Should Israel sign non-aggression pacts with Arab countries?

December 27, 2019 by Israel Kasnett - JNS.org
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Israel’s relationship with the surrounding Arab countries requires no shortage of diplomatic prowess to maintain good relations.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman. Credit: Benjamin Netanyahu via Twitter.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in 2018 was seen as a major step in moving Israel’s covert relationship with the Persian Gulf states to an overt one. Now, the United States is hoping to help formalize this relationship by convincing Arab states to sign a non-aggression pact with Israel.

U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Victoria Coates met recently with the ambassadors of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Morocco in Washington; she also met with representatives from Israel’s foreign ministry to explore the idea.

Eytan Gilboa, professor and director of the Centre for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, and a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, told JNS that it represents “the first step on the road to a peace agreement.”

“It is one step forward towards recognition of Israel’s right to exist, which is very important,” he said. “In a way, it also means the Gulf states are ignoring Palestinian demands not to do so.”

Gilboa said there are two main obstacles to moving ahead with such relations.

The first is public opinion. Even when Egypt and Jordan signed peace agreements with Israel, their citizenry remained extremely hostile towards the Jewish state. That tends to translate to a cold peace, which is really just the absence of war. Warm peace, on the other hand, is an agreement between the people and not just the leaders.

Many of those against peace with Israel include the elites, the intellectuals, the media and clerics. According to Gilboa, Israel must reach beyond the elites and speak directly to the public in order to achieve any sort of peace.

Gilboa pointed to the upcoming World Expo to be held in Dubai in October 2020 as a prime opportunity for Israel to present itself in a positive way to the Arab world, though decades of propaganda and demonizing Israel have taken their toll.

He pointed to former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was a popular and admired political figure who was murdered for signing a peace agreement with Israel. After years of being brainwashed to hate the Jewish state in their midst, the Egyptian public was not prepared to make peace with its enemy.

The second obstacle, according to Gilboa, is the Palestinian conflict. While publicly, the Persian Gulf states pay lip service to the Palestinians, in reality these nations are “tired of the Palestinians. They blame them for not being forthcoming, not negotiating, evading, criticizing and making demands,” he said.

The professor also pointed to the economic part of the Trump Mideast peace plan that was conducted this past June in Bahrain, which was meant to mobilize support for the Palestinians.

‘A state of belligerency to a state of peace’

From the Israeli and American perspective, the Gulf states are expected to provide significant contributions to the alliance against Iran, as well as any moves that can be made with the Palestinian population.

Qatar provides millions of dollars to Gaza each month, so the Gulf states are not completely ignoring the Palestinians; still, playing private advocate for them no longer seems an interest.

Iran remains the unifying factor between Israel and the Gulf states.

“Trump is not consistent in his policy towards Iran,” said Gilboa. “The less the Gulf states can rely on the U.S., the more they must rely on Israel. The question is how Israel can exploit this emerging strategic joint interest into a much more fundamental thing. The idea of a non-aggression pact is reasonable, but it is still difficult for the Gulf states to move forward with it.”

Gilboa acknowledged “all kinds of problematic circumstances behind the idea of non-aggression agreements,” though Israel “can chart the way to reach that by moving from a state of belligerency to a state of peace.”

‘A barrier to better relations’

Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that pushing for formal agreements “is counterproductive.”

“It is unnecessary to poke them in the eye and say, ‘Let us be friends’ in public,” he added.

He said that a piece of paper “has limited value” and puts “unnecessary pressure” on Arab states, adding that “we should focus on real issues and not on statements.”

“Let’s focus on things where both countries benefit. Let’s try to formalize relations without formal papers. This is the best avenue of action,” he added.

As an example, Inbar said Israel should “make it clear that we welcome tourism from those countries, and we should encourage people-to-people interactions.”

As for the Palestinian issue, Inbar agreed with Gilboa, saying “it is a barrier to better relations.”

“Informally, they don’t care about the Palestinians,” he said.

Inbar was adamant that facts on the ground are what matter most, and a non-aggression pact is counterproductive, saying “I always favour informal agreements to formal agreements.”

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