In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Trump did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or his quixotic pursuit of the ultimate deal. But he did reference Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors while discussing the threat that Iran poses to the Middle East, saying, “Thankfully, there is a growing recognition in the wider Middle East that the countries of the region share common interest in battling extremism and unleashing economic opportunity. That is why it’s so important to have full normalized relations between Israel and its neighbors. Only a relationship built on common interest, mutual respect, and religious tolerance can forge a better future.”
Normalized relations between Israel and its neighbors are something that Israel has long sought, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has referenced this wish in his own addresses to the United Nations where he talks about the world changing and embracing Israel. It is true that Israel is far less isolated than it once was, and that mutual interests in containing and confronting Iran have created opportunities behind the scenes between Israel and its Sunni neighbors that never existed before. Still, there are limits to how far these relations will go and how public they become. The reason generally cited for this is the lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it isn’t simply the situation in the West Bank and Gaza that creates a disincentive for Arab states to recognize Israel and normalize bilateral relations. It is also that normalized relations with Israel compound the problems created by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by limiting the ways in which states can respond to Israel.
This dynamic was demonstrated in another world leader’s statements on the sidelines of the General Assembly: Jordan’s King Abdullah. The Jordanian monarch gave an interview to MSNBC, and when asked for his reaction to potential Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, he criticized the policy as disastrous but specifically singled out Jordan and Egypt – the two Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel – as the parties that would be most impacted. While he did not elaborate on why that is, the answer is fairly obvious; annexation would create pressure on Jordan and Egypt to downgrade relations with Israel and even to abrogate their peace treaties, which is a move that neither wants to make. But the very fact that these normalized relations exist creates additional pressure on Jordan that boxes it in.
The 1994 peace treaty with Israel has been beneficial to Jordan. It has opened the door to trade and investment that could not exist without formal ties, has deepened the security relationship between the two countries, and has allowed Jordan to operate in East Jerusalem without raising hackles or running afoul of Israel. But it has also caused Jordan enormous headaches, and not only because the Palestinian issue makes the peace treaty extremely unpopular among Jordanians. The existence of the peace treaty makes Israel take Jordan for granted, and thus the effect of the treaty is that Jordan often gets the short end of the stick from Israel as the Israeli government assumes that there are low risks to offending Jordan.
When a Jordanian attacked an Israeli security guard at the embassy in Amman, the guard shot and killed the assailant along with a bystander. Because of the peace treaty, the situation was resolved with the guard’s safe return to Israel. But the hero’s welcome the guard received, including photographs of Netanyahu hugging him, was a deliberate slap in the face to Jordan, and one that only happened because the prime minister assessed that it would not hinder cooperation with Jordan under the treaty. In a similar manner, Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley annexation pledge is more threatening to Jordan than it is to any other actor save the Palestinian Authority given how much it would inflame Palestinians inside Jordan. Yet Netanyahu apparently gave no regard to that variable because he is no longer trying to get something from Jordan. The treaty has created an interdependence that would not exist without it, and thus a paradox exists in Jordanian politics where cooperation with Israel becomes even more unpopular as it simultaneously becomes more necessary.
Without a peace treaty, Israel would still be cooperating with Jordan on security issues, as Netanyahu boasts that Israel does with several Gulf countries that do not recognize Israel. There would still be incentive for Israel to quietly help Jordan in limiting the foothold that jihadists gain in the country, or do what it can to keep Iranian proxies with an eye on Jordan at bay. The difference would be that Jordan would not have to deal with the protests against the peace treaty, or efforts in the Jordanian parliament to cancel the gas deal with Israel, or constantly have to address questions about how it can maintain relations with Israel when the government is threatening to annex parts of the West Bank.
As seen in the Jordan example, normalization with Israel carries the prospect of a series of problems with no glaringly obvious benefits given the limitations that will immediately be placed on rulers of Arab states due to public opinion. In the current environment, cooperation against Iran takes place irrespective of whether or not a country recognizes Israel. The potential in normalized relations lies in the economic sphere, and those types of deals and arrangements are precisely the ones that, due to their public nature, cannot be fully realized. Furthermore, if Israel’s treatment of Jordan is any indication, normalized relations mean the Israelis will only act more recklessly with regard to an Arab state’s domestic affairs.
A world in which all states normalized relations with Israel would be one that is eminently better and more fair. The double standard that exists for Israel in the realm of diplomatic relations is unjustifiable. But the reality is that Trump’s call for full relations between Israel and the Arab states will go unheeded. So long as there is no evident good reason for a government to take the risk that Jordan and Egypt have, the status quo will reign.