Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Israeli Rapprochement with Gulf Arabs

We have, to our credit, been following closely the rapprochement between Israel and her Arab neighbors. These nations are forming new alliances, not only to counter Iranian influence but to modernize politically and economically.

Some of it has been made public. Much of it remains behind the scenes. The issue of what to do about Palestinian terrorism remains a trip wire, though the Gulf Arab states seem to see little advantage to compromising their own reputations by aligning themselves with a band of maniacal and self-destructive terrorists. On the other side, the Arab states must show a public support for their Palestinian brethren, because what used to be called the Arab Street seems still to feel an affinity  for that lost cause.

Ian Black has written a long and detailed and comprehensive account of the new alliances for The Guardian. As he notes, the advent of the Trump administration has accelerated the process of rapprochement.

For example, as reported here and elsewhere:

In mid-February 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, flew to Warsaw for a highly unusual conference. Under the auspices of the US vice-president, Mike Pence, he met the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and two other Gulf states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel. The main item on the agenda was containing Iran….

The meeting publicly showcased the remarkable fact that Israel, as Netanyahu was so keen to advertise, is winning acceptance of a sort from the wealthiest countries in the Arab world – even as the prospects for resolving the longstanding Palestinian issue are at an all-time low. This unprecedented rapprochement has been driven mainly by a shared animosity towards Iran, and by the disruptive new policies of Donald Trump.

Clearly, the Netanyahu diplomatic offense has yielded some positive results. Aside from Black’s snarky comment about Trump, the fact is that things are moving forward:

Evidence is mounting of increasingly close ties between Israel and five of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – none of which have formal relations with the Jewish state. Trump highlighted this accelerating change on his first foreign trip as president – to the Saudi capital Riyadh – by flying on directly afterwards to Tel Aviv. Hopes for Saudi help with his much-hyped “deal of the century” to end the Israel-Palestine conflict have faded since then. Yet Netanyahu is seeking to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia. And there has even been speculation about a public meeting between him and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi crown prince who was widely blamed for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. That would be a sensational – and highly controversial – moment, which is why Saudis are signalling frantically that it is not going to happen. Still, the meeting with Netanyahu in Warsaw went far beyond anything that has taken place before. The abnormal is becoming normal.

In his usually bumbling way, President Obama facilitated the alliance. Israel and the Arab countries joined together by their strong disapproval of Obama policies.

The original impetus for these developing relationships between Israel and the Gulf states was a mutual distaste for Barack Obama. In the early years of the Arab spring, he infuriated the Saudis and the UAE, and alarmed Israel, by abandoning Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, and then voiced support for the popular uprising in Syria and called for Bashar al-Assad to resign. In 2015, when the US-led nuclear agreement was signed with Iran, it was vehemently opposed by Israel and most Gulf states. That September, Russia’s military intervention in Syria marked the beginning of the end of the crisis for Assad. Tehran’s steadfast support for its ally in Damascus, and its backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon – Iran’s “axis of resistance” – was regarded with identical disgust in Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

And also:

“The Obama administration was hated by Saudi Arabia and Israel because it shunned them both,” a senior Saudi told me. A veteran Israeli official made the same argument: “There was a sense that we were looking at an American ’s administration that wasn’t as committed to America’s traditional friends. We had to make common cause because there was a sense of being left to fend for ourselves. Unwittingly, Obama contributed very significantly to the buildup of relations between us and the UAE and the Saudis.”

Naturally, both Israel and Saudi Arabia were happy that the Trump administration abandoned the Obama administration sellout to Iran:

The priority for the Saudis and their allies is resisting Iran, which in the past few years has consolidated its position in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, where it backs the Houthi rebels. MBS notoriously described Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as a “new Hitler”. Netanyahu compared Obama’s nuclear deal to the Munich agreement of 1938 – and after Trump abandoned it last summer, Netanyahu signalled Israel’s readiness to join an “international coalition” against Tehran. “We were raised to see Israel as an enemy that occupied Arab countries,” argues an Emirati analyst. “The reality now is that the Israelis are there whether you like it or not. We have common interests with them – and it’s about Iran, about interests, not emotions.”

It’s about interests, not emotions. We recall that it was not too long ago that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman traveled to China… and said not a word about the roundup and re-education of China’s Muslim population. Besides, if you wanted to do business, would you choose the economic powerhouse Israel or the permanent basket case of Palestine:

There is also a pragmatic recognition in Gulf capitals of the benefits of security, technological and economic links with an unassailably powerful Israel – not only for their own sake, but also because of the US approval that brings. Israel sees ties with the Gulf as an important way of demonstrating its own influence in Washington. “It is doubtful whether the scope of (US) aid to Arab countries could have been sustained without the support of Aipac (the main pro-Israel lobby group) and Jewish organisations,” suggests Eran Lerman, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.

The pro-Iranian Obamaphile left is alarmed by the new rapprochement. They believe that the Palestinian issue is most salient… because they want nothing more than to capitulate to terrorism. Evidently, the Israeli diplomatic offensive has been undermining Arab support for the Palestinian cause. And the meek and cowardly left cannot deal with that:

Netanyahu’s many Israeli critics – angry over the corruption charges he is facing as next month’s elections approach – have complained that he is exaggerating both the Iranian threat and the significance of his Gulf diplomacy, while completely ignoring the existential crisis in Israel’s own backyard – its ongoing failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

We recall Netanyahu’s trip to Oman last October:

Netanyahu’s meeting with the Saudis and Emiratis in Warsaw was not the first dramatic public glimpse of this changing Middle Eastern reality. Last October, the Israeli prime minister held talks in Muscat, the capital of Oman, with its ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The following day, his Likud party colleague, the culture and sports minister Miri Regev, was visiting Abu Dhabi in the UAE, while at the same time Israeli athletes were competing in Doha in nearby Qatar.

News of Netanyahu’s Muscat trip included video footage of his talks in the ornate Bait al-Baraka palace. The prime minister, in a blue suit and tie, was seen exchanging pleasantries with the sultan, in a turban and traditional white dishdasha robe. The Israeli leader’s wife, Sara, was there with other members of his delegation, including an impassive middle-aged man called Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad intelligence service.

One notes that ties between Israel and the Emirates are more open and more constructive. Clearly, the leaders of the Emirates would not be doing any of this without tacit approval from Riyadh:

During Regev’s stay in Abu Dhabi, where Israel’s top judo team was participating in a tournament, she wept on camera as Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem (the Hebrew words are about yearning for Zion) was played. Later she toured the opulent Sheikh Zayed mosque, commemorating the UAE’s founder, a loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause. These two Israeli ministerial visits to Gulf capitals gave a powerful boost to the impression of dramatic changes in the region’s alliances….

The links are most visible with the UAE, where Israel, uniquely, has an official diplomatic presence at the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi – though both countries emphasise that they do not have bilateral relations. Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labor party, held talks there last December. Netanyahu is thought to have met Emirati leaders in Cyprus in 2015 to discuss how to tackle Iran. But secret contacts between the two countries were routine from the mid-1990s – some of which were recorded in the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. The Emiratis “believe in Israel’s role because of their perception of Israel’s close relationship with the US, but also due to their sense that they can count on Israel against Iran,” an Israeli diplomat noted in 2009, adding that in general Gulf Arabs “believe Israel can work magic”.

Again, the question involves self-interest. Gulf Arab nations have a great deal to gain by an alliance with Israel, especially in the matter of trade, commerce and defense technology. They can only lose by associating themselves too openly with the Palestinian cause:

One former UAE diplomat told me that the threat from Iran today had a unifying effect comparable to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to a previously unacceptable US military presence in Saudi Arabia. “If it wasn’t for the Palestinian issue,” the ex-diplomat said, “this relationship with Israel would be very public, and it would be very welcome, because we need their military equipment and technology.”

Jamal al-Suwaidi, the founder of the government-backed Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, put it more bluntly: “The Palestinian cause is no longer at the forefront of Arabs’ interests, as it used to be for long decades; it has sharply lost priority in light of the challenges, threats and problems that face countries of the region.” Similarly, he added, the question of Israel was not comparable to the “threats posed … by Iran, Hezbollah and terrorist groups”.

How are business and commercial ties going? Rather well, as it happens:

Israeli trade with the Gulf states is currently estimated to be worth $1bn a year, though no official statistics are available on either side. The potential, however, is vast – in technology, especially cybersecurity, irrigation, medical supplies and the diamond industry, among others, it could be up to $25bn annually, according to a detailed new study.

Israeli businessmen using foreign passports fly regularly to the UAE, usually on commercial flights via Amman. “There is a huge amount going on,” says the Israeli representative of a multinational company who travels to Arab states with an EU passport.

For example:

AGT International, owned by Israeli Mati Kochavi, provided electronic fences and surveillance equipment worth $800m to protect UAE borders and oilfields. Emirati officials described this as a non-political decision motivated by national security interests. In 2014 Haaretz made headlines when it first spotted a mysterious weekly private flight from Tel Aviv, via Amman, to Dubai. Nowadays direct flights between the Gulf and Israel, though still unexplained publicly, are frequently reported on social media. Israeli businesses operate in the UAE via companies registered in Europe. Bills of lading are produced from an intermediary country, often Jordan or Cyprus.

Evidently, Black did not approve of Trump’s open embrace of Israel. And yet, the reaction of Riyadh was quite different:

Trump’s inflammatory decision in December 2017 to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaching a long-standing international consensus, initially met with a muted response in Riyadh. The president’s “ultimate deal” to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict was discussed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner with MBS. Subsequent leaks pointed to a key role for the Saudis in pressuring the Palestinians. And when the crown prince made a three-week trip to the US last spring, he transmitted even louder signals about his intentions toward Israel, telling the Atlanticthat the Palestinians should accept Trump’s plan or “shut up and stop complaining” about an issue that was no longer a priority compared to confronting Iran. MBS also explicitly acknowledged Jewish claims to Israel, declaring: “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza burned pictures of the Saudi royals.


UbuMaccabee said...

The Foggy Bottom and media know-it-all set come from the idiot factories called our elite universities, so they are invariably wrong about everything. Trump came from the bruising world of building big projects in corrupt cities. Different sensibilities. I think Trump has solid grasp when empty rhetoric is being used to hide a losing hand, and ignores it. The media can safely be ignored.

Great article and almost entirely positive news. The adults in the room are forming natural alliances based on natural self interest.

MAGA pays international dividends. Making America weak again just sows chaos.

Sam L. said...

I like Trump's disruptions. They give a new and different outlook on problems/opportunities.

"Netanyahu’s many Israeli critics – angry over the corruption charges he is facing as next month’s elections approach – have complained that he is exaggerating both the Iranian threat and the significance of his Gulf diplomacy, while completely ignoring the existential crisis in Israel’s own backyard – its ongoing failure to make peace with the Palestinians." You can't make peace with those who will NOT make peace. You just have to kill those coming over your border.