2017: A year of change and challenge for Israel's relations in the region

The past year witnessed significant changes in Israel's relations with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

WILL THE new administration change relations between Israel and the Arab world?  (photo credit: Courtesy)
WILL THE new administration change relations between Israel and the Arab world?
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The past year witnessed significant changes in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and the Arab world. With the Palestinians, the conflict moved even further away from resolution with Jerusalem being the flashpoint issue, especially after US President Donald Trump’s recognition of the holy city as Israel’s capital.
Within the wider regional context, the picture emerging from 2017 was mixed from the Israeli government’s perspective. Covert relations with Gulf states began to rise to the surface, based largely on shared enmity with Iran. Israel acknowledged for the first time that there are ties developing with Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, relations with Jordan suffered over a July incident in Amman in which an Israeli security guard killed an assailant and a bystander. And the peace with Egypt remained cold despite a reported security cooperation to combat Islamic State in Sinai.
Israel-Palestinian relations
The Jerusalem issue, always a source of tensions, erupted in July as Israel installed metal detectors at entrances to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, after the killing of two border policeman at the site by three Israeli Arabs.
What the Israeli police saw as an appropriate security measure, Palestinians viewed as an infringement against Islam’s third holiest shrine. Worshipers refused to pass through the metal detectors and instead held mass prayers and demonstrations that sometimes became clashes near Lion’s Gate. “We, in Jerusalem, represent 1.7 billion Muslims who say in one voice no to the metal detectors,” declared the head of the Wakf (Islamic Trust), Abdul-Azim Salhab. Amid concerns about widespread unrest, the security cabinet decided on the removal of the metal detectors two weeks after they were installed.
This Palestinian perceived victory, however, failed to alter the overall power relations, which became even more stacked in favor of the Israeli government under the new Trump administration. Unlike former US president Barack Obama’s administration, which criticized Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, the Trump administration voiced no objections. The result was, in the words of Hagit Ofran who monitors settlements for Peace Now, “a significant increase in all realms of settlement.” One example was the approval in October for new settler housing in the heart of Hebron for the first time in more than a decade.
But it was Trump’s Jerusalem declaration that was the most decisive single event to impact on Israeli-Palestinian dynamics in 2017. Although the declaration specified that Jerusalem’s final borders would be subject to negotiations, Palestinians, joined by much of the international community, viewed Trump’s move as a negation of their aspirations to establish a state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Indeed, the declaration did seem to augur against Palestinian statehood by stressing the US would support a two state solution provided this was agreed by the parties, thus giving Israel a veto over it.
The declaration made the convening of peace negotiations in accordance with a plan being finalized by the US anathema to the Palestinians, who argued that the US had disqualified itself as a mediator. “We don’t take Jerusalem lightly at all. What happened is a real game changer,” said PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, called on the nations of the world to reconsider their recognition of Israel due to its conduct towards the Palestinians.
At year’s end, prospects for negotiations in the near-term appeared to be nil. An Israeli government and a US administration not committed to Palestinian statehood on the one hand, while on the other, Palestinian politicians refusing to rule out abrogation of the Oslo Accords as an option in future steps.
Israel-Gulf relations
2017 may well be remembered as the year that Israeli relations with Gulf countries started to come out of the closet. Based on a shared perception of the dangers of Shi’ite Iran’s expanding influence in the region, the Gulf monarchies adhered to an official line that full diplomatic relations with Israel would become a reality only after the reaching of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But in fact there were signs of a behind-the-scenes and sometimes not-so-behind-the-scenes closening.
The most open expression of this came in the form of an unprecedented visit to Jerusalem in December by a Bahraini interfaith delegation that was hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The delegation of the NGO This is Bahrain made the trip despite the charged atmosphere among Palestinians and the wider Arab world over Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“This was not done under the radar. It was done openly by two NGO’s knowing full well it would generate controversy,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said. He explained that the delegation’s visit was making good on a pledge of Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to him and Wiesenthal Center dean Marvin Hier who visited Manama last February to allow his subjects to travel to Israel freely.
Members of the Bahraini group even joined in Hanukka dancing on the streets of Jerusalem. In what is slated as another first, the Bahraini government has approved the visit of an Israeli business delegation to Manama organized for next month by the Wiesenthal Center, Cooper said.
Bahrain’s ally and patron Saudi Arabia was more cautious but the distinct sense was that ties were developing with Riyadh also. In November, the Saudi owned online publication Elaph broke a taboo by publishing an interview with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, in which he offered intelligence sharing with Riyadh. Elaph later interviewed Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, who invited Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to visit Israel. (Elaph declined to print the invitation.)
It was left to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz to provide the first official confirmation of what everyone suspected: that ties were indeed developing with Riyadh. Steinitz told Army Radio in November, according to a Reuters translation, that “It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem but we respect the other side’s wish, when ties are developing whether it’s with Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries or other Muslim countries and there is much more [but] we keep it secret.”
The sense that traditional Saudi loyalty to the Palestinian cause was taking a backseat to the perceived need to combat Iran was confirmed by the relatively mild Saudi reaction to Trump’s declaration. Riyadh sent only a lower level delegation to the stormy deliberations of the Islamic Conference Organization on the issue. And the Crown Prince, meeting a delegation from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy the day after Trump’s declaration, hardly mentioned it and spoke of a promising future for Israel-Saudi relations once peace is achieved, according to Robert Satloff, who headed the delegation.
Israel-Jordan relations
In contrast to the gains in relations with Gulf countries, ties with Jordan were characterized by one of the most serious crises since the peace treaty between the two countries in 1994. The crisis began in July and was still continuing at years end. It revolves around an incident on July 23 in a flat at the Israeli embassy compound in Amman in which an Israeli guard, Ziv Moyal, shot dead two Jordanians, 17-year old Muhammad Jawawdeh and Bashar Hamarneh, the owner of the apartment. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said Moyal acted in self-defense after being stabbed with a screwdriver by Jawawdeh. Hamarneh, a physician, was a bystander.
Many Jordanians disagreed with King Abdullah’s decision to allow Moyal to return to Israel. But what inflamed matters further was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s staff released a video of the premier hugging and praising Moyal in his office after the latter’s return. Netanyahu said Moyal had handled himself well and that he was “happy things ended the way they did.”
This caused widespread revulsion in Jordan and acutely embarrassed Abdullah in front of his people. The king lashed out at Netanyahu’s “provocative” behavior, adding that the prime minister needs to “honor his responsibilities and take the necessary legal measures to ensure the killer is tried and justice is served rather than exhibiting political showmanship in dealing with this crime to score personal political points.”
Jordan Times columnist Daoud Kuttab summed up the public mood. “People want him to be tried for the crime he did. They don’t want to see him hanging out in Tel Aviv. They want some kind of justice.”
“People don’t understand how he would be able to get away with murder,” Kuttab added.
Jordan’s position has been and continues to be that the Israeli Embassy in Amman will stay shut until Moyal is brought to trial. But as Israel sees it there are no grounds for trying him. Abdullah has calculated that he cannot afford to back down. Meanwhile, Israel has let the climate fester by not issuing a clear statement of regret over Hamarneh’s death.
The persistence of the crisis has much to do with the unpopularity of the peace treaty among Jordanian public opinion, which strongly identifies with the Palestinian cause and reacted more strongly than publics elsewhere to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. The charged climate now makes the crisis more difficult to defuse as we approach 2018.
Israel-Egypt relations
November brought the 40th anniversary of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, which was marked in Israel by a special Knesset session at which Netanyahu termed relations with Egypt “robust.” Tellingly, the anniversary was not marked in Egypt.
Netanyahu’s assessment was based largely on security cooperation against Islamic State in Sinai and good relations between the premier and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. But taken as a whole, relations in 2017 were still cold and pointed up wide and continued hostility on the part of the Egyptian public towards Israel.
The Israeli Embassy reopened in August after an eight month closure for security reasons but that did not herald any advance in non-security relations. Relations between the peoples of the countries continued to be virtually non-existent. “Anything that isn’t security or correct diplomacy does not exist in the relationship,” Ofir Winter, an Egypt specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said in November. Economic ties were very limited, while there are no cultural, scientific or sports relations.
Ten days before the Sadat anniversary, Sisi gave the keynote speech at a youth conference on world peace. Youth groups were invited from all over the world while the Egyptian hosts stressed Cairo’s role in advancing stability and peace. No Israelis were invited.
In October, the government organized a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh aimed at promoting dialogue between monotheistic faiths. No Jews were invited.
Throughout the year, the Egyptian media was rife with reports of a conspiracy theory that said Israel supports the Islamic State insurgency in Sinai. After the November attack by Islamic State on a mosque in north Sinai in which 305 people were killed, the popular Al-Masry Al-Youm daily published an article arguing that Israel was responsible for the carnage. Commentator Abdel Nasser Salama wrote that Israel was interested in emptying Sinai of its inhabitants and reoccupying it as part of an expansionist agenda.
A supporter of ties with Israel, Moomen Sallam, director of civicegypt.org, a secular and liberal web portal, in November blamed the continuation of the cold peace on an Egyptian government policy of actively discouraging citizens from having contact with Israel and on Israeli policies that alienate Egyptian public opinion such as expanding settlements at Palestinian expense. At year’s end, there was no sign that either of these factors would change.
Israel-Syria relations
Israeli involvement in Syria deepened markedly in 2017, a year that saw the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian allies emerge as victors in the civil war. Israel and Iran were set on a collision course over Syria, with Israel determined to prevent the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence in the country as well as encroachment of pro-Iranian militias in the Syrian Golan.
Towards the end of the year, Israel dropped its policy of largely confining airstrikes to the interdiction of arms bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. In October, according to reports, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a Syrian anti-aircraft battery in response to its firing a missile at an Israeli plane on a reconnaissance mission in Lebanon. This ratcheted up tensions with Iran, whose chief of staff, Maj.-Gen. Muhammad Bagheri, visited Damascus a few days later to increase security cooperation and coordination against what he termed “common enemies, the Zionists and the terrorists.”
Bagheri warned that “It is not acceptable for the Zionist regime to violate Syria any time it wants.”
The ingredients for further escalation fell into place in 2017. “Iran is grooming its proxies to play a role in Syria and some say openly they want to confront Israel,” said Tel Aviv University Iran specialist Meir Litvak. “If this is their aim, then clearly there is a risk of confrontation. That Iran is trying to build a wider Hezbollah front against Israel from both Lebanon and Syria increases the risk of confrontation.”
On December 1, Israel took decisive action to make clear to Iran it would not accept Tehran’s establishing bases in Syria. According to Syrian and Lebanese reports, Israeli missiles struck an Iranian military base under construction just 13 kilometers southwest of Damascus. The reported strike marked the first instance of Israel hitting an Iranian military target in Syria, albeit one that was still under construction. It seemed unlikely, however, that the strike alone would deter Iran’s plan for Syria to be a sphere for further military entrenchment and expansion after the end of the civil war. As Litvak said before Israel’s move: “For Iran, Syria is a special prize, a pet project. It is crucial and they have no intention of allowing anyone to harm their pet project.”
Israel’s involvement in Syria also increased markedly through a significant expansion during 2017 of Operation Good Neighbor, the humanitarian assistance program to villages in the Syrian Golan Heights. The operation’s commander, Lt.-Col. E. revealed in an interview in early December that an Israeli-backed maternity hospital had opened inside Syrian territory at Bariqa, south of Quneitra. For the 2017-18 winter, the army transferred into southern Syria more than thirty tons of warm clothes and a large amount of diesel fuel to the Quneitra region so residents could warm their homes, Lt.-Col E. said. In the process, the army was establishing ties with doctors, mayors and others across the border.
The expansion of Operation Good Neighbor was an expression of Israeli soft power in a sensitive area that the army now sees as a buffer zone for keeping pro-Iranian militias away from the border. Relief was being provided for humanitarian reasons but also so that Israel will not face incoming fire or attacks from the assisted villages in the future.