For Israel, concern over Iran leads to better ties with Arab states
For Israel, concern over Iran leads to better ties with Arab states
Formal recognition of Israel by Arab states does not seem likely anytime soon, but behind-the-scenes cooperation has opened up in various areas, a number of experts and officials say.
Significant rapprochement would constitute a departure from the decades-old policy of Arab countries refusing to deal with Israel until an independent Palestinian state is created.
But in the latest sign of mutual interests, both Israel and Saudi Arabia congratulated US President Donald Trump last week after his speech in which he declared he would not certify the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“I think there are two issues that the president was concerned with and we’re all concerned with, and coincidentally on this, Israel and the leading Arab states see eye-to-eye,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week.
“When Israel and the main Arab countries see eye-to-eye, you should pay attention, because something important is happening.”
Last month, Netanyahu described relations with the Arab world as the “best ever,” though without providing any details.
Leaders of Arab countries have not publicly made similar comments, though that does not necessarily mean they dispute Netanyahu’s claim.
They face sensitivities within their own countries, where the Jewish state is often viewed with intense hostility.
Since Israel was established in 1948, only two Arab states — Egypt and Jordan — have signed peace deals with the country.
But as the Middle East’s most powerful military with respected intelligence capabilities and a close bond with the United States, Israel is potentially a key ally against Iran for Arab states.
Israel has long viewed Iran as its number one enemy, while Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia are regional rivals of the Shiite country.
“(Relations are still) under the radar and unofficial because the culture of the Middle East is sensitive” to this matter, Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, a Netanyahu ally, told AFP.
Due to the concealed nature of any improved relations, pointing to exactly what Israel and Arab countries may be cooperating on is difficult.
Occasional examples have become public, such as when Israel announced in 2015 it would open a mission in Abu Dhabi as part of an international green energy body — its first official presence in the United Arab Emirates.
Israeli public radio reported last month that a Saudi prince visited the country secretly and met with Israeli officials about regional peace. The visit was never confirmed.
Uzi Rabi, a Tel Aviv University professor who specializes in Saudi Arabia, said there seemed to be “coordination” on issues including seeking to limit the spread of Iranian influence in the region.
It may also include cyber-security coordination, he said.
“There are Saudis meeting Israelis everywhere now, functioning relations based on shared interests,” Rabi said.
The United States has also sought to promote links between Israel and the Arab world, with Trump’s administration hoping to leverage regional interests to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Trump visited the Middle East in May, traveling from Saudi Arabia to Israel in a rare direct flight between the two countries.
“There is tremendous will, really good feeling, toward Israel,” Trump said of Saudi Arabia upon arrival in Israel.
“What’s happened with Iran has brought many other parts of the Middle East toward Israel.”
But even if ties are warming, many analysts question whether major steps are possible without a peace deal that would end Israel’s 50-year occupation of Palestinian territory.
Israeli relations with Gulf Arab states are not totally new.
In the 1980s, for example, Saudi billionaire arms dealer Adnan Al-Khashoggi, a key player in the region, was said to have had a relationship with then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, said Gil Merom, a specialist in political relations at the University of Sydney.
But the ties seem to have become less covert.
For years, politicians have discussed the so-called “inside out” theory, whereby Gulf Arab states would recognize Israel in exchange for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
This was the basis of a 2002 Saudi-led peace plan which was never implemented.
But increasingly Israeli officials talk about the “outside in” idea — Arab states recognizing Israel ahead of potential Palestinian independence.
There is no sign Arab states would go along with any such plan.
Kristian Ulrichsen, a professor focused on Gulf affairs at Rice University in the United States, said the basis of ties between Israel and Arab countries was common enemies.
“For several of the Sunni Arab states in the region, particularly in the Gulf, there is a growing sense that the major contemporary faultlines in the region now revolve around the perceived threat from Iran and militant Islamism,” he said.
“And on both these issues there is a certain convergence of interest with Israel,” he told AFP. “I do expect economic and security ties to become more open in the months and years ahead.”
Prince William on first official royal visit to Occupied Territories and Israel
- The second-in-line to the British throne is due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
- There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade
LONDON: Prince William will embark on the first official visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories by a member of the British royal family on Sunday.
But even with more than 120 Palestinians killed in protests in Gaza during recent weeks and controversy still surrounding the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, the second-in-line to the throne is not expected to talk politics.
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Arab News that the four-day tour is likely to focus on making trade deals in preparation for Britain’s departure from the EU next year, rather than on addressing the moribund Middle East peace process.
“There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade,” he said.
The visit risks “normalizing” the abusive regime under which Palestinians live, he added.
“Of course Prince William has to go to both the Israeli and Palestinian sectors or there would have been outrage. But there is a risk of his visit making it appear more acceptable and normal to carry out abuses of international law like the blockade of Gaza,” Doyle said.
William begins his Middle Eastern tour on Sunday in Jordan, a long-time ally of Britain. On Tuesday he will move on to Jerusalem, where he will visit Yad Vashem, the official memorial to Holocaust victims, meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later attend a football event with a mixed Arab and Jewish team.
On Wednesday he will meet young activists, both Arab and Jewish, who are involved in education and social programs, and also cross into the Occupied Palestinian Territories to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah before attending an event focusing on Palestinian refugees.
He is due to deliver a speech at a reception hosted by the American consul in Jerusalem. However, protocol prevents him from making any remarks that might be deemed partisan. Doyle told Arab News this was a pity in view of how William’s mother, the late Princess Diana, championed justice for the oppressed.
“It is a pity that someone of his status, who clearly cares about his mother’s legacy, cannot give voice to real major concerns about the treatment of the Palestinians and the human rights abuses that are daily issues for them under Israeli control but which will be airbrushed out,” he said.
“Yes, he will see co-operative programs and Arabs and Jews playing football together, but the reality is that the Palestinian footballers can only travel to matches with Israeli permission.”
William was a surprise choice for the visit. Many expected the task to fall to his father, Prince Charles, who has more experience of countries which are politically extremely sensitive. But it is thought he was chosen because his youth chimes better with young Israelis working in hi-tech fields who he is scheduled to meet. Among Palestinians, his presence will barely register, said Doyle.
“I hope the language can be found for him to say something to his Israeli hosts, that his visit will be more than window-dressing, but the reality is it’s very unlikely. So the visit won’t register as important with Palestinians. They don’t want to be part of some tourist show or box-ticking exercise,” he said.