A Weakened Arab Gulf Should Not Normalize Relations with Israel

Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has sought to normalize its existence in the Middle East and with its Arab neighbors. A settler state built on Palestinian land previously under British colonial rule, Israel faced many challenges and important constraints. The Palestinians refused to accept their dispossession and assimilation in the societies to which they fled, and the Arab world was committed to their repatriation to their homeland and defense of their national rights. Moreover, the Palestinians who remained under Israeli military rule, many of whom became Israeli citizens, comprise a nationalist and restive population that continues to challenge Israeli policies and dominance and to hold the attention of Arabs and their governments, as do Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

Looking for a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict always had an Arab angle because for decades, many in the Arab world saw Israel as representing not only the state that dispossessed the Palestinians but also as an implant of European colonialism. Later, Israel came to be seen as an outpost of western imperialism and a facilitator of the West’s political and economic domination. Arab nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere thus considered fighting Israel as both a part of the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggle and a duty toward their Arab Palestinian compatriots.

Today, however, Israel seems to be closer to officially normalizing its existence in the wider Arab world by aggressively pursuing relations with the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf. After it secured peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994, and following less publicized inroads into other Arab countries since the 1980s, such as Morocco, Israel seems poised to gain more public access to Arab Gulf officials and capitals. Following are some examples of normalization efforts, steps, and successes in the Gulf that cannot be seen except as leading to a much more comfortable position for Israel in the Arab world.

Successes, Visits, and Contacts

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, accompanied by Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, visited Oman by invitation from Sultan Qaboos bin Said to discuss Middle East peace and issues of mutual concern. This visit came more than 20 years after another made to Oman by the late Israeli President Shimon Peres in 1996. Mincing no words, Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs Yahya bin Alawi affirmed at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain a few days later that Israel is part of the region and “we all understand this.” Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz soon followed, also by invitation, to present plans for a rail connection to the Gulf.

Other Israeli officials paid visits to the United Arab Emirates, including Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Communications Minister Ayoob Kara. While Kara visited Dubai, Regev attended the International Judo Federations competition in Abu Dhabi, where she tearfully listened to a rendition of the Israeli national anthem. Israel and the UAE have maintained covert relations since the 1990s, but in 2015, Israel opened a representative office in Abu Dhabi as a member of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquartered there. In preparation for that opening, the director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, Dore Gold, visited the Emirati capital, although officials there kept his visit under cover and stated that it was limited to the IRENA membership and did not represent a change in policy toward Israel or the Palestinians.

Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia takes the position that relations with Israel could be an effective response to Iran and its influence in the region. In an interview with The Atlantic in April, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) declared that Israel has a right to its own land and that “there are a lot of interests we share with Israel.” His comments prompted his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, to announce the kingdom’s steadfast support of Palestinian rights in a state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israeli officials are said to have met with the Saudi crown prince himself in September 2017 while former Saudi officials met with Israelis in what were dubbed as unofficial contacts. But perhaps the most striking example of a confluence of Saudi and Israeli interests is what transpired after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul. After remaining silent for a few days, Netanyahu condemned the killing but went out of his way to caution against upsetting stability in the kingdom—in effect throwing a lifeline to MbS, the day-to-day decision-maker there.

After remaining silent for a few days, Netanyahu condemned the Khashoggi killing but went out of his way to caution against upsetting stability in the kingdom—in effect throwing a lifeline to MbS, the day-to-day decision-maker there.

In 2017, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and announced that Bahrainis can now visit the country as they pleased. In December 2017, a multi-faith delegation from Bahrain visited Israel to “send a message of peace” from King Hamad. In May 2018, Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa declared that Israel has the right to defend itself against any potential Iranian attacks and countered the claims that the American embassy that was recently moved to Jerusalem is located in a future capital of a Palestinian state—i.e., moving it was acceptable. Apparently emulating Katz’s invitation to Oman, Bahrain in November 2018 also invited Israel’s Economy Minister Eli Cohen to a high-tech conference in Manama.

Finally, Israeli media reports point to secret meetings in 2018 between Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and Qatar envoy to Gaza, Mohammad Al-Imadi, with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to discuss ceasefires and the humanitarian situation in the Strip. Qatar maintains that it has no diplomatic relations with Israel; it is thus assumed that any contacts remain for the benefit of the Palestinians. Through the offices of the United Nations envoy to the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov, in September Qatar negotiated with Israel to deliver fuel supplies to Gaza to boost the production of electricity there. At the end of October, the two parties agreed to allow Qatar to pay the salaries of some 65,000 civil servants and security personnel employed by the Hamas administration in Gaza.

Kuwait does not appear to have opened any doors for relations or normalization with Israel. The emirate withdrew from an international conference on renewable energy in Abu Dhabi in January 2014 because Israel was a participant. In October 2017, Speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly Marzouq al-Ghanim used an international forum for parliaments in St. Petersburg, Russia, to accuse two Israeli lawmakers of being “occupiers and murderers of children.” In May 2018, Kuwait––as a non-permanent member representing the Arab world on the United Nations Security Council––proposed a resolution that “calls for the consideration of measures to guarantee the safety and protection of the Palestinian civilian population” in the Occupied Territories and the Gaza Strip. Such moves are arguably clear indications that Kuwait may take a long time, if ever, to accommodate Israel’s overtures to open diplomatic relations in the Gulf.

Pitfalls of Normalization

The Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and Israel’s newest successes in approaching Gulf capitals, signify a trend toward normalizing the Israeli state’s existence amid the Arab political order. But this development has serious potential repercussions and comes at an especially precarious time.

First, no gesture of a diplomatic opening between Israel and any Arab state is likely to be productive without a concomitant stance and sustained insistence on Palestinian rights—which the recent Israel-Gulf contacts do not do. In other words, the coming normalization does not exact any price on Israel, such as at least satisfying some conditions included in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) that was authored by Saudi Arabia and which constitutes the Arab world’s collective position on peace with Israel. This flies in the face of Arab public opinion, which still overwhelmingly considers the question of Palestine to be of concern to all Arabs and not just the Palestinians (77 percent), sees Israel as posing a threat to the security of the Middle East (90 percent), and opposes diplomatic relations with Israel (87 percent). These Arab attitudes can help explain the current cold peace between Egypt and Jordan on the one side and Israel on the other; and they may not help foster a warmer peace between Israel and Gulf societies.

No gesture of a diplomatic opening between Israel and any Arab state is likely to be productive without a concomitant stance and sustained insistence on Palestinian rights—which the recent Israel-Gulf contacts do not do.

Additionally, no such gestures are appreciated or approved by the Palestinians, who consider them to be an abdication of the collective Arab responsibility toward Palestine. For example, both Fatah and Hamas, the dominant Palestinian factions, condemned Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, with the former saying it signals the death of the API and the latter seeing it as no less than a stab in the back. Mohammed bin Salman’s aforementioned statement about Israel’s right to land was similarly lambasted by the Palestinians, with Hamas considering normalization with Israel as an “unforgettable crime.” In this atmosphere, one can only imagine how difficult it will be for Saudi Arabia to offer to assist the Trump Administration in convincing the Palestinians to accept a not-yet-proposed “deal of the century” for Palestinian-Israeli peace.

Second, normalization with Israel carries geostrategic importance for the Gulf states themselves in that it commits them to an inescapable confrontation with Iran. Indeed, an essential consideration for an Israel-Gulf entente is a commitment to face up to Iran. But there should be no doubt that the first casualties of an open confrontation with the Islamic Republic will be the Arab states of the Gulf themselves, whatever strength an alliance with Israel or a commitment for protection from the Trump Administration could provide. It is indeed interesting––and most likely a sign of poor policy-making among those in the Gulf willing to normalize with Israel––that the inherent danger of an open alliance with Netanyahu and President Donald Trump against Iran is ignored—and in fact is discounted. While Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait may partially escape the negative effects of a confrontation because of their good relations with Iran, the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini gamble is unquestionably ill-advised, unwarranted, and dangerous.

There should be no doubt that the first casualties of a confrontation with Iran will be the Arab Gulf states themselves, whatever strength an alliance with Israel or a commitment for protection from the Trump Administration could provide.

Third, some of the Gulf states may think that normalizing with Israel may facilitate their relations with the United States, given Israel’s supposed clout in Washington and more than cordial relations with the Trump Administration. The reality is much more complicated than that, however, and other factors have equal weight and impact. For example, Israel’s good relations with the US Congress have not so far prevented lawmakers from criticizing Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding the war in Yemen and their responsibility for the ongoing humanitarian disaster there. Many US lawmakers have filed motions to end American logistical support and weapons sales to the two countries. The Democratic Party’s success in taking control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections is likely to impede US-Saudi-Emirati cooperation given the chamber’s role in budgetary allocations.

The recent Khashoggi killing has also increased congressional and public criticism of Saudi Arabia’s leadership as well as calls for accountability at the highest levels of the Saudi government. Even President Trump, who has been enamored of the kingdom and MbS’s leadership, has turned to questioning Riyadh’s involvement in the murder. Moreover, with a Democratic-controlled House that is likely to get involved in January in investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in the 2016 election, alleged collusion in that affair by Emirati officials will not be ignored even if Abu Dhabi normalizes relations with Israel. Nor will Congress ignore the UAE’s funding of mercenary death squads in Yemen just because the Israeli national anthem was played in the Emirati capital. In fact, the makeup of the new House is most assuredly more open to opposing a full embrace of Saudi and Emirati policies and behavior in the future, normalization with Israel notwithstanding.

The makeup of the new House of Representatives is most assuredly more open to opposing a full embrace of Saudi and Emirati policies and behavior in the future, normalization with Israel notwithstanding.  

Hard to See Mutual Benefits

It is hard to discern how normalizing with Israel serves any national interests of the Arab states of the Gulf. To be sure, one is inclined to view the effort as an example of the proverbial cutting off the nose to spite the face. For one thing, Arab Gulf states that are ready to normalize with Israel in order to be stronger in facing Iran are most likely going to be disappointed. Israel is interested in forming an anti-Iran front for reasons that serve its overarching strategic interest in the Middle East: to assure its own and unquestioned domination of the region vis-à-vis other aspirants, namely Iran and Turkey.

Importantly, Israel’s normalization with some Gulf states comes as they are beset by security challenges and uncertain domestic politics. The Saudi-Emirati entente in Yemen is experiencing wrenching difficulties after more than three and a half years of war against a determined enemy, the Houthi Ansarullah movement and its allies in the Yemeni state and society. The GCC is practically split after reconciliation and mediation efforts failed to address the June 2017 crisis caused by the blockade of Qatar. Saudi Arabia’s leadership is uncertain of its future given the repercussions from killing Jamal Khashoggi and the international community’s criticism. In other words, normalization with Israel today is occurring at an especially troublesome time of Arab Gulf, and Arab world, enfeeblement, and it is unlikely to lead to future gains.

Most jarring is the fact that normalization is unfortunately and dangerously unfolding as the question of Palestine is being ignored and relegated to the whims of a right-wing Israeli government and a biased Trump Administration.  

But most jarring is the fact that this normalization is unfortunately and dangerously unfolding as the question of Palestine is being ignored and relegated to the whims of a right-wing Israeli government and a hapless and biased Trump Administration bent on ensuring Israel’s supremacy. As the weakened Arab political order lurches from one calamity to the next, this normalization, for all intents and purposes, will be achieved on the back of Palestinian rights—even though Arab governments still publicly insist that Palestine remains central to their politics and relations. In the end, Arab governments, especially those in the Gulf, would do well to remember that addressing the national rights of the Palestinian people should not be sacrificed on the altar of confronting Iran, despite the many challenges the Islamic Republic presents.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here