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Israel and the Gulf: From secret relations to public normalisation

Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City, US on on 29 April 2018 [noa grayevsky/Getty Images for RSL Management Corpnoa]
Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City, US on on 29 April 2018 [noa grayevsky/Getty Images for RSL Management Corpnoa]

Israel recently participated in the Bahrain conference for maritime security after Gulf countries invited it to take part in protecting the maritime facilities for fear of Iranian and Houthi attacks. There are also Saudi fears that Washington would let it down after the recent attacks on Aramco oil facilities.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz had revealed that one of the goals of his recent visit to the UAE was to participate in the international coalition to provide security protection for the trade routes in the Gulf.

He stressed, during a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign and Security Committee, that Israel is participating in the American efforts to provide security and protection in the Gulf region through security information and intelligence assistance, and other areas where Israel is noticeably superior.

He instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to work with all relevant parties in Israel to participate in the protection efforts of the maritime traffic in the Gulf, because this is a clear and fundamental Israeli interest, in the context of its strategy to contain the Iranian threat in that region. It all falls into the context of strengthening the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states, a policy led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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During his visit to Abu Dhabi, Katz met with a senior UAE political official, and discussed with him a project to build a railway from the Gulf to the port of Haifa to transport goods from Europe to the Gulf countries by land.

It has become clear that the recent Israeli visits to the Gulf states reveal the growing warmth in relations between the two sides. The growing Iranian threat, along with the decline of the Palestinian issue have both contributed to turning Israel from a regional problem into an important part of solving the region’s problems, in the eyes of the Gulf capitals.

Recent weeks have witnessed visits by some senior Israeli officials to a number of Arab Gulf states. These officials include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a number of his ministers, such as the ministers of sports Miri Regev, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Yisrael Katz, and Labour Eli Cohen, along with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. The Israeli flag was raised and the Israeli national anthem was played during these visits.

Successive Israeli visits to the Gulf States raise important questions: do they reflect a fundamental change or a strategic shock, or has something happened that has brought these underground behind-the-scenes contacts into the public domain all at once. Despite the increased Israeli visits to the Gulf states, Israel has not received any “public” visits from Gulf officials.

We can look at the two periods of prosperity experienced by the Israeli-Gulf relations. The first was in the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords and the second is the current stage in history. Without the presence of shared borders or Israeli geographic contact with the Gulf states, the latter has declined to declare any contact with Israel due to the Palestinian cause.

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While these relations were based on mutual interests in the 1990s, with the launch of the peace process, which stopped with the Second Intifada in late 2000, the current relations are based on fear of the “fabricated” Iranian influence. Israel has provided the Gulf states with security information about Iran in preparation for participating in the coalition led by the US to face the Iranian axis.

Despite the difficulty in reaching an accurate figure representing the Gulf-Israeli trade because much of it passes through middlemen and bypasses. However, the international research institutes have estimated that trade between Israel and the Gulf is worth $2 billion annually, and if the relations between them become public, trade volumes would reach $25 billion annually.

There are currently no common issues between the Gulf and Israel that would justify relations between them as a necessary or logical matter, unless we believe the lie of the fabricated enemy, represented by Iran.

Although the rapprochement between the Gulf capitals and Tel Aviv is met with widespread scepticism and criticism in the Arab countries, these Gulf emirates are displaying an unprecedented openness to Israel, making talk and debate regarding Israel acceptable.

The Israelis hope that the Gulf leaders, who have now come to the conviction of not waiting for a solution to the Palestinian issue as a condition for normalising their bilateral relations, will push towards establishing bilateral cooperation in the areas of joint cooperation with the United States, Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council to confront the Iranian threat. Such areas include the world arena, international institutions, security cooperation, economic pressures among others.

However, the Gulf public opinion does not share its rulers’ views in improving relations with Israel. It still considers Israel a hostile state. Establishing official relations between the Gulf and Israel is still some time away, and will depend primarily on the occurrence of fundamental developments within the Gulf countries themselves.

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

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