Alon Ben-Meir: Normalization alone not a path for Israeli-Palestinian peace
The normalization of relations between Israel and Sudan is another step forward toward the establishment of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. This development, following the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, is extremely important, as any peaceful solution between adversaries that reduces the chances of violent conflict and promotes peace should be embraced. These new developments offer Israel and the Palestinians a momentous opportunity to begin a process of reconciliation that could lead to ending their conflict.
Netanyahu and Trump certainly deserve some credit for these historic developments. Nevertheless, I maintain that this could have occurred under any other Israeli prime minister and US president, as peace between Israel and the Arab states has been becoming increasingly plausible over the past 10 years. Indeed, the political, economic, and geostrategic environment in the Middle East has made it necessary, if not inevitable, to formally end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Trump’s desperate need to score a foreign policy win, and Netanyahu’s want to achieve something that none of his predecessors had been able to realize (especially as he is fighting for his political life), are important factors. In the main, however, the Arab states’ security concerns, especially in the Gulf, over Iran’s potential threat which Israel can neutralize, and the Arab states’ need for advanced technologies and economic development, where Israel can greatly contribute, played a far more potent role.
In addition, the Arab states have largely grown tired of and frustrated by the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just like Egypt and Jordan before, they came to accept Israel’s unmitigated reality and no longer want to be held hostage to this conflict, which has become increasingly intractable.
The Israelis must remember, though, that regardless of how many more Arab countries normalize relations with their country, the conflict with the Palestinians will not disappear and it must be addressed if Israel wants to ensure long-term stability and security. The Palestinians, on the other hand, must accept the emerging reality. Instead of opposing the normalization of Israeli-Arab relations, which in any case they cannot stop, they should be prepared to enter into such a process of reconciliation with Israel that would eventually lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
To encourage more Arab states to normalize relations and provide them with political cover, Israel should take concrete steps to ease the Palestinians’ hardship and demonstrate to the Arab and Islamic worlds that it recognizes the critical importance of peacefully ending its conflict with the Palestinians. Such steps will also reinforce the notion that the Arab states have chosen the right path to break the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians by normalizing relations with Israel.
There are a number of most important measures that Israel can take toward the Palestinians to demonstrate its good-will and intentions without compromising its national security, including:
First, Israel should release all Palestinian prisoners who have no blood on their hands. In fact, these prisoners constitute the largest segment of the prison population. Moreover, given the embittering issue of the Palestinian prisoners, the following example shows how skewed and unjust Israel’s jurisprudence is toward Palestinians.
Mohammed El Halabi, former Gaza director for the charity World Vision, has been imprisoned since June 2016 over charges of diverting $7 million in funds to Hamas, despite a lack of evidence from Israel, and numerous audits showing no evidence of such funneling of money. El Halabi is being held under administrative detention, a holdover from British-era Mandatory Palestine, which allows a person to be held without trial indefinitely under the belief that they will break the law in the future. He has appeared before the court a staggering 151 times, with his case being postponed each time. This appalling practice must be stopped.
Second, further annexation of Palestinian land must end, which in any case was part of the normalization agreement between the Gulf states and Israel. By ceasing further annexation, Israel would remove one of the main obstacles that prevents other Arab states from normalizing relations.
Third, the Israeli government should provide the Palestinians with building permits in Area C, which comprises 62 percent of the land mass in the West Bank. It is unimaginable that there will be any viable Palestinian state at some point in the future without much of Area C included. Nothing will demonstrate more vividly Israel’s ultimate intentions about the establishment of a Palestinian state. This will also give ammunition to the Arab states to pressure the Palestinians to cooperate in this process.
Fourth, Israel ought to accept the long-standing proposal by Hamas for a long ceasefire (hudna) of 20 years or more, and lift the blockade on the condition that Hamas stops manufacturing or purchasing any new weapons, halts building tunnels, and ends all incitements against Israel while reining in all other jihadist groups. Most financial aid Hamas receives should be monitored by the EU and invested in economic development, infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. This would discourage Hamas from provoking Israel out of fear that Israel could destroy these developments and reimpose the blockade if threatened.
Fifth, a greater number of Palestinians must be allowed to work in Israel, while providing better working conditions and greater pay and ending the practice of withholding taxes collected by Israel from Palestinian workers. In return, the Palestinian Authority must commit to ending any incitement and fully cooperate with Israel to intercept any terrorist plans.
Sixth, given that the objective is to normalize relations with the Palestinians, the building of mutual trust is a central prerequisite to future neighborly relations. Israel should allow Palestinian citizens to visit Israel, albeit after going through rigorous security checks. In addition, Israel should permit a specific number of Palestinian students to attend Israeli universities.
These measures, among many others, will certainly limit the support that Turkey and Iran provide to the Palestinians, which is designed to bolster the Palestinians’ resistance to to Israel—an action that can only further aggravate the conflict.
Anyone who does not live under the illusion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will simply die out as a result of normalizing relationships between Israel and a growing number of Arab states, cannot argue against the logic that the above measures must be taken under any circumstances.
The current situation is not sustainable, certainly not in the long run. The sooner Israelis and Palestinians realize that they are stuck with one another, the better. They should seize the opportunity that the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states provides. Israel should initiate the process of reconciliation that will lead to constructive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
It is time for Israel, which currently enjoys the upper hand, to think of what the future will hold absent an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.