The future of normalisation with Israel under Joe Biden

Monitoring and Analysis Unit
30 Nov 2020

The fourth and final year of Donald Trump’s presidency of the US saw a wave of Arab regimes normalising with the Israeli occupation. The normalisation project was led by the UAE and Bahrain, as well as the new leadership in Sudan. The Egyptian and Omani regimes welcomed the normalisation of relations, while Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia refused to join. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia mandated Israel’s approval of the establishment of a Palestinian state before making a move.

Despite Trump's loss in the presidential elections and the victory of his opponent, Joe Biden, the normalisation project continues, including a visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain, Abdul Latif Al-Zayani, to Tel Aviv on November 18, 2020.

This assessment of the situation deals with the contexts of the recent wave of normalisations, examining the motives of the Arab regimes, and predicting the future of official Arab normalisations with Israel under the new US administration of Joe Biden in light of continuing popular rejection.

Contexts of the wave of normalisations

The wave of normalisations occurred in light of the security turmoil and economic challenges that many countries in the Arab region are going through. The region had also just witnessed the wave of Arab Spring revolutions and believed that the US had provided cover by abandoning support for those regimes. Indeed, it was the rise of the Trump administration in 2017 - which is considered the most vocal administration in its bias towards Israel and in pushing its goals - that played the most prominent role in pushing the Arab countries to normalise with Israel.

Trump weakened the role of US institutions by making US foreign policy decision-making on his own accords where his personal interests may interfere with US public interests.

Trump has worked directly to achieve Israel’s interests, which violate international laws and resolutions, with the aim of ensuring his re-election for a second presidential round by gaining the support of the US Zionist lobby. He did this by adopting the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ and deliberately imposing procedural steps for its enactment, most notably the transfer of the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem, recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, and an attempt to give legitimacy to settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories of 1967. Perhaps the most dangerous step he took was pushing the Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel without any concessions that Israel is supposed to offer as entitlements towards the peace process. However, all this was not sufficient to enable the Zionist lobby to keep Trump in the White House for another term, according to current indications.

Motives of the normalising regimes and the US Administration

The countries who have normalised with Israel share common motives. However, their importance and priorities vary in certain files according to the perspective of their respective interests. The motives of Israel are predominantly strategic in nature. Meanwhile, the motives of Trump's administration may be tactical, related to the US domestic situation, even if its results seem strategic in nature. As for the motives of the newly normalised Arab regimes, they are a mixture of strategic motives for small countries and tactical perhaps more in the case of Sudan.

Israel’s motives

-       Enacting normalisation and legitimising Israel’s achievements by upgrading the relationship with Arab countries to a new level that goes beyond the constants defined for normalised relations. At the forefront of this are the benefits of the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the Arab League.

-       Besieging the Palestinians: both the regime and the resistance movements; drying up the sources of their political and material support, and their political and popular support in the countries that have normalised and elsewhere.

-       Promoting Israel’s image as being a strategic ally instead of being a threat by exaggerating the dangerous roles of regional powers, as well as that of political entities and reformist groups.

The motives of Donald Trump's Administration

There are two main drivers of Trump's Administration. The first is related to the person of Donald Trump, who came from a business background to the field of politics and governance. He was keen to gain the confidence of the Zionist lobby in the US to ensure that he won the presidential elections for a second round. However, according to the election results, he lost the bet, despite his insistence of not recognising the results, and his campaign appealing the Electoral College results.

The second motive is related to the Zionist lobby, which was keen to use Trump's presidency to accelerate the achievement of its strategic goals, which are usually difficult to pass with the US institutions, especially under a Democrats' administration, where it would be impossible to achieve without compensation for the Palestinians.

The motives of the Arab regimes normalising with Israel

There are many motives for the Arab countries who have newly normalised with Israel. Some motives are based on the security aspect, as well as political and economic interests, although most of them share the security aspect. The following are the most prominent motives with reference to the most exemplary state.

-       Security protection, as some countries who have normalised acknowledge the limit of their abilities and the danger of their neighbouring environment, and believe that Israel, with the advantages of its relations with the US, is able to provide protection and deter regional threats.

-       Enhancing international political legitimacy of the regimes of the countries who have normalised, as they envision the future of normalisation as being linked to their presence in power.

-       Strengthening its regional role (the UAE) by taking advantage of the US and Western umbrella in general at the expense of the traditional regional states (Saudi Arabia and Egypt), as it presents itself as the most cooperative, relying on its boldness in normalisation and overcoming any determinants of it.

-       Embarrassing rival neighbouring countries, such as the case of UAE and Qatar.

-       Getting rid of economic sanctions and imposed blockade, which was reflected in various fields, including foreign policy (Sudan).

-       The belief that normalising with Israel will provide immunity from any repercussions related to their human rights violations.

-       Freedom to exercise the policy of demonisation, accusing political and ideological entities and movements that support the Palestinian cause of terrorism; and intimidating all citizens who oppose the normalisation of their ruling regimes as being complicit with those suspicious entities.

The common Arab position

Despite the Arab peoples’ constant rejection of normalisation, their position is at its weakest, which is what the regimes of the countries which have normalised realise. This is because most Arabs involved in various entities and gatherings face many challenges in light of the tightening security grip of the authorities' apparatus, and the political regimes’ preoccupation with preserving their own power, in addition to representation and leadership struggles which caused divisions in some of these entities. Moreover, most Arab people suffer from declining living standards and severe economic challenges.

Potential policy features of President Joe Biden

The features of US foreign policy under the rule of President Joe Biden, according to his campaign speeches and the visions presented, are concerned with restoring the image of the US and re-enacting the American democratic model that defends human rights and freedoms, encourages democracy and sponsors negotiations, given that relying on these values is what distinguishes the US from totalitarian regime models, especially China and Russia.

According to these principles, it seems that US pressure and temptations will recede, and diplomatic efforts and coordination with the EU countries are expected to return to revive the peace process and Palestinian negotiations with Israel.

Scenarios

It might be difficult to determine the future paths of Arab normalisation with Israel after Biden comes to power. In view of the changes that may occur in the Arab region and its regional neighbourhood or even at an international level, and based on the mentioned motives of the countries that have normalised, the following are the expected scenarios:

The first scenario: the expansion of the normalisation circle

This scenario expects some Arab regimes will join the list of countries which have normalised with Israel, especially during the remainder of Donald Trump's presidency, and even under Joe Biden as bilateral efforts between Israel and these countries. This scenario relies on the assumption that normalisation has turned into a common interest. The most prominent countries that are candidates for establishing direct relations with Israel may be the Sultanate of Oman and Morocco, and even Qatar and Saudi Arabia, albeit with limited measures aimed at breaking the barriers that previously prevented normalisation. This will open the door of normalisation for other Asian countries.

This scenario is strengthened by how the countries of the region are falling into many problems that threaten their national security. This scenario is also compelling since a just settlement of the Palestinian issue is not on the horizon, and they feel it has exhausted its options over the past decades. Furthermore, fear of the populates’ reactions has diminished, and some Arab leaders believe that support from the Zionist lobby is a sure way to rise to power.

This scenario is weakened by the absence of real interests that could accrue the normalising countries, and the decline of incentives for normalising under President Joe Biden.

The second scenario: a normalisation stalemate

This scenario assumes that the wave of normalisation at the level of establishing full official relations between new Arab countries with Israel ends after the end of Donald Trump's presidency. It is expected that the new president’s administration will stop pressuring or identifying with Israel’s positions, contrary to what happened in Trump’s era. President Joe Biden is more concerned with dealing with domestic challenges and foreign policy priorities. This is despite the fact that the US is a country of institutions, each of which perform their respective tasks. At the forefront of these institutions are the Ministries of State and Defence, and the agencies assisting the President in implementing policies.

This scenario expects President Biden’s Administration to focus on reviving negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, with the need for both sides to make joint concessions.

This scenario is strengthened by emerging indications of the return of security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel and transferring funds of the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, the gains of normalisation are weakening or are showing negative results. This is particularly so in the case of Sudan, with the lack of stability of the ruling regime, and the changes the regime is undergoing, whether in the fluctuation of the state's foreign policy stances or even the potential change of ruling figures.

The third scenario: withdrawing normalisations

This scenario, which is least likely, expects that a set of events and factors will contribute to the retreat of some countries that embarked on normalisation from continuing with it. This will be due to the occurrence of expected violations by Israel followed by popular protests, such as a war waged against the Palestinians; heightened oppression towards them; or military coups and regional alliances. This scenario has no trigger factors for its occurrence in the coming months.