Erbil Conference Backlash Demonstrates That Normalization Remains Political Suicide
While we have not seen the last of the Abraham Accords, the one potentially insurmountable obstacle to this project is Arab public opinion
The only true obstacle to Arab countries’ normalization with the Israeli state has been the public fury that such a process would provoke.
The backlash to the summit in Erbil whose participants advocated Iraqi recognition and normalization of ties with "Israel" has provoked some comical back-tracking.
A US spokesman for the American-led ‘anti-ISIS coalition’ pleaded ignorance of the conference’s content or even of it having taken place. Given the awesome surveillance and intelligence-gathering capacities of the United States alone, to say nothing of the rest of the western coalition, the notion that such a politically explosive move would be made entirely under their noses is hard to take seriously.
Even more incredibly, the keynote speaker of the conference, Wissam al-Hardan has reportedly claimed that he did not mean to call for recognition of "Israel" and even that he did not write the WSJ op-ed advocating recognition published under his name. Hardan was the leader of the US-backed tribal ‘Sahwa movement’ that fought against the Iraqi insurgency.
Anger at such an event being held on Iraqi soil worked its way into the solemnities of Arba’een in the Holy City of Najaf.
Such immediate public revulsion underscores that for most Arab governments, the step of recognizing the Israeli entity is a decision that augurs dubious prospects for their political futures.
Almost since the beginning of its engagement in the region after World War II, the US has been keen to construct a regional military and economic alliance that would sew the Israelis and the Arab regimes at the hip. Such a pro-Western bloc was intended to resemble similar economic systems such as the European Economic Community (EEC) and the North Atlantic and South-East Asian Treaty Organisations (NATO, SEATO).
Early US efforts had hoped to make Egypt under President Nasser the key anchor of a pro-Western alliance system, but the first three Arab-Israeli wars from 1948 to 1967 clearly made recognition and normalization a non-starter. The unified command structure of the United Arab Republic lasted only a few years from 1958 and was rendered defunct by the 1961 coups in Syria and North Yemen.
The creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 was arguably the first concrete step in this direction as a reaction to the collapse of the pro-American monarchy in Iran in 1979. The fall of the Pahlavi dynasty also put an end to the initially British-sponsored CENTO alliance which had comprised Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, and the UK.
A renewed opportunity for pan-Arab-Israeli integration came in the 1990s with the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty and the launching of the Oslo ‘Peace Process.’ Prior to his assassination, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin claimed the accords would begin a process of economic integration with the Arab World that would render the Palestinian cause irrelevant. Rabin’s predictions seemed to be bearing fruit by the time of the Trump administration, with the ‘Abraham Accords,’ leading to normalization with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Like much of the Trump foreign policy, the Biden administration has committed to expanding the Abraham Accords to include many more Arab countries, leaving the question of Palestinian self-determination unaddressed.
From the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, at every point that the Arab countries have stated their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even the most supposedly ‘radical’ had implicitly accepted recognition of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the territories occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967. Since the Israelis never called their bluff, the rulers of the Arab world were spared (or denied) the opportunity to follow through on their rhetoric.
The envisioned military dimension to this process is now called the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), which has often been described as a Middle Eastern NATO that would act on behalf of US interests in the region. Again, the projected core of this alliance would be Egypt, Jordan, and the GCC states, and possibly "Israel".
While we have not seen the last of the Abraham Accords, the one potentially insurmountable obstacle to this project is Arab public opinion. Dissident groups in the UAE have already formed movements opposing normalization. The uproar in Iraq will doubtless also be on the minds of the Saudi regime as it remains the most significant and likely regional state considering formal recognition of "Israel".
The Western mainstream will wax lyrical about the historic nature of such agreements but in the long run, any Arab state that maintains open relations with Tel Aviv is playing a dangerous game with their domestic legitimacy. The Palestinian cause is and will remain the totemic Pan-Arab cause and any moves seen to abandon it will further empower the ‘Axis of Resistance,’ and similar movements committed to ending the Western domination of the region.