In the Middle East, which has experienced the suffering of the “Arab Spring” for ten years, starting in 2020, a “tide of reconciliation” among some countries has begun. The Middle East has ushered in a new era of relative peace. Ceasefire, resumption of diplomatic relations, reconciliation and development are the key words of this new era. Especially after Saudi Arabia and Iran announced their agreement to restore diplomatic relations on March 10 this year under the mediation of China, the “reconciliation trend” in the Middle East that had been brewing for more than three years suddenly accelerated. On April 12, within one day, Tunisia and Syria resumed diplomatic relations, and Bahrain and Qatar resumed diplomatic relations. The Middle East, known for its wars and turmoil, seemed to have “suddenly arrived like a spring breeze overnight” until the “Aqsa Flood” shocked the world.
Since the start of formal peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel in 1991, the United States and Europe, the international community, the Arab world and Israel have all believed that resolving the Palestinian issue is a prerequisite for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Arab and Israel. The 2002 Arab League Summit adopted the Beirut Declaration, which made a just settlement of the Palestinian issue a prerequisite for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel.
In 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed that Israel could shelve the Palestinian issue and establish diplomatic relations with Arab countries first, and then deal with the Palestinian issue. This was considered by many to be a foolish dream. But now the idea has become a reality. Obviously, the Palestinian issue has been marginalized by the international community, which is one of the biggest changes in Middle East politics in the past decade.
The long-term trend of Arab-Israeli détente
Relying on their abundant oil resources, the Gulf Arab countries have been able to perform well in regional politics and even on the global stage. But the Arab world as a whole has been struggling.
In the Middle East, the Arab world enjoys an absolute advantage in terms of population, resources, and number of countries. After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Middle East was mainly an Arab Middle East. Especially after Iran was sanctioned in 1979, the influence of non-Arab countries in Middle Eastern politics limited. However, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union ended in 1990, and Arab countries lost the support of the Soviet Union. They could only imagine that the United States would uphold a fair and objective stance on Arab-Israeli relations. After 2011, the United States entered a period of strategic contraction, the Arab world fell into civil strife, and non-Arab countries such as Iran, Turkey, and Israel quickly filled the vacuum. The Middle East is no longer the Arab Middle East.
Currently, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have been in civil war for many years, and Iraq and Lebanon continue to be in internal turmoil. Non-Arab countries such as Iran, Turkey, and Israel have intervened in Arab countries’ affairs, which in turn has forced Arab countries to align themselves.
Within the Arab countries, due to different opinions on issues such as the United States, Iran and Israel, the Arab countries are fragmented and have complicated conflicts. On important issues, the League of Arab States (Arab League) is in name only. Traditionally, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria were the centers of the Arab world. After the 1970s, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar moved to the center of the Arab world’s political stage with their oil economy. Now, traditional powers such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria are suffering from war, political turmoil, and economic recession, while countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not yet recognized leaders of the Arab world.
More importantly, after years of revolution and turmoil, most Arab countries have still not found a sustainable national governance model, and the current model remains the same as before the Arab Spring. Politically, all Arab countries adopt “nationalism”, which means that the state plays a leading or controlling role in politics, economy, society, culture and other aspects. Economically, the land rent-based economic model of most countries in the Middle East has not changed. Oil-producing countries such as the Gulf Arab countries are typical land-rent countries, and non-oil-producing countries also share the oil revenue of oil-producing countries through remittances, aid and other channels.
Currently, Arab countries account for 5% of the global population but 50% of the world’s refugees. Arab political ambitions subsequently declined, and Arab “nationalism” gradually drifted away. Arabs no longer pursued a unified country, but actively pursued their own national interests. At the same time, there are various signs that the weight of the “Israeli threat” in Arab politics is diminishing, and Arab-Israeli detente has become a long-term trend.
On the one hand, after the 1967 war, Israel did not occupy new territories in Arab countries. Since the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel has not had a war with an Arab country. The Arab world has been plagued by civil war, unrest, and economic recession in the past decade, none of which are directly related to Israel. On the other hand, Israel established diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1979, Jordan in 1994, and normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan at the end of 2020.
Although the Arab League still adheres to the 2002 “Arab Initiative” that a just settlement of the Palestinian issue is a prerequisite for Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, six of the 22 Arab League countries have normalized relations with Israel. The gap in unity on this issue is getting wider and wider. At the same time, the drop in oil prices in 2014 put the Arab economy in trouble. Countries have stepped up reform and opening up and actively sought foreign investment and technology. In this context, Israel’s strong economic, technological and military influence is particularly attractive.
The new wave of establishing diplomatic relations in 2020 has made the collective position of the Arab League useless, and it is inevitable for more Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2023, positive progress was made in negotiations on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. What deserves special attention is that compared with the “cold peace” between Egypt, Jordan and Israel, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel may be a comprehensive exchange. During the Israeli Hanukkah in 2020, an estimated 25,000 Israelis visited the UAE, which was a first in the history of Arab-Israeli relations.
The power gap between Palestine and Israel is widening
At present, the Palestinian issue remains the central issue in the Arab world, and Arab countries and their people still support the Palestinian cause. However, the Palestinian issue has been dragging on for a long time, the prospects for resolution are becoming increasingly slim, and the patience of Arab countries is gradually running out. The wave of diplomatic relations established in recent years shows that Arab countries have decoupled the Palestinian cause from Arab-Israeli relations and will no longer allow the Palestinian issue to hijack Arab-Israeli relations. Before 1979, Arab countries did not hesitate to use war to defend Palestine; later, Arab countries did not hesitate to use political, economic and diplomatic means to defend Palestine; in the future, Arab countries may only use moral means to defend Palestine.
In 1981, two years after Egypt established diplomatic relations with Israel, Egyptian President Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. In 2020, Israel has normalized relations with four Arab countries, and no Arab country has seen street protests. This shows how Arab attitudes towards Israel have changed. Clearly, the Palestinian-Israeli issue has declined in importance in Arab politics. The Palestinian cause is first the cause of the Palestinians themselves, and then the cause of Arab countries and the Islamic world. This is a major strategic shift in Middle East politics.
More importantly, the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks have reached a dead end since 2014, and the Palestinians’ negotiating position has become even weaker. Since the Oslo Peace Agreement in 1993, Israel’s power position has rapidly strengthened, while the situation of the Palestinians has continued to deteriorate, and the gap in strength between the two sides has continued to widen. However, internationally, the Palestinian cause has received varying degrees of support from the United States, Europe, Russia, and middle powers. Regionally, Arab countries have placed the Palestinian cause at the core of Arab-Israeli relations, which has given Palestine a bargaining chip beyond its strength.
However, as the international and regional situation changes, the enthusiasm of major powers to intervene in Palestinian affairs has declined. During the Trump administration, the U.S. government even withdrew its support for Palestine and supported Israel one-sidedly. The Biden administration has moderately revised the policies of the Trump administration, but it has not rolled back all the pro-Israel measures of the Trump administration. The weakening of U.S. support for the Palestinian cause will be a long-term trend.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel at the end of 2020 shows that the logic of Arab countries in dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli issue has completely changed. In the past, it was to solve the Palestinian-Israeli issue first, and then to solve the Arab-Israeli issue. Now, it is to solve the Arab-Israeli issue first, and then to solve the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The Palestinians must return to reality and handle their relations with Israel based on their own strength and position. The mismatch between power and justice has become more prominent, and politics has further exposed its ugly side.
Compared with the situation of Palestine, the situation of Israel is constantly improving. Historically, isolated by Islamic countries and restricted by the United States, Israel failed to fully demonstrate its strength and failed to gain a corresponding international status. Israel has the economic, technological and military capabilities to become a regional power. Among the 22 countries in the Middle East, Israel has the most developed economy and the strongest military.
However, for a long time, apart from protecting its actual or imagined own security and occupying Palestine, Israel has rarely been involved in political and security affairs in the Middle East, and has failed to play its role as a major power in the Middle East. This is an abnormal state. From a strength perspective, Israel should become an all-round Middle East power.
As Arab-Israeli relations have improved and the United States has allowed Israel to move freely, the space for Israel to interfere in regional politics has greatly expanded. At the same time, Iran’s influence has expanded in Syria and Iraq, and Israel’s sense of crisis has deepened. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Iraq has made Israel feel that the United States is no longer reliable, and the pressure to independently participate in regional affairs has increased.
In the past 10 years, Israel’s diplomatic and military actions have become increasingly active and bold. Diplomatically, Israel has openly negotiated with Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations and containment of Iran; it has normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Militarily, Israel has carried out air strikes against Palestine, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries, carried out targeted killings in Iran, and conducted joint military operations with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel seems to be moving towards the center of the Middle East political stage. This is probably a reality that Arab countries, Iran, and Turkey must face. Because Israel has such strength, Indyk, the American Council on Foreign Relations Research Institute and former ambassador to Israel, once said that Iran threatens to destroy Israel, but Israel has the strength (nuclear weapons) to destroy Iran.
The Palestinian-Israeli issue has gradually become the “Israel issue”
On the surface, bypassing the Palestinian issue and normalizing relations between Arab countries and Israel under the mediation of the United States is in line with the common interests of the United States, Arab countries and Israel. This is a win-win situation. Even when Israel signed the “Abraham Accords” with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020, people once had a good wish: easing relations with Arab countries would eventually promote the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
But in essence, the Palestinian issue cannot be circumvented. It is like a “ticking time bomb” that can undermine and affect the Arab-Israeli peace talks at any time. Since 2002, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has not decreased but increased. The large-scale violent conflicts in the past two years have shown that promoting Palestinian-Israeli peace through Arab-Israeli peace is an unrealistic fantasy. Not only that, the Palestinian-Israeli issue is evolving or has evolved into a permanent problem that plagues Israel. Of course, the Palestinian issue also affects Arab countries, but the impact is not as great as that of Israel.
From the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 to the Six-Day War in 1967, the Palestinian-Israeli issue was an “Arab issue”, which was epitomized by three Arab-Israeli wars. The focus was on Israel’s right to exist. After Arab countries suffered repeated defeats, the 1967 Arab League summit proposed the famous “Three Nos” declaration: no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no peace for Israel.
From the signing of the Oslo Peace Agreement in 1993 to the failure of the last round of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in the United States in 2014, the Palestinian-Israeli issue was an “international issue”, which was embodied in the relevant parties proposing one peace process framework after another, with the focus being the issue of the independent Palestinian state. , at that time the United States, Europe, and Arab countries invested a lot of political, economic and diplomatic resources to help Palestine establish a state. The United States has long presided over the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks process, and successive governments have proposed their own plans for the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and invested massive political resources. Since 2002, the United Nations, the United States, Russia, and the European Union have formed the “Quartet on the Middle East Issue” to collectively mediate the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
From 1994 to 2017, the international community’s aid to Palestine amounted to US$35.4 billion, of which the EU accounted for 18.4%, the United States accounted for 15.7%, and Saudi Arabia accounted for 10.5%. Because of its broad international support, Palestine gains negotiating leverage beyond its position of power. However, as the international and regional situation changes, the enthusiasm of major powers to intervene in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks has dropped significantly, and the Palestinian cause has gradually become the cause of the Palestinians.
Since Trump abandoned the “two-state solution” in 2017, the Palestinian-Israeli issue has become an “Israeli issue”, which is embodied in Israel’s all-round occupation and control of Palestine. The focus is on the Palestinians’ right to exist, and Israel’s unscrupulous blockade , suppress and expel Palestinians. While the Palestinian issue is marginalized in international and Arab politics, Israel is becoming more and more prosperous, and the gap in power between Palestine and Israel continues to widen.
On the one hand, Israel is flourishing in regional politics and its external environment has improved unprecedentedly. In the past two years, Israel has normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. It has hosted or participated in a number of small multilateral mechanisms, including the quadrilateral mechanism of the United States, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, the trilateral talks between Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, Israel, The foreign ministers’ meeting of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, and Morocco has become the center stage of Middle East politics.
On the other hand, Israel clearly opposes the “two-state solution” and does not accept Palestine becoming a complete sovereign state. It cruelly squeezes the living space of the Palestinians. The conflict between Palestine and Israel continues to intensify, and the hope of a complete solution becomes increasingly slim.
Domestically, in 2018, Israel passed the “Jewish Nation Act”, confirming the country’s “Jewish nature” and excluding Palestinians, who account for 20% of the total population, from the nation, completely shattering the Palestinians’ pursuit of equal citizenship status. dream. In Gaza, Israel has implemented a strict sea, land and air blockade for a long time since 2006, creating the world’s largest “open-air prison”. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel has strengthened its military occupation, expanded Jewish settlements, and expelled Palestinians. In the history of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the establishment of a Palestinian state has never been as unrealistic as it is today.
Therefore, although Israel’s occupation and management of Palestine is illegal and has been universally condemned by the international community, including the United States, this sad status quo will obviously continue to solidify. Currently, there are 1.99 million Palestinians in Israel and 4.91 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, for a total of 6.9 million. The Jewish population in Israel is approximately 6.82 million. How to effectively govern the 6.9 million Palestinians will be the focus of the Palestinian issue in the future. As international power recedes, Palestine is weak and divided. Israel has both huge power and a heavy burden, as well as challenges, traps and risks.
Israel pursues détente and peace with Arab countries, while it pursues suppression and isolation of the Palestinians. The two main lines are in serious conflict and cannot bring about lasting and real peace. Looking back at the evolution of Palestinian-Israeli relations over the past 70 years, from 1948 to 1980 it was the process of Israel gaining the right to exist as a nation through war; from 1990 to 2016 it was the process of Palestine trying to establish a state through negotiations; since 2014, there has been no such process. Peace negotiations, the Palestinians dialogue with Israel mainly through violent conflicts. Today, no one knows the final direction of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, just as no one knew the outcome of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and no one imagined in 1993 that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process would achieve the results it has today.