In exchange for leaving a legacy of border expansion in Israel history, Benjamin Netanyahu seems ready for anything. The plan for partial annexation of the West Bank that it plans to implement from July 1 threatens to throw away decades of rapprochement with Sunni Arab countries. Some are formal and ancient relationships, such as Egypt (since 1979), and Jordan (1994). Others are underground but close ties, reinforced against Iran, a typical regional enemy. This is the case of the Gulf monarchies. And others only have an economic interest. For example, in the diplomatic approach to African countries with a Muslim majority, such as Chad or Sudan, as a counterpart to the valuable Israeli cooperation in security matters.
The announcement of the annexation has already generated mixed reactions. As King Abdullah II of Jordan campaigned before the US Congress against the regional destabilization that the Israeli decision may bring, his foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, traveled last Thursday by surprise to Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority.
After being greeted by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, the Amman chief of diplomacy warned that the extension of sovereignty to the settlements of settlers and the Jordan Valley will ruin the two-state solution. Jordan, half of whose population is of Palestinian origin, fears that annexation will unleash “a massive conflict” with Israel. The shadow of a rupture hangs over the peace treaty that both countries sealed a quarter of a century ago.
Nimrod Goren, head of the Regional Institute for Foreign Policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes that “Netanyahu is waiting for a limited impact on relations with Arab countries after the first rejection reactions.” It is a risky calculation, he warns at the outset. “It may lose the millionaire gas supply contracts signed with Jordan and Egypt to dispose of Israeli surpluses,” he points out. “Everything indicates that he has asked the White House to graduate the annexation process to lessen the intensity of criticism from moderate Arab governments, which depend on US economic and military aid, such as Jordan and Egypt.”
For Professor Goren, “Egypt has preferred to maintain a silent profile in the face of annexation.” He has not expressed formal support for Trump’s plan, a president with whom former Marshal Abdelfatá al Sisi maintains a privileged direct relationship. He has also not supported the Palestinians, although Egyptian public opinion has supported his cause for 72 years.
The plan presented in February by Trump authorizes Israel to declare the partial annexation of the West Bank under certain conditions. Palestinian leaders flatly reject the White House Vision for Peace initiative, which they call serving Israel’s interests. Designed by Jared Kushner, son-in-law, and senior adviser to the president, the cornerstone of the plan’s architecture rests on US-allied Arab countries’ involvement. This goal now seems distant.
One of the Sunni governments that have kept secretive contacts with Israel has broken the silence. The United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington, Yussef al Otaiba, warned a week ago in an unusual rostrum published in the Hebrew press that the “illegal taking” of Palestinian land will end up “giving an immediate turnaround to Israeli aspirations to improve relations security, economic and cultural relations with the Arab world.”
As international interest in the Palestinian conflict languished, Netanyahu pursued a calculated political strategy of strengthening ties with Islamic-majority African countries. Two years ago, he resumed relations with Chad, suspended since 1972. At the same time, he visited Oman, a strategic ally in the Gulf.
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For more than a decade of uninterrupted power, the Prime Minister has reactivated the diplomatic contacts undertaken by Israel with Muslim countries after the Oslo Accords (1993) that were suspended after the Second Intifada (2000-2005). All that effort runs the risk of disintegrating at the outbreak of annexation.