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Israel and the Gulf States: A Thaw in Relations?

INSS Insight No. 133

As part of the attempt to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian discussions, the American administration has in recent months expended significant effort on persuading different Arab nations, headed by the Gulf states, to make certain gestures towards Israel. While in geopolitical terms the Arab-Israeli arena and the Persian Gulf arena are separate, the Persian Gulf states are nonetheless directly or indirectly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict and are influenced by Israeli-Palestinian relations.

At the same time that the American administration is pressuring Israel on the settlements, it is also urging the Gulf states to take steps towards normalizing relations with Israel. As such, in recent months the American administration has reportedly extracted "deposits" whereby Oman and Qatar will reopen the Israeli diplomatic missions in Muscat (closed in 2000 because of the intifada) and Doha (closed in early 2009 as a result of Operation Cast Lead).

In addition, several states may allow Israeli civilian airplanes (including cargo planes) through their airspace or even allow direct flights from Israel to airports in their territories, while others would grant visas to Israelis, set up direct telephone dialing, and hold public meetings with Israeli officials at high levels. Saudi Arabia has announced that at this stage it has no intention of making a move that might be interpreted as a gesture towards Israel, but it would not oppose such moves on the part of the other Gulf states. Because Saudi Arabia's stance at times sets the tone for the smaller Gulf states, this may be seen as a green light for such moves.

Traditionally the Gulf states have not adopted separate policies regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they have preferred to toe the line of the basic pan-Arab stance, despite the fact that most of the fundamental problems between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab nations are not directly related to the Gulf arena. It was mainly the American diplomatic effort to break the freeze in the Arab-Israeli peace process and the opening of the Madrid Conference in 1991 that contributed to the official thaw in relations between the Gulf states and Israel. In addition to the Gulf states' responding to the American request, it was also their contempt for Arafat (because of his support for Saddam Hussein), the developing relations with Jewish organizations in the United States, and even the feeling of solidarity as a result of Scud missiles fired on both Riyadh and Tel Aviv that played a part in this trend. However, the little progress made in the peace process in the years that followed returned the Gulf states to their former anti-Israeli stances.

Although following the Oslo Accords the Gulf states reconsidered their position, even then they did not go much beyond the boundaries of the Arab consensus. In October 1994, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreed to cancel its boycott of states and companies that maintain economic ties with Israel, but their representatives stressed that the direct boycott on Israel would continue until a comprehensive peace agreement was reached between Israel and its neighbors. The assassination of Rabin in 1995, Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996, and the events at the Western Wall tunnel in October 1996 prompted the Gulf states in March 1997 to freeze the normalization process launched at Madrid.

Recent years have also seen a continued flux in the the Arab Gulf states' attitudes toward Israel and the peace process. As a result of Israel's August 2005 disengagement from Gaza, some of the Gulf states again announced normalization measures with Israel: Bahraini foreign minister Mahmad Ben Mabarak confirmed that his country decided to cancel the boycott on Israeli goods, and Qatari foreign minister Hamad Ben Jassam called on Arab nations "to respond positively to the step taken by Israel at international conferences and in meetings between Arab and Israeli statesmen." He also noted that full diplomatic relations between Qatar and Israel may be possible even before a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from the territories.

Now more than ever, it is in Israel's interest to strengthen its relations with the Gulf states and affirm the dominance of the moderate forces in the Gulf. One of the effective strategies against the Iranian threat is building alliances among moderate nations and leaders that share similar outlooks, such as the United States, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states. Closer ties are likely to strengthen Israel's status, bestow legitimacy on other nations seeking to jump on the peace bandwagon, and encourage positive Israeli public opinion via Arab gestures to promote peace. Furthermore, the Gulf states might give added momentum to the peace process, and if and when an Israel-Palestinian/Arab peace agreement is signed, they may help finance it. However, now as then, in the eyes of the Gulf states the burden of proof is on Israel: "It must demonstrate its desire for peace in practice" and agree to a formula that would be acceptable regarding the territories.

What is the interest of the Gulf States in forging a closer relationship with Israel? Perhaps a positive response to the American administration may ensure a more supportive American position on issues of concern to them. Even if the economic-commercial potential inherent in relations with Israel is of small scope, Israel is nevertheless a desirable partner for cooperation in irrigation technologies, desalination, and military-security know-how.

Will the Gulf states adopt a more active peace policy? At most, the future role the Gulf states will likely be that of donors, for example by financing joint Israeli-Palestinian projects, or of facilitators, by hosting rounds of talks at home.It is hard to say with certainty to what extent the Gulf States will meet the United States' position. It is not at all clear that they have decided whether and how to join the bloc of pragmatic nations openly and as a counterweight to Iran's might, in light of their fear of Iran and the mounting doubts about America's willingness to stand by them in the moment of truth.

Moreover, public opinion in the Gulf states has traditionally tended to oppose normalization with Israel and it will be hard for the regimes to ignore it. At this stage it seems that the Arab Gulf states will again opt to toe the line of the basic Arab position, though perhaps with their own tactical adjustments to maintain indirect involvement. At the same time, the Gulf states are not a single political bloc, and as in the past, they may find it difficult to agree on a uniform policy towards Israel. While nations such as Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar are likely to make certain gestures towards Israel, others such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are expected to lag behind, at least initially.

The Arab Gulf states find themselves on a front facing threats that may affect the stability of the Middle East. At the top of concerns of Gulf leaders are the multidimensional threat posed by Iran and the future of Iraq. It may be that they will seek to bind their stated gestures towards Israel to American guarantees that would make it difficult for Iran, with or without nuclear capabilities, to dictate the Gulf's agenda. This will make it easier for the Gulf states to take confidence building measures and somewhat relax their attitude towards Israel.

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.



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