Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The news last week that Israel would be opening a new diplomatic office in the United Arab Emirates, under the auspices of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), was just the latest sign that Israel’s relations with the Gulf States are improving. This followed the recently concluded nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, which many countries in the region view as evidence of a broader Western rapprochement with Iran.
On its face, this is excellent news for Israel, but lurking close behind is a dangerous potential for complacency.
The news of this opening came just as US Secretary of State John Kerry left the region after a frustrating day of talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which concluded with the failure to achieve any diplomatic progress. Therefore, this news could be seen as evidence that the status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians is sustainable and consistent with improving relations with the Gulf States.
Such shortsighted thinking, while seductive for supporters of the status quo, is nevertheless mistaken.
There are three interconnected reasons for viewing the potential of Israel- Arab relations as being directly pegged to diplomatic progress toward a Palestinian state.
The first is that we have seen this production flop before. In 1996, economic relations between Israel and Qatar were established, only for them to be effectively shut down in the early days of the second intifada. The IRENA mission has not even been established yet and Israel is in the midst of what some security experts already deem a third intifada. If the government launches an ill-advised major offensive in the West Bank, this opening might well be put on ice.
If serious relations were established, they would still be affected by the Israeli- Palestinian conflict in both practical and rhetorical ways. The recent weakening of relations between Israel and Jordan over tensions on al-Aksa and the Temple Mount underlines this reality: Even a regional state that has already recognized Israeli sovereignty must resort to often hostile statements and actions when it comes to real or perceived Israeli transgressions.
In a recent interview with Haaretz, Saudi Arabia’s moderate former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, still emphasized the importance resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays in cultivating Israel-Arab relations. There is no evidence to suggest there’s been a remarkable attitude shift in Gulf capitals on this question.
SECOND, AN open relationship with Israel may not be of such paramount importance to the Gulf States. Unlike Israel, they chose to work with Washington throughout the process of negotiations with Iran. There is still every reason to believe they view their alliance with the United States as the lynchpin of any strategy to deter Iranian aggression. To that end, why should the Gulf States take such a risk if Israel is planning a long-term policy of occupation and settlement? Public opinion in the region, despite the recent rise of the Iranian threat, is still strongly anti-Israel. The unacknowledged channels these states maintain with Israel are more than sufficient in dealing with the threat from Iran, and unlike open channels, they don’t pose domestic challenges.
Finally, with regard to relations with the UAE itself, this seems more like a delayed quid pro quo than a serious diplomatic opening. Israel supported the UAE’s bid to host IRENA with the reasonable expectation that it would be allowed to house a representative in Abu Dhabi. The UAE has honored its end of the bargain over the past six years by allowing Israeli officials to attend IRENA conferences. The fact that it took until mid-2015 for the sides to move forward on an office location ought to be a story in itself.
Nonetheless, the importance of establishing an Israeli mission in an Arab state should not be understated. Nor, though, should it lead to the naïve conclusion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a concern for the Gulf.
The Israeli policy of “managing the conflict” is ultimately irreconcilable with a policy of open regional engagement.
Like all great diplomatic triumphs, enhanced relations with the Arab world will require risks on Israel’s part. Benjamin Netanyahu is, regrettably, not a leader known for taking even the smallest of gambles when it comes to Israel’s control of much of the West Bank – a recent report in this newspaper has his own brother-in-law saying as much.
The author is a writer based in New York City. His work has previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Daily Beast, and NOW Lebanon.