Israel is expanding its reach by building relations with Arab and Muslim countries ahead of its April 9 parliamentary vote. Some see the move as an attempt to dominate the region and isolate the Palestinians further.
Less than a month before parliamentary elections, Israeli politicians are ramping up the rhetoric, and even strengthening their ties with unlikely allies, to project a tougher stance to the region and the world.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on Wednesday that Israel had bolstered its relations with six Arab and Muslim nations, though he did not specify which countries.
Formally, however, Israel has had official diplomatic ties with Egypt and Jordan since 1979 and 1994 respectively. And in recent months, it has tried to generate a bond with countries in Africa, and openly tout formerly secret relations with Persian Gulf monarchies.
Netanyahu has also said that these ties send an “important message for the vision of peace – peace through strength.” The implication is that these countries are now willing to cooperate with Israel because they are not strong enough to fight it.
“There is no truth to that whatsoever,” argues author and editor of the Palestine Chronicle Ramzy Baroud.
“The countries that are currently in the process of normalising with Israel have never really been engaged in any military conflict with Israel in the first place. It makes no sense for them to submit to the power of Israel. That power never really applied to them in the first place.”
He adds, “they are normalising with Israel because they are under the illusion that Iran poses a greater threat to them and the status quo in the Middle East than Israel does. If anything, I think the Israeli-Arab normalisation at the moment is an expression of political desperation as opposed to a reflection of political strength.”
In his outreach to Africa, the Israeli prime minister paid a visit to Chadian President Idriss Deby in the capital N’djamena in January, where the two leaders spoke of signing deals in a joint press conference, but provided no further details. It was a follow-up to Deby’s visit to Israel last November.
Netanyahu also opened Israel’s first embassy in Rwanda just last month and expressed his hopes for building relations with Mali ahead of Israel’s elections on April 9.
These countries traditionally have had no prior ties with Israel. In fact, except for Rwanda, as Muslim-majority countries, their sensitivities gravitated towards the Palestinians. Additionally, Israel has a track record of treating its African Jewish residents as second-class citizens.
Meanwhile, earlier this week, former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon also said, “Today, at the present moment, in the meantime, there is not an Israeli-Arab conflict. There is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
He made the remarks at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, ahead of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.
Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in March 1979, ending three decades of hostilities since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Several years later, under the terms of that agreement, Israel also returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, which was captured during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel’s new policies indicate that it’s trying to isolate the Palestinians by gaining favour with nations traditionally opposed to its policies. But Antony Loewenstein, a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, author and filmmaker, argues that "Arab leaders have for decades discarded the Palestinian cause for closer ties with Washington. The effect has been rhetorical backing for Palestinians but little tangible pressure on Israel or the US to effect change. Many Palestinians know that they're supported by the Arab people but not their despotic leaders.”
Loewenstein adds that “the growing numbers of Arab states that are now embracing Israel is because they fear Iran, want Israeli surveillance and defence equipment and hope to get some financial crumbs from the Trump administration.”
The United States under the Trump administration made historic and significant gains for Israel when it officially recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.
Last May, it officially moved it’s embassy to Jerusalem to solidify the promise. Several weeks after the US announcement, Iran declared - in a parliamentary vote - that Jerusalem was the capital of Palestine.
Much of the rest of the world did not back Trump’s decision. In an overwhelming majority, 128 out of 193 UN member states opposed the resolution. Only nine countries, including the UK, France and Germany supported it.
On the ground, a similar opinion echoes across the Arab world.
Loewenstein explains that "Israel will continue to forge closer ties with Arab and Muslim dictatorships because they believe that this is the way to gain regional acceptance, but it's a false dawn. In every opinion poll across the Arab and Muslim worlds, Israel is viewed as brutally occupying Palestinian territory, and Arab leaders would be foolish to ignore this sentiment.”
Baroud agrees. He says of Ya’alon’s comments that, “sadly it has been a Palestinian-Israeli conflict for quite some time now, starting with the Madrid negotiations and Oslo Accords. They have been trying to isolate the Palestinians and divide the Arabs.”
But he adds, that what Ya’alon “does not realise, is that even if he manages to locate some opportunistic Arab governments, the Arabs from Mauritania to Oman will never normalise with Israel or accept this aggressive entity at the expense of the Palestinian people, no matter the price.”