The November 11 Israeli raid on Gaza that resulted in the deaths of seven Palestinians, a senior Hamas commander and an Israeli officer was a spectacular failure. The botched covert operation caused embarrassment not just for Israel, but also for Egypt and the UN, who have been attempting to broker a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel. The image of Qatar, which has been providing crucial aid to Gaza to stabilise the situation and give way to peace efforts, has also been damaged as a result of the debacle.
At first glance, the timing of the raid may have seemed odd, as it came in the wake of concerted efforts to normalise relations between Israel and the Gulf states. However, it did not surprise anyone familiar with Israel’s unreliability and unpredictability – it proved yet again that a leopard cannot change its spots.
Rapid steps towards normalisation
In recent weeks, Israeli administration has been on a grand crusade for normalisation.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise trip to Oman on October 25 marked the first visit by an Israeli leader to the sultanate, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, in over two decades. Meanwhile, Bahrain and Israel are believed to be holding secret talks in preparation for establishing diplomatic relations.
On October 25, Qatari authorities broke with Arab sporting protocol and allowed Israeli flags to be displayed at the 48th World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Doha. On October 28, Miri Regev, Israel’s hardline Minister for Culture and Sports, attended a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, at which the Israeli national anthem was played. Two days later, Israel’s Communications Minister Ayoub Kara gave a speech in Dubai.
Attempts at normalisation between Israel and the Gulf states are not new. Many Arab states have long believed the road to American validation runs through Israel. This was the main driver behind Qatar’s decision to permit the opening of an Israeli trade office in Doha in the 1990s.
Thirdly, being a populist leader, Netanyahu is fully conscious of the fact that, in the age of social media, global public opinion is rapidly shifting against Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement had relative success in the US and largely won the battle of public opinion in Europe, making him feel threatened. In this environment, normalisation with Arab states would give much-needed leverage to the Israeli PM and allow him to push forward his diplomatic efforts aimed at securing elite approval. The relationship between his administration and most Arab states would most likely be framed in the context of competition over public opinion. This means, if Oman and others continue their rapprochement with Israel, Netanyahu will make sure the world is watching – the Gulf states will need to brace themselves for unflattering leaks and media attention orchestrated by Israel.
Despite all this, some Gulf states, desperate for Western approval after being rocked by the fallout of the Khashoggi affair, are likely to go much further than the current spate of ministerial visits and sports diplomacy, without placing any condition for progress on the Palestinian front. Normalisation with Israel will always be a hard sell and the Arab Street will never buy into it. It is a dangerous game to play for the Gulf’s unelected rulers, especially so soon after the, albeit unsuccessful, Arab Spring which demonstrated what people power can do in the region. There is a lot to learn from the experiences of Egypt and Jordan – their leaders may have signed peace treaties with Israel, yet decades later, Egyptian and Jordanian people’s perception of Israel remains the same. Ultimately, if normalisation is not part of a bigger picture of peace and stability, it will not benefit anyone and can only discredit those who take the first steps towards dialogue with Israel.