Gulf-Israel Ties Might Not Survive Trump’s Peace Plan
A political program that does not envision statehood for the Palestinians could reverse the Gulf Arab states’ tentative warming toward Israel.
The U.S.-sponsored Peace to Prosperity workshop in Manama, Bahrain, last month—an effort spearheaded by U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, to sell the economic portion of a broader Middle East peace plan—had limited success in its stated purpose of advancing Palestinian economic development. But it showed more mixed results in another area: serving as a platform for Gulf Arab states and Israel to take meaningful steps forward in their still-emerging relationships.
The meeting had some positive moments and even modest breakthroughs. A delegation of Israeli businesspeople was present and able to network freely among other attendees, including those from Arab states. Veterans of regional economic conferences in Casablanca, Morocco, and Amman, Jordan, in the Oslo Accords era of the early 1990s recall similar scenes at those gatherings, and the economic offices that Israel and Gulf states opened in each other’s countries facilitated additional contacts. So the public meetings in Bahrain were not unprecedented, but they were welcome after a long hiatus from such exchanges.
More groundbreaking was the presence of numerous Israeli journalists, reporting freely. Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, chose an interview with one such reporter, Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 13, to make significant statements about the mistake the Arab states have made by not engaging Israel more until now. In perhaps the clearest statement of recognition of Israel by any Gulf Arab leader, he said, “Israel is a country in the Middle East. Israel is part of this heritage of this whole region historically. So the Jewish people have a place among us.”
The remarks were warmly received in Israel—and widely perceived to carry a broader significance. Ever since Saudi Arabia provided regime-saving protection to the Bahraini royal family during and following the mass protests in 2011, Bahrain has operated with a high degree of coordination with the Saudis. Statements such as Khalifa’s, among other Bahraini gestures to Israel, are likely coordinated in advance with, and approved by, Riyadh. More significantly, they may represent the adoption by Bahrain of the role of a scout—testing frontiers of engagement with Israel that the Saudis are not ready for themselves, to see what the traffic will bear and to lower the costs to Riyadh of taking similar steps later. So while the voice was that of Khalifa, the thoughts may have been those of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
On the negative side of the ledger, the conference did not occasion any direct, official Arab-Israeli contact. With relations between the Trump administration and the Palestinian Authority in a deep freeze since the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, and with Palestinian suspicions running high that the United States will try to use the $50 billion economic package Kushner unveiled in Bahrain to pressure Palestinians to accept a political plan that downgrades their national ambitions, the Palestinians placed heavy pressure on Arab states to limit their participation.
The result was a twofold disappointment for U.S. hopes: underwhelming attendance by Arab officials and the complete absence of Israeli government representatives. Palestinian officials boycotted the event entirely. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar sent ministers with economic responsibilities, while Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco sent lower-ranking officials to the workshop. The U.S. team described its decision not to invite the Israeli government to participate as natural, because it would have been premature to discuss both political issues and implementation of the economic plan. But given the Trump administration’s strong commitment to expanding Israel’s regional and international acceptance, this choice could only have been the result of the refusal of the Bahraini hosts and other Arab participants to countenance discussing Palestinian issues with Israeli counterparts without Palestinians present. In that respect, the Palestinian boycott achieved one of its objectives.
Other Arab states, including Kuwait and Oman, stayed away altogether. Both chose the week of the conference to make gestures toward the Palestinians—Kuwait issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to the Palestinian cause of statehood, and Oman announced a decision to open an embassy to Palestine in Ramallah. Even Khalifa made sure to use his Israeli television interview to cite the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for two states on the 1967 lines (the armistice lines from before the Six-Day War) as the basis for Arab engagement.
In practical terms, the conference also produced few results: No pledges of aid were announced, and no deals or investments were finalized in support of the $50 billion vision. Trump administration officials said that was expected and that such announcements would only come at a later stage, when they reveal their political program.
The Bahrain conference demonstrated three major factors in Gulf-Israel relations.
First, there continues to be interest among some Gulf countries in advancing their relations with Israel and in supporting the Trump administration’s approach on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The most enthusiastic—Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are those that place a higher priority on confronting the threat posed by Iran than on further attempts at improving the seemingly hopeless Israeli-Palestinian situation. With the Iran issue as their main focus, their desire to coordinate with Israel and the importance they place on supporting the Trump administration helps explain their relative openness to Israel. Qatar, which seeks to demonstrate its value to Washington in light of its tensions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE—and continues to act as an Israeli-approved source of funds for economic relief in Gaza—also goes further in engaging Israel than some other Arab countries.
Second, the Gulf states are not united on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Kuwait in particular is an outlier, expressing greater hostility to normalization with Israel and fidelity to the Palestinian cause. Oman, which hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, does not shy away from engagement with Israel but prefers to act on its own, rather than as part of a Gulf collective, and sought to sustain its role as a possible go-between by strengthening its ties with the Palestinian Authority. Oman’s independent, if fitful, role was highlighted further on July 1, when Israel’s director of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, announced in a speech that Israel had received approval to open a diplomatic mission in Muscat, an announcement subsequently denied by the Omani government.
Third, the absence of progress toward Palestinian statehood continues to impose a low ceiling on the pace of normalization between Gulf states and Israel. An Arab-Israeli ministerial meeting in a Gulf capital with the Palestinians boycotting was a bridge too far. The case for normalization, or even limited statements of lessened hostility, has not filtered down to Gulf Arab publics enough to embolden the rulers to move as fast as Washington and Jerusalem would like. The elites are ready, but the publics are not.
Normalization gestures are also not advancing in Egypt and Jordan, key partners whose stability the Gulf states do not wish to undermine. All of which suggests that the Gulf-Israel normalization gains that have been achieved could stall if Israeli-Palestinian ties remain frozen, or they could even be reversed if ties deteriorate.
This means that the United States and Israel need to carefully weigh the impact of their next moves. Until now, Gulf states have not been presented with or forced to respond to a U.S. or Israeli approach to Israeli-Palestinian final status issues. Sources of tension with Palestinians, like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or the cutoff of aid and tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority have had minimal impact on Gulf attitudes. But their views and willingness to proceed in their ties with Israel will be tested mightily if and when they must react to a Trump political plan that does not envision statehood for the Palestinians or an Israeli decision to proceed with annexation of parts of the West Bank. The Bahrain summit tells us that in such a circumstance, it is nowhere near certain that Gulf states would feel they could continue in their recent trend of warming toward Israel.
Daniel B. Shapiro was U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro