Thursday, March 09, 2017

Are The Arab Gulf States Really Ready for a Regional Alliance With Israel?

“[Besides Egypt and Jordan,] many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy. They recognize that Israel is their ally. Our common enemies are ISIS and Iran. Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace. I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals.”
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in speech to UN General Assembly, September 22, 2016

Is The Enemy of My Enemy -- My Friend, or My Ally?

At a time when there are still some who insist that Israel is isolated in the international community, it is becoming increasingly clear that Israel is in fact building new friendships and alliances. In his speech at the end of December last year, criticizing Israel, Kerry described Israel's friends as United Kingdom, France and Russia. But Netanyahu's recent trip to Singapore and Australia extends Israel's circle beyond that. Meanwhile closer to home, Netanyahu has visited Africa, visiting Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

And then, even closer to home, are the Arab countries.

Israel has diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan.
It has no relations with Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Israel has unofficial relations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman.

Map of Israel and surrounding countries. Credit: Altapedia

Putting aside Egypt and Jordan and those Arab countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations at all, where does Israel really stand with the countries which make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)?

The prevailing wisdom is that Obama has practically pushed Israel and these Gulf countries into each others arms by strengthening Iran through the Iran deal and giving them billions of dollars.

But does having a common enemy make Israel and these Arab countries friends or does it make them allies?
Is it the beginning of a growing bond of understanding and cooperation or is it a temporary marriage of convenience?

Saudi Arabia

Just last year, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Anwar Eshki, chairman of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, headed a Saudi delegation to Israel. He claimed that he was representing only himself and said all of the other right things to avoid putting his government into a corner. Naturally, the visit was still attacked as an attempt by the Saudi Arabian government to normalize relations with Israel.

Anwar Eshki, standing in the middle with striped tie, with members of the Israeli Knesset. Credit: Haaretz

MEMRI describes how the Saudis took other steps to ease relations with Israel.

A Saudi columnist, Siham Al-Qahtani, wrote that descriptions in the Quran portraying Jews as infidels, warmongers, and usurers - were meant to apply only to a particular group of Jews that lived during that time. Contrary to the Arab traditional view that Jews were to be blamed for both Arab and world problems, blaming the Jews was merely a way for Arabs to use them as scapegoats, and had to stop.

Another Saudi Columnist, Yasser Hijazi, went a step further and wrote that Arabs had to take part in the fight against "Judophobia." In another article Hijazi suggested that fighting antisemitism would not only help in the fight against terrorism, but would also counter Western arguments against Islam.

"Netanyahu does not represent Judaism... any more than [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi represents Islam..."

But that does not mean that the Saudis and the Israelis are going to be friends.

In addition to the above quote, implying a comparison between Netanyahu and Al Baghdadi, Hijazi made it clear that there was a red line. Fighting antisemitism does not mean they are going to normalize relations with Israel:
The meaning [of this] is not normalization, softening [positions], or relinquishing negotiations to establish a Palestinian state within internationally-recognized borders... The two religions cannot resolve the conflict on the ground... The conflict is not between Islam and Judaism - even if our Israeli enemy seeks to present it as such - but rather between the [rightful] owners of the land and of the rights and occupiers and war criminals… [emphasis added]
The Saudi Writer Ibrahim Al-Matroudi put it a little less harshly, that there was a need for "overcoming the hostility towards the Jews and for benefiting from their experience and successes, even though they are enemies."

You can enlist your enemy as an ally in a fight against a common foe, but the message from some in the Saudi elite is that the alliance will end there -- and Israel remains an enemy.

Some do offer more.

Salman Al-Ansari, the Founder and President of the DC-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee offers being more than just allies against Iran:
In fact, there are some opinions suggesting that having a common enemy in Iran will help accelerate any sort of rapprochement between two of the Middle East’s most powerful nations. While that could be partially true, a more solid foundation for establishing deep-rooted ties between the two countries could manifest in the context of a mutually beneficial economic partnership.
The way Al-Ansari puts it, the potential exists for a partnership that goes beyond Iran to an economic bond and a true friendly relationship.

Except for one thing.

“The Palestinians are still the gatekeepers.”

Wherever a Saudi-Israeli alliance may go, the issue of the Palestinian Arabs remains the ball and chain that is never far behind.

Netanyahu is fond of saying there are 3 reasons that the Arabs are interested in Israel: "technology, technology and technology", which makes sense. Why should Israel make relations with a country dependent on a danger of the moment?

But the Saudis, let alone the rest of the Arab world, still insist that the path to a regional alliance requires a settlement of the Palestinian Arab issue.

That may explain why Trump and his aids are no longer talking about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Even a Saudi journalist like Muhammad Al-Sheikh, who writes that the  Middle East is in turmoil and the Palestinian Arabs can no longer consider themselves the center of attention in the Arab world -- only uses that fact to advise that they give up armed resistance and settle down to negotiating a two-state solution.

The result of this could be that while the US tries to assemble an Arab coalition to get Abbas to the negotiating table, the Palestinians could just as easily try to form their own coalition to get Israel to make concessions. As it is, the Palestinian Arabs are offering to form a confederation with Jordan with the backing of some of the same Arab states Israel is looking to forming alliances with.

Peace Without Normalization

This same uncertainty about whether to consider Israel a friend, an ally or an enemy, exists among other Arab states as well -- and no matter what the potential for future relations between Israel and the Arab world, those relations may progress no further than they have with Egypt.

The war with Egypt ended in 1973.
The peace treaty with Egypt was signed in 1979.

But what do Egypt and Israel have to show for all that after 38 years?

Egypt and Israel share a high level of security and intelligence cooperation in the face of the common security threats they face in Sinai, but without the common threat posed by ISIS in the Sinai and dealing with Hamas -- what would relations between the 2 countries be like?

Is that what Israel has to look forward to with the Arab Gulf states?

The difference may be that in Egypt both the education and the media encourage antisemitism and picture Jews in a negative light, while the Saudis seem to be making an effort to change that.

In addition, there are elements of Egyptian society among the elite, the bureaucrats and the military who feel they have an interest in discouraging normalization with Israel.
There exists a fear of Israel, of Western principles, a fear the military uses to consolidate its role.

Are things that different in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states?


Though these days Israel does not find itself in the midst of one of the major conflicts engulfing the world, its situation is no less complicated.

There is a potential for game-changing alliances, assuming that age-old hatreds can be truly be overcome. At the same time, it is unclear whether those alliances can help to finally help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- or whether the Palestinian Arabs will play the spoiler in preventing a new regional alliance.

Between Netanyahu's new penchant for making friends and the possibilities opened up by having a US president friendly towards Israel, things won't be boring.

Cartoon by Moshe Gulst, The Israeli Cartoon Project

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