Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East from 2013 to 2015. This article is based on a forthcoming report, “Israel, the Arab States, and the Prospects for Normalization,” to be published by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
In the absence of progress negotiating directly with Palestinians, many Israelis and others are now focusing greater attention on Israel’s developing relations with the wider Arab world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, contends that a growing confluence of interests between Israel and the region’s Sunni Arab states could provide a basis for Israeli-Arab normalization and contribute to progress on the long-stalled Palestinian issue. President Trump seems to agree, telling Israelis when he arrived in Israel directly from Saudi Arabia last month that there was a “growing realization among your Arab neighbors that they have common cause with you on this threat posed by Iran.” According to longtime Middle East analyst and negotiator Dennis Ross, the logic of the approach called “outside-in” is that “because the Palestinians are so weak and divided — and because there’s a new tacit relationship between the Sunni Arabs and Israel — there’s the hope the Arabs would be prepared to do more.”
The strategic rapprochement between Israel and some Arab states is undeniable, and behind-the-scenes cooperation between them is now greater than ever. But having spent much of the past several months in Israel and in Arab capitals discussing the issue with political leaders, officials and others, I believe that many of the hopes being placed on normalization are misplaced. If the Trump administration is looking to the Arabs for a shortcut on the Palestinian issue — or thinks Israel can establish closer relations with the Arabs without addressing that issue — it is likely to be disappointed.
The main obstacle to Arab governments working openly with Israel without the agreement of the Palestinians stems from their own political weakness. Facing massive domestic and foreign policy challenges — from low oil prices to threats from extremists — they simply cannot afford to spend valuable political capital defending a rapprochement with Israel that most of their citizens would consider a betrayal of the still-popular Palestinian cause. Previous Arab leaders who agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel — Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein — were strong, autocratic leaders who felt able (wrongly, it turned out in Sadat’s case) to run the political risk of normalization. The current Arab leaders cannot afford to take such risks.
On top of that is an important regional dimension: At a time of an intense geopolitical competition with Iran, the Gulf Arabs and especially Saudi Arabia will not want to cede the Palestinian issue to their rivals in Tehran, who would be sure to denounce Riyadh for any public rapprochement with Israel.
To be sure, there are some new factors, even beyond the regional realignments, that could change traditional calculations. Trump, for example, having shown such strong support for the Sunni Arabs on his recent trip to Riyadh, should have leverage he can use in trying to get them to support his efforts on Middle East peace. And the new Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is a proven risk-taker of a generation for whom Iran, Syria and Yemen are much greater strategic priorities than the Palestinian issue or Israel.
But none of these new factors is likely powerful enough to overcome the domestic political constraints on politically weak Arab leaders or to change a fundamental structural difference in the way Israel and the Arabs view normalization. For Israel, there are big advantages to making intelligence, military and economic cooperation with Arabs public. For the Arabs, however, the dynamic is the opposite. Since the Arab states are already getting most of what they need from Israel quietly, they have little incentive to expand overt ties with Israel without something significant to show for it.
These realities do not mean that there is nothing Israel can or should do. An Israeli proposal to go further than it has in previous peace negotiations – for example, to negotiate on the basis of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative or the principles that then-Secretary of State John Kerry articulated in his December 2016 speech – would give the Arabs something to work with. They would have more cover to negotiate or expand ties with Israel and — given their own interest in an agreement — likely press the Palestinians to compromise. They would remain reluctant to establish full ties with Israel, lest that weaken their leverage in the talks, but the atmosphere and prospects for progress would vastly improve.
The prospect of Israel normalizing its relations with Arab states is an enticing one that anyone who cares about Israel or the region should want to see realized. But the idea of achieving that goal without support from the Palestinians is a fantasy, and even modest steps toward normalization will require Israel to do much more than many Israelis seem to realize. Netanyahu and Trump may not want to admit it, but the road to normalization with the Arab states still passes through the Palestinian issue, and not the other way around.