November 28, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 255

Debate in the Arab and Muslim World Over Normalization With Israel

November 28, 2005 | By C. Jacob*
, Jordan, Pakistan, India | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 255


Since Israel's disengagement from Gaza, leaders of Arab and Muslim countries have warmed their relations with Israel. During the U.N. General Assembly of September 2005, meetings took place between Arab foreign ministers and Israel's foreign minister; Pakistan declared its willingness to normalize relations with Israel; and Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Mubarak confirmed that his country had decided to lift its boycott of Israeli products, saying, "Bahrain has signed a free trade agreement, and it does not include implementation of the boycott." [1]

Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jasim, while in New York, called on the Arab countries "to respond favorably to Israel's disengagement move with an international conference or with meetings between [representatives of] Israel and Arab countries." He also stated that it would be possible to establish full diplomatic relations between Qatar and Israel prior to Israel's complete withdrawal from the occupied territories.[2] At this writing, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was on a visit to Tunisia, and the London Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that diplomatic sources in Rabat foresaw a warming of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel following this visit. [3] The London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat reported that the Israeli airline Arkia had announced that it had signed a partnership agreement with a Qatari airline.[4]

These developments generated a debate, which included the issuing of fatwas, in the Arab and Muslim world. Advocates of normalization stated that the Islamic faith does not forbid normalization under suitable conditions. Some argued that the Arab world must be realistic and must promote the interests of the Arabs and Muslims in order to produce a regional balance vis-à-vis Israel. Others added that such a move would demonstrate the Arabs' peaceful intentions, and that Israel has already made considerable progress towards peace.

Opponents of normalization described it in harsh terms, using expressions like "stabbing the Palestinian people in the back," "selling Jerusalem to the murderers of the prophets," etc. They stated that normalization at this time - following the disengagement but while Gaza was still closed off and isolated, and prior to withdrawal from the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem - would only weaken the Palestinian negotiators and encourage the expansion of settlements, and may result in the elimination of the Palestinian problem from the agenda. Some also argued that Israel should not yet be rewarded with normalization, since it has not demonstrated that it respects the peace process. They claimed that, at this stage, normalization would only generate economic profits for Israel, and may also be used by Israel for purposes of espionage.

The following are excerpts of the main articles on this topic:

Advocates of Normalization With Israel

"If We Speak With the Israelis We Can Support the Palestinian Cause"

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf defended his position, saying: "We want to strengthen and support the Palestinian cause. We want to influence Israel to establish a Palestinian state. These are our intentions. If we never establish reciprocal relations with Israel, we will never be able to play any role [in the process], but if we speak with the Israelis we will at least be able to support the Palestinian cause, bring pressure [on Israel], and have an impact." [5] He also promised, however, that "we will never recognize Israel unless we are 200% sure that there will be a Palestinian state." [6]

"The Islamic Faith Does Not Forbid Normalization"

Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi issued a fatwa stating that "the Islamic faith does not forbid normalization [of relations] with other countries, and especially with Israel, as long as [the normalization] does not [pertain] to religious [matters] but to everyday interests and needs." [7]

Arab Journalists: The Arabs Should Consider Their Interests

Saudi journalist Yousuf Al-Sweidan wrote: "Pakistan's strong positions and positive moves should be an example to other Arab and Muslim countries. [This was] a quick response to the need to normalize relations with Israel, especially now that Israel has made progress towards peace by withdrawing from Gaza and from some of the settlements in the West Bank… A 'greater' State of Israel stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates is a scare invented by the Arabs to justify [their] political, financial and administrative corruption and the injustice [in their countries], and to avoid dealing with the political, liberal, and economic democracy in Israel…" [8]

Ahmad Al-Jarallah, editor of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, regards the steps taken by Bahrain, Qatar, Tunisia, and Mauritania, and previously by Egypt and Jordan, as "proof that the Arabs love and want peace, contrary to Israeli publications [which characterize] the Arabs as warlike people, enemies of peace and of global stability." [9]

Another argument voiced by the advocates of normalization refers to the benefits that normalization would generate for the Arabs. Ibrahim Du'eibes, columnist for the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, defended Pakistan, saying that the Palestinians have no right to criticize it. "After all, we Palestinians negotiate with Israel, and moreover, we are angry when the negotiations stop. After the Oslo Accords, mutual recognition was established between Israel and the PLO, and we changed our national charter… Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel. Some [Muslim] countries, such as Mauritania, exchanged ambassadors [with Israel], while other countries - from Morocco in the West to Qatar in the East - openly held diplomatic meetings [with Israelis]. In this situation, how can we admonish Pakistan for beginning to establish political relations with Israel, especially when Israel maintains close relations with India, Pakistan's neighbor and eternal enemy? We must become accustomed to thinking in a realistic and modern [way], and to looking out for our interests." [10]

Moroccan journalist Sa'id Mabshur also argued that normalization serves the Muslims' interests: "India, Pakistan's traditional enemy, has extensive relations with Israel and the U.S., which threaten the regional and strategic interests of Pakistan. In this situation, it is inevitable that the leadership in Islamabad will give serious thought to [adopting] a political position that will restore the regional balance and will provide wider freedom of action... Full normalization of relations with Israel will be rewarded with regional stability, even if the stability is temporary. Moreover, it is an effective and timely move at this stage of the competition between Pakistan and India, ensuring that [Pakistan] will be ready for any surprise that may result from India's unlimited openness towards the U.S. and Israel." [11]

Opponents of Normalization With Israel

Enlisting Islam Against Normalization

The participation of Israel's national judo team in the 24th World Judo Championship held in Egypt during September 5-12, 2005 generated much controversy in the Egyptian media. Opponents of normalization regarded the participation of the Israeli team as a sign of normalization, even though official Egyptian sources claimed that it merely reflected compliance with the regulations of international sports competitions. Independent and oppositionist journalists in Egypt expressed surprise at the participation of 13 Arab countries alongside Israel: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. [12]

Israeli Athletes' Participation in Egyptian Sports Competitions is Forbidden Because They Stole Land, Money, and Honor

Sheikh Ali Abu Al-Hassan, former assistant in matters of religious rulings to Al-Azhar Sheikh Tantawi, issued a fatwa against Sheikh Tantawi's ruling in favor of normalization. Abu Al-Hassan's fatwa prohibits the participation of Israeli sports teams in competitions that take place in Muslim countries. He also told the Egyptian daily Al-Yaum that "Israelis' participation in the judo championship is prohibited by Shari'a, since they are rivals who stole land, money and honor. [Participation in] sports competitions and cooperation with them imply consent to their actions against us." [13]

"Normalization Constitutes Support for the Oppressing Infidels"

The Association of Palestinian Religious Scholars published a communiqué prohibiting normalization of relations with Israel. On September 13, 2005, the head of the association in Gaza, Dr. Marwan Ahmad Abu Ras, published a response to the fatwa issued by Al-Azhar Sheikh Tantawi: "If an enemy has settled on Muslim soil, no Muslim may recognize this settlement. Normalization implies Muslim acceptance of the enemy's aggression and of the occupation. Normalization constitutes support for the oppressing infidel, [and] supporting infidels is forbidden by Islam. Moreover, it constitutes collaboration in the heresy of the infidel... It is the religious duty of every Muslim to help his brother expel enemies from his land, and never to normalize relations with enemies, since normalizing relations with an oppressor means deserting the dispossessed people in need... We expect the Al-Azhar Sheikh to issue a fatwa calling to mobilize armies that will drive the Jews from the rest of our beloved Palestinian land, instead of defending the enemy's borders after coordinating with him and receiving his permission." [14]

Palestinian oppositionist and Islamist Dr. Abd Al-Sattar Al-Qassem criticized Pakistan using the same argument, saying that Pakistan, as an Islamic state, is supposed to liberate the holy places and has no right to give up Palestine: "Pakistan was established as an independent state [separate from India] based on religious Islamic considerations, and it is supposed to be an Islamic state which upholds and protects Islamic principles and teachings. It is the only Muslim state that was established for religious reasons rather than political, ethnic, economic or social considerations, and must therefore reflect the social, political and cultural aspects of Islam. Giving up Muslim soil and Muslim holy places is forbidden by the Shari'a. Jihad is a religious duty and every Muslim must prepare himself to defend the Muslims, the [Arab] homelands, the holy places, and all those who suffer exploitation and oppression around the world. Israel has conquered Palestine - which is Islamic Waqf land - by force; it has conquered Muslim holy places and is threatening their existence. According to the Shari'a, Pakistan has a duty to liberate all occupied holy places and lands, and to provide every type of assistance to the Muslims. If it is unable to do so, it should not commit despicable acts instead. We do not expect Pakistan to set an example, but in terms of the Shari'a it must set an example. It has no right to give up Palestine, even if the Palestinians give up on Pakistan..." [15]

Normalization Means "Stabbing the Palestinians in the Back"

The head of the Palestinian National Committee Against Normalization, Omar Abdallah Shalah, said in a press conference: "The rush that we have been witnessing in recent days to normalize relations with the Zionist entity through fatwas, handshakes, and calls to establish relations [with it] only serves the occupation. Our Palestinian people and the Arab world in general will be the ones to pay the price... Normalizing relations with Israel means selling Jerusalem cheaply to the murderers of the prophets... The National Committee Against Normalization will assist any loyal zealot in the Arab and Muslim world who will join us in opposing the normalization which jeopardizes everything that is good in the lives of the Palestinians." Omar Abdallah Shalah called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abd Al-Aziz to deny news agency reports stating that they had given Pakistan the go-ahead to normalize relations with Israel. He also called on Sheikh Tantawi to withdraw his fatwa, and warned Qatar and Turkey not to serve as go-betweens "in this cheap barter." [16]

Hamas political bureau released the following announcement to the press in response to reports about meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and high-ranking Arab and Muslim leaders: "We condemn the meetings and handshakes that [signify] normalization. We regard them as moves given for free, and [this is why] we oppose them; we see them as a knife in the back of the Palestinian people. The Zionist enemy's withdrawal from Gaza, which was [achieved] by the resistance, does not merit a reward, and the Zionist enemy still occupies our land and defiles our holy places... We call on the other Arab and Muslim peoples to oppose all these steps of normalizing [relations] with the Zionist enemy... [17]

The Bahraini Al-Islah Association, a non-profit organization which assists the poor in Bahrain and outside it, claimed, "Normalization is a crime against the Muslims. When we normalize relations with the Jews and allow them to export their products to Kuwait and to [other] Muslim countries, it is a terrible crime against the Muslims, the martyrs, the jihad fighters and the prophets murdered by the Jews... and also against our prophet who drove them from his land, after they betrayed the trust that was placed in them and [broke] their alliance with the Muslims." [18]

Various Columnists: Normalization Should Not Be Imposed on the People

Muhammad Fouda, columnist for the Egyptian government paper Al-Gumhouriyya, asked Al-Azhar Sheikh Tantawi to "spare us [these] fatwas dealing with relations with Israel, since, whether they are justified or not, they arouse our feelings as Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims towards an enemy that is still occupying our lands in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. From a political point of view, the Egyptian government recognized Israel due to special circumstances involving its withdrawal from Sinai and the complex relations with the U.S., which still supports Israel with all [available] means. However, [the Egyptian government] did not impose normalization on the Egyptian people... As long as there is occupied Muslim land, and Israel [continues to] declare to the world that it will not give it up, normalization must be limited to diplomatic activity, and cannot be extended to the people, who still remember the spilled blood of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese." [19]

In the same vein, Ghassan Al-Imam, columnist for the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, argued: "An Arab country is sometimes compelled or forced to sign an agreement of reconciliation with Israel, but reason dictates that we should not try to impose social and economic normalization on an Arab society that rejects it. Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in Sadat's time. Mubarak's Egypt could not back out of the agreement, but it did not impose normalization [on the Egyptian people]..." [20]

The American Sword of Democracy Hanging Over the Region is Causing Many Arab Regimes to Clasp Their Throats [In Fear]

In an interview for the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Samir Al-Masharawi, member of Fatah's Recruitment and Organization Bureau, criticized the actions of certain Arab and Muslim leaders: "The Arab acceptance of the current state of affairs is... a way out [of their problems and] towards normalization. They are normalizing relations with Israel in attempt to please the Americans... The American sword of democracy hanging over the region is causing many Arab regimes to clasp their throats [in fear]... They have an interest in presenting the event [i.e. the disengagement] as an historical achievement or as [the establishment] of Palestinian independence, when in fact it is nothing of the sort..." [21]

"Some Arab Leaders, in Their Corruption, Rush Towards Israel in a Marathon of Surrender"

Libyan journalist Saleh Suleiman wrote in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi: "In these unfortunate times of American hegemony over the world, when America and the Christian West are leading a new Crusader attack that aims to destroy Islam and the Muslims, when the Muslims are subject to tyranny, control and humiliation by an 'international council of terror'… [In such times] it is sad that, in spite of Sharon's refusals and humiliations, some Arab leaders continue, in their corruption, to rush towards Israel in a marathon of surrender." [22]

Normalization Will Be Used by Israel for Espionage and Strengthening its Economy

Ja'afar Hadi Hassan, an Iraqi academic living in London, warned that normalization of relations between Israel and Pakistan, the country with the second largest Muslim population, will have dire consequences, since it will pave Israel's way to normalizing relations with many other Muslim countries - those which are already conducting secret negotiations [with Israel] and those which are not currently conducting negotiations. [These courtiers] will race against each other to normalize relations with Israel, before the Palestinians even manage to obtain a piece of liberated soil, let alone an independent state. The relations [with Pakistan] will strengthen Israel's economy as Pakistan becomes a large market for Israeli products and military equipment, since Israel wants to lead [the world] in the export of these products. Israel will also receive incoming tourism from Pakistan. In addition, it will benefit from the relations because [Pakistan] will [now] vote in its favor in regional and international forums, where Israel complains that it has no role."

Ja'afar Hadi Hassan added, "Normalization will also generate espionage activities disguised as diplomacy. The presence of Israelis in the vicinity of Iran, which is regarded as Israel's biggest enemy and as a threat to its existence, will be [seen by Israel as] a rare opportunity, too good to be missed. Another point, which is realized only by people who take an interest in these matters, is that Jewish organizations like Kulanu and Amishav have been trying for years to convert tribes living around the borders between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. These tribesmen number in the millions… An Israeli presence in Pakistan will facilitate and increase this Jewish missionary activity." [23]

Israel is Not Ready for Normalization

Thuraya Al-Shahri, a Saudi columnist for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, argued that it is Israel which is not yet ready to normalize relations with the Arabs: "What about the Jewish people themselves, who are [divided] by conflict regarding religion, Zionism, and other issues? What about their books [that advocate] the murder of all non-Jews, [books] by which their children are raised and that their adults believe? Is this nation pleased with the plans of its government to establish relations with the Muslim world? Have the Jews been prepared to visit our countries? Are they ready to identify themselves as Jews in public places, to trust [us] and feel safe? If Israel wants to meet us, it should begin to make preparations within its own [borders]." [24]

Normalization - Only After Implementation of the (Saudi) Arab Peace Program

Two other columnists for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Mamoun Fandy and Ahmad Al-Rab'i, argued that normalization will harm the Palestinian cause and the Saudi initiative, and will weaken the Palestinian negotiators. Fandy said that Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Jaber Aal Al-Thani, who called on the Arabs to participate in a conference that Israel is slated to attend, was "putting the cart before the horse, was [disregarding] all the peace accords which include international guarantees, and was jeopardizing the Arab peace initiative [the Saudi initiative of 2003]… Has the rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia run so deep that Qatar is [willing to] deal a blow to King Abdallah's peace initiative by making an announcement that gives Israel everything for nothing?... Sheikh Hamad and his country have the right to establish special contacts with Israel and to normalize relations as they wish, since Qatar is an independent and sovereign state. But the minister has no right to embarrass the other Arabs by putting the cart before the horse and constantly raising the threshold [of normalization] beyond what the Arabs are able to give… I personally advocate peace and normalization with normal countries. At the moment, Israel is not a normal country, since it occupies Arab lands. Qatar should reward Israel with normalization [only] after it withdraws to the '67 borders, and thus becomes a normal country." [25]

The Palestinian Authority also expressed concern over Pakistan's decision to establish relations with Israel. Nabil Sha'ath, Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister and Information Minister, said: "The time [for normalization] will come when Israel withdraws from the West Bank as part of the Arab peace program… [and when it] returns to the 1967 borders and resolves the refugee problem based on UN resolution number 194." [26]

In an interview for the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Arab League Secretary-General 'Amr Moussa said that Israel did not deserve normalization: "I do not understand why everybody is congratulating Israel. Because of the withdrawal from Gaza?... Everybody knows that although Israel has withdrawn from Gaza it is continuing to build and expand the settlements and to construct the wall. Many of the settlers who withdrew from Gaza have settled in the West Bank. Why should Israel be rewarded for nothing? I do not encourage these relations at all, and I do not accept them." [27]

Leaders Who Normalize Relations With Israel are Betraying Their People

Jihad Al-Khazen, former editor and now columnist for the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, wrote: "Why does an Arab or Muslim foreign minister meet with [his Israeli counterpart] in secret? Why does he sneak into [Shalom's] office under the cover of darkness? Because he knows that he is in error, [that he is] sinning and betraying [his] people. That is why he behaves like a thief... I advocate normal relations with Israel after [establishing] peace, but not before, and I am sure that the shady dealings going on at the moment will [only] destroy peace. Why should a government [headed by] Sharon or Binyamin Netanyahu sign a peace [agreement] with the Palestinians, when it can gain all the rewards of peace without paying the price of full withdrawal from all the territories still under occupation?" [28]

* C. Jacob is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

[1] (Sept. 9, 2005).

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Sept. 16, 2005.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Sept. 26, 2005.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), November 17, 2005.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Sept. 17, 2005.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), Sept. 17, 2005.

[7] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), Sept. 10, 2005.

[8] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), Sept. 23, 2005.

[9] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), Sept. 23, 2005.

[10] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), Sept. 3, 2005.

[11] Sept. 20, 2005.

[12] The objection to normalization was reflected in another incident: Moroccan Health Minister Sheikh Muhammad Al-Sheikh Biadillah asked the director of a health center in his country to prepare for the visit of a doctors' delegation from Israel. The doctors in the center refused to welcome the delegation and even decided to strike in protest of the visit. The coordinator of the National Association for Support of Iraq and Palestine, Khaled Al-Sufyani, voiced his objections to the visit, which he described as "another step towards normalizing [relations] with the oppressing Zionist enemy, and a reward for a withdrawal that was forced on it by the resistance" Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (London), Sept. 26, 2005.

[13] Egyptian Judo Association Chairman Sameh Mubashir said, "It was the international federation that decided on Israel's participation in the championship… Egypt could not object, since this would have led the federation to cancel the championship in Egypt." Sept. 13, 2005.

[14] Sept. 13, 2005.

[15] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), Sept. 9, 2005.

[16] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority) Sept. 19, 2005.

[17] Sept. 17, 2005.

[18] Sept. 29, 2005.

[19] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), Sept. 11, 2005.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Aug. 16, 2005.

[21] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), Sept. 24, 2005.

[22] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), Sept. 26, 2005.

[23] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority) Sept. 26, 2005.

[24] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Sept. 5, 2005.

[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Sept. 26, 2005, Sept. 6, 2005.

[26] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority) Sept. 2, 2005.

[27] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Sept. 29, 2005.

[28] Al-Hayat (London), Sept. 26, 2005.

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