This article was originally published in CNN Arabic [https://arabic.cnn.com/middle-east/article/2023/03/30/netanyahu-government-relations-with-arab-countries]
Repulsive statements recently made by Israel’s finance minister demonstrate how corrupt and irresponsible the Netanyahu government is and the damage that it has inflicted on Israel. This damage will endure as long as this extremist nationalist and messianic government remains in power.
The recent reprehensible statement made by Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, that the Palestinian village of Huwara be “wiped out,” is beyond contempt. And just a week later he stated that there no such a thing as the Palestinian people, which rightfully evoked widespread international condemnation. Smotrich’s extremely chilling statements will not only severely undermine the normalization process between Israel and the Arab states who are at peace with Israel, but will also prevent any other Arab countries from normalizing relations with Israel as long as the Netanyahu government is in power. Moreover, such ugly utterances will make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict front and center, which Israel, and especially this fanatic government, wanted to sidestep as it pretends that the occupation is normal and that the 75-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of no consequence.
To understand the gravity of what Smotrich, the leader of the ultranationalist Religious Zionist Party, said, it is important to quote him verbatim. In the first instance, he stated that “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it,” which evoked unprecedented international outcry.
Instead of condemning him in the strongest terms, Prime Minister Netanyahu added insult to injury by characterizing Smotrich’s shocking declaration, in a tweet four days later, as “inappropriate.” Inappropriate? Stating that Israel should wipe out a whole Palestinian village with nearly 6,000 men, women, and children is just inappropriate? But then Netanyahu thanked his fascist minister for retracting his statement instead of reprimanding him. How absurd and disgusting.
In Paris, only a week later, Smotrich made his second most outrageous assertion, stating: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” arguing: “Who was the first Palestinian king? What language do the Palestinians have? Was there ever a Palestinian currency? Is there a Palestinian history or culture? Nothing.” Whereas this statement was outlandish, what has infuriated Jordan in particular and other Arab states beyond words is that the podium where he was standing at was decorated with a variation of the Israeli flag showing an enlarged map of Israel that comprised the West Bank, Gaza, and most of Jordan.
The incensed Jordanian foreign ministry “warned of the seriousness of the continuation of these extremist actions issued by the same minister…” adding that Smotrich’s actions violated the Jordan-Israel peace treaty. Although the Israeli foreign ministry’s response that Israel is “committed to the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan and recognizes the territorial integrity of Jordan” was obviously necessary, the stain that was left behind will linger as long as Netanyahu is in power.
Indeed, shouldn’t Netanyahu have been aware of his lunatic minister’s long-held views of disdain towards Palestinians and denial of their right to a state? This is a minister who Netanyahu also put in charge, no less, of the Israeli unit that controls border crossings and permits for Palestinians. This is even more acutely critical when it comes to Jordan, which is extremely sensitive to any suggestion that Jordan is Palestine, or even worse that Jordan is an integral part of greater Israel, as many extremist Israeli nationalists would like it to be. To claim that the abominable flag was just an ornament, as some Israeli officials have tried to do, only smacks the world in the face with the disingenuousness and dishonesty of Netanyahu and his dodgy clan.
And what about the international community’s reactions to this loose cannon minister who caused irreparable damage to Israel’s standing in the eyes of its friends and allies? Scores of countries, including the US, Britain, Russia, Turkey, Canada, and Switzerland, along with the UAE, Egypt, Bahrin, the Palestinian Authority, and the UN, have expressed their deep revulsion. They characterized Smotrich’s unrestrained statements as being irresponsible, repugnant, unacceptable, intolerable, dangerous, reckless, inflammatory, contradicting moral and human values, inciting, provocative, shameful, and completely unhelpful.
The waste that has spewed from Smotrich’s mouth will have serious repercussions on Israel’s relations with the Arab states on a number of fronts that cannot be mitigated as long as Netanyahu and his culprits are in power, as no Arab state will trust what this government will do or say next. The Netanyahu government has lost its credibility, and no assurances will assuage the Arab states’ concerns.
To begin with, Netanyahu’s dream of normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia will not be realized, not only because the Saudis do not trust him but also because they know perfectly well where he stands on the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu vowed time and again that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch. I have been told on a number of occasions by top Saudi officials that regardless of Riyadh’s tacit cooperation with Israel, which includes intelligence sharing, the sale of Israeli technology, and security collaboration, the kingdom will not normalize relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia remains committed to the Arab Peace Initiative that it introduced in 2002, which conditioned the establishment of Arab-Israeli peace to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution.
Moreover, having just resumed diplomatic relations with Iran, the Saudis no longer see Iran’s regional ambition and nuclear program as an imminent threat. Although the Saudis still want to continue to cooperate with Israel on regional security, the degree of cooperation will not be, over time, as pivotal as it has been when Iran was considered Saudi Arabia’s staunch adversary, especially if the rapprochement between the two countries endures. For Netanyahu, the Saudi move towards Iran was nothing but a real slap in the face, mainly because Tehran is Israel’s arch enemy. The debacle over Smotrich’s ill-fated statements did nothing but sour Saudi-Israeli tacit bilateral relations and it will be out of Netanyahu’s reach to mend.
Second, other than the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, which normalized relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords, there is no other Arab country that has signaled its readiness to normalize relations with Israel. If Oman and Qatar were remotely contemplating such a move, it is no longer on the table at this particular juncture. The Arab states view Smotrich’s terrible statements about the Palestinians as a reflection of the position of the Netanyahu government, which foreclosed completely any prospect of other Arab states normalizing relations with Israel. Third, given the Netanyahu government’s overall new policy in connection with the Israeli settlements, the likelihood of further annexation of Palestinian territories raised serious concerns among the Arab states about the government’s intentions and true objectives. The UAE, which has moved rapidly to increase its commercial ties with Israel, including the import of military hardware, technology, intelligence sharing, and trade, cancelled Netanyahu’s scheduled visit to the Emirates, citing Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount.
The Emirates decided to freeze its purchase of military equipment to send a clear message about its profound displeasure with the Netanyahu government. UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan conveyed to Israel that “As long as we can’t be certain that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a government that he controls, we can’t cooperate.” The reaction to the new developments in Israel is not limited to the UAE alone; other Arab states who have normalized relations with Israel are now engaged in reassessing their ties and are unlikely to resume business as usual until there is a new Israeli government they can trust.
Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was sidestepped by some of the Gulf and other Arab states, and they normalized relations with Israel due to their overriding geostrategic interests and because they have become, to some degree, weary of the Palestinians’ disunity and intransigence. The recent mishaps by the Israeli government have put the Palestinian conflict back at center stage. As a result, any future normalization of relations with Israel by any other Arab country and the expansion of relations with the current government will more than likely be tied directly to progress made by Israel on the Palestinian front. This, in my view, will accelerate the demise of the Netanyahu government. The two most extremist ministers, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, who are ravenous for Palestinian blood, will not accept any peaceful overture toward the Palestinians, especially now following Netanyahu’s defeat in his efforts to subordinate Israel’s judiciary to politicians’ whims, of which these two renegades are the staunchest supporters. In the final analysis, what has happened in Israel in recent days may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The Israelis may well be awakened to the reality that what they need now is a new generation of leaders who have a vision, but who are also practical and understand that Israel’s future security and well-being depends on developing solid and progressive relationships with the Arab states based on genuine mutual trust.
To achieve that, Israel must spare no efforts to end the conflict with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution, which will be the key to stability and a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace. ____________ Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.