Three years after the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel is making a concerted effort to normalise relations with the Arab world. This week, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited the Bahriani capital Manama to officially open an embassy there.
By the end of the week, the President of the Moroccan House of Councillors Enaam Mayara, was speaking at the Israeli Parliament (Knesset). This is happening within a week of a secret meeting between the Israeli foreign minister and his Libyan counterpart in Rome backfiring.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to damage-control the fallout of the Libya meeting and its disclosure. He rebuked his foreign minister for leaking the news about the meeting that led to Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush being sacked and fleeing her country to Turkey.
Libya still criminalises contacts with Israel, and the news of the secret meeting led to anti-Israel riots in the streets of the capital Tripoli. In a TV interview, Netanyahu said the disclosure of the meeting was “a mistake that will not be repeated,” and emphasised that from now on such contacts will need to receive his prior approval.
Since the new hard-line government took office late last year, high-level contacts between Israel and Arab states had almost totally ceased. Countries around the region that had established relations with the Jewish state criticised the far-right policies of Israel after the Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to Al- Aqsa Mosque (Temple Mount).
Even the three countries that signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in late 2020 all but froze relations with Tel Aviv. Israeli opposition and media analysts blamed the cooling of relations on Israel’s security policy against Palestinians in the West Bank along with incidents accompanying far-right ministers at Al-Aqsa.
The opening of the Israeli Embassy in Manama was planned for earlier this year, but Bahrain had to postpone it in the light of violent developments in the Occupied Territories. Abu Dhabi also issued statements blaming Israel for rising tensions.
Even Morocco, which since re-establishing relations with Israel has maintained a positive stance, had to take action. In June, Rabat cancelled its plan to host this summer’s Negev Forum in protest of Israeli settlement announcements. The gathering of foreign ministers from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, and the US has been postponed several times since it was first slated to be held in March.
In July, Israel recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory of the Western Sahara, over which Rabat has battled rebels. Netanyahu was invited to visit Morocco by King Mohamed VI. No date has yet been set for the visit, but the speaker of the Moroccan senate’s visit to Israel this week was planned then. Netanyahu is also expected to fly to the UAE in late November for the COP28 climate summit in Dubai.
Arab capitals of the three latest countries to normalise relations with Israel – the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco – would prefer not to be entangled in Israeli internal politics. It is equally important for them to avoid derailing any progress made on the mediation front with Israel, as an Emirati commentator told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Israeli move to re-energise normalisation efforts with neighbouring states takes place, while Netanyahu’s government is still under pressure at home. Political opposition and popular resentment of internal policies do not appear to be subsiding.
Bahrain agreed to Cohen’s visit and the opening of the embassy despite the lack of enthusiasm in the country for Israel compared to three years prior. A poll by the Washington Institute showed that 45 per cent of Bahrainis holding very or somewhat positive views of the agreements in November 2020.
That support had steadily eroded to just 20 per cent by March 2023. Another poll in April found that an average of just 16 per cent of respondents in Arab countries viewed the Abraham Accords as “somewhat” or “very” positive for the region.
Israeli officials are not ready to accept Arab public opinion or the general mood of the Arab world. In an interview with the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) before the Manama Embassy opening, Eitan Na’eh, Israel’s ambassador to Bahrain, said that while there is still opposition to the accords in the Gulf state, “we are seeing those numbers decreasing.”
Similarly, some in the Gulf would dispute the figures of public opinion surveys. Houda Nonoo, Bahrain’s former ambassador to the US, told JNS: “Like with any change, some people take longer to acclimate than others, and we have seen that here as well.”
Almost all Israelis, whether in the government or the opposition, believe that a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia would change public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world. That is why Netanyahu is keen to end his political legacy with an agreement on normalisation of relations with Riyadh.
The American administration of President Joe Biden is leading efforts to achieve that Saudi-Israeli détente, partly to prove US weight in the region after China brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran and partly in support of its first ally in the region.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly