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April 7, 2019 6:18 am

A New Era in Israel-Gulf State Relations?

avatar by Edy Cohen / JNS.org

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Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa attend a press conference after their meeting that discussed the diplomatic situation with Qatar, in Cairo, Egypt July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Elfiqi/Pool

JNS.orgUnited Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash was quoted by the English-language Abu Dhabi newspaper The National last week as saying, “Many, many years ago, when there was an Arab decision not to have contact with Israel, that was a very, very wrong decision looking back.”

He predicted increased contacts between Israel and Arab states, as well as a “strategic shift” in ties that he said should focus on “progress on the peace front” between Israel and the Palestinians.

There is no doubt that Gargash’s remarks were made with the encouragement and guidance of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan. In Arab states, it is not customary to make statements in support of Israel without the knowledge and approval of those in command.

This is not the first time that senior Arab Gulf state officials have expressed support for Israel. Bahrain’s foreign minister has been known to take to Twitter to issue pro-Israel and anti-Iran statements.

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Last fall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given the royal treatment when he visited Oman together with the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen. In recent months, dozens of Israeli athletes have competed in sporting events in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, and Israel’s national anthem was played numerous times in Doha, the Qatari capital. Likud Party members and government ministers Yisrael Katz, Ayoub Kara, and Miri Regev have also visited the Gulf.

What has changed in the Gulf? How has support for the Palestinians been replaced by support for Israel? It appears that the people of the Gulf have adopted a new stance, having opened their eyes to the illusion of opposition to and war against Israel. They understand that their support for the Palestinians is detrimental to them, including from a financial perspective. The fact that the Palestinians have grown closer to Iran has sparked ire in many Gulf states, which see the ayatollah regime as an enemy and the Palestinians’ increasingly closer ties with Tehran as a betrayal.

No matter the reason, Israel’s warming ties with the Gulf are a significant achievement that can be attributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Gulf Arab states are interested in being part of the Western world — not necessarily out of a love of Zion, but because they understand that the path to warmer ties with the West and the United States runs through Israel. In the Gulf, they recall how America liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in the early 1990s, and they are interested in maintaining these ties. It is not for nothing that there are over 10 American and British military bases operating in six Gulf states: Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE.

A majority of Gulf leaders decided to align with Donald Trump’s policy on Iran, as well as his stance on the Palestinian issue, albeit not publicly. Ties with Israel are aimed at deterring the Iranians and providing a means of entry to the United States. As is the case with other Arab states, genuine peace is not the object of the Gulf states aspirations, but rather the outcome of interests, as well as the need to maintain security and stability and continued US aid.

The Arab street is interested in nothing more than an “agreement” and certainly not warm relations. Only those unfamiliar with the mentality of the region could be surprised when a Jordanian parliamentarian speaks out against Israel or when Egypt votes against Israel at the United Nations.

Gargash’s pro-Israel remark, then, constitutes a challenge to Israeli diplomacy. Is this a change for the better? Will the relationship float freely to the surface? We must hope that this is the beginning of a new era in relations with Gulf states, one of open and overt ties.

Dr. Edy Cohen is a researcher at the BESA Center and author of the book The Holocaust in the Eyes of Mahmoud Abbas (Hebrew).

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