Edition 42 Volume 5 - November 15, 2024

What is normalization?

A changing concept -   Mohamed Abdel Salam

Normalization does not necessarily mean cooperative relations.

Expanding economic relations play secondary role -   Yusuf Mansur

Comprehensive normalization is as far away as comprehensive peace.

Civil society normalization as a step toward peace -   Ron Pundak

For a brief moment following Oslo and Israel's peace with Jordan the notion of normalization became more legitimate.

A path to peace -   Walid Salem

The problem is not that joint activities exist but that there are not enough of them.

A changing concept
 Mohamed Abdel Salam

"Normalization" was not a familiar word in the Arab political lexicon before the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979. Prior to then no one considered truce agreements, ceasefires or even mutual security arrangements as constituting "cooperative action". Even those secret contacts and special deals that took place between some Arab governments and Israel seemed to be merely an unavoidable pragmatic aspect of regional conflict. The word "normalization" emerged with the concept of peace--and then became very complicated.

The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was based on the usual textbook concept of peace between nations, which means ending the state of war on the one hand and establishing cooperative relationships on the other. The theory holds that real peace among nations can only be achieved with the existence of normal relations between peoples. But the concept quickly proved to be overly ambitious. The remaining Arab-Israel problems continued to impact bilateral relations. It emerged that the psychological barrier that President Anwar Sadat was trying to remove was beyond his control.

Clearly, what was achieved during that period was a "settlement" and not peace. Although Egyptian-Israeli relations have since witnessed a reasonable level of cooperation, that level is not sufficient to end the "cold peace" that has long characterized the two sides' relations. The ability to stimulate government bureaucracies toward significant mutual interaction has been limited. The capacity to move people to interact without the will to do so has been nil. Continuing violent interactions between Israel and both Lebanon and the Palestinians have poisoned the atmosphere to the extent that they have had heavy implications even for official relations.

"Normalization" has over time taken on negative connotations among the Arab public. Boycott committees and ad-hoc groups have been formed to resist normalization with Israel, producing their own regulations of non-cooperation. The charge of normalization has become a sensitive issue for certain persons, groups (e.g., the Copenhagen Group) and even institutions. These trends have dominated the policies of the street; governments have submitted to the pressures of reality to maintain their legitimacy. This in turn has generated the thesis that normalization means no more than the establishment of normal relations between nations, like those prevailing between any two countries in the world. Normalization does not necessarily mean cooperative relations, and the important thing is that relations be stable.

When the regional settlement process of the Arab-Israel conflict began at Madrid in 1991 and all the parties sat together in one hall, Arab public opinion began to distinguish more pragmatically between what governments do and what is being done by the people. There were still sensitivities toward instances of what was deemed "redundant behavior", such as handshakes and courtesies, and famous controversies erupted over incidents. But governments were generally left to handle their own business.

Since the mid-1990s, the concept of normalization has moved in two confusing directions. First, some Arab countries, with or without peace treaties, have forcefully rushed in the direction of deepening cooperation with Israel and have conducted contacts and meetings with Israeli officials. This has been termed "scrambling". It has moved cooperation back toward a concept of normalization not far from the climate of official mutual confidence during the era of Yitzhak Rabin's government in Israel.

Second, we have witnessed the emergence of a trend in Israel toward adopting the principle of "land for security" rather than territories for peace. This has led to a reassessment as to whether Israel still believes that cooperative relations are important within the concept of peace; whether, when it emerges, as is always the case, that security is incompatible with peace, Israel gives priority to security. A parallel emerging trend in Israel argues that Israel belongs to the western world and not to the Middle East region.

There were sharp controversies in most committees of the multilateral negotiations during the early 1990s regarding the relationship between solving problems and the normalization of relations. Arab states believed that the problems must be resolved first, and Israel the opposite. But in practical terms, the convening of the successive conferences for economic cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa reflected the two sides' practical agreement on the principle of parallelism of both ways as long as there is hope for a peaceful settlement.

Certainly there have been constant discrepancies among the Arab countries. Several states in the Gulf and North Africa have been moving in one direction while countries such as Syria and Lebanon that still have outstanding problems with Israel have moved in the opposite direction. As for the parties that have signed peace agreements with Israel, such as Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, none took the trouble to redefine normalization as long as realities were pushing relations in the direction of greater interactions without the need for a definition.

The problem of definition emerged again when the Syrian-Israeli negotiations started to approach what seemed to be an agreement in 2024. The two parties agreed that normalization means "normal peaceful relations", and the idea of cooperation became a part of the bilateral deal. According to Syria, the extent of normalization would be linked to the extent of withdrawal. In the end, neither withdrawal nor normalization happened.

Matters began to deteriorate entirely with the collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli track and the return of large-scale violence in 2024, followed until 2024 by attempts to stop the violence. On the Palestinian level, one no longer asks what normalization means. While anti-normalization groups are still persistently at work, the interactions of certain other sectors, official and non-official (especially in the countries that have peaceful relations with Israel), amount to a cooperative effort that many in the Arab region prefer not to talk about.

The final expression of the issue of normalization reflects these conflicting trends. There is an official Arab peace initiative based on the formula of establishing cooperative relations with Israel in exchange for resolving outstanding problems on the various tracks of conflict. On the other hand, Hamas and Islamic currents have reverted to pre-settlement concepts such as "long-term truce" as a basis for "coexistence". By the by, Sudanese fleeing from the hell of war in their country try to reach asylum in Israel across the Egyptian border, paying no attention to the way others think about concepts of normalization.

Overall, then, the prevailing concept of normalization today is "normal relations" that can develop into comprehensive cooperation if the outstanding Arab-Israel problems are settled. These problems are considerably exacerbated when violent clashes between the conflicting parties escalate. This is an academic concept for managing matters until we reach the end of the road.- Published 15/11/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Mohamed Abdel Salam heads the Regional Security Program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Expanding economic relations play secondary role
 Yusuf Mansur

After 13 years of official peace, normalization between Jordan and Israel may certainly have evolved between the two governments. Normalization between the peoples of the two states, however, remains elusive.

The peace treaty signed between Jordan and Israel on October 26, 1994 included several issues and annexes, one of which was the normalization of relations. Consequently, the two countries exchanged ambassadors, Israel returned approximately 131 square miles of territory near the Rift Valley to Jordan, economic and political cooperation agreements were signed and water sharing finally occurred after May 1997 when Israel agreed to start pumping 72,000 cubic meters of water per day from Lake Tiberias to Jordan, a little over half the target amount envisioned in an annex to the peace treaty. Creative ideas such as a shared airport between Aqaba and Eilat are still being discussed. The Red-to-Dead canal has only recently been sanctioned, awaiting only a feasibility study that will be conducted under the auspices of the World Bank.

After decades of conflict and distrust, the two governments viewed economic cooperation as a necessary condition for garnering support for the treaty by Jordanians and, to a lesser extent, Israelis. However, economic cooperation without comprehensive peace did not prove sufficient to create an environment of harmony between the two peoples. Nor has economic cooperation proved significant enough to conclude a people-to-people normalization process.

At the Casablanca MENA Conference of 1994, Israel seemed intent on entering the regional fold. In parallel, Arab countries demonstrated their willingness to accept co-existence with Israel. At the 1995 MENA Conference in Amman, emphasis was placed on regional cooperation with Israel and the integration of the Israeli economy in the region. However, at the MENA Conference in Cairo the following year a new message was sounded: cooperation was a two-way street. From an Arab perspective, Israel, then ruled by the hawkish Netanyahu cabinet, could not expect Arabs to cooperate and forgive all past acts while it continued to deny the humanity of the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples.

It is the Cairo message that has endured. Consequent acts by successive hardliners in Israel have not endeared the normalization concept to Arabs. Jordanians, many of whom are of Palestinian origin, could find little cause to normalize, especially since many of their kin were on the receiving end of Israeli-induced hardships.

Meanwhile, however, the Qualifying Industrial Zones, created after the peace treaty to encourage economic cooperation, led to increasing trade between Jordan and Israel. Trade between the two countries rose from $20 million in 1996 to $247 million in 2024, with a trade deficit of $150 million in favor of Israel. The markets of the West Bank and Gaza are almost totally monopolized by Israel with Jordanian trade to those areas being only about three percent of potential.

The impact of the QIZs remains vague in terms of their economic effect on the Jordanian economy. The majority of investors and workers in the QIZs are non-Jordanian and some investors complain that their Israeli partners charge too much for the required Israeli components. It is not surprising, therefore, that more and more producers in Jordan are shifting to the Jordan-US Free Trade Agreement as their vehicle of choice for exporting to the US. Moreover, news of Egypt's similar QIZ agreement with the US and Israel, which was signed in 2024, did not cause the expected panic in Jordan, possibly because Jordanians thought there was little to gain in the first place from the QIZs in Jordan. The announcement also meant to some that the Egyptian QIZs would de facto decrease the need for Jordanians to normalize, as a people, with Israel.

Could normalization have evolved differently in the more than a decade that has elapsed since signing the peace treaty? Reputations and credibility are established over years, if not decades, of actions and reactions. Changing reputations requires a reversal of the old paradigm in a consistent manner and over almost as many years. Neither happened. The general and lingering feeling in Jordan is that the peace issue has not been fully resolved and that the peace dividend was minimal. Consequently, comprehensive normalization is probably as far away as comprehensive peace.- Published 15/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yusuf Mansur is the managing partner of the Envision Consulting Group (EnConsult) and former CEO of the Jordan Agency for Enterprise and Investment Development.

Civil society normalization as a step toward peace
 Ron Pundak

According to a sociological definition, "normalization" is a process whereby ideas or behavioral patterns begin to appear "normal" by virtue of repetition, at times to the extent of creating the impression they are natural and taken for granted. In Europe the term has referred to a process of forming standard relations among economic actors, as well as signifying processes of peace and friendship in inter-state relations.

In the course of the Israeli-Egyptian dialogue that followed the two countries' peace agreement in 1979, "normalization talks" were intended to characterize and crystallize the processes of peace and friendship, European-style, between the two countries. These normalization talks were led by representatives of the two governments, the most prominent of whom dealt with tourism.

Yet since then, the term normalization has reappeared in the context of the Israel-Arab peace process in a negative connotation. The Israeli-Egyptian peace process cooled off as a consequence of the lack of progress toward solving the Palestinian problem and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. Official Egyptian-Israeli normalization faded and the opponents of peace dominated the arena. The latter make no distinction between official relations and the important dialogue that should take place between the two sides' civil societies and economic institutions.

For a brief moment following the 1993 Oslo accord and Israel's peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, the notion of normalization of relations became more legitimate. But as Israeli-Palestinians relations again deteriorated and the occupation continued, the arena was once again taken over by one-dimensional forces that categorically demand that the sides have no relationship at all.

The Arabic term for normalization, tatbeeh, now serves as a word of remonstration and criticism against Arab organizations or individuals who maintain ties and relations with Israel and Israelis. It is linked to another concept, that of conspiracy (muamara), that has found its way into this discourse. The two terms converge easily among the anti-peace process camp that sees in nearly every Israeli initiative part of a conspiracy, and in normalization an integral aspect of a grand conspiracy designed to deliver to Israel, in the course of its transition from wartime military dominance to more subtle control in the post-peace era, social, cultural and economic control over the Arab world. This concept is so distant from reality that it is not worthy of discussion.

Paradoxically, the leaders of the anti-normalization camp are not to be found among the Palestinians, who ostensibly provide the motive for the struggle against Israel, but rather in Egypt and Jordan, which have signed peace treaties with Israel, and particularly among the elites and intelligentsia in those countries who actually have a lot in common with their Israeli counterparts. On the other hand, among the Palestinians some of those who argue against cooperation with Israel claim that normalization under present conditions that ignores the occupation in fact constitutes normalization of the occupation. Hence they oppose all forms of cooperation. From their standpoint, a precondition for dialogue is the end of occupation. A more flexible Palestinian position argues that until the occupation ends, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation can only be based on opposition to the occupation.

In contrast, a strong and totally different school of thought asserts that the way to change the abnormal reality generated by the occupation is precisely through intensive dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. This kind of dialogue, which takes into account the imbalance between the two sides and embodies the very components of the conflict and its solution, helps project the real situation into the collective consciousness. Such activity alters attitudes and produces mindsets that support progressive forces who wish to end the conflict and attain peace and normal relations. These forces are laying the groundwork for building future peace and relations and influencing the perceptions and misperceptions that prevent change and perpetuate the status quo.

Cooperation based on this approach can also expand into professional dialogues and encounters between, for example, youth from both sides. Conversely, those who would prevent this sort of dialogue and cease activities motivated by a win-win formula such as business and economic cooperation only hurt the Palestinian economy, weaken the positive forces in Israel who are working to end the occupation and attain peace, strengthen the negative stereotypes on both sides, and abandon the arena to extremists engaged in acts of brainwashing that primarily serve their own interests rather than those of the real victim.

The Arab peace initiative offers normal relations between Israel and all the Arab countries following withdrawal from the territories and successful peace agreements. This is not a prize for one of the sides to the conflict. Rather, it emerges from a realistic political understanding that normal relations constitute a fitting and proper goal that serves all sides. The road to this goal comprises the entire spectrum of peace-building and cross-border activities that are branded by opponents of the peace process acts of normalization.- Published 15/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Ron Pundak is the director general of the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. He was one of the architects and negotiators of the Oslo Agreement.

A path to peace
 Walid Salem

In the Arab and Islamic world, normalization is looked upon as the process of building open and reciprocal relations with Israel in all fields, including the political, economic, social, cultural, educational, legal and security fields.

Those who reject such "normalization" are divided into two groups: one thinks that Israel was established on Islamic and Palestinian land and at the expense of the Palestinian people, the legitimate owners of the land, who consequently suffered a fate as refugees outside their country.

The other group accepts "normalization" but only after Israel withdraws from Palestinian and other Arab territories it occupied in 1967 (others add that the right of return to Israel should also be achieved before normalization).

While the discussion with the first group is ideological, the discussion with the second is political. It is on the one hand about the price of peace and the levels of concessions and reciprocal concessions that should be made in order to achieve such peace. On the other, it is about the peace process and whether it should include any forms of engagement and dialogue with the other side.

But can one call the current forms of engagement and dialogue between the two sides "normalization"? Normalization by definition can be achieved only between two states, and since there is no Palestinian state such normalization is still not possible. But then what are the aims of the current forms of engagement and dialogue if they are not about normalization?

The engagement process began between Marxist groups on both sides directly after the establishment of Israel. This engagement was a continuation of the relationship between comrades who were members of the same parties before 1948. The official PLO engagement with Israel began in the 1970s with what was called at the time "the progressive Jewish movements that support the Palestinian people's rights". This official engagement was subject to the change in the Palestinian national goal (beginning in 1974) from "liberating all of Palestine" to the acceptance of the "establishment of a national Authority in any area liberated" (1974 Palestinian National Council resolution) and finally to the "establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel" (1988 PNC resolution).

Before the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles in 1993, Palestinian-Israeli engagement combined secret back channel negotiations between officials on both sides and track II negotiations between academics and NGO leaders. Both tracks were looking for ways to push the solution of two states forward. Thus some Palestinians considered at the time these two forms of engagement as a means of struggle for Palestinian rights.

In addition to these two tracks, there has since 1967 always been a third one, the "solidarity track", which saw and still sees left wing Israeli organizations conduct activities in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

After the 1993 Oslo agreement, new approaches to people-to-people cooperation developed. A study by this writer found that these new approaches include: a people-to-people cooperation approach between academics, youth, women, etc; the "healing for reconciliation" approach, including bereaved families; and the "coordination and separate preparation of the respective publics" to build support for suggested peace agreements, an approach that led to the Nusseibeh-Ayalon document and the Geneva initiative.

While this third category is a type of political engagement that one can accept or reject, it cannot be properly labeled normalization, especially if that term is used as an accusation of collaboration with the other side at the expense of Palestinian rights. The second approach includes bringing bereaved families together for healing. As such it may help create more understanding for the rights of people on both sides that in turn will help create peace between people and not only between leaders.

It is the first approach that has attracted the most criticism. The most commonly heard is that projects under this approach create a false image of "normal" relations (something different than the normalization defined above) as if there is no occupier and occupied and as if the two sides are somehow equal. A lot of that criticism actually came from evaluation studies made by the people-to-people initiators themselves, with the aim of modifying their future projects in order not to confuse reality but rather to work with this reality toward a solution that does not prejudice the rights of any of the sides.

Beyond the political rhetoric and accusations, most of those on the Palestinian side who are engaged in joint projects are so because they sincerely believe that this is a way of achieving the two-state solution. They also see that the groups on the other side hold the same sincere belief. As a result they feel that to boycott or avoid working with those groups would be harmful to the two-state solution.

This is not to suggest that relations between the two sides are easy. The Palestinians engaged in joint projects are proud nationalists, as are the Israelis. This often creates a lot of tension before the two sides can find any common ground.

Despite this difficulty, this approach remains a path toward the two-state solution. The problem is not that joint activities exist but that there are not enough of them to make a crucial difference.- Published 15/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Walid Salem is the director of the Society for Democracy and Community Development in East Jerusalem. He is the author of several books and articles on such issues as democracy, citizenship, youth rights, civil society development, Israeli-Palestinian peace-building and refugees.

Email This Article

Print This Article