Israel has been improving its relations with some countries in the Middle East over the last decade, shoring up its position and isolating some of its adversaries. Over twenty years ago Israel was on the cusp of a brutal Intifada and there were serious questions about the threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah. Today Jerusalem looks to what it calls “third circle” threats that emanate from Iran. However, domestic political considerations and a drive to annex parts of the West Bank are a potential pit fall for Israel’s emerging commonalities with some Gulf states and other key states in the region.
On Sunday the United Arab Emirates expressed concern about Israel’s desire to annex Palestinian lands. The concern was posted in Arabic media and notes that the UAE’s foreign minister has slammed such a unilateral step that would go against a long-lasting political solution. Abu Dhabi’s stance is not particularly harsh. It states that unilateral steps can hinder the chances of a lasting peace. Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, have both critiqued the Israeli plan.
Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League have also rejected the annexation. Saudi Arabia said it opposed the plan on May 5. Much of this may be lip service without substance. However, there are other aspects that indicate that the regional states which have generally expressed tepid condemnations of Israeli actions and equally tepid embraces of the current US “deal of the century,” must have a breaking point when things become too flagrant.
The region currently looks like this. Iran has a system of alliances that dominate Syria and have a stranglehold over Lebanese politics. Iran is backing Houthi rebels in Yemen that are fighting Saudi Arabia and a Saudi-led alliance. Iran is also meddling in Iraq, trying to weaken US allies and swallow the country. From the perspective of the Gulf the recent tensions with the US has brought the region closer to war which would ruin their economies. Iran’s Abqaiq attack on Saudi Arabia in September 2019 demonstrated this. Since then there is a push to back down. Bahrain, where the US 5th fleet is, and the UAE where the US has al Dhafra base, want to support the US and have expressed increasingly positive views of Israel in recent years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Oman in 2018, and he appeared to heal relations with Sudan, Chad and additionally Israeli ministers visited the UAE. Bahrain hosted a conference linked to the Trump peace plan last year.
But the Gulf states look at the tensions in the Straits of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman, including Iranian mining of ships and the seizing of a British ship, and understand the risks involved. None of these wealthy states want to been undermined by the kinds of conflicts that broke out in Iraq or Syria or Yemen or Libya.
Think of the southern Gulf states, with their increasingly positive comments about the US and Israel, including relating to the pandemic, as one swath of states linked also to Jordan and Egypt.
Iran is in the middle with its role in Syria and Iraq, trying to dominate Arab capitals, and also playing a major role in Beirut. North of the Iranian “Shi’ite crescent” is Turkey and Turkey’s expanding role in northern Iraq, northern Syria, Libya and Qatar. Turkey has sent forces to Libya and Qatar. Turkey is implacably opposed to the Trump deal, and is a vociferous critic of Israel. It hosts Hamas. Turkey works with Iran and Russia and opposes the Saudi-led system in the Gulf. It has sought to create an “Islamic” counterbalance to these Gulf states and Egypt, summoning friends from Malaysia and Iran to speak about an “Islamic currency” last year. Turkey seeks to leverage the Muslim Brotherhood for its soft power in places ranging from Tunisia to Asia and Europe. With Saudi Arabia it wages a war for the hearts and minds of places like Pakistan and even North Africa.
While Turkey tried to ride the Jerusalem issue, inviting the King of Jordan to Ankara for consultations after Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy, it is distracted with conflicts in Libya and Syria. Iran too wants to exploit the Jerusalem issue through ‘Quds Day’ and increasingly working with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian PFLP.
This leaves Israel and those countries it has either relations with or which it has common interests with in a tight spot on the Palestinian issue. The Palestinian Authority is isolated and relies on Israel while saying it won’t discuss the peace plan. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has demanded international recognition of Palestine, an issue he reiterated on Monday. The PA in Ramallah must navigate the region as well. Qatar helps pay salaries in Hamas-run Gaza, so the PA traditionally looked to other Gulf states. The Gulf has its role to play in the West Bank, Israel and Gaza. That’s why PA dissident Mohammad Dahlan ended up in the UAE and former Israeli MK Azmi Bishara ended up in Qatar. Isolate the PA too much and it has trouble maintaining itself. Every country fears such chaos, from Cairo to Amman and the Gulf. Chaos is what harmed the region over the last decades. The Gulf states want the status quo, which explains also their willingness to discuss things with Syria’s Assad and why they're backing Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who is fighting Turkish-backed mercenaries.
This delicate balance always rests on not changing the status quo and keeping the illusion of a two state solution alive. There are reasons language has such expressions as “poke the bear” or “let sleeping dogs lie.” While Israel and the US have gambled on status quo changes already, from Jerusalem to the Golan and US policy changes on Israeli communities in the West Bank, there are questions about whether these were changes or merely recognizing what already exists. Annexation would be an actual change on the ground. It would unite Turkey and Iran potentially on the issue and weaken resolve in states that were more open to Israel.The goal of Israel’s decision to focus on the “third circle” and the “campaign between the wars” against Iran was to focus resources on that struggle while the Palestinian security threat was to be handled, managed or diminished. Focus on annexation troubles, whether with the EU or Iran, Turkey and the Gulf, raises up issues and complexities, uncertainties and instability, that run counter to a doctrine that was in place for a decade in Israel. That doctrine reduced wars in Gaza and kept deterrence with Hezbollah and sought “quiet.” The Gulf states have toned down rhetoric relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But rubbing annexation in their faces could be perceived as pushing things, as taking but not giving. This remains to be seen, but comments over the last two weeks may have been a way of urging caution and pragmatism over major moves in Jerusalem.