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Jordan, Iraq and Egypt Try To Get Arab Peace Initiative Back On The Geopolitical Agenda

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Jordan, Iraq and Egypt Try To Get Arab Peace Initiative Back On The Geopolitical Agenda

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, centre, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, left, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, right

Following a trilateral meeting between the political leaders of the three Arab countries, they released a joint statement emphasizing their commitment to the stalled Arab Peace Initiative, originally proposed in 2002 by Arab nations as the only possible peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine-Arab conflict.

While it has been either passed over or met with a great degree of scepticism in most quarters, the move seeks to reaffirm the Arab Peace Initiative, originally adopted by the Arab League in 2002, as the only viable solution to the conflict between Israel and its neighbours.

The Arab Peace Initiative never gained traction in international negotiations, as many of its core terms and demands are steadfastly opposed by Israel, and the US and other major international powers never offered substantive support to the initiative. To this can of course be added the inability of the members of the Arab League to join forces to emphasize that the rights of the Palestinians cannot be ditched or bargained with in order to curry favour with Israel and the US.

The trilateral statement could be interpreted as a belated attempt to regain some of the ground that has been lost by the Arab nations in influencing major developments in the region, and also as a reaction to the announcement of the peace deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel which, if followed by other countries in the region, would pave the way to implementation of the ‘deal of the century’ and the end of Palestinian rights.

At the conclusion of the trilateral meeting on Tuesday, held in the Jordanian capital Amman, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt declared their intention to strengthen economic co-operation, renewed their commitment to a Palestinian state and denounced ‘foreign meddling’ in the region.

The three countries also agreed to boost ties in health, education, trade and food security, and to reinvigorate efforts to reach political solutions to conflicts in the Arab world and formalise their growing alliance.

The participants also discussed ways to increase co-operation in a wide range of areas including trade, investment, energy, electricity, infrastructure, transport and health care.

Official sources said Libya was a major topic of the meeting, along with Turkey’s role in the country and in Syria. Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam and the water security and rights of Egypt and Sudan were also discussed.

The three states also committed to working together to develop food security and using their collective manufacturing and pharmaceutical sectors to produce personal protective equipment and a future Covid-19 vaccine for regional distribution.

The final statement called for the Arab Peace Initiative for the Palestine-Israel conflict to be reactivated, and emphasized that the only lasting resolution would be in accordance with relevant UN resolutions and “in a manner that fulfils all the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”

It also called to “stop Israeli steps to annex Palestinian lands and any measures to undermine prospects to achieve a just peace or seek to alter the historical and legal status quo in Jerusalem”.

Jordan, Egypt and Iraq also called for greater efforts to reach political solutions to crises in Syria, Libya and Yemen in accordance to UN Security Council resolutions, and “strengthening Arab national security and ending foreign meddling in internal Arab affairs”.

The summit was the third of its kind within a year and reflects a growing interest in developing security, diplomatic and economic cooperation between the three countries which between them hold a third of the Arab world’s population.

Egyptian and Jordanian sources say the countries hope to use the bloc and their alliances to reassert Arab diplomacy and an Arab voice in the region at a time when major developments are increasingly being dictated by outside actors. As part of an effort to develop institutional arrangements to formalize and enhance cooperation and joint actions, the leaders established an executive secretariat with an annually rotating headquarters, starting this year at Jordan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. LINK

All previous attempts to reinvigorate cooperation between the Arab countries have floundered without making significant headway, and the onus will be on the three countries to overcome widespread scepticism and demonstrate that the Arab world hasn’t completely lost its ability to be a proactive and influential actor in world events.

In particular, the move to reactivate the Arab Peace Initiative faces even greater challenges today after the agreement concluded between Israel and the UAE. A report by the Jerusalem Post last week comments that, in the wake of the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, there are rumours that several other states could be next to sign an agreement with Israel.

Noting that there are still considerable hurdles to normalizing relations with some states in the Middle East, the report argues that there are others who view the UAE decision as a trial balloon and will adjust their official postures based on how the next weeks and months play out between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.

While many Arab rulers have maintained secret relations and collaboration with Israel for many years in varying degrees of substance and significance, the official normalization of relations with Israel absent a conclusive and comprehensive peace agreement that is acceptable to the Palestinians has remained a step too far for most Arab and Muslim countries up until now. LINK1, LINK2, LINK3, LINK4

The UAE-Israel agreement is part of a broader effort to change that. The report by the Jerusalem post further speculates that ‘5 countries that could be next to make peace with Israel’. The countries identified as most likely to follow the decision of the United Arab Emirates are Bahrain, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. While Saudi officials have expressed that they remain committed to the Arab Peace Initiative, this hasn’t prevented the expansion of informal contacts and ties in many areas.

The report provides a review of the likelihood of normalized relations with other countries throughout the region. Some of the key conclusions and speculations include the following.

Bahrain

Bahrain was long thought to be the first country in the Gulf that might normalize relations with Israel. The small kingdom has often made relatively positive comments about Israel over the years and appeared open to the Trump administration’s ‘Deal of the Century’ by hosting discussions about the economic aspects of it. Bahrain has welcomed the UAE deal with Israel, and initial reports indicated it was working on normalizing relations after the UAE. Last December, media reports in the Gulf noted that Bahrain was reaching out to Israel.

In May, Bahrain shut down a symposium aimed at supporting a boycott of Israel. Last year, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Iran’s threats. “Iran is the one who declared war on us,” he said. The Kingdom made similar statements in 2018.

However, the report duly notes that Bahrain faced strong protests in the 2011 Arab Spring and, as such, it appeared wiser for it to let the UAE be the first to move regarding relations with Israel.

Morocco

Morocco is reported to be one of the states on the short list of opening relations with Israel in the near term. There is a Jewish community in Morocco, and the country has made some gestures in recent years that show warming, people-to-people relations despite diplomatic ties being stagnated.

Morocco has been supportive of the Trump administration’s efforts on peace issues. In February, there were even rumours at Axios about Israel and the US recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the West Sahara (presumably as a quid pro quo for supporting the ‘Deal of the Century’).

Israel-Morocco ties go back to the 1960s. King Hassan II played a key role in these warming relations, including working with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat before his historic 1977 visit. Peres visited Morocco in 1986, and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Peres met Hassan II in 1993.

The Intifada in 2000 harmed relations, and they have been slow to return. Nevertheless, since 2003, there have been positive gestures, including the visit by foreign minister Silvan Shalom that year.

Oman

In October 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a trip to Oman and met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Oman’s minister responsible for foreign affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi, made positive comments about accepting Israel in the region during subsequent discussions in Manama. In April, the Omanis made similar comments in Jordan at a conference, saying it was important to assure Israel that it was not being threatened. While Jordan slammed the comments, Oman continued to push forward with relatively positive views on Israel.

Oman, like other Gulf states, had actually been open to discussions with Israel in the 1990s. Prime minister Shimon Peres visited Oman in 1996. Much of this was changed by the Second Intifada, when Israel saw a reduction in trade offices in the Gulf. Oman, like Qatar, once had an Israeli trade office. It was closed in October 2000.

Nevertheless, in the wake of Netanyahu’s 2018 visit, there was increased talk of more ministerial visits across the Gulf. Oman, however, also hosts visits by top Iranian delegations and attempts to be neutral in other Gulf disputes, such as with Iran and the Qatar dispute.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has appeared to be more open to Israel in recent years. That has come about as a result of several processes. The kingdom is threatened by Iran and is fighting Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. Riyadh also opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and has broken relations with Qatar. The Muslim Brotherhood is linked to the ruling party in Turkey and to Hamas. Saudi Arabia has tried to clamp down on the kind of extremism that roiled the kingdom in the 1990s and in the last decade has appeared to share more interests with Israel.

However, Saudi Arabia has preferred to let other Gulf states that it works closely with go first in discussions with Israel. This includes Oman, the UAE and Bahrain. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has sought close relations with the Trump administration and has also made relatively positive comments on issues relating to the peace process in Israel. This is a shift from the old days, when the Palestinian issue was seen as front and centre of everything in the Middle East.

Riyadh was a leader of the Arab initiative to recognize Israel in the 2000s in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. This was proposed in 2002, and Riyadh has thus shown support for opening relations with Israel in this context. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Turkey to take over the mantle of being the main supporter for the Palestinians and thus displace Saudi influence.

However, that is a main concern in places like Jordan, namely, that Turkey is pushing influence in Jerusalem. To stop that, Riyadh would like to work with Jordan and the Gulf and see shared interests across the region. Toward that end, Riyadh has also hosted Evangelical delegations, and Arab News, a media outlet, has published writings by World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder.

This is part of regional outreach to Jewish voices in the US, as well as rabbis who visited the UAE and the Gulf, and a burgeoning Jewish community in the UAE. Riyadh is the more conservative of the Gulf group, however, recalling sensitivity in the ’90s over issues of having non-Muslims in the Kingdom. Today, Riyadh is pursuing Vision 2030 to modernize the country.

Recent reports have indicated that key members of the Trump administration, including Jared Kushner, think normalization is inevitable with the kingdom. An Israeli blogger reportedly received a friendly reception in Saudi Arabia in February, and Israelis can ostensibly travel to Riyadh, according to Israeli media reports. Saudis have been more open on social media in support of relations with Israel. Some media, perhaps seeking to sabotage these positive signs, have tried to claim Riyadh is in ‘secret talks’ with Israel.

Another report notes that the Saudi foreign minister has stated that no diplomatic relations will be established until there is a broader peace agreement that includes the Palestinians. LINK

Qatar

Qatar and Israel had historically warm relations in the 1990s, and it was thought years ago to be the first in line for normalization. This happened after the Gulf War in 1991. There has been an Israeli trade office there since 1996. Qatar, Israel and the US formed a kind of tripartite relationship in light of this.

Doha sought to play an increasing role throughout the Middle East. As part of this wider role, it also wanted to play a role in peace discussions with Israel. In 2007, foreign minister Tzipi Livni met Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani in New York.

Qatar tried to cultivate pro-Israel supporters after a crisis developed between it and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2017. Working through lobbyists, it invited a long list of pro-Israel voices to Doha. It appeared that both Qatar and the UAE were working at the time to cultivate closer ties with the Trump administration, and Qatar thought that Jewish insiders were key to this.

Qatar also tried to play an increasing role in discussions with Israel and Hamas. It provided cash for Gaza and kept Hamas afloat, part of a long-running attempt to be the paymaster for the Muslim Brotherhood across the region and to prop up Gaza.

“The young emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is key to Qatar’s relationships across the region. The 40-year-old leader came to power in 2013. Qatar had helped fuel the Arab Spring and used Al Jazeera to fan protests across the region to gain influence. However, it saw many of these protests fail and regimes defeat Qatar-backed candidates.

More isolated now, Qatar has Turkish troops in Doha after the 2017 crisis with Riyadh. That means it must rely on Turkey, which, except for Iran, is the most hostile regime in the region to Israel. Qatar is also close to Tehran. This means whatever feelers Qatar once had for peace, and even attempts to cultivate pro-Israel voices through junkets to Doha, are largely on ice.

Nevertheless, Qatar does have discussions with Israel about Gaza, where it plays a key role. Some Israelis see Qatar as playing a potential positive influence. Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman revealed a trip by the head of the Mossad to Qatar in February 2020. In 2018, Liberman met the Qatari foreign minister.

Qatar’s emir once made a historic trip to Gaza in 2012. That seems like a bygone era now. However, it is possible that Doha, thinking it could solve the Gulf crisis and get something from the Trump administration, would talk about normalizing relations. With Turkish troops in Qatar and Iran able to destabilize the emirate if it sees betrayal, this would not likely be seen as a wise move.

Instead, Qatar prefers to be more open to moderate stances, such as hosting Israeli athletes and making itself a centre of meetings and intrigue rather than a peace partner…”

The report concludes that Sudan may also be considering normalization of ties with Israel, and notes that “Netanyahu met Sudan’s new leader in February” (one of the key generals at the centre of the military coup that eventually overthrew the government in 2018, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan). However, despite a proliferation of such secret and semi-secret meetings, other reports note that the military leadership has stepped back from taking the fateful step of establishing diplomatic relations as such. LINK1, LINK2

With respect to other key countries in the region:

“Iraq has too much Iranian influence to normalize relations with Israel. Nevertheless, it has historically moderate voices, especially in the Kurdistan region, which have been warmer toward Israel. But the Kurdistan region today is threatened by economic problems and Iran’s role in Baghdad, and it also has to balance challenges with a Turkish military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Iran could make peace with Israel if the regime falls. Tehran and Jerusalem had good relations prior to 1979. Similarly in Somalia, there are chances Israel could reach out to the region of Somaliland, which has declared itself independent since the ’90s.

Further afield, Israel faces hostility from Pakistan and Malaysia. Whereas Indonesia once seemed more moderate, it, too, has hostile elements in its political landscape.”

The report concludes that social and political forces, as well as historical factors, in other countries throughout the region, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon (which “could be a peace partner if not for Hezbollah. Hezbollah has only gotten stronger in recent years, holding the country hostage to Iran’s threats to Israel”), and Libya will prevent their political leadership from normalizing relations with Israel, at least for a considerable period, or until a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians is concluded.

The agency Middle East Eye has also reviewed the attitudes of governments throughout the region to the Israel-UAE agreement, and reaches similar conclusions in most cases.

“Some Arab countries have expressed support for the UAE-Israel agreement publicly, with Bahrain, Oman and Egypt among the first countries in the world to welcome the deal without reservations.

Bahrain and Oman are expected by Israel to follow in the Emirati footsteps – whereas Egypt has had full diplomatic relations with Israel since 1980.

Others have meanwhile either refrained from commenting or denounced the deal as a normalisation of ties with Israel at the expense of the Palestinian cause, essentially giving Israel a green light to pursue its occupation policies.” LINK

With respect to Saudi Arabia, the report notes:

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan cautiously welcomed normalisation on Wednesday, saying the deal – which ‘suspended’ Israeli annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank – “could be viewed as positive.”

“We are committed to the Arab Peace Plan and that is the best way forward to a settlement of the conflict and to normalisation with Israel with all states,” the Saudi foreign minister told reporters in Berlin. “That said, any efforts that could promote peace in the region and that result in holding back the threat of annexation could be viewed as positive.”

The Arab Peace Initiative promises Israel full ties with Arab States if a peace settlement is reached with the Palestinians.

The report points out that Saudi state media has so far published views in favour of the UAE decision, which likely points to Riyadh’s own tolerance to such opinions. The daily Okaz newspaper, for example, published a column that hailed the normalisation deal as reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin wall.

While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is largely viewed as favourable to normalisation, his father, King Salman, has so far maintained a more moderate view nominally more supportive of Palestinian statehood.

The report also notes some of the difficulties caused by the ongoing double-track approach adopted by the new leadership in Sudan:

“The Sudanese government on Wednesday sacked a foreign ministry spokesman, following his praise of the UAE-Israel deal.

Spokesman Haydar Sadig made comments to regional media and confirmed them to news agencies on Tuesday, calling the deal “a brave and bold step” and noting that Khartoum and Tel Aviv already have secret diplomatic contacts.

The foreign ministry said it was ‘astonished’ by Sadig’s comments, and stressed that the government had not discussed the possibility of diplomatic relations.

Israel’s intelligence chief Yossi Cohen, however, contradicted the Sudanese statements later on Wednesday, saying his government is in contact with Sudan and that normalisation is “part of the agenda” of their diplomatic relations.

Earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s ruling council, and reportedly discussed normalisation.

The meeting at the time was viewed by Sudanese analysts as an attempt by Khartoum to get into Washington’s good graces and obtain the lifting of crippling US sanctions.”

The report notes that Kuwait, Lebanon and Algeria in particular are very unlikely to negotiate a separate peace agreement in the absence of a broader peace deal that accommodates the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people.

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