Israel Elections: The future of Israeli-Gulf relations after Netanyahu

Whoever emerges from Israel’s elections will continue to foster relations with the Gulf.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with the first UAE Ambassador to Israel, Muhammad Mahmoud Al Khaja, March 2, 2021.  (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with the first UAE Ambassador to Israel, Muhammad Mahmoud Al Khaja, March 2, 2021.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates were in the spotlight during the recent election campaign. This was the result of a week of rumors and reports about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking to visit Abu Dhabi.
The stories unfolded from March 10, when Netanyahu was seeking to go to the UAE, to March 19, when reports in Israel and abroad indicated that the UAE had “reduced official contacts with Israel in protest of Netanyahu’s attempts to involve them in the election campaign.”
Much of what happened remains unclear. Netanyahu did want to go to the UAE, but a trip via Jordan became a hurdle. Then rumors persisted that he still planned to go as late as March 17. However, this also became a controversy amid reports that the UAE felt it was becoming too visible in Israel’s election. Anwar Gargash, a key voice and former minister of state for foreign affairs, tweeted that the “UAE would never be a part of any internal electioneering in Israel.”
Amid the controversy, other voices sought to shift blame to the Biden administration, claiming that it had pressured the UAE regarding the Netanyahu trip. A summit planned for April was reportedly postponed and was to include US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with representatives from Sudan, Morocco and Israel in Abu Dhabi.
What is important at the end of this controversy is to see how it plays out after the election.
Prior to the election, the pressure in Jerusalem led to rumors and controversies swirling. Israeli politics and media are more chaotic than the UAE may be used to. It rightly eschews any involvement. At the end of the day, relations between Israel and the UAE are rapidly expanding on numerous levels, from businesses to Israeli participation at large expos.
The relations will grow over the summer as the air corridor is expected to reopen. There is also a flowering of Jewish life in the Gulf, a symbol of Bahrain’s and the UAE’s commitment to tolerance.
Whoever emerges from Israel’s election will continue to foster ties with the Gulf. One change may be that the defense and foreign ministers may be replaced, and they have generally been anchors over the last year in working professionally with their counterparts abroad.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz did important work in their respective ministries. Sometimes sidelined by the prime minister, they engaged in important discussions, and Ashkenazi aided Israel diplomatically.
Sometimes this aid was helpful specifically because he was not Netanyahu and didn’t carry the baggage that Netanyahu carries in places like the Kingdom of Jordan. The kingdom is important to the Gulf, and Israel-Jordan relations are important for a variety of security reasons.
In the end, Netanyahu is the face of Israel that the region, and the Gulf particularly, has known for years.
Alongside leaders like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, Netanyahu is a known commodity of the Middle East, a key strategist and building block of the region’s stability and security. It’s important to understand this, because in the West, this is not widely understood. The thirst for stability is a key element of Israeli-Gulf relations.
This is because of Iran’s destabilizing influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In addition, Turkey has been seen as fanning the flames of the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine leaders in Egypt and elsewhere. Israel is seen as a hi-tech successful rock of defensive capability in the region.
In the West, Netanyahu is sometimes portrayed as divisive or somehow controversial or incapable of creating a stable coalition, as if his future is always in doubt.
But in the Middle East, he is seen as much stronger and with more staying power. Elections come and go, but Netanyahu has remained. These known quantities work in his favor and will likely work in Israel’s favor after the election if Netanyahu remains at the helm.
Netanyahu is also a key architect of closer relations with India, a country that is also important to the UAE. In all this, the short period of controversy prior to the election may have been a tempest in a teapot. It doesn’t mean it’s not important; Netanyahu’s constantly canceled trips have been an embarrassment.
One issue that has resonated in the Gulf is the degree to which Israelis are often seen as being more in a hurry than the slower, cautious, pragmatic pace of the Gulf. When things are in a hurry, controversies and rumors will swirl, even more so before elections. There will be a sigh of relief when the polls close in the region.