tax revenues which the Israeli government collects on its behalf, although Israel continues to deduct the so-called “Martyr’s Fund” (the “pay to slay” sums the PA passes to the families of activists).  Two days later, the PA returned its ambassadors to the UAE and Bahrain.  The ground had been cut from beneath the BDS movement’s feet.

Meanwhile the normalisation momentum had spread beyond the Arab-Israel arena to relations between Arab states themselves. On January 5, 2021 Gulf leaders signed the Al-Ula Declaration, ending a three year estrangement.

Qatar’s wayward policies, especially its support for Islamist groups, had long infuriated neighbouring Arab states. Back in January 2014 Gulf states suddenly pressured Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking to stop supporting extremist groups, not to interfere in the affairs of other Gulf states, and to cooperate on regional issues. The undertaking was known as the Riyadh agreement.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain clearly took away a very different view of what had been agreed than the Qataris. They believed that Qatar had agreed to remove, or at least reduce, the appearance of Islamists on Al Jazeera and other Qatari media, and especially to eliminate the constant Muslim Brotherhood-based criticism of Egypt’s government and its president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

They soon discovered that Qatar had no intention of meeting their expectations. Their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt took drastic action.  On June 5, 2017, they broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, suspended all land, air and sea traffic, and virtually imposed a trade blockade.

Qatar was under siege for more than three years, sustained by continuous imports of food and other goods from Iran and Turkey, and the export of liquefied natural gas.  It was the Trump regime in its dying days that fostered the move by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to normalise relations with Qatar.

In announcing the reconciliation, Saudi’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman emphasised that it reflected growing concern at the threats posed to the region by Iran. It also reflects a growing realisation in the Middle East that the way to peace and prosperity for the region lies not in perpetual conflict, but in friendship and cooperation between states – in other words, normalisation.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."