Analysis: Speculation over Israel’s diplomatic liaisons with Gulf States

Significance of Israeli minister’s visit to UAE debated.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The fact that Israel’s energy minister flew to Abu Dhabi demonstrates that the Jewish state is conducting secret communications with Gulf Sunni states in response to the common threat of Iran. Or it doesn’t. It depends who you ask.
Israeli television reported that Yuval Steinitz, national infrastructure, energy and water minister, returned home several days ago after attending a conference on energy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Channel 2 suggested that the real purpose of the delegation was to conduct secret strategic communications between Israel and the Gulf state. The principle reason for such a clandestine liaison is mutual distrust of Iran and concern for the general instabilities of the region, not least of which is the Islamic State (ISIS).
A decision by Steinitz’s office not to comment on the nature of the trip has only added fuel to the speculation.
Iran is currently entangled in a mini-Cold War style proxy-conflict with Saudi Arabia and its allied Gulf neighbors – among them the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain. Israel also sees Iran as a threat on account of its nuclear research and frequent public proclamations about the desired destruction of the Zionist state. This has created common ground between Jerusalem and the Gulf states, but resentment toward Israel arising from the state’s perceived treatment of the Palestinians has thus far rendered an open alliance against Tehran impossible.
Speculation about under-the-table cooperation is persistent however, with Steinitz’s jet-setting adding further fuel. The minister’s carbon footprint aside, it is not unusual for Israel to conduct low-key diplomacy which it does with a number of countries, including its very successful and equally under-reported relationship with Azerbaijan.
“Israel has always had some clandestine or secret relationship with Arab countries… it is known that it has a relationship with several of the Gulf countries,” Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told The Media Line. The quiet partnership the country enjoys with Egypt and Jordan are examples of what can develop out of such clandestine diplomacy, Karmon suggested.
In the wake of the optimism heralded by the Oslo Accords in the 90s, Israel actually conducted diplomatic missions in the Gulf. But these came to an abrupt end with the start of the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), the academic explained.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science from the UAE, was dismissive of such notions saying, “There is not much of a relationship…it is not systematic, it’s sporadic and doesn’t amount to much of substance.” Essentially the mutual threat from Iran was not enough to make Gulf Arabs forget that “Israel still occupies Arab lands,” Abdulla told The Media Line.
Steinitz’s visit to an energy conference should not be taken out of context and does not demonstrate contact with the UAE’s government, the professor said, adding “There is not much that Israel could provide that we could not receive from Turkey, Pakistan and the European states.”
This is exactly the type of denial that the location of the meeting was designed to facilitate. “It’s to everyone’s convenience to deny it,” Eran Segal, Associate Researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Haifa University said. Evidence of the governments’ ongoing relationship can be found if you dig deep enough, Segal told The Media Line. Flights running between the UAE and Israel are a good indication of that, he suggested.
It is impossible to know for certain what goes on behind closed doors, but one party, Israel, has an interest in exaggerating the significance of such events, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said. “Israel wants to make a big deal out of it for its own reasons: to gain legitimacy in the Arab world, to make the Israeli public feel it is not isolated, but it is isolated,” he said. While “daily atrocities” continue against Palestinians, any idea of an alliance between Gulf states and Israel is totally unfounded, the academic concluded.
In this regard, his view and that of the Israeli academic are not dissimilar. “As long as the Palestinian conflict is not viewed as in the process of being solved, I don’t think this (relationship) will ever become public,” Eran Segal said, noting that under-the-radar cooperation would continue.
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