Why Israel’s Warming Gulf Ties Will Survive Annexation
Some Arab countries now value good relations with Israel over the Palestinian cause—and not just for strategic reasons.
In the shadow of the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai, a new kosher caterer makes delicious tsimmes. The sweet carrot stew is an iconic Jewish dish featured on the menu of Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, alongside matzo ball soup and brisket. For the United Arab Emirates, the new kosher cuisine has become a point of pride as the royal court of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan tries to rebrand the country as modern and multicultural. Along with creating a Ministry of Tolerance and declaring battle on “extremism and fanaticism,” the UAE now boasts two synagogues and a growing Jewish community of about 200. In a stunning turnaround from decades of animosity and—in more recent years—secret contacts, the UAE has also been cultivating public ties with Israel.
That’s why it’s perplexing to watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu veer from his script of courting moderate Gulf states and proceed with plans to annex parts of the West Bank. The prospect of Israel’s moving forward, which rests on getting a green light from the White House, has drawn outrage from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan, the 22-member Arab League, and most European nations. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, says he won’t recognize Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank if he wins the election in November.
As Netanyahu’s July 1 target date for formal annexation approaches, a diplomatic fog has settled in. Conflicting signals emerge every day over whether Netanyahu will go through with what he promised during the campaign, when he desperately needed right-wing votes to secure his March reelection. So far, his own remarks and those of his aides indicate Netanyahu will buck the criticism and extend the full embrace of Israeli law to at least some of the 132 Jewish settlements that most of the world considers occupied territory. As for the likelihood that Israel’s new friends in the Gulf will tell him to get lost, Netanyahu has ample evidence to suspect they’re bluffing. It’s clear their empathy for Abbas is dissipating.
So far, the most compelling argument that Israel would be spiting itself by formally asserting ownership in the West Bank was made by the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, in a remarkable Hebrew-language newspaper column. Annexation will “upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world,” Otaiba wrote on June 12 in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth, adding that “it will ignite violence and rouse extremists.”
Then he zeroed in on the new tolerance for Jews in his tiny Muslim-majority country. “We have promoted engagement and conflict reduction, helped to create incentives—carrots rather than sticks,” he wrote. “This is what normal could be.”
In truth, the growing UAE-Israeli relationship is anything but normal. Like its Gulf neighbors, the UAE is a monarchical police state, and the cultural shift toward tolerance is part of a set of highly strategic responses to geopolitical threats. First is countering their common adversary, Iran. Second is access to Israeli technology, particularly the pioneering methods developed by Israeli start-ups in desert agriculture, desalination, and cyber-spying.
A third and suddenly new area of strategic cooperation—one that has already proved resistant to criticism from anti-Israel forces in the UAE—is medical research to fight COVID-19. Gulf investors have their eyes on Israel’s Migal Galilee Research Institute near the Lebanese border and the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona, where scientists are making progress in developing a coronavirus vaccine and treatments for the disease. This week, Netanyahu announced an agreement between the Israeli and UAE health ministries to work together on battling COVID-19. The Emirati response was more muted, saying only that two of its companies would collaborate on research. It’s a familiar pattern from the past—Israel has gone public with Arab-Israeli cooperation before, only for its partners to flinch at admitting to the extent of that cooperation in public. This time, nervousness over annexation may also have played a role.
Developments in the Gulf continue to speak another language. Now under construction in Dubai is an Israeli pavilion for next year’s World Expo, a project that would have been unimaginable five years ago when most ties with the Jewish state were under the radar out of concern it would undermine the Palestinians. That concern has diminished amid friction with Abbas and impatience with his refusal to negotiate on U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace proposal.
For the first time, Israeli visitors to the Dubai exposition will be able to enter the UAE on their Israeli passports, a courtesy that Qatar also plans to offer in 2022 when it hosts soccer’s FIFA World Cup. To prepare for that event, the petroleum-rich peninsula has engaged New York’s Rabbi Marc Schneier—who often takes congregants from his synagogue in the Hamptons on interfaith jaunts through the Muslim world—as an advisor to ensure kosher food is available for Jewish fans. And while the UAE entertained a series of Israeli cabinet ministers over the past two years, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said shocked the Middle East in October 2018 by hosting Netanyahu himself, along with his wife, Sara Netanyahu, at the late sultan’s opulent palace in Muscat. A clip from the meeting was aired on the evening news once the Netanyahus were safely back in Jerusalem.
The UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, is highly invested in Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which the Palestinians summarily rejected. Otaiba himself was present at the White House in January when Trump released the proposal, which includes both establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state and allowing Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley and other territory where its settlements sit. The Emirati tycoon Mohamed Ali Alabbar, who has long and deep ties to the UAE’s Jewish community, attended an earlier Bahraini summit where Trump son-in-law and peace team chief Jared Kushner unveiled a $50 billion plan to rebuild the Palestinian economy, which Abbas also dismissed.
To be sure, as Otaiba said, the Gulf’s carrots can be substituted with sticks if Israel goes rogue in the West Bank. Gone would be the presence of Israeli diplomats in Abu Dhabi or military ventures such as Emirati participation in air force exercises with Israel. Forget the possibility of a formal nonbelligerency pact with the UAE and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that Netanyahu aides have frequently floated. Gulf states could prick harder at Israel in the United Nations or boost support to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that has gained strength in Europe and the United States. They could join Qatar in financing Hamas in the Gaza Strip and other militant groups hostile to Israel.
But Netanyahu, shielded by Trump, is betting they won’t. Just days after Otaiba published his Hebrew op-ed, the Emirati state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, participated in a Zoom interview with the American Jewish Committee’s international troubleshooter Jason Isaacson and offered a more conciliatory approach. While restating his opposition to annexation, Gargash said the UAE believes in “decoupling the political from the nonpolitical.” His government, the foreign minister suggested, may look at Israel’s designs on the West Bank and say, “We don’t think it’s a good idea, but at the same time there are areas, such a COVID, technology, and other things, where we can actually work together.”
Even as the UAE raps the West Bank plans in public and presented itself as a champion of the Palestinians by delivering two planeloads of protective gear to help control the coronavirus in the Palestinian-inhabited parts of the West Bank, it dealt Abbas an embarrassing slap by sending the aid on two Etihad Airways flights to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, the first noncovert flights by a Gulf airline to Israel. The mortified leader rejected the shipments, even though they displayed the Emirati flag and were brightly labeled as aid to fight the pandemic in Palestine.
Such an insult would never have happened in the past when Yasser Arafat was in charge and support for the Palestinians against Israel defined Arab political unity. In part, the support has ebbed through diplomatic fatigue as the Palestinians have rejected one peace initiative after another since the 1993 Oslo accords.It’s also generational, as Arab millennials who chat online with young Israelis about gaming and software apps find their parents’ dogmas boring. A final factor is intra-Palestinian intrigue. The COVID-19 airport episode seems to bear the fingerprints of Mohammed Dahlan, a political rival whom Abbas drove into exile. Dahlan now lives in Abu Dhabi, where he is a close friend of the crown prince, advising him on real estate purchases in Eastern Europe, handling the Palestinian leadership, and more.
In Washington, Otaiba keeps a ritual Jewish shofar on display in his spacious embassy office. The son of a former OPEC president, he has developed an unusually warm relationship with the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. In conversation, Otaiba is disarmingly comfortable talking about the mutual benefits of closer ties with Israel, as well as the UAE’s impatience with the Palestinians.
If Otaiba’s boss, the UAE’s foreign minister, was speaking in candor, then even Israel’s ambitions to annex up to 29 percent of the West Bank, including the strategic Jordan Valley border area, can be decoupled as a political disagreement from strategic cooperation, business and technology deals, and the growing comfort with Israelis and Jews. For both sides, it appears, the diplomatic carrots are just too enticing. Netanyahu is confident that the UAE and its Gulf neighbors will keep the tsimmes simmering, that sticks amount to mere twigs, and that they represent little long-term threat to Israel.
Jonathan H. Ferziger is a Jerusalem-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @jhferziger