Arab Normalization with Israel and the War on Gaza: Interview with Mouin Rabbani

Interview by Malek Lakhal

While the Palestinian question was never central to the Abraham Accords, the Hamas-Israel war and the ongoing onslaught on Gaza have pushed many to question the future of Arab normalization with Israel. In this interview, commentator and researcher specializing in the contemporary Middle East, Mouin Rabbani, discusses the impact of the current conflict on the process of normalization and what it means today for Palestinians.

  • Where does the current crisis leave the normalization process started by the Trump administration?

Mouin Rabbani (MR): The normalization process started with the Carter administration, in the form of the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, and before that, there were all sorts of informal relations. The series of normalizations started during the Trump years should be called Trump-Biden normalization, as the Biden administration wholeheartedly embraced the Trump initiative and in fact, made it the only significant component of its Middle East diplomacy since coming to office. They were working very hard to add an Israeli-Saudi agreement to the existing agreements already in place. I personally don’t take the prospects of this agreement particularly seriously, as I see too many impediments to making it happen. For instance, if press reports are accurate, Saudi Arabia was primarily looking for benefits from the US, which included a security guarantee and civilian nuclear enrichment capacities, both of which would have required Congressional approval rather than just the consent of the White House. It is farfetched to believe that Congress was going to approve either of those measures, even with the support of the Israeli lobby. Secondly, it would have included Israeli gestures to the Palestinians, and even though those would have been cosmetic in nature, they wouldn’t have been approved by the current Israeli government. I also question the extent to which the Saudi Arabia was serious about engaging in this process as opposed to trying to demonstrate good faith in the full knowledge that it was not going to happen, but that is speculation on my end. Unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia is a country where public opinion matters, and where public opinion is much more engaged in these issues. At least historically, the Saudi leadership has proven more sensitive to public opinion on Palestine than, say the Moroccan leadership, for instance. In Morocco, they have had very close relations with Israel going back to the 1960s. The public opinion is very strongly pro-Palestinian and every time something happens you see mass demonstrations in Moroccan cities. The authorities have this rule of “don’t try to prevent or suppress these demonstrations”, but it is almost as if these two take place on two different levels. The calculations in Saudi Arabia appear to be somehow different. That is why I consider a normalization agreement unlikely.

The impact of the current war on Gaza is that it has been put on hold. I don’t see further negotiation happening between the Saudis and the Israelis. With regard to the other countries, the status of the normalization has been unaffected, which is consistent with past issues we have seen. Bahrain and UAE were unaffected by the clashes of 2021, and peace with Egypt was unaffected by the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Sabra and Shatila massacres. We have seen the occasional withdrawal of ambassadors particularly during the outset of the Second Intifada, but in general, these agreements managed to survive conflicts such as the one we are seeing now. I would go even further and say that if one does take the prospect of a Saudi-Israeli agreement seriously, there is no reason to consider the bloodbath we are seeing now would derail it, as it was never about the Palestinians in the first place. I can imagine the Saudis putting the process on pause and proceeding again when things calm down. It’s not about the Palestinians, so I would say that what happens in Palestine is not what makes or breaks these agreements. They do it for their own reasons. What would affect these agreements is if you get a much more demonstrable show of Israeli weakness, then Arab governments might begin to lose interest.

  • You wrote that the Abraham Accords left Palestine as an afterthought, will this war force the return of the Palestinian question for Gulf countries?

MR: Just because these agreements are with Israel, it does not mean that the Palestinian question is not on their agenda. If you look at how the UAE is behaving and voting at the UN, as a security council member, or at the Arab League clearly the Palestinian question is on their diplomatic agenda. Would they rather it wasn’t? Of course. And they are taking positions on these issues? Yes.

  • Does the current war and its aftermath give Hamas and the Palestinians a better hand at halting/retracting the normalization process?

MR: Of course, we don’t yet know how it’s going to end up and of course that makes it difficult to answer the question. For a start, you must ask which Palestinians: are we talking about the PLO and Abbas who have made their peace with the current agreements? That, by definition, reduces the leverage of other Palestinians such as Hamas who seek to oppose or to reverse these agreements. Things would be different if the official Palestinian leadership, the one that is recognized by the Gulf countries coming out with public statements demanding that these countries withdraw their ambassadors and abandon these agreements. I think if there was a unified Palestinian leadership and strategy, they would be in a much better position to influence Arab decision-making on Israel.

  • You called previously for unity and a revival of the national movement in Palestine, what happened to that? And how can it work today?

MR: Palestinians do not have a better reason to unite today than they did before 7 October. And that has to do with the players. If you were in Ramallah, you would have even less motivation now for unity to overcome the schism with Hamas, because Hamas would now be in a much stronger position. Similarly, if you’re in Gaza looking at the Palestinian Authority which is now disintegrating and might not survive this crisis, reconciliation for certain Hamas leaders might look like throwing Mahmoud Abbad an unnecessary lifeline.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.