The Gulf’s normalisation of ties with Israel out of strategic expediency has come at the expense of Palestinians.
On June 12, Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington DC, penned an op-ed in Hebrew on the pages of Israel’s popular daily, Yediot Aharonot, in an unprecedented message to the Israeli public.
In it, Otaiba described the process of normalisation the UAE has undertaken with Israel, and warned that annexation of the West Bank “will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with the UAE.”
He also issued a video message in English that accompanied the article, reiterating how all the progress made in normalising ties would be undermined by Israeli annexation.
Otaiba’s public outreach was less a threat nor a petition, but an appeal to reason. It was a message amplified by the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, when he spoke to the American Jewish Committee.
On June 1, Gargash tweeted: “Continued Israeli talk of annexing Palestinian lands must stop.”
Continued Israeli talk of annexing Palestinian lands must stop. Any unilateral Israeli move will be a serious setback for the peace process, undermine Palestinian self determination & constitute a rejection of the international & Arab consensus towards stability & peace.— د. أنور قرقاش (@AnwarGargash) June 1, 2020
At a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on June 10, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan calledannexation a “dangerous escalation” and that the plan would entail a “blatant challenge to international norms, laws, treaties, conventions and resolutions which does not take into consideration the rights of the Palestinian people.”
While Gulf monarchies denounce Israel’s policies in rhetoric, in practice their relationship has been a much cozier affair.
On June 16, Gargash said he believed that the UAE could still “work with Israel on some areas, including fighting the new coronavirus and on technology” despite their “political differences” suggesting that annexation would not prevent engagement.
Evidence has been mounting of increasingly close ties between Israel and five of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – none of which have formal relations with the Jewish state.
However, once covert back channels of outreach have been thrust into public view, as Gulf monarchies expanded cooperation with Israel in spheres from military training, intelligence sharing, weapons and spyware sales, to joint diplomatic efforts.
In recent years, these regimes have taken further steps to normalise relations, which has included allowing overflight rights for Israeli airlines, taking part in military exercises alongside the Israeli Air Force, welcoming top-ranking Israeli officials and engaging with them in conferences.
GCC-Israel relations are by no means uniform.
Kuwait stands out from the bunch as the only Gulf state that has maintained a stable position against Israel and regularly condemns it for human rights violations.
Others like Oman and Qatar have followed relatively autonomous paths in shaping their dialogue with Israel.
While Qatar has had a history of groundbreaking ties with Israel and is open to stronger relations, it is held back by its current level of dependence on Iran and Turkey, which have significant tensions with Israel.
In October 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid an official visit to Muscat and was received by Oman’s late Sultan Qaboos. A few months later, at the Warsaw Conference, Netanyahu met with chief Saudi and Omani diplomats.
But the bulk of the attention in recent years has focused on the convergence between Israel and three Gulf states most united on regional affairs: Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain.
Enemies with benefits
According to Toufic Haddad, an academic and author whose research focuses on Palestinian and international political economy, it is important to acknowledge how Israeli-GCC convergence has been a historical process.
“The Palestinian question itself has been seen to have lost its revolutionary potency in light of global changes related to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Third World and Pan-Arabist movements,” Haddad told TRT World.
Haddad highlights how the perceived “domestication” of the Palestinian cause by “complex military-institutional arrangements established by Israel and Western donors through the Oslo process, also contributed to Arab states being less beholden to public support of this cause,” and allowed their attention to turn towards new provincial risks.
Given the GCC was originally forged as a security bloc, regime survival remains an animating concern. “The monarchic nature of these states always made them beholden to protection alliances,” said Haddad.
It was this logic that informed its relationship with Western states like the US and UK, who were in turn dependent on financial and military symbiosis with the Gulf.
“Surplus gulf petrodollars buoy Western currencies and stock markets, including their military-industrial complexes, which is exchanged for GCC regime protection and non-interference domestically,” said Haddad.
Following the political upheavals in the Middle East over the past two decades, a new set of strategic priorities crystalised between Israel and Gulf states that have come to define their rapprochement.
In the wake of the Iraq War in 2003 and the Arab Uprisings in the 2010s, fears of Israeli leadership and that of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh gradually came into alignment over mutual concerns.
Growing Iranian hegemony and their regional proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah, a pro-Brotherhood contingent represented by Qatar and Turkey, and public cries for self-governance in the region were understood as existential threats.
Similarly, Israel viewed the uprisings with suspicion, fearing their transformation into “Islamist winters.”
“These factors, by in large, have put the Saudi and Emirati leaders in the same boat as Tel Aviv, which shares their negative perceptions of a rising Iran and Turkey as well as the implications of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining greater influence throughout the region,” Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, told TRT World.
Unwittingly, US President Barack Obama functioned as an impetus for their embrace.
The Obama administration alarmed the Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis after it abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, voiced support for the Syrian uprising by calling for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, and most egregiously, signed off on the nuclear agreement with Iran.
As the historic security arrangement between the West and the Gulf states began to erode, Israel moved in to fill the vacuum.
“US zeal for direct regional engagement and backing of regional allies was seen to have dithered, especially under Obama,” said Haddad. “Israel worked carefully in this environment to expand pre-existing, albeit secret alliances with these states, against their common perceived enemy, Iran.”
The priority for the Saudis and their allies is resisting Tehran, which has consolidated its position in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, where it backs Houthi rebels.
In the aftermath of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018, Netanyahu stressed how Saudi Arabia “is important for the stability of the world, for the region,” highlighting the strategic value of Gulf-Israel ties in spite of their clandestine nature.
There is also a pragmatic recognition in Gulf capitals of the benefits of security, technological and economic links with Israel. There is ample evidence of significant intelligence and military communication, enhancing surveillance mechanisms, and updating cybersecurity apparatus.
Haddad drew attention to how the Oslo process played a part in enabling Israel to partially break its political and economic isolation, which allowed it to eventually develop and capitalise “on niche security and surveillance industries that GCC states highly coveted in light of their many perceived internal and external threats.”
Palestinians left in the lurch
This realignment between Israel and the GCC has ultimately come at the expense of the Palestinians. “Our [Gulf] Arab brothers…have stabbed us in the front and the back, abandoning us politically while embracing Israel,” rued Palestinian commentator and activist Kamel Hawwash.
Officially, every GCC state remains committed to the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which offers recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
But with their steady rapprochement with Israel, the Gulf Arab states have undermined any bargaining power to apply upon Israel, who needed no incentive to offer peace with Palestinians as part of any normalisation of ties with the Arab world.
In return, Israel has offered nothing – except for shared Iranophobia and increased supplies of security software and military hardware, as the Israeli Right has pushed through what was otherwise thought to be a fringe idea: that of annexing the West Bank.
The annexation of Palestinian territory became a possibility with the rollout of the “Deal of the Century” by the Trump administration in January, when the plan to seize up to 30 percent of the West Bank was discussed. The ambassadors of Bahrain, Oman and the UAE were in attendance, granting it a degree of Arab legitimacy.
Palestinians also have serious doubts about the Gulf’s intentions. Recently, they refused to accept two recent shipments of medical supplies because they were being flown directly from the UAE to Israel.
While the Gulf monarchies publically register their alarm at Israel’s moves toward annexation, privately they do not believe that Israel is a core threat to their national interests. Israel is more useful for realising their primary objectives in the region than the Palestinians are.
Haddad echoed this sentiment. The Palestinian cause, he said, has come to be seen as “an obstacle to the consummation of the marriage between natural allies that share pro-western, anti-democratic, and anti-Iranian regional tendencies.”
Meanwhile, Cafiero believes once the annexation process moves ahead, those Gulf states which have warmed to Israel will inevitably face dilemmas.
“They will not want to walk away from the tacit partnerships that they have fostered with Israel, yet they will come under growing pressure to make such links to the Jewish state more confidential.”