The Jewish year 5780 was economically and medically devastating for Israel because of the coronavirus pandemic, yet it was a successful diplomatic year, though not devoid of failures. The primary success was lifting the veil off two decades of behind-the-scenes Israeli ties with the Gulf states and placing them center stage at a September 15 White House signing of peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Following this breakthrough, Saudi Arabia allowed Israeli passenger planes to overfly its air space. This constitutes an additional stage in the slow process of normalizing Israeli-Saudi relations.
Israel also maintains good ties with Oman and Qatar. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2018 visit to Oman would have made it a natural to follow the UAE and Bahrain in normalizing ties with Israel, but for now that has not occurred. The death earlier this year of the veteran ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and rise of his successor – as well as Bahrain’s desire to maintain its position as mediator between Iran and the West – are preventing the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, for now. Qatar, although supposedly in the enemy camp, conducts a sophisticated policy of keeping its options open with Israel. Qatar is helping Gaza build infrastructure and pay the salaries of Hamas officials, bringing suitcases full of cash into the enclave. The aid is helping maintain the peace along the Gaza border with Israel, which is clearly in the interests of both Israel and Egypt. During his stops in Israel en route to Gaza, Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Emadi meets with decision-makers in Jerusalem, and thus Israel and Qatar maintain channels of communications even absent formal ties.
The opening of Israeli embassies in Abu Dhabi and Manama will serve as convenient platforms for expanding clandestine and open ties in the Gulf – and strengthen Israel’s hold in the region, right across from Iran. In fact, just as Iran’s allies (Syria and Hezbollah) are positioned on Israel’s borders, Israel now has a foothold near Iran’s borders through the Emirates and Bahrain, as well as along its northern border through its presence in Azerbaijan.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi supported Israel’s warming relations with the Gulf. In fact, Egypt constitutes an important link because it enjoys a close relationship with the UAE and the Saudis, which provide it with financial help, and on the other hand maintains close security and intelligence cooperation with Israel on Gaza and Sinai. Israel also enjoys security and intelligence cooperation with Jordan, although unlike Egypt, the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Jordan is strained due to Israel’s position on the Palestinian issue. The crisis is reflected in severed ties between Netanyahu and King Abdullah, and the monarch’s decision to implement the clause in the peace agreement with Israel that stipulates the return of two border enclaves, Tzofar and Naharayim, leased to Israel for 25 years.
At the same time, Israel has improved ties with Sudan. Israel established diplomatic relations with South Sudan upon its independence in 2011, and has clandestine ties with Khartoum dating back many years, including under Omar al-Bashir’s regime, which toppled in 2019. The new regime views Israel and the Jewish lobby in the US as important conduits for influencing the administration to remove Sudan from the US list of terror-supporting states. Netanyahu met in Uganda last year with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s interim ruler. Behind-the-scenes contacts are under way among Israel, Sudan and the US, and the two states will likely soon establish official ties. Unlike relations with the Gulf states, ties with Sudan are not of economic significance for Israel, but its location, both along the Nile and along the Red Sea, makes it a strategic asset in the Middle Eastern arena.
Israel’s enhanced standing in the Middle East stems from three factors. First, the culmination of several processes that were long in the making in terms of ties with the Gulf states. Second, a weakening of radical Arab states such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the commensurate strengthening of the wealthy Gulf states (except for Bahrain) that managed to evade the Arab Spring shock waves. Third, a particularly friendly US administration helping Israel boost its standing in the region. And finally, the weakening of Arab support for the Palestinian problem, partly the result of erosion in the Arab commitment to resolution of the problem and partly of the economic deterioration in the Middle East due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the past year, Israel has found itself playing three roles in the Middle Eastern arena. The first, and perhaps the most important, is balancing the Iranian and Turkish aspirations for regional hegemony with an unofficial alliance with the core states of the Arab Sunni world – Egypt, Jordan and some of the Gulf states. The second role Israel is playing is in dividing the Muslim and Arab world. The peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain deepen the divisions in the Arab world between supporters and opponents of the move. The third role is one of mediator between Arab states and the US administration, directly or through the Jewish lobby. This mediation includes Egyptian and Jordanian demands for US economic help (for example through International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans), support for the sale of F-35 jets to the UAE and for Sudan’s request to be removed from the list of terror supporting states and support for Morocco’s request for US (and Western) recognition of its annexation of Western Sahara.
Part of Israel’s success in the region stems from its non-involvement in regional conflicts, some of them far from its borders, such as those in Libya and Yemen. However, Israel did not intervene in Syria’s civil war, either, other than aerial strikes on Iranian or Hezbollah positions there.
The overall threat against Israel essentially remains unchanged. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Turkey, in part, continue to constitute threats, but none is existential. What is more, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and US sanctions on Iran, the repercussions of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah’s difficulties in Lebanon following the Beirut port blast, and the Hamas troubles in Gaza reduce the intensity of the threat against Israel. Turkey is somewhere in the middle, because despite the diplomatic tensions stemming from Israel’s rapprochement with Greece and Cyprus, Israel and Turkey continue to maintain diplomatic ties (although not at ambassadorial level) and commercial ties to the tune of several billion dollars annually.
Israel’s failure, however, lies in its divorce from the Palestinian problem. Israel and the US have significantly weakened the Palestinian Authority, adopting unilateral measures such as US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US aid cutoff to UNRWA, US President Donald Trump’s peace plan and the annexation idea. The peace with the Emirates has saved Netanyahu in the short term from the danger of annexation, but Israel’s continued indifference to the Palestinian issue could overshadow the current achievements next year. Israel must address this problem by establishing an active dialogue with the Palestinian leadership. The Jewish year 5781 will likely be dedicated to medical issues, but resolution of the Palestinian problem is also important for the health of Israeli society.
The writer is a board member of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a professor in the department of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.