Israeli PM ‘Bennett is on the right track’ towards strengthening relations with Arab world, former advisor to Palestinian peace negotiating team tells ALL ARAB NEWS in exclusive interview
But Ghaith al-Omari urges Bennett to take steps to steadily improve economic conditions for the Palestinian people in the West Bank – and warns Biden not to be ‘too ambitious’ in pressing for a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal
A prominent Arab scholar and Middle East analyst is surprisingly positive about the steps Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is taking to strengthen relations throughout the Arab world.
Ghaith al-Omari believes the Abraham Accords are a “win-win-win” not just for Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
But he is also impressed with how Bennett and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid are steadily working to improve ties with Israel’s original peace partners, Egypt and Jordan.
Yet in an exclusive interview with ALL ARAB NEWS, he also warns the Biden administration not to try to push Palestinian and Israeli leaders to broker some grand bargain now, saying neither side is ready.
Rather, he believes Bennett and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz should take incremental steps to improve economic conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank, and try to quietly, discreetly warm relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Al-Omari served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during the permanent status talks between 1999 and 2001.
He also once served as the executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine.
Today, he is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Here is the transcript of my recent conversation with him in Washington, D.C. (lightly edited for clarity):
ROSENBERG: We recently passed the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 and its horrors. But we also recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords and the hope that it offers. Let’s start with our enemies. Where are we 20 years after 9/11 in terms of the threat of radical Islamism in the region? And then we’ll talk about whether there is a way forward to build upon the Abraham Accords?
GHAITH AL-OMARI: The threat of radical Islamism is still very real. I’m not sure whether the immediate threat of terrorism inside the U.S. is the same that we had 10 or 20 years ago. But in many ways, the culture war, the war of ideas in the Arab world is still not resolved.
You still have people who are pushing for very similar views that form the Taliban, that formed al-Qaeda. They’re still there. We saw it actually after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. How many voices like those on Al-Jazeera and many others were praising the Taliban and were pushing the narrative that the American surrender validates that the Taliban and radical Islamism is on the right path?
As moderates, we have a different vision, a vision that is represented by the Abraham Accords, but also a vision that goes beyond the Abraham Accords in terms of the Arab relations and the future of the Arab states.
As of yet, I don’t think either of these sides has won. But I think there is a lot that the US can do to impact this debate, not by preaching, but actually by advancing specific policies.
ROSENBERG: How do you assess Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s role in this debate, especially in light of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan?
AL-OMARI: There is certainly a lot of the messaging coming from Islamism, from Islamist movements, from the Muslim Brotherhood and the like, all of whom have congratulated the Taliban. And haven’t these Islamist groups been given a safe haven in Turkey, and been nourished in Turkey? The role that Erdogan plays in pushing this [pro-Islamist] war in the media, the role that Qatar plays in pushing this narrative, is extremely damaging.
What’s interesting is to juxtapose what Turkey is doing versus the other narrative, the moderate narrative, that is coming from the Saudis or the Emiratis or the Jordanians or Egyptians….
ROSENBERG: And the Bahrainis – let’s not forget the Bahrainis.
AL-OMARI: Yes, the list goes on – the Moroccans, too. All of them want to be integrated in a world that is less about radicalism and more about inclusiveness and more about prosperity and one that is not weighed back in an old, radical culture war that is never ending.
One of the biggest opportunities that I see – certainly one of the most important needs that I see now – is how do you integrate the Abraham Accords’ countries, the new peacemakers, with the old peacemakers. Each has something to bring to the table.
ROSENBERG: You’re speaking of Egypt and Jordan.
AL-OMARI: Absolutely. The Egyptians and Jordanians, at the end of the day, must play a critical role. As we saw in the last Gaza war, geography matters. Egypt and Jordan will always have a unique relationship with Israel and with the Palestinians because of geography and history.
But the Emirates and Bahrain are the really key countries in the Abraham Accords. Sudan has its own situation. And Morocco has always had a very unique show. They all, you know, have a lot to offer in terms of having an interest in the stability of Jordan and Egypt. They have an interest in deepening Jordanian-Israeli relations, and Egyptian-Israeli relations. These new peace partners have not engaged in war with Israel. They don’t have such a painful history with Israel. So perhaps they can show a way to have truly normalized relations with Israel, that the Jordanians and Egyptians do not and maybe cannot have at the moment.
The Gulf countries – and Morocco, and perhaps Sudan – can also be a bridge, not necessarily between the Israelis and the Palestinians but between Israel and some other Arab countries, to bring them into the warmth of the Abraham Accords.
ROSENBERG: Fascinating. So as an Arab, as an analyst of the region, as someone who was an adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiating team, how would you assess the new Israeli government? I’m curious especially on your take on how Naftali Bennett has been interacting with Arab leaders in his early months in office.
AL-OMARI: It’s fascinating to watch. The early indicators are extremely positive. I mean, look at the Jordan-Israel relations. Under Netanyahu, they were not only allowed to fray, but I think Bibi even proactively undermined relations with Jordan.
But we have seen Bennett and his team immediately pursue very intensive engagement with the Jordanians, and as a result these relations are actually warming up much faster than I thought they would.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For examples, see ALL ARAB NEWS articles about the 27th anniversary of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and the steady warming of bilateral ties, the Jordan-Israel water sharing deal in October, Bennett’s secret meeting with Jordan’s monarch in July, and King Abdullah II telling CNN in July that he was “encouraged” by his meeting with Bennett.]
Likewise with a country like Egypt. There were good relations between President Sisi with Netanyahu. Still, we have seen Bennett not taking the relationship for granted, but trying to build his own rapport, and [then he went] to meet Sisi.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For examples, see ALL ARAB NEWS articles about the Bennett-Sisi meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh in September, Egypt hosting a summit with Israel and Jordan in September, EgyptAir announcing new flights to Tel Aviv, and the first phone call between Bennett and Sisi in June.]
Now, when you look at the Emiratis, how Bibi canceled his trip to visit them four times – four times – I don’t know how that happens. Symbolism matters. I think maybe sometimes when you have a leader like Bibi who thinks in very strategic, concrete terms, he may forget that symbolism matters. Small things – like canceling on the Emiratis, like leaking pictures of a private meeting he was having with the former Omani foreign minister – things like this do a lot to create suspicion.
But Bennett seems to get it, and so far what he’s been doing is create an approach that seems to understand the sensitivities of some of these leaders and that seeks to build the kind of trust that might sound, you know, like a luxury. But from my experience, when things get tough, when you have to make spur of the moment difficult decisions, trust matters.
And I think so far, I think Bennett is on the right track.
A lot will depend on what happens on the Palestinian arena. No one expects progress. But if there is deterioration [between Israel and the Palestinians] that can be tracked to a Bennett policy, this might make things more complicated for Israeli relations with Arab states. But if there is stabilization with the Palestinians, which again, is where we see things going right now, then I think Bennett has an opportunity.
So far, Bennett has been doing the right things to actually deepen and put another layer on the relations with Israel’s Arab peace partners that were established by Bibi.
ROSENBERG: Well, that’s a counterintuitively positive assessment of our new government from an Arab policy expert – a Jordanian citizen – who has served as an advisor to senior Palestinian officials.
The other question I have, just briefly, is on Bennett’s statement during his two years in office: There will be no Palestinian state, but also no annexation of Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank.
Now, in some ways, we would expect that Bennett’s coalition can’t absorb, probably, huge decisions with the Palestinians. Fair enough. But Bennett is also a businessman. A pragmatist. And his relationship with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid suggests the possibility that there may be a room for economic cooperation to improve the lives of Palestinians.
Are you seeing any early movement on that front? And what would you recommend that the Bennett government do that could improve the lives of Palestinians?
AL-OMARI: Look, first of all, if we want to be honest with ourselves, the statement that Bennett made should have been made by, you know, leaders at least going back one and a half decades. The space for a peace deal was not there because of Palestinian and Israeli politics, and as we saw from previous experience, annexation and killing a two-state solution is also something that has its own complications.
You know, it’s funny because you shouldn’t ask me this question, “What can be done?” I would add, I say this because you should call and ask every IDF general who was the head of COGAT [the Israeli military agency administering the West Bank], because they know what needs to be done. It’s not only economic, by the way. There are many other aspects of security relations that are there. It can be deepened. There needs to be more freedom of movement for Palestinians, more ability for building and zoning in Palestinian communities. There is a lot that can be done, and the Palestinians and the Israelis on the ground know what is feasible and what can be done with minimal risk to Israel’s security with maximum benefit for the Palestinians. We from the outside can suggest, but frankly, I will take my lead from Palestinians and Israelis.
ROSENBERG: That’s fair. And I do think it’s an interesting question of what will this Israeli government do to improve the lives of the Palestinian people because Bennett was a defense minister, so he understands these issues. Gantz is the defense minister and understands these matters. Lapid as foreign minister certainly has an interest in these things. And Lapid supports a Palestinian state. So does Gantz. So, we are in a rare moment in which we almost have a non-ideological Israeli government coalition that actually is interested in what can we do to help the Palestinians deal with COVID, improve Palestinian economic growth, build new apartments, and so forth. And I think that’s kind of interesting because we just haven’t seen that in a long time.
AL-OMARI: True. And I’m actually encouraged by the fact that the Biden administration has no ambitions of creating a grand peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis right now. Because in the past we’ve seen that when you have big negotiations, these real practical, achievable things suffer. They don’t get done. They become chips that you use later. But they rarely are used.
And, by the way, this is my criticism of both Democratic and Republican leaders. Trump was as guilty of it, just as (former U.S. President Barack) Obama was.
So, I would warn, let’s not get too ambitious.
Let’s allow the Palestinians and Israelis to maintain their political narrative. Both leaders [Bennett and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] are in very difficult domestic political situations. The Israeli government is hanging literally by one or two votes. And the Palestinians – well, you know, I don’t want to go into their own internal political complexities.
We want to have a situation where positive things get done on the ground. We want to do good things in which Palestinians and Israelis feel an impact, their lives improve, but their leaders can still go to the public and say, “I did not give up on our dreams.”
We saw this recently in the Israeli announcement allowing Palestinians to build more housing units and also allowing growth within existing settlements. The Palestinians and Israelis coordinated this privately. Yet publicly, the Palestinians could say, “We reject this, we are against the settlements.” And, you know, even this pragmatic Israeli government still had to say, “Look, we are strengthening the settlement project.”
My point is, we need to give both sides their political space. Don’t force them. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, because I think a lot of good can be done in the short term, even in the medium term.
ROSENBERG: Fascinating. I think we are, surprisingly, at a potentially positive moment. Let’s pray that the leaders don’t all foul it up. Ghaith, thanks so much for your time and insights.