Does reconciliation in the Gulf impact Israel? - analysis

Israel has been increasingly engaged in the Gulf in recent years.

A NEWS conference with Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, following the annual summit of GCC, in Kuwait City. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A NEWS conference with Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, following the annual summit of GCC, in Kuwait City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia has agreed to lift its boycott on Qatar, the US announced Monday.
The Trump administration expects the Saudi move to reopen their borders and airspace to Qataris will lead to a broader agreement in which the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will also end their boycott on Doha that began in June 2017 with accusations that Qatar supported terrorism and extremism.
Israel has been increasingly engaged in the Gulf in recent years due to most of the aforementioned countries’ concerns about Iran. Those connections grew even more in the wake of the Abraham Accords that led to peace with the UAE and Bahrain.
Strong public ties with those countries, as well as Egypt, and the open secret of Israeli contacts with Saudi Arabia, coupled with Qatar’s support for Hamas, which Israel has not discouraged and at some points encouraged in hopes that funding would keep the terrorist group calm, and tensions between Israel and Qatar’s ally Turkey have led to Israel being viewed as aligned with one side of the Gulf dispute.
In the months since the UAE and Israel peace was announced, there have also been persistent rumors of a rapprochement between Jerusalem and Riyadh, with news of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting in the Saudi city of Neom leaking last month.
Does the nascent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar change any of that?
“This doesn’t have an immediate effect on Israel,” Middle Eastern affairs analyst Shimrit Meir said. “This is not about us. This is about a three-year regional war that was one of the most significant shapers of the geopolitical picture in the region. It has ideological roots in Qatar representing the Muslim Brotherhood spirit, versus the more traditional regimes in the Middle East that viewed [that spirit] as an attempt to provoke coups or unrest... It’s an internal, very intense Arab debate that goes back decades.”
In addition, she pointed to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden as a concern for Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt. Referring to Biden and his foreign-policy advisers criticizing Riyadh’s human-rights record, Meir said: “Now they have one less problem, and they’re not going to constantly be attacked internally by the sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“This might signify an assessment by the Saudis... that they are better off in some kind of a ceasefire with Qatar, because Qatar can be an engine that will provoke headaches in Washington and in the West, because they have a media and public opinion operation,” she said, pointing to Al Jazeera and other Qatar-owned media outlets.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethical Understanding and an adviser to several Gulf leaders on interfaith matters, also cited the changing of US leadership as a major factor.
“I believe this is all about President-elect Biden’s statements about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The kingdom wants to focus on a good and positive start with a Biden administration.”
The Saudis want to “demonstrate real leadership to the Biden administration,” he added.
The real issue in the way for Saudi Arabia or Qatar to normalize relations with Israel is the Palestinians, Schneier said. Israel would have to make a gesture toward the Palestinians for either country to be willing to make their ties with Jerusalem official, he said.
“The irony is that, in this regard, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are more aligned with the Biden administration than the Trump administration,” Schneier said. “If anything, I believe it is the Biden administration that can serve as a catalyst for Saudi Arabia and Qatar normalizing ties precisely because of their position.”
Meir argued that the Saudis and Egyptians only help the Palestinians “if they think it’s beneficial for them,” and therefore, “If the Biden administration will signal that this is a priority and encourages foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, then we would expect to see them reengaged.”
As for the perception of Israel being aligned with one side of the Gulf over the other, Schneier said such an alliance would be “a big mistake.” Jerusalem and Doha have a “unique relationship” because Qatar was the only Gulf state working with Israel publicly on humanitarian aid to Gaza, years before the Abraham Accords, he said.
“Now that we no longer have this interference in the GCC, I think we will really witness the domino effect of the Abraham Accords, with more countries coming on... The momentum within the GCC is now normalizing ties,” he said.
Schneier predicted that Oman will be the next Gulf state to join the accords, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar will require some kind of progress with the Palestinians first.
Meir said an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar can be helpful in working toward open ties with the countries because of Qatar’s ability to “set a tone and launch an offensive” in the media through Al Jazeera and other outlets.
“If I were the Saudi crown prince and I wanted to consider normalization with Israel, the first thing I would do is neutralize the main engines of criticism, i.e., Qatar,” she said. “Saudis don’t care about Iranian propaganda because even among people who oppose the Saudi regime, Iran is considered the enemy. But if Arabs are saying [ties with Israel are] treason, then that’s a problem.”
If Saudi Arabia continues the demand it made during its boycott of Qatar, that Doha scale back its propaganda operations, then that could also help consolidate Arabs against Iran, Meir posited, though she said she did not think that was the main goal of the agreement.