On December 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited three countries in the Middle East. He traveled to Syria, where he announced the drawdown of troops. Then it was on to Egypt to discuss resuming flights and a nuclear deal. Finally, he went to Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was seen as a symbolic “victory” tour.
That Israel was not included on the tour could be seen as unremarkable, but it also symbolizes the Janus-faced aspect of Israel’s integration and isolation in the region. While Israel is more integrated than at any time in history – as its views on the Iranian threat dovetail closely with the Gulf – at the same time it is still excluded from meetings with regional leaders.
Israeli diplomacy and its attempt to find allies, or even normalize relations in the region, have gone through several phases. In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the country was able to reach beyond the hostile Arab states to build relations with Iran. Jerusalem also developed relations with many African states, after a wave of independence swept the continent in 1960. There were setbacks as a result of the 1973 war, but there were also major breakthroughs with the peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. In the 1990s, Israel made inroads into Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar, only to see most of these diplomatic or trade missions fold up in 2000, as a result of the Second Intifada.
Now many commentators see a new round of Israel’s growing relations with the Arab world. This starts in the Gulf with the United Arab Emirates. Sigurd Neubauer, a Washington- based analyst, wrote in November 2017 that Israel-UAE relations have been fostered on several levels, including the UAE reaching out to pro-Israel voices in the US. “With Israel and GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] members viewing Iran as an increasingly serious threat, Tel Aviv and the UAE in particular, began deepening cooperation in the security sphere during 2006.”
Samuel Ramani, who researches international relations at St. Anthony’s College at the University of Oxford, says Israel and the Gulf have “greatly expanded their defense and intelligence cooperation.” This includes small-scale “provisions of military technology,” he wrote on the Huffington Post. He argued that even though there won’t be an exchange of diplomats, the Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are less concerned with the issue of Palestine and more with Iran.
ISRAEL’S RELATIONS with Saudi Arabia appear to be especially warm. In the last month, Intelligence Affairs Minister Israel Katz gave an interview to the Saudi newspaper Elaph
, in which he described Israel’s common interests in opposing an Iranian presence in Lebanon. He also extended an invitation to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to come to Israel. According to some reports, this last part didn’t make it into the published interview.
Trump: Saudi Arabia has a “very positive” feeling toward Israel (credit: REUTERS)
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot interviewed with the same newspaper and discussed the possibility of exchanging “experience” and “intelligence information.”
A report by Al Jazeera in November described the inclusion of Israel as a “potential partner” with the Saudis as a new phase in the Middle East. It quoted Khalil Shaheen, an analyst in Ramallah, as claiming the decline in US power in the Middle East “has resulted in Israel filling in the gaps that US foreign policy would have previously filled.” This is especially relevant to the Iranian threat. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi felt the US had abandoned them in negotiating the Iran deal in 2015. Israel then became a possible partner. This dovetails with technology cooperation and other pragmatic, or cynical, common interests. In addition, Saudi Arabia has sought to play a deeper role in the peace process since its 2002 proposal that foresaw normalization – if to meet that goal, Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Mapping the common enemies Israel shares with Riyadh and the UAE is easy. Both fear Islamist extremism and regional chaos. Both oppose Iran, its proxies and Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are all close to Washington as a common ally. The recent Organization of Islamic Cooperation emergency summit in Istanbul illustrated how Saudi Arabia has sought a different path in the Middle East, in contrast to previous ones. While Erdogan led the way in inviting King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Istanbul – along with almost two dozen other Muslim heads of state – the leaders of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt did not attend.
However, at the same time Israel has made friends and influenced people in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, it also has significant issues in Jordan and Turkey. After an Israeli security guard was involved in an altercation and shot two people in Jordan in July, the Israeli ambassador was withdrawn. Reports indicated one of them had attacked him. Israel’s ambassador to Egypt has kept a low profile.
Father of Jordanian killed near Israeli embassy demands details of investigation (credit: REUTERS)
He briefly returned to Cairo in August, after an eight-month absence. A new Israeli ambassador arrived in Turkey in December 2016, the first since the MV Mavi Marmara raid in 2010. However, Erdogan threatened to cut ties with Israel over Jerusalem’s support of the independence referendum in the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, and also over the US Embassy move in December.
THE ISSUE Israel faces in the region now is more complex than lacking robust relations with the countries with which it nominally has relations: Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Iran has successfully maintained allies and brought its proxies to power in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. That the Shi’ite militia leader Qais Khazali came to the Lebanese border with Israel from Iraq in early December, reveals the feeling of strength held by Iran’s allies. Iran also got a warm welcome in Istanbul and President Hassan Rouhani met with Erdogan after the OIC summit.
In addition, Rouhani has met several times with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At Sochi in November, Putin, Erdogan and Assad held high level discussions about the region and Syria. Erdogan has met the Russian leader at least seven times in 2017. There is no parallel for Israel in these meetings.
An Israeli diplomat once described Israel’s relations with a Muslim country as important because “they sit in rooms we can’t sit in.” This is generally how Israel talks up its relations. Questions about the lack of a public presence for Israel – or that most regional leaders won’t be seen with Israeli politicians or meet with them publicly, let alone host them on a state visit – are put down to the fact that state visits don’t matter, secret intelligence ties do. The lack of public greetings goes far beyond politicians alone. In the realm of sport and culture, Israel is banned in the region. Israeli athletes can’t even play under their own colors or hear their own anthem in places like the UAE. Most recently, Israeli chess players were banned from Saudi Arabia. In 2013 in Morocco, protests greeted the showing of a local movie about the Jewish community in Morocco, not even about Israel.
Israel has found in the past that its apparently warm relations can quickly turn sour. Peace with Jordan was followed by the Island of Peace massacre in 1997. The Jordanian soldier who killed seven Israeli children was welcomed as a hero after he left prison in March this year. Similarly, Israel found itself targeted and its embassy attacked in Egypt during mass protests in the Arab Spring of 2011. Are Israel’s relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi deep, or are they based on a single or few officials at the top? If Israel’s relations are based primarily on the Iranian threat and the vacuum of US power in the region, then a change in the position of Iran could cause those relations to change. Iran has successfully gained closer ties with Qatar and Turkey in the last year. This has encouraged Riyadh in its views of Israel. Riyadh has sought to play a role in the peace process with the new US administration. But frustration there or a deal to end the Qatar crisis might bring with it a deal to cool relations with Israel. Israel’s growing ties in the region are real, but each knot is not necessarily secure.
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