Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported trip to Saudi Arabia on Sunday follows the theme of unprecedented relations between Arab countries and Israel.
The second half of 2020 has been seen an accelerated rate of normalisation of ties: the “Abraham Accords” were signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in August, Bahrain followed a month later, and Sudan’s transitional government announced normalisation of relations with Israel in October.
Several Sudanese political parties have rejected normalisation, however, and Sudan’s acting foreign minister said the agreement must be approved by the yet-to-be formed legislative council.
Brokered by the Trump administration, the deals broke years of consensus among most Arab states that have said any official recognition of Israel is conditional on the end of the occupation of Palestinian territories and establishment of the two-state solution on the 1967 borders.
Before August, only two Arab countries had official ties with Israel – Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
The Palestinian leadership condemned the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan normalisation deals as a “treacherous stab to the Palestinian cause”.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), based in the occupied West Bank, withdrew from the Arab League in protest and recalled their ambassadors to the UAE and Bahrain.
However, after Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections, it reinstated both ambassadors and announced a return to security coordination with Israel – halted earlier this year in protest against President Donald Trump’s proposed Middle East plan that overwhelmingly favoured Israel.
This step set back efforts for Palestinian reconciliation between the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip and the PA in the West Bank, which were forged in the face of growing regional isolation, according to analysts.
While Saudi Arabia has not yet formally recognised ties with Israel, it has toned down its rhetoric, expressing on more than one occasion its desire to normalise relations.
Simultaneously, Riyadh continues to peddle the official line of not recognising Israel until a two-state solution has been agreed, with occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has been the prime minister of Israel for the past decade, marked by a lack of any substantive peace talks between the Israeli government and the PA.
Instead, life has gotten worse for Palestinians, with several offensives on the besieged Gaza Strip that killed thousands of people, and rampant building of illegal settlements and land expropriation in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu instead focused on building ties with regional states.
The agreement with the UAE, an oil-rich country with considerable regional influence, is seen as a historic breakthrough that could transform the region. The two states have already agreed to waive visa requirements for each other’s citizens and signed a number of bilateral agreements on investment, tourism, direct flights, security, and telecommunications.
The UAE has its eyes set on acquiring the US-made F-35 fighter jets, which could potentially shift the balance of power in the region.
Israel is the only country in the region that has F-35s but dropped its opposition to their sale to the UAE after it said the US had assured it that Israeli military superiority would be preserved.