by Dr. Mordechai Kedar
The parade of visitors to the Arab Gulf States (note that this term is being used because the Arabs are insulted when "their" gulf is called "Persian") in recent weeks is quite remarkable: The Prime Minister, two Cabinet ministers – Miri Regev and Yisrael Katz – the head of Israel's Mossad and a Judo delegation. The Israeli flag was flown at a judo competition in Abu Dhabi, the Israeli national anthem was played there twice and the Israeli Culture Minister sang "the Jewish soul yearns…to be a free nation in our land…" while wiping away tears of emotion. The skies, it should be noted, did not fall down. And to top it all off, their host took them to visit the Sheikh Zaid Mosque – and all of the above happened in the space of one month.
For the Gulf States and the Saudis, a common threat means that Israel is becoming part of the solution instead of playing its old role as the core of the problem.
The question that arises of its own is does this signal something new? Is this a real change? A strategic earthquake? Or is it simply that what was going on behind the scenes has been revealed all of a sudden. It is worth remembering as well, though, that while Israelis have visited the Gulf, there has been no public reciprocal visit to Israel of anyone from the Gulf States.
Bearing that in mind, we will proceed cautiously in our analysis of what occurred this past October.
As far as the Sultanate of Oman is concerned, there were visits of Israeli prime ministers to Oman in the past: The late Yitzchak Rabin visited there in 1994, Oman's Foreign Minister visited Israel in 1995, and the late Prime Minister Shimon Peres was there in 1996. The second Intifada of 2000 caused a rupture in those developing relations, with contact being made mainly behind the scenes and in secret.
In 2008, then foreign minister Tzipi Livni met Oman's foreign minister, but no publicized meetings between the two country's decision makers have taken place since. In addition, a high level delegation from Oman took part in the funeral of former President Shimon Peres in 2016. Earlier this year, Oman's foreign minister visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
The Sultanate of Oman is not exactly a central player in the Arab political landscape, despite its important geo-strategic location on the Straits of Hormuz through which all the oil produced in the Gulf is exported by both the Gulf States and Iran. Accordingly, the contact between Israel and Oman does not elicit much attention either worldwide or in the Middle East, and I have the impression that most Israelis don't know exactly where Oman is.
Israelis have a connection with the United Emirates as well. Israeli sportsmen flew to the Emirates in 2008, 2010 and 2013 to take part in international tournaments. In 2010 Uzi Landau, then minister of national infrastructure, flew to Abu Dhabi to take part in an international conference on renewable energy.
An official Israeli delegation dealing with energy was opened in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, in 2015. Since this branch is part of the International Energy Agency, whose main base is in Abu Dhabi, the United Emirates do not view it as a diplomatic representation of Israel in the Emirates. In 2016, Yuval Steinetz, Israel's energy minister, visited Abu Dhabi as delegate to the International Conference on Energy taking place there.
In 2017, Israeli Air Force pilots took part in military exercises in Greece, along with pilots from the United Emirates, Greece and Italy. This year Israeli contestants took part in the international judo competition in Abu Dhabi and were joined by Culture Minister Miri Regev, as described above.
Qatar also hosted an official Israeli economic delegation starting from the year 1996 and then prime minister Shimon Peres visited Qatar and discussed the supply of gas to Israel. This Israeli delegation was shut down in 2009 as a result of Israel's Cast Lead operation in Gaza. During the years 2011 and 2013, Israeli sportsmen took part in international sports events in Qatar, minus the Israeli flag and anthem.
The Saudis have never allowed Israeli visits to be publicized, although behind the scenes there is quite a bit of contact between Israel and the monarchy. A well known Israeli urologist took care of the royal family for years, with the blessing of Israel's prime ministers.
The ice separating Israel from the Saudis began cracking in 2015 when the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany signed the nuclear agreement with Iran, an event which caused the Saudis great concern and was much more worrying than the Israelis. The Saudis do not express this concern in public because Bedouin tradition mandates that men hide their emotions and do not display them publicly.
In 2016 , then Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, was seen at an international conference in Germany shaking the hand of Turki el Faisal, a most influential Saudi prince who once served as head of Saudi Intelligence. Anwar A-Shaki, a Saudi General (ret.) came to Israel in 2016 at the head of a business and academic delegation and was severely criticized by the PA for doing so.
The relations between the Gulf States and Israel can be summed up as a two-time blossoming: once in the nineties and one going on now. Although Israel has neither a common border nor territorial issues with the Gulf states, they avoided any connection with Israel out of a feeling of loyalty and obligation towards the Palestinian cause. The development of relations in the nineties was based on the Oslo Accords at a period when it seemed as though there was real progress in solving the "Palestinian problem."
As the years passed, the negotiations between Israel and the PA came to a standstill, and then the second Intifada exploded in 2000, leading to many fatalities on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and changing the atmosphere surrounding any connection with Israel to a totally negative one. Relations between Israel and the Gulf States were severed.
Things began to change when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. The Hamas Movement is the Palestinian Arab branch of the International Muslim Brotherhood, abhorred beyond description by the Saudis and the United Emirates because of disputes over the role of Islam in society and state. The similarity between the viewpoints of Israel and the Gulf grew stronger in 2015 when the Iran Agreement was signed, and last year's rapprochement is a direct result of both the Emirate and House of Saud's fear of the Iranians and their inability to withstand Iranian pressure, let alone the thought of a military conflict with Iran.
Relations during the nineties were based on interests, and those were set aside when in 2000, the second Intifada exacerbated the Palestinian Arab problem. Today's relations are based on fear, and the Palestinian Arab issue has a hard time trumping that.
Add to that the fact that the Gulf States – and many other countries – see no light at the end of the tunnel regarding the Hamas-Fatah split, and therefore see no end in sight for the Israel-Palestinian conflict that once prevented any progress in developing relations with Israel.
Accordingly, they have decided to skirt the Palestinian issue and improve relations with Israel without tying them to the progress of negotiations between the Israelis and the PA or those between Hamas and the PLO.
The magnitude of the Palestinian Arab issue, when seen from the Gulf, seems miniscule in comparison with the looming Iranian threat endangering the Gulf States' survival. They have, therefore, decided to simply ignore the Palestinian problem. Israel can provide them with defense systems such as the Iron Dome, share intelligence about Iran's intentions and plans with them, and perhaps even become part of a coalition backed by the USA that will face off against the Iranian coalition that includes, at present, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah's Lebanon, Turkey, Hamas - and has Russian backing.
When the geo-strategic players are the "big" guys, a small problem like that of the Palestinian Arabs gets pushed to the outskirts of the political arena, and the Palestinian Arabs, once again, are going to pay for their stubborn refusal to go forward on the road to a peaceful settlement with Israel.
Add to that the fact that the Gulf States have not forgotten Palestinian Arab support for Saddam Hussein when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and conquered it in 1990. In the Middle East, people neither forget nor forgive and the old Bedouin adage says that a Bedouin who avenged his father's blood after a span of forty years, said "I rushed."
Any progress in relations between Israel and the Gulf States is based on the Iranian threat growing stronger while the Palestinian problem gets pushed aside. When this is the way the situation looks, Israel stops being the problem and turns, instead, into part of the solution, becoming the "Guardian of the Gulf."
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University. He served in IDF Military Intelligence for 25 years, specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. Thoroughly familiar with Arab media in real time, he is frequently interviewed on the various news programs in Israel.
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