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Israel’s outreach to the Arab world: opportunities and pitfalls for regional security

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with United Arab Emirates leader Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (Image courtesy: Twitter/@IsraeliPM)

In August last year, then President Donald Trump dramatically announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had agreed to “normalise” their relations by setting up embassies in each other’s countries and pursue political and economic ties. In keeping with his penchant for theatre, the president described this development as an “Abraham Accord”, i.e. an accord that was bringing together the Jew, the Christian and the Muslim, all of whom revere the Old Testament prophet.

After Bahrain joined this “normalisation” initiative, Trump presided over a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House that brought together Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain.

Seeing considerable electoral advantage in this normalisation process, the US administration mounted a major effort to get more Arab states on board. The result of these efforts was modest at best – only Morocco and Sudan signed up in return for a heavy price. The US agreed to recognise the disputed territory of Western Sahara as being under Moroccan sovereignty, a recognition that is not shared either by the UN or the European Union. Sudan, then under a transition government headed by General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, was won over with the US removing it from its list of countries supporting terrorism and a loan of $ 1 billion to settle its foreign debts.

There were great hopes that Saudi Arabia would follow suit, being seen as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the diplomatic effort. But, as the guardian of Islam’s two holy mosques, the acknowledged leader of the Arab and Muslim communities and the father of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 (that offered normal relations with Israel following its vacation of territories occupied in the 1967 war), the kingdom just could not accommodate its patron in Washington.

The most Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could offer was a meeting with Netanyahu in the remote Red Sea city of NEOM, the principal centre of the prince’s ambitious multi-billion-dollar smart city project, at which US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was also present. And, while a delighted Netanyahu gave the meeting considerable publicity in the Israeli media, the Saudi foreign minister firmly denied that any such meeting with the Israeli prime minister had taken place. Again, despite the fanfare, Morocco finally only agreed to setting up ‘liaison offices’ in the two countries, while in Sudan, in the throes of a military take-over, there is sustained popular opposition to the normalisation.

Background to the diplomatic initiatives

The overt diplomatic engagements sixteen months ago brought into the public domain interactions that had been in place over the previous several years. However, the commencement of the US-led negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue from 2014 provided a major fillip for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to work closely with Israel and the ‘Israel Lobby’ in the US to discredit the proposed agreement in the media and, once it was finalised, to prevent it from obtaining Congressional backing.

Abraham Accords

(Image courtesy: Twitter/@StateDept)

Trump prioritised relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia and built a coalition with them against Iran. He also hoped that the Arab states would help see through the ‘deal of the century’, the Israel-Palestine peace plan that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had developed. Though the plan was “dead on arrival” due to its total commitment to Israel’s interests, the shared enmity of Iran, lubricated by massive defence purchases from the US by Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies, ensured that the relationship remained firmly in place.

The timing of the “normalisation” of ties was clearly determined by electoral considerations pertaining to both Trump and Netanyahu. It provided Trump with a much-need diplomatic achievement. It was also very timely for Netanyahu – he was then facing indictment for bribery, corruption and breach of trust and was going into fresh general elections, Israel’s fourth in a year.

Israeli and UAE interests in normalisation

But the UAE calculus went beyond the immediate electoral benefit – opinion polls then were already indicating a possible Trump defeat. Given that Israel’s interests enjoyed bipartisan support in the US, the UAE saw that the normalisation would have an appeal across party lines. Again, while explaining the normalisation, some Israeli and Arab commentators have referred to their shared security concerns relating to Iran. The Israeli writer, Ben Caspit said that Sunni states, feeling threatened by Iran, “are sheltering behind Israel’s broad back”. The Arab commentator, Hussein Ibish said that, while the US led the anti-Iran coalition, “it’s Israel that’s doing most of the heavy kinetic lifting”; thus, normalisation of ties with Israel was “crucial” for the UAE’s security.

This seems to be a short-sighted view. While Israel and some GCC states may have concerns relating to Iran’s regional role and influence, they differ in their approach to handling the challenges posed by Iran – Israel favours armed confrontation and intimidation, but the GCC states, in the front line of any Iranian retaliation, are more interested in diplomatic engagement.

From the Israeli perspective, the diplomatic normalisations of 2020 are in line with its traditional approach of gaining Arab recognition without conceding anything to Palestinian interests. It achieved this through the Camp David agreement with Egypt in 1979 and the subsequent peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. Thus, with four Arab states coming on board, Netanyahu asserted that he obtained peace with the Arabs, not through “concessions” to the Palestinians, but “out of strength”, and that these alliances “were born out of Israel’s value as a technological, financial, defence and intelligence powerhouse”.

In pursuing the normalisation process, the UAE was impelled by two considerations: one, affirm to the US its value as its regional strategic partner that reflects the values of modern and moderate Islam and, two, while already a world-leader in the areas of logistics, trade, finance and tourism, it is now emerging as a major hub for technology development.

Thus, for the UAE, the importance of the relationship with Israel is not so much in the area of security vis-à-vis Iran, but as a partner in the pursuit of commercial and technological cooperation. Bilateral ties have been given concrete shape through expanding trade ties that reached $ 875 million in January-October 2021 and six flights a day from Israel to the UAE that have already brought over 200,000 businessmen and tourists to Dubai. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Abu Dhabi in December 2021 to promote economic cooperation with a free trade agreement, joint infrastructure projects and a joint fund for development of renewable energy.

The normalisation process has encouraged some important regional engagements. Israel, the UAE and Jordan have agreed on a joint agreement that provides for a UAE government company to construct a solar power facility in Jordan that will produce electricity, which will be sold to Israel; in return, Israel will provide 200 million cubic metres of desalinated water to Jordan.

Similarly, Qatar, which does not have diplomatic ties with Israel but works closely with the government to facilitate its financial and developmental activity in Gaza, will fund supply of Israeli gas to Gaza’s power plant, in place of the diesel that the plant is using at present. Separately, Israel and Qatar have also agreed that the latter will formally join the global diamond market, while allowing free entry to Israeli diamond merchants into Doha and even set up their offices in the country.

Flurry of diplomatic engagements

The Biden administration has signalled its disengagement from West Asian affairs in favour of a more active role in containing Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. This is in line with positions announced earlier by Presidents Obama and Trump that regional states should increasingly assume responsibility for regional security. This freedom from US interventions has opened for regional states fresh opportunities for diplomatic initiatives.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have met five times since April to discuss matters of common concern – confidence-building measures, restoration of diplomatic ties and ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Given the baggage of mutual suspicion and hostility going back a decade, no concrete results have emerged so far, but the dialogue is being pursued actively.


Celebration of the first anniversary of the Abrahamic Accords in September (Image courtesy: Twitter/@UAEinIsrael)

Again, the Iranian negotiator at the Vienna nuclear talks, Ali Bagheri-Kani, visited Abu Dhabi in late November and sought UAE help to facilitate agreement with the US on the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This was followed by the visit to Tehran of UAE’s influential national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, on 6 December, just a week before Naftali Bennett landed in Abu Dhabi. With UAE-Iran trade in 2021-22 expected to reach $ 22 billion, the UAE has signalled that, in pursuing regional ties, it will not adopt a zero-sum approach.

Turkey, which till recently had been competing with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt for regional influence on the basis of its backing for political Islam, has now changed its approach and is seeking rapprochement with its Arab neighbours through dialogue and mutual accommodation.

Despite major engagements across the region, Israel has not shown any change in regard to two issues – Iran and the Palestinian interests. Since the commencement of the nuclear talks in Vienna from the end of November, Israel has maintained a very hostile public posture – focusing on Iran's violations of the JCPOA and its progress towards weaponization, and threats of unilateral military action if an unsatisfactory agreement is finalised. Israel’s sabre-rattling has alarmed the GCC states which will be in the direct line of any Iranian retaliation to an Israeli attack.

Israel’s approach to the Palestinian issue is similarly indifferent to Arab concerns. Though Israeli and Western media have forcefully argued that the Palestinian cause has lost its resonance in the Arab world, this is not borne out by regional surveys. Polls taken just after the normalisation initiatives showed that 88 percent of the Arabs opposed the diplomatic engagement with Israel; even those who accepted normalisation insisted that this should be conditional on Israel accepting an independent Palestinian state.

Opponents of normalisation have referred to Israel’s racist approach to the Palestinians and its “colonialist, expansionist policies”. As Arab commentator Omar Rahman has said, “Arab identification with the Palestinians and antagonism with Israel are deeply woven into the cultural and political fabric of society”.

Not surprisingly, the leaders of the UAE have been particularly active in addressing Palestinian concerns on this subject. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, has stated publicly that the normalisation will not occur at the expense of the Palestinian cause and that the UAE is committed to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. On 31 August, a few days after the normalisation announcement, the UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, addressed the Palestinian community in the UAE: he referred to the “unshakable bonds” between the Palestinians and the UAE, and his country’s continued support for an independent Palestinian state.

Options for regional security

The nuclear talks in Vienna and the stalled normalisation process suggest that they are unlikely to lead to real changes in the regional security scenario until Israel reviews its approach. As of now, this seems unlikely. What Israel would like to see is an expansion of diplomatic ties with more Arab states so that it builds a coalition against Iran that is backed by the US.

Such a coalition seems to be a non-starter. One, the US lost its credibility as a regional security-provider after it failed to respond to Iran-sponsored attacks on GCC assets in 2019, and, more recently, following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the handing over of the country to the Taliban. Pervasive perceptions of US disengagement from the region have further reduced the US’ standing in the regional security scenario.

Israel Iran

Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant

Two, Israel is unlikely to see any further expansion of the normalisation process, largely due to popular hostility across the region.

Three, while Arab states may have concerns relating to Iran’s expanding regional influence, they see far greater merit in diplomatic engagement rather than in an Israel-led confrontation, particularly since the GCC states would be in the frontline of any conflict.

There is an alternative approach to regional security – an inclusive regional security architecture that brings in all the regional states, as also external players that have an abiding interest in regional security. Given several decades of regional strife, it seems unrealistic to envisage an inclusive, mutually accommodative regional security arrangement in West Asia. But the absence of the US as the regional hegemon provides for the first time in several decades the opportunity to regional states to shape their security structure through their own effort.

Achieving regional order

This will certainly call for major changes in the perceptions and policies of the major regional states. But there are reasons for optimism. One, given US disengagement, Israel no longer enjoys the full support it has enjoyed for decades from successive US administrations. In a Brookings Report of November 2020, Nathan Sachs and Kevin Huggard had pointed out that likely changes in the regional scenario “will directly or indirectly threaten several of [the] pillars” that have traditionally supported Israel’s interests in the region. They had then asserted that this situation “will require profound changes in Israel’s policy toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict” and that “a credible policy aimed at meaningful Palestinian independence is essential”.

Again, both Israel and Saudi Arabia would need to review their approach to Iran, with reciprocal changes on the Iranian side. Such changes may be easier in the Saudi-Iran context – they have long experience of good working relations after the Iran-Iraq war up to the start of the Arab Spring uprisings. This camaraderie had ended when the kingdom, experiencing strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis Iran, had mobilised support bases at home and regionally on the basis of sectarian identity to confront Iran.

These proxy conflicts have caused considerable destruction, but have not yielded any strategic advantage to either side. The Baghdad conference in August 2021, that had brought together all the regional states saw the latter acknowledge “that the region faces common challenges that require the countries of the region to deal with them on the basis of joint cooperation and mutual interests in accordance with the principles of good neighbourliness, non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, and respect of national sovereignty”. This offers a good basis to promote regional security cooperation.

Iran-Israel animosity is so deeply ingrained on both sides that normalisation of ties between them hardly ever figures in foreign affairs speculations. The hostile rhetoric threatening mutual annihilation aggravates the bilateral divide. Adding to the animosity are regular reports of war preparations by Israel, backed by aerial bombings, assassinations and subversions within Iran itself, and periodic cyberattacks, which ensure that tensions remain at high levels. Israel attacks Iran for pursuing a nuclear weapons programme and threatens war, but does not explain why its own weapons capability does not give it the security it needs.

But there is a larger concern: the animosity that each side bears the other serves the important domestic purpose of highlighting the “existential” threat to the fundamental persona of each nation – the Jewish state on one side and the Islamic revolution on the other.

To assuage Israeli concerns, Iran will have to mute the shrill rhetoric of its hardliners and control the aggressiveness of its militia at home and in neighbouring countries. This should not be impossible – Iranian use of non-state actors is itself a response to sustained US hostility, the attendant sanctions, and the regular threats of assault to obtain regime change.

While there is no quick-fix solution to this predicament, there is no reason to believe that confidence-building measures cannot be initiated that will yield results over time: persistent insecurity in Israel and the impoverishment and privation created by sanctions should focus attention on the futility of this confrontation.

Perhaps, over time, popular opinion could affect changes in perceptions. There are recent reports that Jews in Israel and some European countries who originated from Arab nations are keen to re-establish links with their countries of origin. This is most resonant in this regard is the case of Morocco – nearly a million Israelis are of Moroccan origin. They are celebrating the normalisation which has provided opportunities to them to explore their roots, even as the government in Rabat is reciprocating by rehabilitating Jewish monuments, synagogues and cemeteries. There are echoes of similar enthusiasm among Jews from Iraq and Lebanon.

With about 200,000 Jews of Iranian origin in Israel and another 100,000 in the US, they could also be a solid support base for peace. That will manifest the real value of the “Abraham Accords”.

(The author is the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, and Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune)

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