Israel and the Gulf: Beyond the photo-ops

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 31 Oct 2018

The growing warmth in Israeli-Arab Gulf relations has spilled into the public domain. It is a trajectory that will continue

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 26, 2018 shows him (L) meeting with Oman's Sultan Qaboos in the Omani capital Muscat during his unannounced visit to the Gulf country AFP

This week the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) appealed to Arab states to suspend further normalisation with Israel pending the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“We are asking Arab states to send a message of resolve and tell Israeli officials that they cannot expect to make any more political and economic gains with Arab states when they are making the lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories a nightmare. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees our request will be considered,” said a Palestinian source who spoke on the phone from Ramallah on Monday.

On the same day a Cairo-based Arab diplomat confirmed to Al-Ahram Weekly that the PCC’s request was unlikely to be given a serious hearing.

“When the [PCC] requests the suspension of further normalisation with Israel it is basically talking about Gulf countries, not about Egypt or Jordan which have peace treaties with Israel. But the Gulf countries take the position that if the Palestinian Authority continues to refuse US proposals for a possible deal that could eventually resolve the Palestinian problem, then the Palestinian leadership is in no position to ask Gulf states to refrain from any steps that might be in their political or economic interests,” said the source.

Far more likely, he added, is that the “next few weeks and months” will see a much greater public acknowledgment of Israeli relations with Arab Gulf countries “and Arab countries in general” and that “Israeli officials are likely to visit Manama soon”.

Speaking during a press briefing on Saturday on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogues, Bahrani Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa suggested that normalisation with Israel is progressing in parallel with diplomacy to resolve the Palestinian problem.

Meanwhile, Cairo-based regional diplomats say that they would not be surprised if Bahrain proves to be the next stop. In the words of one, “Israel and Bahrain have much in common when it comes to Iran.”

Bahrain and its key ally Saudi Arabia have long accused Iran of seeking to incite unrest in the small kingdom which has a Shia majority and a ruling Sunni minority.

At the same press conference with Al-Khalifa, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said that the real battle in the region now is between the “modernising” vision that Riyadh is leading and the “backward vision Iran is trying to impose”.

Al-Jubeir and Al-Khalifa spoke days after Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman told the “Davos in the Desert” investment conference that Riyadh is working with its allies to make the “Middle East a strong economy — the new Europe”.

Palestinian officials, whether from Ramallah-based Fattah or Gaza-based Hamas, will have been quick to notice that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler opted to speak of the “Middle East” and not of Arab countries, which would until recently have been the case.

“The train of economic and security normalisation between Israel and the Arab Gulf states left the platform some time ago and I don’t think anyone in the Gulf is willing to stop it. What we are asking for is a slow down,” said the Palestinian official.

Earlier this week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country would be soon taking measures to connect its railway grid with Gulf states via Jordan.

While the proposal is not entirely new — it was the subject of a tentative agreement between Tel Aviv and Amman a little over a year ago — from the point of view of the Palestinians it is a significant announcement, coming in the wake of Netanyahu’s surprise visit to Oman where Sultan Qaboos, who makes few public appearances, extended a cordial welcome.

Following the short visit, earlier this week, Natanyahu said it would not be his last to Arab countries with which Israel has no peace treaty.

Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi said the trip was requested by the Israelis.

Netanyahu arrived in Oman hours after Qatar hosted an Israeli sports team for the first time, and followed a widely publicised trip by Israel’s Likud sports minister to the UAE.

Fattah and Hamas officials have expressed dismay such visits are taking place when Israel is killing peaceful Palestinian protesters in Gaza and aggressively expanding its illegal settlements in the West Bank.

“It is impossible to speak of a Palestinian state with current Israeli settlement policies. But to be honest, I don’t think any Arab capital expects a viable or demilitarised Palestinian state with any semblance of territorial connectivity,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.

The same diplomat also pointed out that Arab Gulf states have been fast-expanding relations with Israel for years now.

“There have long been economic links, with Qatar at the forefront, but now we are seeing profound security cooperation,” he said.

According to Washington sources, not only do Gulf officials in the US capital and in the UN headquarters in New York no longer make a secret of their meetings with Israeli counterparts, they are now speaking with leading members of the Israeli lobby and the most pro-Israel members of Congress.

The expanded dialogue, according to one Washington source, is the result of Riyadh and the UAE seeking “an agreement” with US President Donald Trump over the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist killed in his country’s consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, and an attempt to counter-balance attempts by Doha to persuade the US administration to use the Khashoggi case to pressure Riyadh to end its blockade of Qatar.

Abdel-Alim Mohamed, an Israeli affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says it is no longer possible to ignore that relations between the Gulf states and Israel are being fast-tracked.

He points out that what Al-Khalifa and Al-Jubeir said at the Manama Dialogues was in essence an echo of the argument first made in winter 2008 by the then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni — that the dynamic of the Arabs versus Israel was being replaced by one of “moderates” versus “extremists”. Now, he says, Israel has been replaced by Iran as regional enemy number one.

“This is the way it is, whether we like it or not. There are now stable relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states and they are going to be further upgraded, sooner rather than later.”

“It is not just about Netanyahu visiting Oman — he’s not the first Israeli official Oman has received, after all. It is much more diverse and multi-layered than a simple exchange of visits.”

Mohamed dates the beginnings of the thaw in Arab Gulf-Israeli relations to the immediate wake of the Oslo Agreement 25 years ago.

“This was understandable at a time when many thought the region was moving towards a fair peace deal. Today, these relations are unlikely to be in the interest of the Palestinian cause,” he says.

The Palestinian official speaking from Ramallah stresses that it is no coincidence that the increasing warmth between Israel and many Gulf capitals “comes at a time many Arab states are pressing the Palestinian Authority to agree to” a final settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle that Trump has promised.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Israel and the Gulf: Beyond the photo-ops

Short link: