Understanding the lobby against Israel’s new relations in the Gulf

Historically an attempt was made in the Middle East to deny Israel’s existence and to act as if Israel was a temporary phenomenon.

FILE PHOTO: A worker in a protective suit sprays disinfectant at Grand Bazaar, known as the Covered Bazaar, to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Istanbul, Turkey, March 25, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS/FILE PHOTO)
FILE PHOTO: A worker in a protective suit sprays disinfectant at Grand Bazaar, known as the Covered Bazaar, to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Istanbul, Turkey, March 25, 2020
Ever since the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced they would normalize relations with Israel, there has been a quiet – and sometimes open – campaign against the new relations. This is both rooted in histories of hatred of Israel and also caused by more modern agendas that are complex and important to understand.
Historically in the Middle East, an attempt was made to deny Israel’s existence and to act as if Israel was a temporary phenomenon. This drove excuses for the Palestinian use of “armed struggle” to terrorize Israel. The rejection of Israel, including the infamous Arab League “three nos” of 1967 and the “Zionism is racism” resolution of 1975 at the United Nations, was quietly accepted by many European countries and also the nonaligned movement during the Cold War.
The argument was that pushing back against the nonrecognition would inflame the “Arab” or “Muslim” world, even though Israel had relations with Muslim countries such as Turkey and Iran at the time and there were limited connections with some Arab states.
The rejection of Israel fueled a perception that a lack of normal diplomatic relations would be normal. Israel was prevented from being under US Central Command for this reason and often affiliated with regional and international bodies as part of Europe, from sports to health organizations, rather than in the Middle East because countries in the region refused to meet publicly with Israelis. Most countries in the world established relations, with a few exceptions, while Israel remained an exception in the region.
This began to change in the 1990s and 2000s with proposals in the wake of the Oslo Accords and the Egyptian peace deal. Saudi Arabia and the Arab League indicated that peace could come in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, the rejection of Israel, such as public meetings between Israeli leaders and counterparts in Egypt and Jordan, continues.
In addition, this rejection informed and made acceptable critiques in Western media that are focused obsessively on Israel. In many ways, Western and other countries replaced ingrained antisemitism with bureaucratic anti-Israel resolutions at forums such as the UN. This made it acceptable to insinuate that Israel – alone among the world’s countries – should have no diplomatic relations in the region.
The Abraham Accords appear to mark a turning point. However, the accords came at a complex time in the region. Israel is opposed today by Iranian-backed groups and also by powerful interests that are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The ruling party of Turkey is rooted in the Brotherhood, and Qatar has given support for the organization. While Turkey has relations with Israel, and Qatar transfers money to Gaza through Israel, those linked to Ankara and Doha, including powerful media, are at the forefront of bashing the new Israel-Gulf relations.
The reason for this is not as much about Israel as it is a crisis in the Gulf that pits Saudi Arabia and its allies against the Qatar-Turkey alliance. This is not a simple matter. It is essentially a conflict for hearts and minds across the Islamic world. For instance, Qatar and Turkey backed Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in Egypt until he was removed in 2013.
THE AGENDA of Israel-Gulf ties is, therefore, also part of a wider stance in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that opposes the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Ankara hosts Hamas terrorists.
The Hamas movement is rooted in the Brotherhood. This is not coincidence but calculation. Iran and Turkey want to back Hamas as part of their toehold in the Palestinian national movement.
Historically, Palestinians received support from Gulf states. Many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians moved to the Gulf. They have played an important role in politics in places such as Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and even Iraq and Kuwait.
For instance, Palestinians were expelled by Kuwait after the country was liberated from Saddam Hussein’s grasp in 1991. Kuwait’s reticence to join other Gulf states in discussions with Israel likely hearkens back to its feeling that playing a role in the 1980s led to the tragic invasion and made Kuwait’s leaders much more cautious.
Palestinians, who saw Saddam as their champion, cheered the invasion at the time. Saddam’s image still hangs in classrooms in the West Bank at some rallies, something I have seen firsthand. For a while, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s image was also popular after 2006.
This means we have to understand the larger conflict in the region between those states that have broken with the Brotherhood, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which see the Brotherhood as dangerous extremists. The Brotherhood and its affiliates were declared terrorists in 2014 in the UAE.
 Meanwhile, the competition for the hearts and minds of Palestinians is important for Turkey, Iran and the Gulf. Efforts to keep Ankara’s and Tehran’s tentacles out of the West Bank is important for Israel and its friends in the Gulf.
Around 10 years ago, Qatar was angling to play a role in peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, in this concept, Qatar would want Hamas to play a larger role in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Similarly, Turkey once sought to play a role in Israel-Syria peacemaking. Jordan, which views itself as a protector of holy sites in Jerusalem, wants to see its status protected in the West Bank.
How does this play into larger narratives about the Gulf ties with Israel? Normally, diplomatic relations and engagement between Israel and the region should be welcomed.
The same voices in Washington who championed the Iran deal, for instance, always say diplomacy is better than conflict. But they have been awkwardly silent on Israel-Gulf peace deals.
Part of this is because they don’t want the Trump administration to get credit. Dislike of the Trump administration underpins some of the negative views of the new peace deals.
However, another part of the problem is that there are a number of people who oppose the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia because they are linked to Turkey and Iran. This regional perception is not as simple as saying they are being paid by Iran or Turkey. It’s about a more complex agenda.
In some cases, you have people – both Westerners and people from the region – who once worked in the UAE or Saudi Arabia and who have migrated physically and ideologically to Qatar and Turkey.
THE CAMPAIGN against Israel’s relations with the Gulf uses several talking points. Initially, they claimed the new relationship was somehow aiding “authoritarians.” This talking point was used by people who don’t condemn “authoritarians” in Doha, Tehran or Ankara. This illustrates how much charlatanism is behind the “authoritarians” talking point.
Ankara’s regime is the largest jailer of journalists in the world and sentences opposition politicians to decades in prison on mythical “terror” charges. If there is an authoritarian axis in the Middle East, it is the Tehran-Ankara axis and its allies.
Another argument against Israel-Gulf ties is made by those who oppose Saudi Arabia. Of particular interest here is that most of those who make this argument are not people who historically cared that Saudi Arabia was an absolutist monarchy and conservative kingdom. Their dislike of Riyadh is primarily anger at palace intrigue in which their allies in the kingdom were pushed out when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power.
The arguments against Saudi Arabia don’t stand up to scrutiny because they are ostensibly made by people on “human rights” grounds. But those very same voices didn’t speak out about human rights as recently as five years ago. Thus, “human rights” and “authoritarianism” became methods of critique of the new Israel-Gulf ties by those who are silent about authoritarian human-rights abuses throughout the region.
The critique of Israel-Gulf ties hangs on several interrelated issues. First, the anti-Israel agenda of the 1960s and 1970s has not gone away. The dispute between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Brotherhood, backed by Turkey and Qatar, is another layer. The Gulf crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2017 is part of the issue.
In addition, the pro-Iran crowd opposes the peace deals. These voices have ample platforms from pro-government media in Turkey to Qatar, which mostly serve as English-speaking or Arabic platforms to influence the region and the world.
The emptiness of this critique, which reveals its more complex agenda, hangs on the fact that in no other case in the world are “authoritarian” regimes critiqued for merely having diplomatic relations with other states.
For instance, the same voices who have poured cold water on the new peace deals don’t have an issue with the UAE or Israel having relations with Denmark or China. They just don’t think the UAE and Israel should have relations with each other because they are hostile to both the UAE and Israel and have had to find some reason to excuse that hostility to make it appear legitimate.
The campaign against the peace has had its effect, either by downplaying the importance of the new peace or by sniping at it from various angles. An unprecedented level of new engagement between Israel and the UAE, in particular, has not received the attention it deserves partly because of ingrained biases against both states.
Understanding the reasons for this is important because it helps explain some of the challenges that these countries – and their allies – face in the region and globally.