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The GCC and Israel: an unlikely alliance?

January 24, 2014 at 4:15 am

“Ahmadinejad (Iran’s previous President) was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Rouhani (Iran’s new President) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he stood in-front of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month.

His speech was intended to serve as a warning to the world that Iran’s new seemingly moderate leader cannot be trusted, but he left feeling his words had fallen upon deaf ears. Following Rouhani’s trip to New York to speak before the UN General Assembly, the Iranian President accepted a phone call from US President Barak Obama, the first contact between the leaders of the two countries since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran. Just over a week ago, six world powers-the Security Council’s five Permanent Members plus Germany, travelled to Geneva to open formal talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The nations are discussing the easing of sanctions which has crippled Iran’s economy.

A largely overlooked part of Netanyahu’s UN speech hinted that a weak reaction from the international community- specifically the US-to the Iran threat could lead to the forging of an unlikely alliance between Israel and other Arab states.

Reports have been surfacing of a potential alliance between Israel and the Cooperation Council of Arab States in the Gulf (GCC). The GCC is a political and economic union of Arab states bordering the Persian Gulf, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. While no GCC member has formal relations with Israel, Iran has added one commonality neither may be prepared to ignore.

“The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbours to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy. And this affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes,” Netanyahu said. “Israel welcomes engagement with the wider Arab world. We hope that our common interests and common challenges will help us forge a more peaceful future.”

Relations between the differing GCC countries and Israel have fluctuated, mostly in accordance with changes in Palestine-Israel relations. Small moves by member countries to normalize relations with Israel followed its disengagement with Gaza, whilst Israel’s representative office in Oman was shut down following the Second Intifada and Qatar closed Israel’s diplomatic missions in reaction to Operation Cast lead, the 2008-09 bombardment of Gaza.

As US brokered “peace talks” are currently underway between the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abba’s and Israel’s Netanyahu after a three year hiatus, the path may be paved for warmer relations. Just last week Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator in the talks, hinted at a potential Saudi- Israel alliance. “When you hear the Saudis talking about what needs to be done in order to prevent a (nuclear-armed) Iran, I mean it sounds familiar,” she said. “I think that you can hear that Arabic sounds familiar to Hebrew when it comes to Iran.” On July 18, the Israeli Foreign Ministry opened a Twitter channel exclusively “dedicated to promoting dialogue with the people of the GCC region.” A carelessly edited version of the 2013 state budget revealed that Israel opened a diplomatic office somewhere in the Persian Gulf.

Whether Palestine and Israel peace talks develop into anything tangible is beside the point, for the GCC the threat of Iran is their primary concern, with even cosmetic talks potentially enough to justify any alliance.

For many years Iran’s nuclear program has caused both the GCC and Israel to lose sleep. Now it is causing them to also lose faith in the US administration. Leaked conversations show Prince Hamad of Qatar felt the US tended to believe Iran’s word when it came to the nuclear threat, and had told the Israeli’s in 2006 that Iran was determined to develop a nuclear bomb, no matter the cost. Saudi declined to take its place among non-voting members of the Security Council, an unprecedented step by any UN member, partly out of protest against Obama’s weak stance on Syria, but partly out of a fear of a repeat in regards to Iran.

Since the White House backed out of its threatened military strikes and instead pursued a diplomatic route proposed by the Kremlin following the suspected use of chemical weapons by Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad, a supposed “red line” for Obama, Israel and GCC member states may have started to increasingly question their shared ally. They both hoped that US action in Syria would send a clear message to Tehran, for in the battlefields of Syria the Iran nuclear program power struggle is being played out. Iran steadfastly backs Assad, and also finances Hezbollah, whose militants have flocked to fight in defense of the Syrian regime.

The predominantly Shia military front in the Syria conflict composing of the Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah is of concern for both Israel and the GCC. The predominately Sunni GCC fear Shia expansion, which it is fighting both regionally and domestically. And so does Israel. Two of Israel’s biggest enemies, Hezbollah and Iran, are Shia dominated; adversaries shared by the GCC, with its decision to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization in its entirety this year, surpassing a similar EU decision. This fear has led to the support from individual GCC member states to the predominantly Sunni rebels opposing Assad, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This fear is also transforming the Sunni Gulf bloc into proxy allies of the Israeli state they once were sworn enemies of, with Israel forming a strong part of the military front against the Shia axis in Syria.

Inaction over Syria may have caused the GCC to question the US as a reliable ally. Now the same has happened with Iran, the GCC states may be looking increasingly at Obama as a man of words and no action, and Netanyahu as the opposite.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.