November 28, 2018 — Jerusalem, Israel
By Eran Lerman
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Oman, and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev's visit to the United Arab Emirates, which occurred within days of each other last month, were not isolated events. A pattern of improved relations with almost all the Gulf states is emerging, backed by occasional statements by senior officials and a much livelier debate than ever in the local media about the legitimacy of Israel's presence as a player in the region. The detractors are still numerous and vociferous: Gulf countries presumed to be friendly still walk out on Israeli speakers at international fora (as happened recently in Rome), and some, like the Kuwaiti leadership, have stayed largely out of the new game altogether. But still, as Sherlock Holmes would have said, the game is afoot, and it is driven by several factors.
Above all, the almost universal fear and loathing in the face of Iranian ambitions is steadily building a common ground between Israel and the GCC countries. Even Qatar, which shares a vast natural gas field with Iran, is far from being an Iranian proxy. The common dismay of both the Gulf leaders and Israel with the JCPOA and Obama's policies towards Tehran further enhanced this bond, and so does the sense of now having a firm American commitment to reverse these policies. Iranian arrogance and the growing ferocity of the Yemeni war (with Iranian rockets falling on the capital of Saudi Arabia, among other targets), have added to the urgency.
A contributing factor is the possible utility of the Gulf states – and in this case, Qatar takes the lead – in supporting conflict-management aspects of Israeli policy, specifically with regard to Hamas in Gaza. The scene of 15 million dollars in well-upholstered suitcases being brought into Gaza by the Qataris with Israeli permission must have seemed to be taken from a strange hybrid of a spy film and a mafia thriller, but given the obstructions placed by Abbas and the PA, this was the only way to procure greater calm in the restive Strip. Saudi and Gulf involvement with the "Deal of the Century" – President Trump's pending peace initiative – may also be in the works, although just when and how this may come about remains highly uncertain. It is safe to say, however, that the existential nature of the Iranian challenge as well as the deep-set frustration of many Arab leaders toward Palestinian obstinacy and internal bickering suggest that the traditional commitment to the "cause" no longer impedes Gulf players in their pursuit of more practical relations with Israel.
In any case, the signals are there almost across the board. True, the only overt sign of real change in the Saudi Arabian position has been the permission given to Air India to fly to Israel over Saudi airspace – a minor but symbolically significant step. Behind the scenes, however, rumors abound about anything from personal meetings between Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to the direct supply of Israeli weapons. It will be years, if ever, before the full details are known, but surely the U.A.E. and Bahrain – the Saudis’ closest allies in the GCC – would not have gone ahead without a nod from Riyadh.
Both Netanyahu and Trump have openly referred to the importance of Saudi Arabia to Israel's security in the region: specifically, in the context of the fallout from the Khashoggi affair, they acknowledged the horror of the act and yet suggested that Iran should not be allowed to reap the fruit of this bitter affair. Indeed, unless internal dynamics now lead to MBS being pushed out, the ultimate outcome may be that he would be more cautious and less impetuous in the future, and possibly cognizant of the role Israel plays and will continue to play on the Hill in restraining the U.S. from taking irreversible decisions.
Meanwhile, relations with the United Arab Emirates are growing apace. Two Israeli ministers – both fierce Netanyahu loyalists – visited the U.A.E. recently, Miri Regev for the Judo Grand Slam and Ayoub Kara for an International Telecommunications Union conference. Israelis do roaring business there, and the country is officially represented (with an officially limited mandate) in the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency. On issues of substance ranging from Iran to the Muslim Brotherhood there is practically no daylight between the positions of Israel and those of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the U.A.E.’s effective ruler, who is often described as his Saudi counterpart’s mentor.
The visits to Oman by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (who, incidentally, also holds the Intelligence portfolio, another subject on which Israel and Oman have reportedly been close for some time) are the most salient events of this new thaw in Israeli-Gulf relations. What makes them even more striking is Oman's recent history as a go-between at the early stages of Obama's bid to reach a strategic understanding with Iran, a supposedly secret mission at the time, which Israel quickly discovered and to which it reacted furiously. On the other hand, Oman has long been in touch with the Israeli defense establishment, and Israel contributed significantly to the defeat of the pro-Soviet rebellion in the Dhofar region. The last "relic" of the post-Madrid multilateral Middle East peace talks – the Middle East Desalination Research Center – has continued to operate from Oman even after all else has collapsed. In the past, there was an Israeli diplomatic office in Muscat, and two prime ministers, Rabin and Peres, visited in the '90s. Geopolitical, cultural, and economic conditions have made Oman a highly flexible diplomatic player.
Bahrain has now been semi-officially mentioned as the next Gulf destination for Prime Minister Netanyahu, albeit without an indication of when this may happen; and in April 2019 (if the Israeli coalition does not break up by then…) the Minister of the Economy - i.e., Trade and Industry – is scheduled to attend a conference there. Bahraini officials have occasionally expressed themselves quite openly in support of Israel's posture toward Iran: after the skirmishes of May 2018, Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad tweeted that Israel has the right to defend itself, a highly unusual message from a senior Arab official. In the recent past, Bahrain also made itself notable by appointing a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, as Ambassador to the United States (and Canada), a post she held from 2008 to 2013. The close relationship between the small island kingdom and the Saudis – who came to the rescue of the monarchy there back in 2011 – suggests that all such gestures are getting the tacit support of the Saudi leadership.
On the other hand, Kuwait remains largely outside this flow of events. Kuwaiti parliamentarians assaulted and insulted Israeli colleagues in an international forum last year, and the political discourse in Kuwait remains largely hostile (with occasional exceptions). Historically, Kuwait gave whole-hearted support to the Palestinians until the breach caused by Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein's invasion and annexation of the country; later, efforts were made to restore relations, some 80,000 Palestinians have returned to Kuwait, and the line toward Israel remains unchanged.
Last on the list – and politically, in a category all its own – Qatar is still officially under siege by some of its neighbors and much of the Arab world. Islamist ideological imperatives play a role in Qatari foreign policy, as does the urge to assert the country's provocative independence. A close alignment with Turkey (but not, despite Saudi assertions, with Iran – although both Turkey and Qatar tend to take an intermediate position towards Iran on some key questions) adds to the complexity. All this does not prevent Israel from working closely with Qatari envoys on the relief of economic miseries in Gaza (salaries, fuel supply) so long as it is fully understood that the Qatari role can at best be that of the CFO (chief financial officer), while Egypt must retain political hegemony there as "CEO" of the attempts to restore calm. Within these limits, the interaction between Israel and Qatar has been effective and beneficial, but no one expects it to be translated into an Omani-style event.
Amidst all this, the firm backing of the United States has played a major role in enabling and encouraging the Gulf openings toward Israel, and hence the importance of containing the damage and properly managing the fallout from the Khashoggi affair. Over the years, AJC has played an important role as a favored interlocutor of Gulf countries eager to understand (and affect) the mood in both Washington and Jerusalem. Personal aspects of the Trump administration's outreach to the region probably reinforce this perception.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.