Israel: Normalising the abnormal (I): Terminologies

Israel: Normalising the abnormal (I): Terminologies
Comment: Arab regimes are already restoring diplomatic ties with Israel, despite the rhetoric surrounding solidarity with Palestinians, writes Dr. Azmi Bishara in the first part of his treatise on normalisation
6 min read
22 Aug, 2016
Relations between Arab capitals and Tel Aviv are thawing, writes Azmi Bishara [Getty]

"Normalisation" is not a standalone term. In full, it refers to the "normalisation of relations with the occupying state", that is, Israel, in the context of the Arab-Israeli peace process - particularly the negotiations that took place after the signing of the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel aiming to reach agreements on restoring relations.

Egypt's former prime minister, Mustafa Khalil, used the term to describe eight agreements that he signed with Israel. Before that, Israeli officials emphasised the term "normalising relations" - meaning economic and cultural relations - to warn against having a peace limited to formal diplomatic ties.

Israel insisted on normalising relations during negotiations as a fundamental demand, to bolster the peace accords and strengthen their credibility. It is the terminology of Israeli diplomacy.

"Anti-normalisation" became a slogan for political forces opposed to the peace accords, whether they were supporters of a "just, comprehensive peace" on the basis of a just resolution to the Palestinian question, or opponents of any kind of peace with Israel.

When the PLO and Jordan signed agreements with Israel, and official relations began with Israel through representative offices and embassies, and in the context of trade relations and economic collaboration, pressure shifted to civil societies to reject normalisation, especially it concerned mutual visits and joint activities with Israeli trade unions, writers' federations, sports clubs, and so on.

The rejection of normalisation was a sound socio-political movement and it remains so, despite the fact that Arab regimes have used it to undermine dissidents at a time when many of these regimes were negotiating with Israel and declaring openly that peace was their strategic voice. Anti-normalisation has also been marred by a lot of sloganeering, one-upmanship, and accusations of treason against political opponents.

Predictably, no strategy beyond rhetoric was developed to achieve the stated goal. Instead, many self-appointed experts emerged to sabotage the struggle

On the other hand, there have been some Arab individuals who sought to develop cultural relations with Israel. In the framework of the so-called peace accords, relations with Israel on many levels were established by Arabs before achieving a just peace, and it became necessary to confront to this normalisation.

However, some took advantage of this to revive aged, empty slogans that have proven to be meaningless - little more than paper - concerning the dismal reality of Arabs since their 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel. Certain terms were brought back into public discourse, despite being useless in understanding Arab realities, let alone what is taking place in Israeli society itself.

Predictably, no strategy beyond rhetoric was developed to achieve the stated goal. Instead, many self-appointed experts emerged to sabotage the struggle, mainly by turning the battle with Israel into a battle with domestic opponents, whom they accused of implicit treason.

With friends like these, Palestine needs no enemies.

Regardless, the issue of normalisation is fundamental to the struggle. The Arabs who cling to the just Palestinian cause as a pan-Arab cause, refuse to accept Israel as a normal political entity in the region and thus adopt anti-normalization as a self-evident stance against something that cannot be accepted as normal.

Naturally, the full boycott of Israel and her institutions is the simplest and most effective approach. For one thing, accepting any form of normalised relations with Israel, even in "special cases", opens the floodgates for full normalisation.

Many excuses are used, including praying in Al-Aqsa Mosque, and accepting an Israeli stamp on one's passport. But Israel welcomes such visitors to Jerusalem under its occupation, while preventing undesirables from crossing its border, sometimes in an incomprehensible manner. In the meanwhile, Palestinians in the occupied territories are not allowed to enter Jerusalem - including to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The issue of normalisation is more relevant in Arab countries that maintain diplomatic ties with Israel. For example, the challenge in Egypt and Jordan is bigger than the challenge in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Yet since Oslo, there have been attempts by some Arab countries that do not share borders with Palestine to normalise relations with Israel. The pretext often used is that no one should be "more Palestinian than the Palestinians", since Palestinians - at least some of them - had accepted relations with Israel by virtue of the Oslo Accords. Thus, Tunisia and Mauritania welcomed Israeli representative offices for a while, and Morocco and Tunisia accepted Israeli tourists, while Qatar and Oman hosted Israeli commercial missions 0 Qatar closed down the office in the aftermath of the 2009 war on Gaza.

Recently, an unprecedented event took place: a Saudi delegation visited Israel and met with Israeli lawmakers. Shortly after, the UAE took part in US military exercises alongside Israel. Credible Israeli-sourced reports suggest there are developed ties between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, and it is no secret that some Gulf countries are keen to develop political and security ties with Israel: sometimes this is justified by the pretext that Iran is a joint foe, which is an Israeli claim, and others by the need to strengthen ties with Washington via Tel Aviv.

The struggle against the Israeli apartheid regime should converge with the struggle for democracy in the region and the world

With policies like these, debating details becomes futile. There is no point in a discussion of whether there is proof or not regarding security ties with Israel, and whether a visit to Israel was made with official consent or not. The fact is that all these approaches ignore the very clear reality, namely, that there is a political approach that not only accepts negotiations and normalisation with Israel but is already engaging in varying levels of dealings with Israel, before a fair or quasi-fair political settlement is reached in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It is important to have clarity about this for the sake of having a successful popular struggle against normalisation. The Arab position has been in steady decline since the Camp David accords, the invasion of Kuwait - subsequent collapse of Arab solidarity - and the Oslo Accords. The decline has nothing to do with recent Arab uprisings, which in truth stopped this decline for a whole year as the Arab people took charge.

Protests outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo were a milestone, and so was Egyptian solidarity with Gaza during the Israeli war. However, the Arab position resumed its decline following the success of Cairo's counter-revolution and the turn to violence and civil war in some countries.

In my opinion, the struggle against the Israeli apartheid regime should converge with the struggle for democracy in the region and the world.

The Palestinian people are not God's chosen people that the Arabs should side with without paying attention to their own issues. The Palestinians are the victims of a people that claimed to be God’s chosen people. Ultimately, the history of Palestine has proven, since the start of the twentieth century, that its causes compliment the causes of the region's peoples, and vice versa.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @AzmiBishara

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.