It’s somewhat ironic and intriguing that under Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps the most right-wing, intransigent and controversial (not least due to his ongoing corruption cases) prime minister the country has had so far, Israel is now enjoying buoyant support and good-will from its erstwhile Arab detractors with particular reference to Saudi Arabia and the majority of the Gulf states with perhaps the exception of Qatar – a major supporter of Hamas and Gaza. Qatar has insisted that Israel first commit to the Arab Peace Initiative (API) embodied in withdrawal from the West Bank, East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine (Dawlat Filastin), and the right of return or repatriation of refugees.
Currently, among the Arab and Muslim nations, Israel enjoys full diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan. Turkey downgraded relations in 2011 only to restore them in 2016 but both countries again cut top-level diplomatic ties in May 2018 while retaining their respective embassies. Azerbaijan is another Muslim country enjoying full diplomatic ties with Israel.
In December 2020, Al-Jazeera reported that Turkey is seeking to improve its bilateral relations with Israel by picking a former graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and pro-Palestine advocate to be its nominated ambassador. However, there’s been no concrete response from the Israeli side. The inertia could be reflective of Israel’s triumphalist mood – in successfully securing normalisation agreements from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Paradoxically then, Israel’s external front especially with reference to its immediate (Arab/Muslim) neighbours in particular with the sole exception of Syria, is fully secure while domestically or better still its relations with the state of Palestine remain status quo ante (the same as before).
Such a scenario could also be aptly described as the “paradox of Israel’s moral legitimacy” – since the Jewish state has now obtained that moral legitimacy which it had craved but the one remaining country which is also its closest neighbour continues to be subjugated and occupied and to a certain extent deprived of freedom of movement of people and goods as a basic and fundamental human right – contrary to all international laws and moral norms.
As the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.
Not only has Netanyahu secured a diplomatic coup (again vis-a-vis the Gulf Cooperation Council/GCC), more practically speaking, he’s managed to significantly “decouple” the Palestinian issue from the wider Arab agenda by leveraging the Iran threat with the previous Trump administration acting as the impetus-fulcrum, “sweetener” and “clincher” of the normalisation agreement to establish diplomatic relations.
But with Qatar as the principal financier of Hamas and of the Palestinian territory of Gaza still outside of the diplomatic equation, among other things, Netanyahu must surely – or at least he ought to – realise that his triumphalism is misplaced and premature.
With the looming Israeli general election to elect members of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) on March 23, Netanyahu has been trying to secure something else – his re-election set against the backdrop of his ongoing corruption cases (bribery, fraud and breach of trust). He’s also capitalising on his normalisation deals with selected Arab countries in a (vain) attempt to win over and garner Arab votes. All of this with the ultimate aim of hoping to persuade Parliament (on the back of a majority no less) once returned to power to grant him legal immunity from the corruption charges.
This moral anomaly is not only confined to his political character.
Only last week, Israel blocked shipment of vaccines bound for the Gaza Strip. Whatever policy reasons (security, sovereignty) Israel has, the fully-fledged nation which retains control over external matters and even domestic policies such as fiscal or revenue collection and construction has, therefore, a moral – not to mention legal – responsibility over the fledgling state of Palestine.
It’s only due to a legal challenge mounted that Netanyahu was belatedly compelled to halt the “controversial plan to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of allied nations… [nearly two weeks ago]” (as reported in Al-Jazeera, Feb 26). In what can only be described as a form of moral “casuistry” on the part of Israel, it has to date not shipped even a single vaccine to the West Bank and Gaza which are home to 5.2 million Palestinians.
Unsurprisingly, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki has labelled Israel’s overseas vaccine shipments as “political blackmail and an immoral act” and “exploitation of the humanitarian needs of these countries”.
Externally, Gaza only received its first shipment of vaccines comprising a meagre 2,000 doses (Sputnik V from Russia) on Feb 17 which was allowed by Israeli authorities to enter Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing (Egyptian-Gaza-Israeli border). According to spokesman for the Palestinian health ministry Ashraf al-Qedra (as reported in France 24 news agency), the Gaza Strip has about 12,000 medical workers and the priority is to “inoculate vulnerable patients, such as organ transplant and dialysis patients”.
Perhaps with or without Netanyahu’s re-election, Israel might still move towards normalisation with Qatar – a breakthrough by way of the former relaxing and easing of blockade measures alongside opening up for greater and more visible role for the latter to play in the reconstruction and development of Gaza. On Feb 26, it was reported that Qatar had pledged US$60 million for the construction of a natural gas pipeline running from Israel into the Gaza Strip. With such a proposal, who needs the Deal of the Century (DOTC)? The DOTC is, anyway, a relic of history now.
So, will Qatar be key, among others, in allowing Israel to gain what it covets in the eyes of the international community, namely moral legitimacy especially in the eyes of the wider Muslim and Islamic world?
The one and only issue was, is and has always been the viability of the two-state solution: the state of Palestine co-existing and flourishing side-by-side with the state of Israel.
So long as a two-state solution remains a forlorn hope, Israel’s moral legitimacy as a nation born out of victimisation is completely and unequivocally hollow and in fact shouldn’t be “paraded” before the world every now and then, even in conjunction with the Holocaust. If Israel can “decouple” the two-state solution from its normalisation deals, why can’t the Holocaust be “decoupled” from Israel’s moral legitimacy? In fact, by now, it should be kept separate even as Israel’s behaviour and acts against Palestinians in occupied Palestine have gone from bad to worse over the decades.
Recently, the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s Pre-Trial Chamber I by a majority announced that “the court’s territorial jurisdiction in the situation in Palestine, a state party to the ICC Rome Statute, extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem”. This means that the ICC which is the international court that rules on war crimes can now judicially (read: authoritatively) decide on the atrocities committed by the Israeli Defense Forces or related security apparatus in occupied Palestine which as a sovereign country in its own right is a party to the Statute of Rome (which governs the ICC).
In conclusion, the elephant in the room – the two-state solution which remains elusive as ever particularly under Netanyahu’s watch – shows that the triumphalism from the normalisation deals is just illusory. Israel’s moral legitimacy can only be gained if it pursues peace and normalisation with the state of Palestine as vigorously as it does with the selected Arab countries.
Jason Loh Seong Wei is head of social, law & human rights at independent think tank Emir Research.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.