Israel and the Other Arabs

Jason Isaacson quoted on ABC News, December


 The cold peace between Israel and Arab Gulf states is surprisingly warm, if you believe a Wikileaked cable from 2009. As Eli Lake described it in the Washington Times, ‘Israel and its adversaries in the Persian Gulf…carried out extensive secret diplomacy to coordinate policy and exchange information on the threat posed by Iran.’ The classified cable cited high-level contact between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates – Arab states who have yet to formally recognize Israel and who either refuse to comment on or vigorously deny official contact. Israeli representative offices in Oman and Doha were ostensibly shuttered out of solidarity with Palestinians during the Second Intifada and Operation Cast Lead. The only recent public opening was in 2009, when an Israeli flag rose in Abu Dhabi to mark the Jewish state’s seat at IRENA, the UN renewable energy agency.

Cross-border contacts are more visible a few levels down, among the civilians and businessmen that serve as track two diplomats in Arab-Israeli relations. Israeli businessmen ply the diamond trade in Dubai and sell defense technology to the broader UAE. Arab and Israeli experts cooperate on water desalination and reuse technology at a research center in Oman. Doctors attend conferences and athletes compete in tournaments, though getting a visa can be haphazard; just today, the Israeli national swim team is in Dubai with a just-in-time set of visas.

‘Little by little there have been signs of progress,’ said Jason Isaacson of the American Jewish Committee. Jason and I met on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue, a regional security conference where he was invited by the Bahraini government. Isaacson told me he’s been to the Gulf ‘frequently,’ leading AJC delegations to meet with Gulf officials and public figures. ‘I cannot believe that relations forged over many years die when offices are closed. Because the common interests are there and the common threats don't go away,’ he said in a phone interview days after the Manama meeting. ‘We talk with their diplomats in Washington a lot. We have similar concerns about the region, and about moving the peace process forward.’

Isaacson said there’s reason to believe that Gulf-Israeli relations are getting a rethink, and there were signs of it in Bahrain. Speakers advanced the idea that Arab states need to recognize Israeli security needs and opportunities for economic integration. In a sit-down interview, Sheikh Khalid al Khalifa, the Foreign Minister of Bahrain, told me Arab states need to reach out more to Israeli people.

‘We’re not talking about normalization here...we’re talking about communication,’ said Sheikh Khalifa. ‘You need to go to them through their own TV channels, through their own newspapers, and tell them that we are here in the Arab world and we want peace. We don’t want to throw you in the sea.’

 Analysts point out that while there’s a lot Israel and Gulf states do not have in common – for one, their system of government – there is quiet admiration from both sides (one Gulf sheikh recently gifted me the book ‘Start Up Nation,’ charting Israel’s IT success).

‘The Persian Gulf countries are seen as more forward looking when it comes to their economies and more integrated with the West...their stability is very important to them,’ said Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Jerusalem. As he sees it, it’s a matter of pragmatism vs. ideology – seeing past the default hatred to seize cooperation on containing Iran, developing trade, and tackling water and environmental issues. In the Gulf, overt moves are constrained by insistence on the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi proposal that Arab states would normalize ties with Israel when and only if it achieves peace with the Palestinians. Isaacson of the AJC, and Israeli government spokesman Joel Lion, tell ABC News they want Gulf Arab governments more involved in the peace process – that they have enough weight in resources and political clout to untie the political and demographic knots holding up the process.

 ‘There is an opportunity for pragmatic thinking...this is a moment when they could step forward,’ said Isaacson. ‘They are potential gamechangers.’

But then events like the assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al Mabhouh in Dubai, widely attributed to the Mossad, are blamed for breaking the positive momentum. Dr. Theodore Karasik of regional think tank INEGMA said it was an ‘irritant’ in Israeli-Gulf relations.

‘But what was thought to be something that was damaging for years was only damaging for months…overtaken by regional concerns.’ They’re concerns that, by their nature, tend to bring all sides to the same table.