Middle East Leaders Contend with Strains in an Evolving Regional Entente

In its unfolding bid to expand ties with Middle East governments, Israel must grapple with a basic challenge: how to ensure that events in the Palestinian-Israeli arena do not escalate and undercut an emerging entente with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, not to mention peace deals with Jordan and Egypt. Recent violence on al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount—which led to the April 15 incursion of Israeli security forces into the al-Aqsa Mosque—as well as a spate of attacks by Palestinians on Israeli civilians—have put greater pressure on a government that has lost its one seat majority in the Knesset to show “resolve.” But if the situation in Jerusalem deteriorates, or a new Palestinian intifada erupts, a more robust clampdown by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government could make life politically difficult for some Middle East leaders.

Indeed, while the fragile situation in Jerusalem will probably have less impact on Emirati leaders. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Jordanian King Abdullah II cannot appear indifferent to the religious sensibilities of religious leaders or Islamist parties—or their wider populace. Knowing this, Bennett will probably avoid a further escalation of Palestinian-Israeli tensions. The most recent attack on Israeli citizens—and the ensuing West Bank raids by Israeli security forces—could make it even harder for him to sustain this tricky balancing act.

These clashing calculations have created a situation that, however dangerous, will probably not lead to a major change in the overall regional situation. With Middle Eastern leaders showing little interest in leveraging their emerging regional entente in ways that might induce Palestinian and Israeli leaders to come to the negotiating table, the biggest losers will be those Israelis and Palestinians who support a just and fair end to their endless conflict.

The Negev Summit and the New Regional Architecture

For Israel, the March 28 Negev Summit had two goals. Organized on its initiative to celebrate the “Abraham Accords,” this was the first regional meeting of its kind in the country’s history. Thus it demonstrated Israel’s opportunity for a potentially pivotal role in a transformed regional landscape. Second, Israel framed the summit as a response to Iran. As Foreign Minister Yair Lapid put it, “This new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies – first and foremost Iran and its proxies – they certainly have something to fear.” In short, from Israel’s vantage point, the purpose of the conference was to effectively inaugurate an anti-Iran regional alliance.

From Israel’s vantage point, the purpose of the conference was to effectively inaugurate an anti-Iran regional alliance.

The Arab participants framed the meeting in very different terms. Emirati officials signaled that Iran was not the issue that brought Foreign Minister Abdallah bin Zayed to Israel. As one Emirati official put it, “for us it’s about regional integration and better economic, security and energy cooperation.” An Arab diplomat noted that the UAE and Bahrain don’t want to join “an Israeli campaign that is too publicly aggressive” against Tehran. Indeed, he suggested, the Gulf states were not opposed to the US effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In contrast to Israel, some Arab participants reportedly suggested that such an agreement might even support—as opposed to undermine—wider efforts to address Iran’s behavior in the region.

Egypt also downplayed the Iran angle, focusing instead on the Ukraine crisis and its implications for skyrocketing food prices, an issue raised by Egyptian diplomats in the week preceding the summit. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was apparently the only non-American participant to raise the Palestinian issue during the joint press conference. That he reportedly also met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the “sidelines” to discuss regional issues—including the Palestinian question—seems telling. Even though the Arab participants did not embrace Israel’s anti-Iran framing of the meeting, for Israeli leaders the summit was a diplomatic triumph heard throughout the region, including Iran, whose leaders predictably denounced the “conference of evil.”

UAE Diplomacy Amid Conflicting Goals

While resisting Israel’s efforts to frame the summit around the Iran issue, the outcome of the meeting served the UAE’s interests. Indeed, it underlined its dual strategy, which is to enhance ties with Israel at the same time that it improves relations with Iran. That it is trying to “bury the hatchet” with Tehran, as one writer put it, even as conflict in Yemen between Emirati and Iran-backed Houthi forces has intensified, underscores the challenge to UAE diplomacy.

The UAE underlined a dual strategy, which is to enhance ties with Israel at the same time that it improves relations with Iran.

Iran’s “hardline” government has effectively abetted this dynamic. Unlike former President Hassan Rouhani, who asserted that the UAE’s opening to Israel was a “betrayal of the Palestinian cause,” and in contrast to former Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who decried the “stab in the back of regional countries,” President Ebrahim Raisi’s government has pushed for a diplomatic rapprochement with the UAE. This shift was signaled on December 6, 2021, when the UAE’s National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed held talks in Tehran with his counterpart Ali Shamkhani and President Raisi himself. This meeting set the stage for a multi-faceted UAE-Iranian dialogue that had gained traction in early 2021.

The UAE-Iranian dialogue emerged against the backdrop of long standing financial and trade ties between the two states. Iranian officials note that during the March 2020-March 2021 period, the UAE was Iran’s second largest trading partner. Trade talks were revved up in early 2022, even after sanctions experts in the United States—including US officialsdrew attention to the purported role of UAE banks in helping Iran to avoid oil related sanctions. While their scope remains unclear, these activities demonstrate that business relations are central to UAE’s diplomacy. This rule applies with equal force to Israel. While annual bilateral trade now stands at between $600 and $700 million, the negotiation of a UAE-Israel free trade agreement in early April will  strengthen these ties. As Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi put it: “This milestone deal will…cement one of the world’s most important and promising emerging trading relationships.”

Still, beyond the logic of trade is the wider strategic context in which these relations are unfolding. The late January missile attack on the UAE by Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen was an unprecedented event for the Emirates—and for Iran. It is certainly possible that Iranian hardliners were signaling their displeasure with the UAE’s expanding relations with Israel. Underscoring this position,  on March 26, two days before the Negev Summit, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei assailed the “pitiful states have normalized relations with the Zionist regime. These states are not effective. The Islamic nation will never forget, nor will it capitulate on the issue of Palestine.”

Following these events, the Israeli government issued a warning to its citizens against travel to the UAE. For Israeli tourists, who had been flocking to Dubai in the thousands, this was surely bad news. They were warmly welcomed in Dubai, where Israeli goods were displayed in one supermarket. Many Israelis saw these and other examples of expanding trade relations—including an offer by a prominent Emirati businessman to buy a 50 percent share in the  Beitar Jerusalem football team—as proof positive of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that Israel can normalize relations with Arab states without giving concessions to the Palestinians.

The late January Houthi missile attack may have given the UAE a dramatic incentive to prove Netanyahu right. But the UAE is unlikely to pull back from trade relations with Iran considering the considerable volume of trade activities with Tehran. Instead, it will probably try to sustain its seemingly magical foreign policy, one that is driven by a potent mix of economic and strategic interests that is matched by an abiding lack of interest in the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

The recent violence in Jerusalem has complicated the effort of Israel and the UAE to wall off their relations from events in Israel and Palestine.

Still, the recent violence in Jerusalem has complicated the effort of Israel and the UAE to wall off their relations from events in Israel and Palestine. In response, the UAE government summoned Israeli Ambassador Amir Hayek to explain the incursion into al-Aqsa Mosque. Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al-Hashimy reportedly told Hayek that the violence had to stop and that the worshippers should be protected. The UAE also backed a proposal for a closed door meeting of the UN Security Council to which Palestinian and Israeli diplomats were not invited. Yet these developments have not produced any crisis in UAE-Israeli relations. The cancellation of the UAE’s participation in a flyby to mark Israel’s Independence Day was the diplomatic equivalent of a soft rap on the knuckles. The very planning of this event—and even more so, the recent holding in Abu Dhabi of a ceremony to commemorate Israel’s fallen soldiers and “victims of terror” in Abu Dhabi—demonstrated how much the strategic and political landscape has changed in ways that favor both Israel and UAE.

Jordan and Israel: A Different Equation

The equation for Jordan is different. Public opinion there is highly sensitive to the Palestinian cause, not to mention the ultimate status of Jerusalem—Islam’s third holiest site and the seat of Palestinian national aspirations. The leaders of Jordan would thus pay a heavy domestic price if they ignored these basic facts.

In light of these realities it was hardly surprising that following the incursion of Israeli security forces, Minister Bisher Al Khasawneh declared before parliament that “I salute every Palestinian” for standing “like minarets, hurling their stones in a volley of clay at the Zionist sympathizers defiling the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” King Abdullah added his voice to this admonition in a Twitter statement from the royal court following a phone conversation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The Israelis were apparently shocked by the sharp tone of these remarks and especially by the King’s rebuke.

The Israelis were apparently shocked by the sharp tone of these remarks and especially by the King’s rebuke. Smelling an opportunity, Israeli hardliners slammed the government for trying to coordinate a joint effort with Jordan to calm tension. That effort, they claimed, only revealed the government’s weakness. Seeking to deflect this critique, the prime minister took a tough tone. Those who were criticizing Israel, he asserted, were in fact “backing” the “resort to violence”—a clear if implicit retort to Khasawneh. But Israeli leaders carefully avoided the appearance of directing these criticisms at King Abdullah himself.

These events unfolded only two weeks after Defense Minister Benny Gantz and President Isaac Herzog had met with Abdullah II in a bid to mend relations that had suffered under Netanyahu. That these efforts could be so quicky shaken was surely not lost to these leaders. Despite or because of the April violence, Israel and Jordan have continued to discuss ways to restore what has long been a tenuous, blurry, and hotly contested understanding around al-Aqsa Mosque.

These talks have been heated. Jordan’s foreign minister declared on May 10 that the holy sites are “occupied Palestinian lands” over which Israel has “no sovereignty.” Even if the dispute is papered over by some kind of compromise on expanding the jurisdiction of the Jordan-funded Islamic Waqf—a prospect that Israel’s hard right has denounced and Bennett is already denying—the events of the last two months suggest one lesson; namely, that Palestinian realities will once again come to the fore, thus complicating the efforts of Israeli and Jordanian leaders to buffer their ties from a conflict that is always burning just below or above the surface.

Turkey and Israel: A Tricky Equation

In a seeming bid to mediate the Jerusalem dispute, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently reached out to Presidents Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Herzog. In a phone call with the former, he denounced Israel’s “interventions against worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque.” This was followed by a call with Herzog, who according to a statement released by his office, reassured Erdoğan that Israel would protect the right of all religions to worship. Whether this vague formula will satisfy Abbas or Erdoğan is yet to be seen. Still, the Turkish president’s actions are in line with his efforts to expand Ankara’s regional relations, a cornerstone of which is a process of rapprochement with Israel that he himself initiated.

That process was jump started on March 9, when President Herzog made an official visit to Ankara. Welcomed by Erdoğan, who declared that this was a “turning point in ties between Turkey and Israel,” by a military band that played “Hatikvah,” and by a 21-gun salute and honor guard, Herzog’s was the first visit to Turkey by an Israeli leader in 15 years. Reports suggest that the two leaders covered many issues, including prospects for joint efforts to create alternative oil and gas sources for Europe, an issue that has received renewed attention in both countries in the wake of the Ukraine war. Indeed, Erdoğan pushed for his energy minister, Fatih Donmez, to visit Israel in order to discuss this complex issue.

The rapid clip at which Turkish-Israeli rapprochement has unfolded has been the subject of lively debate in Israel, where skepticism regarding Erdoğan’s ultimate intention endures.

The rapid clip at which Turkish-Israeli rapprochement has unfolded has been the subject of lively debate in Israel, where skepticism regarding Erdoğan’s ultimate intention endures. As one Israeli expert on Turkey noted, “Israel is not the same isolated country of the 1990s when it sought to please Turkey at all costs. It now believes that the bilateral ties should be a two-way street, a sustainable relationship built on trust.” Israeli leaders know that this relationship will depend on one man—Erdoğan. His role will be pivotal not only because of his nearly uncontested power but also because many leaders in the Justice and Development Party—and its mass base as well— oppose mending fences with Israel absent progress on the Palestinian issue. Thus Erdoğan’s reaction to the most recent Jerusalem crisis was entirely predictable. His warning that “Turkey always stands with Palestine” cannot be taken lightly.

Still, that admonition must be viewed through the prism of what Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu calls Turkey’s “five-pronged diplomatic drive” to reset relations with the UAE, Armenia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Some Israeli sources suggest that despite recent events, they expect Cavusoglu to visit Israel later this month, while the Foreign Ministry indicated that the relationship must be taken “step by step.” Despite this caution, President Herzog recently passed on good wishes for the recent Eid al-Fitr, while Erdoğan extended “my best wishes…for the well-being and prosperity of the people of Israel” on the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day.

Going It Alone (More or Less)

The normalization of relations between Israel and several key Middle East states is partly rooted in a widespread sense that the region cannot depend on the United States to solve its problems– or even support the interests of some long-time friends. The war in Ukraine has not altered this view. Indeed, US efforts to get Gulf states to increase oil production—and thus temper galloping oil prices—have been spurned. Thus in what must be a first, former editor in chief of Al-Arabiya, took to the Jerusalem Post to argue that in the Middle East, “Washington is strengthening Russia and Iran.” American diplomacy, he added, is “beset by baffling contradictions,” while “Beijing is offering Riyadh a simple deal: Sell us your oil and choose whatever military equipment you want.” A prominent UAE scholar reiterated these sentiments, warning that “The Biden administration …may be losing a regional partner that is increasingly self-confident.”

Israel is betting that this self-confidence will drive normalization forward while keeping the Palestinian issue off the diplomatic radar screen, or perhaps to its side. While this bet may pan out, if a third Palestinian intifada emerges and/or another Gaza war erupts, many of Israel’s new friends will face pressures to show that they haven’t abandoned the Palestinians. Rather than reach this moment, it would be far better to leverage the normalization process in ways that might serve serious and genuine Palestinian-Israeli peace making.