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How the Gulf States Got in Bed With Israel and Forgot About the Palestinian Cause
Benjamin Netanyahu is building ties with anti-Iran Arab leaders from Riyadh to Doha and betting that a peace deal is no longer a necessary prerequisite for normalizing diplomatic ties.
The much-touted Warsaw summit in February accomplished very little. The United States tried to persuade its European allies to abandon the Iran nuclear deal and to push for further sanctions on Tehran, neither of which happened. The only excitement came from Israel and some Persian Gulf states which did not shy away from flaunting their open alliance against Iran.
Foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain sat alongside Benjamin Netanyahu at the grand opening dinner. It was supposed to be a closed meeting but Netanyahu leaked a video of the gathering anyway, where Bahrain’s top official was heard calling Iran the main obstacle to solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The UAE’s foreign minister was also shown defending Israel’s “right” to bomb targets in Syria. The love fest was, as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence noted, “a new era.”
Then there was the handshake between Netanyahu and Oman’s foreign minister and a brief interaction with Yemen’s foreign minister, all of which have become part of the prime minister’s charm offensive ahead of the April 9 elections in Israel. Netanyahu’s promise to bring ever closer ties with Arab states has seen him make visits to places like Chad and Oman, as he grows more eager to show that a Palestinian state is no longer a prerequisite for formalizing ties with Muslim and Arab states in the region.
Israel has long thought of itself as a democratic oasis battling numerous enemies in an unstable region. This trope was best encapsulated in the use of not-so-coded language by Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, when he famously likened Israel to a villa in the jungle.
But Netanyahu seems to have embraced some of these very same enemies, shoring up his base ahead of the elections by claiming that Israel is no longer the regional pariah it once was. He’s attempted to find common ground with these former foes through mutual disdain toward Iran and shared business interests, in the hope that those commonalities will outweigh the benefits of Arab solidarity with the Palestinians. The Saudis and other Gulf states, which at one point famously championed the Palestinian cause not only at home but also to their Western counterparts, have reversed course over time.
The new relationship between the Gulf and Israel is part of a larger shift that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is trying to spearhead, whereby regional Sunni Arab states openly align themselves with Israel in opposition to Iran. The White House sees a watered-down Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as part of this process.
Before leaving for Chad on Jan. 20, Netanyahu called his visit, which marked the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries after they were severed in 1972, “part of the revolution that we are doing in the Arab and Islamic worlds; I promised you that this would happen. … There will be more countries,” he vowed. He has similarly been forthcoming in disclosing Israel’s not-so-secret ties with the “sons of Ishmael” all the while continuing to declare that not a single West Bank settler would be forced to leave on his watch.
In October 2018, Netanyahu visited Oman and met with its ruler, Sultan Qaboos, using it as one more opportunity to boost his argument that Israeli settlements, occupation, and siege of the Palestinians are no hindrance to forging ties with the Arab world. Netanyahu also recently boasted that Israeli passenger planes could fly over Oman and Sudan, (and an Israel-bound flight even flew over Saudi Arabia last March), racking up yet another win for his regional integration effort.
Last year, an Israeli delegation visited Bahrain for a conference organized by UNESCO (ironically, the same United Nations organization defunded and abandoned by the United States over alleged anti-Israel bias). There are no diplomatic relations with the Gulf kingdom, but like its neighbors who are concerned about Iran, Bahrain has inched closer to forging overt ties with Israel. In May 2018, its foreign minister tweeted about Israel’s right to defend itself after Iranian missiles were lobbed at targets in the occupied Golan Heights from Syria. In December 2017, an interfaith Bahraini delegation that did not include any government officials made headlines when it visited Jerusalem—just days after Trump announced his decision to recognize the holy city as Israel’s capital.
The UAE and Israel have had a working relationship for decades, spanning defense, technology and agriculture. But in October 2018, the UAE went a step further, allowing Israel’s national anthem to be played at a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi as a tearful Israeli sports minister presented a medal to Sagi Muki, who won gold at the competition. Saudi Arabia’s permissive attitude to informal relations is more recent. It began after the death of King Abdullah in 2015 and with the ascension of Mohammed bin Salman to his post of crown prince in 2017. Riyadh’s aspiration to reach a similar detente with Israel renders the Arab Peace Initiative it put forth almost two decades ago almost irrelevant.
Even Qatar, which has been isolated and shunned by several other Gulf states and Egypt over its links to Islamist groups, has also had working arrangements with Israel for years that most recently focused on allowing Doha to funnel money to the Gaza Strip to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation in the besieged enclave. In an effort to garner the approval of major Jewish-American groups, Qatar recently censored an Al Jazeera undercover documentary about the Israel lobby in the United States. It also spent millions of dollars courting the heads of these organizations, flying them first class to Doha, according to a report by Haaretz.
The Palestinian issue has long been a helpful diversion for governments in the region; it has been used to deflect attention from pressing domestic issues for decades. In the case of the UAE, leaders see the Palestinians as not having much to offer. Israel, on the other hand, sells itself as an innovation hub— a position to which the UAE aspires.
Some in Israel have embraced Netanyahu’s plan to bypass the Palestinians. A piece by diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post published after the Warsaw conference contended that the Palestinians no longer held veto power over Arab ties with Israel. “In order to deal with the common enemy of Iran and radical Islamic terror, these countries have shown an interest in dealing with Israel even though there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians to speak of,” he argued.
The charm offensive hasn’t been limited to Netanyahu and Israel’s right wing. In early December, Avi Gabbay, the leader of the Labor Party, made a secret visit to the UAE after telling his colleagues from the now-defunct Zionist Union that he was too sick to attend a Hanukkah party. In an effort to shore up his foreign policy credentials ahead of Israel’s April elections, he met with senior officials in Abu Dhabi where he reportedly discussed Iran and the conflict with the Palestinians. Gabbay’s hope is that such a visit to an influential Gulf state will help Labor at the polls (most Israeli political observers believe it won’t).
Meanwhile, the right is emboldened and willing to engage with the Saudis and other Gulf countries on all levels because of shared opposition to Iran and its regional influence. They don’t see any reason to hammer out a painful peace deal with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is convinced he can beat Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into submission and that eventually the Palestinians will accept limited autonomy in disjointed ghettos, allowing Israel to wash its hands of its Palestinian problem.
But even with the ever-present Iranian threat, not everyone in Israel is convinced that bypassing the Palestinians will help form the bulwark needed against Tehran and bring the country the peace it wants—at home and regionally.
This more overt relationship with the Gulf puts the schism between the Israeli political and security establishments in stark relief, as many in the old-guard defense elite still believe in a two-state deal. However, with regional integration taken care of, and Palestinians soon making up the majority of the population living under Israeli control, the only option left will be for them to engage in a struggle for equal rights with Jewish Israelis, including the right to vote in Israeli elections. This would be a left-wing government’s worst nightmare—forcing leftist Israelis to reconcile their ostensibly liberal political philosophy with the reality of crushing a popular protest movement demanding equality—which they would do anything to avoid.
The current strategy of not addressing Palestinian statehood “goes against Israeli interests, because of all the issues around us, the most existential issue is the Palestinian one,” said Nadav Tamir, who served as a policy advisor to former President Shimon Peres, speaking at J Street’s conference last year. “Because that is the only issue that actually is a threat to the identity of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people under democracy.”
Many liberal Zionists believe that Netanyahu is keeping the conflict on ice because the status quo serves him politically. But his indecision, they argue, will ultimately lead to a one-state solution, something they cannot accept. If between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there are equal numbers of Palestinians and Jews, will Israel give the Palestinians equal rights? Allow them to be elected to office? Grant them the right of return? These ideas clash with the very idea of the state of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. And therein lies the conundrum.
Retired military experts and officials who support a separation from the Palestinians believe that making peace with other Arabs at the Palestinians’ expense is delusional. Speaking at J Street’s conference last spring, Israela Oron, a retired brigadier general in the Israeli military and an authority on security issues, said, “It will never happen. … [There is] no way for [the Arabs] to promote the relationship between them and Israel, unless Israel will give them something in return in terms of our relationship with the Palestinians.”
Some, like Oron, see Netanyahu’s detente with the Gulf countries—without addressing the Palestinian issue—as reckless. Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of former senior security officials who support a two-state solution by “separating” from the Palestinians and adhering to a regional security framework, believe that bypassing the Palestinians, through annexation or otherwise, is irresponsible because it will lead Israel down the one-state path.
Netanyahu has overseen roughly a decade of intransigence since President Barack Obama’s first term, demonstrating that Israel indeed does not need to give meaningful concessions to the Palestinians to realize its own Arab peace initiative. The fact that Israel could be setting the stage for a one-state solution in the future seems lost on its current government. The Israeli government’s lack of motivation to solve the conflict, coupled with the Knesset’s deliberations on annexing parts of the West Bank, are “very dangerous ideas,” Oron said at the time. “It means that we are going to annex territory. But with territory comes something else, like Palestinians. To annex the population of the West Bank to Israel is leading us directly to a place we really don’t want to [be in].”
Netanyahu remains defiant ahead of the April elections, despite a decision by Israel’s attorney general to indict him for corruption. The Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, has upped the ante for Netanyahu and is now his most serious challenger. The new party is running neck-and-neck with Likud according to polls and it supports talks with the Palestinians.
Most of the political parties running in the upcoming elections have not proposed an end to the military regime in the West Bank and siege on Gaza, and Arab governments don’t seem to care. Gulf governments have largely discounted their own attempt at diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians, instead opting to move forward with normalization whether a peace plan is in place or not.
These overtures confirm the beginning of a new era in Middle Eastern politics—one where Palestine is no longer the defining issue.