Did Netanyahu forget secret regional allies during the Temple Mount crises?

Israel has worked hard to form a quiet regional understanding against Iran and extremism, but what happens in Jerusalem can pour cold water on that.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL-JALOUD)
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz
In recent years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has heralded Israel’s growing ties with Arab countries in the region.
In 2016, at a speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he said Arab countries were changing their views on Israel.
“They don’t see Israel anymore as their enemy, but they see Israel as their ally,” he said.
Shared interests include opposition to instability in the region, the Iranian threat and Islamist extremism.
On July 21, the Daily Sabah in Turkey reported that Israel held secret meetings with the United Arab Emirates foreign minister in 2012. This is one example of numerous other reports about secret visits and meetings.
Israel hopes that the quiet ties and conversations with these countries that foreign reports say take place abroad, will one day become more public. In some cases, a more public embrace of Israel has become possible beyond the regional sphere.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unprecedented visit and warmth reflected the country moving beyond its old ties to the Cold War nonaligned movement and seeing Israel as a partner.
But any plans for a new Middle East often involve some sort of peace overtures on Israel’s part. Countries such as Jordan and Egypt that made peace with Israel in the 1980s and 1990s often believed that the next step were final steps towards Palestinian autonomy or a state. Israel had more open ties with the Gulf states in the 1990s, but these missions were closed in the 2000s during the Second Intifada and after. Qatar, which is a nemesis today, once had warmer relations with Israel.
It closed an Israeli trade office in 2009.
For Netanyahu’s concepts to work, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must not boil over. Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to cut off ties with Israel last week “gives him leverage with regard to the so-called regional architecture, where he was being left out.”
This would give him an opportunity to weigh in with the Arab states, Schanzer says.
“For Netanyahu, he is not willing to cede that leverage and this might explain his unwillingness to bend to the demands of the Palestinians right now.”
For now, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are still focused on pressuring Qatar to end what many commentators in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi say is an Iran-Qatar axis of extremism spreading instability throughout the Middle East.
The Saudi-owned television news channel al-Arabiya, for instance, has refrained from critiquing the tensions building in Jerusalem over the Temple Mount. And there is no talk of Israeli “transgressions” against the al-Aksa compound, a mirror image of Qatar’s al-Jazeera reporting.
“As of now, the Gulf states don’t need to weigh in on this. It is still a relatively contained conflict, even though it may seem like it is far bigger than that from the vantage point of those in the Jerusalem,” says Schanzer. “So for now, the Gulf States remain focused on the immediate threat as they see it and that is the Muslim Brotherhood, its patrons in Doha and Iran. For this reason, the regional framework is still in play.”
In short, what is happening so far in Jerusalem is not an existential crisis for those countries with which Israel shares a worldview in the Middle East.
But Netanyahu should know that the main concern of these countries is instability.
The attack in Jordan is the kind of instability and uncertainty that leads governments to take notice. Jordan has a million Syrian refugees who are wondering about what comes next in Syria. Egypt is fighting a vicious insurgency in Sinai.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was recently in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Israel wasn’t in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This is where Israel’s policy on Jerusalem has a blind spot.
Security services warned that the metal detectors issue could inflame the region.
Israel Police may be correct that from a security point of view, they are logical. But from a larger strategic point of view, thinking in terms of the regional architecture, the known tensions that result may eventually harm Israel’s relations.
Netanyahu cannot at one and the same time claim to be opening up a regional alliance against Iran and extremism, and at the same time, play the narrow game in Jerusalem of being tactically right but strategically wrong.
Every country has to balance these “all politics is local” choices, but Israel has more to lose than places like Denmark.
If relations with the Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and even further afield are a key to Israeli security in the long term, then every iota of calming tensions in Jerusalem has to be an equal key to not upsetting those relations.
Many countries in the region may not see Israel as their enemy, but they see instability in Jerusalem as closely tied to their own citizens who are care deeply about the Haram al-Sharif.