The Arab states, Israel and the Palestinians

Summary: some Arab regimes have continued to develop their relations with Israel despite the latter’s conduct towards the Palestinians. But there’s a limit to how far they will go. 

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for the posting below. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

We last looked at the role of the Arab states in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making some 18 months ago: see “Israeli-Palestinian peace-making: the role of the Arab states” of 3 April 2018, which provided a potted history of the topic, and “Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states” of 17 April 2018, which offered three possible scenarios for the evolution of the situation.

In the last 18 months, several Arab states have shown themselves ready to develop their relations with Israel in a much more open manner than before. Among the most striking examples of this trend are:

  • The visit of Miri Regev, then Israeli Minister of culture and sports, to the UAE in October 2018, on the occasion of the participation of an Israeli judoka in an international judo competition. (The Israeli competitor won gold and his country’s national anthem was duly played to mark his achievement.)
  • PM Netanyahu’s visit to Oman later in the same month;
  • In November 2018, the participation of Israel Katz, then Minister of Transport and Intelligence, in a transportation conference in Oman ;
  • Statements by the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE in support of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, at the Middle East summit in Warsaw in February this year (although the three foreign ministers do not appear to have expected these statements to become public);
  • Qatar’s hosting of international sporting competitions with Israeli participation in March and September this year. Hamas issued an expression of regret that Qatar had allowed Israeli athletes to take part in the September event and the Israeli flag to be flown, “while the Israeli occupation is committing crimes and violations against the Palestinians and holy sites and imposing a tight siege on Gaza”;
  • A tweet by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa expressing understanding for Israel’s military response to Hizbullah’s firing of anti-tank missiles into Israel in early September this year;
  • Egyptian and Jordanian agreements to buy gas from Israel.

These states may have chosen this path for a number of reasons. The most important was almost certainly the hope of securing Israeli support in countering the Iranian threat. Another reason was probably a wish to curry favour with the Trump Administration, again mainly with a view to gaining an ally against Iran. Frustration at the inability of the Palestinians to settle their internal differences and despair at the lack of prospects of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must also play a part in inclining the regimes concerned to accord a higher priority to their own interests, whether strategic or economic.

Whatever the mix of motives, in none of the cases outlined above does there seem to have been any attempt to seek a quid pro quo in terms of a greater willingness on Israel’s part to negotiate peace with the Palestinians or to refrain from steps (such as the continued building of settlements) that would make a peace agreement harder to reach. Nor do most of the Arab regimes concerned seem to have made any concerted effort to persuade Israel to moderate its treatment of Palestinians, for example, the demonstrators at the Gaza border fence.

This does not mean that there are no limits to the extent to which Arab states are prepared to go, in developing closer relations with Israel. Of those states cited in the examples above, Saudi Arabia showed where its own limits lay in December 2018, when it forfeited the right to host an international chess tournament rather than allow Israeli competitors to take part. (The Saudis’ reluctance to countenance the public presence of Israelis on their soil may be driven by concern for their standing in the Muslim world.) Even those Gulf countries which have hosted events in which Israelis have participated have fought shy of the establishment of full diplomatic relations. In practical terms, there is no need for them to do so. They are already assumed to be getting intelligence and security support from Israel and it is not clear what benefit full normalisation would bring.

Israel Katz, Israel’s Foreign Minister, confirmed that he had discussed, at his initiative, the possible signing of bilateral “non-aggression” treaties with certain Arab Gulf states. These treaties would, Katz tweeted, “end the conflict and enable civilian cooperation until the signing of peace agreements”, an implicit admission that these states would not be prepared to sign full peace treaties in the absence of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reaction of the Arab Gulf states to Katz’s proposal does not seem to have been reported in the media and he may well have been overstating the progress made in the talks, as Israeli ministers have a tendency to do.

Moreover, most Arab states have shown no desire to get closer to Israel. The majority of these, being not threatened by Iran, would see no purpose in taking steps in this direction, while there would be some risk of provoking a hostile public reaction. The territory of three Arab states (Syria, Lebanon and Iraq) has recently come under Israeli military attack: for them, the question of warmer relations does not arise. Other Arab countries (such as Yemen, Libya and Algeria) are preoccupied with their own internal problems.

What has generally been lacking, however, is active governmental support for the Palestinian cause, as opposed to lip service. Arab states have continued to issue statements condemning Israeli moves that would make a peace agreement harder to achieve but without any suggestion that there would be a penalty involved. One recent example was Netanyahu’s pledge (on 10 September) to annex the Jordan valley: a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers described the pledge as “a new Israeli aggression” that would undermine the chances of any progress in the peace process and will torpedo all its foundations”. Despite the apparent seriousness of the question, there was nothing to indicate that there would any penalty to pay, if Israel was to go ahead.

If it is generally true that Arab states do little or nothing in support of the Palestinians or their cause, there are some qualified exceptions. Kuwait is one. It has not sought to establish closer relations with Israel. Moreover, in June last year, Kuwait used its position on the UN Security Council to introduce a draft resolution deploring Israel’s “excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force” against Palestinian civilians, only to have it vetoed by the US. In so doing, Kuwait was reported to have annoyed the Trump Administration and embarrassed US peace envoy Jared Kushner – something other Arab Gulf states have been careful not to do.

Qatar, in seeking to improve living conditions for Gazans, is another partial exception. But perhaps the most complex and delicate position is that of Jordan which has felt compelled to take Israel to task over its conduct towards the Palestinians and the Muslim Holy Places in Jerusalem but has, at the same time, vital security and economic interests to protect in maintaining the relationship with Israel. This Jordanian dilemma, 25 years on from the signing of the 1994 peace treaty, will be the subject of a forthcoming post.

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