As part of its attempt to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian discussions, the US administration has in recent months put forth a significant effort to persuade different Arab nations, headed by the Gulf states, to make certain gestures toward Israel. While in geopolitical terms the Arab-Israeli arena and the Persian Gulf arena are separate, the Persian Gulf states are nonetheless directly or indirectly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict and are influenced by Israeli-Palestinian relations.
At the same time that the White House is pressuring Israel on the settlements, it is also urging the Gulf states to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel. In recent months the American administration has reportedly extracted "deposits" whereby Oman and Qatar will reopen the Israeli diplomatic missions in Muscat (closed in 2000 because of the intifada) and Doha (closed in early 2009 as a result of Operation Cast Lead). Additionally, several states may allow Israeli civilian aircraft, including cargo planes, through their airspace or even allow direct flights from Israel to airports in their territories, while others would grant visas to Israelis, set up direct telephone dialing and hold public meetings with Israeli officials at high levels.
Saudi Arabia has announced that at this stage it has no intention of making a move that might be interpreted as a gesture toward Israel, but it would not oppose such moves by other Gulf states. Since Saudi Arabia's stance at times sets the tone for the smaller Gulf states, this may be seen as a green light for such gestures.
Traditionally the Gulf states have not adopted separate policies regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they have preferred to toe the pan-Arab line, despite the fact that most of the fundamental problems between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab nations are not directly related to the Gulf arena.
The official thaw in relations between the Gulf states and Israel was spurred mainly by the American diplomatic effort to break the freeze in the Arab-Israeli peace process and the opening of the Madrid Conference in 1991. The Gulf states' contempt for Arafat (because of his support for Saddam Hussein), the developing relations with US Jewish organizations, and even the feeling of solidarity as a result of Scud missiles fired on both Riyadh and Tel Aviv, also influenced the normalization process.
Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Gulf states reconsidered their position, though they did not go much beyond the boundaries of the Arab consensus. In October 1994, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreed to cancel its boycott of states and companies that maintained economic ties with Israel, but their representatives stressed that the direct boycott on Israel would continue until a comprehensive peace agreement was reached between Israel and its neighbors. However, the assassination of then prime minister Itzhak Rabin in November 1995, Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996, and the events at the Western Wall tunnel in October 1996 prompted the Gulf states in March 1997 to freeze the normalization process launched at Madrid.
Recent years have also seen a continued flux in the the Arab Gulf states' attitudes toward Israel and the peace process. As a result of Israel's 2005 disengagement from Gaza, some of the Gulf states again announced normalization measures with Israel: Bahraini Foreign Minister Mahmad Ben Mabarak confirmed that his country had decided to cancel the boycott on Israeli goods, and Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Ben Jassam called on Arab nations "to respond positively to the step taken by Israel at international conferences and in meetings between Arab and Israeli statesmen." He also noted that full diplomatic relations between Qatar and Israel may be possible even before a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from the territories had taken place.
Now, more than ever, it is in Israel's interest to strengthen its relations with the Gulf states and affirm the dominance of the moderate forces in the Gulf. Building alliances among moderate nations and leaders that share similar outlooks will help bolster Israel against the Iranian threat. Closer ties are also likely to strengthen Israel's status, bestow legitimacy on other nations seeking to jump on the peace bandwagon and encourage positive Israeli public opinion via Arab gestures to promote peace. Furthermore, the Gulf states might provide additional momentum to the peace process, and if and when an Israel-Palestinian/Arab peace agreement is signed, they may help finance it.
However, now, as then, in the eyes of the Gulf states the burden of proof is on Israel: "It must demonstrate its desire for peace in practice" and agree to a formula that would be acceptable regarding the territories.
WHAT IS the interest of the Gulf states in forging a closer relationship with Israel? This positive response to the US administration may ensure a more supportive American position on issues of concern to them. Even if the economic-commercial exchange with Israel is of small scope, Israel is nevertheless a desirable partner for cooperation in irrigation technologies, desalination and military-security know-how.
Will the Gulf states adopt a more active peace policy? At most, the future role the Gulf states will likely be that of donors, for example by financing joint Israeli-Palestinian projects; or of facilitators, by hosting rounds of talks at home.
It is hard to say with certainty to what extent the Gulf states will meet the US position. In light of their fear of Iran and the mounting doubts about America's willingness to stand by them in the moment of truth, it is not at all clear that they have decided whether and how to openly join the bloc of pragmatic nations, which would act as a counterweight to Iran's might.
Moreover, public opinion in the Gulf states has traditionally tended to oppose normalization with Israel and it will be hard for the regimes to ignore this.
At this stage it seems that the Gulf states will again opt to toe the line of the basic Arab position, though perhaps with their own tactical adjustments to maintain indirect involvement. At the same time, the Gulf states are not a single political bloc, and as in the past, they may find it difficult to agree on a uniform policy toward Israel. While nations such as Oman, Bahrain and Qatar are likely to make certain gestures toward Israel, others such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are expected to lag behind, at least initially.
The Arab Gulf states face threats that may affect the stability of the Middle East. At the top of their list of concerns is the multidimensional threat posed by Iran and the future of Iraq. Gulf leaders may seek to bind their stated gestures toward Israel to American guarantees that would make it difficult for Iran, with or without nuclear capabilities, to dictate the Gulf's agenda. This will make it easier for the Gulf states to engage in confidence building measures and somewhat relax their attitude toward Israel.
Reprinted with permission of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. The author is a research fellow at INSS.