The spring of Is­rael’s re­la­tions with its Arab neigh­bors

The Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT&FEATURES - • By ELIE PODEH

In the past few weeks it seems that Arab and Mus­lim coun­tries have been com­pet­ing with each other over Is­rael. Fol­low­ing news on back-chan­nel in­tel­li­gence ties with Saudi Ara­bia, Prime Minister Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu was in­vited to a well-pub­li­cized visit to Oman. Later, Chad’s pres­i­dent ar­rived in Is­rael for a visit, dur­ing which Ne­tanyahu re­vealed that Su­dan and Bahrain are about to up­grade their re­la­tions with Is­rael as well.

It is dif­fi­cult to fol­low the rapid de­vel­op­ments and to un­der­stand the con­nec­tion, if there is any, be­tween the var­i­ous de­vel­op­ments tak­ing place through­out the Mid­dle East and Africa.

What we are wit­ness­ing is the fruition of seeds sown more than a decade ago, when prime minister Ariel Sharon in­structed Mos­sad chief Meir Da­gan to seek ways to strengthen ties with Sunni Arab states that did not have diplo­matic re­la­tions with Is­rael in or­der to cre­ate a joint front against Shi’ite Iran that seeks to de­velop nu­clear weapons. The Amer­i­can in­va­sion of Iraq in April 2003 that over­threw Sad­dam Hus­sein and brought a new Shi’ite regime to power changed the bal­ance of power in fa­vor of Iran and against the Gulf states.

The re­gional change was par­tic­u­larly no­tice­able dur­ing the Sec­ond Le­banon War in the sum­mer of 2006, when the Sunni Arab states in the Gulf, Jor­dan and Egypt ver­bally at­tacked the Shi’ite Ira­nian-led Hezbol­lah or­ga­ni­za­tion. Thus, these coun­tries in­for­mally stood by Is­rael dur­ing that war.

The ties the Mos­sad started weav­ing back then con­tin­ued dur­ing the term of prime minister Ehud Olmert who, ac­cord­ing to for­eign sources, met a se­nior Saudi of­fi­cial in Jor­dan in 2006. Wik­iLeaks doc­u­ments dat­ing from 2008-2009 show that Mos­sad and For­eign Min­istry of­fi­cials met with se­nior of­fi­cials from the Gulf states, such as Oman and Bahrain, and pos­si­bly from other coun­tries too.

The Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tions that broke out in De­cem­ber 2010 in Tu­nisia that brought about the over­throw of regimes and trig­gered civil wars cre­ated chaos in an area that was well-serv­ing the sup­port­ers of rad­i­cal Is­lam, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Once the regime in Egypt was sta­bi­lized in June 2013, Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi did not hes­i­tate to seek Is­rael’s as­sis­tance in his war against ter­ror­ism in Si­nai, whether by ob­tain­ing per­mis­sion to in­crease the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary force in Si­nai, by ex­chang­ing in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion, or by us­ing Is­raeli drones. The Jor­da­nian regime, which sur­vived the tur­moil, was also as­sisted by Is­rael in var­i­ous ways to con­front in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal threats.

The nu­clear agree­ment with Iran, signed by the per­ma­nent members of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and Ger­many in July 2015, dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency, gave fur­ther im­pe­tus to the in­for­mal al­liance be­tween Is­rael and the Sunni Arab states. All the coun­tries threat­ened by Iran by now found them­selves in the same boat with Is­rael, which turned out to be the one rep­re­sent­ing their in­ter­ests around the world, in­clud­ing in the US Congress.

The be­gin­ning of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in Jan­uary 2017 marked a sig­nif­i­cant pol­icy change to­ward Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt, and gave a tail­wind to the un­writ­ten al­liance that had de­vel­oped be­tween Is­rael and the Sunni Arab states since the mid2000s. More­over, the fact that Ne­tanyahu be­came Washington’s per­sona non grata, im­proved Is­rael’s pres­tige in many cap­i­tals in the re­gion.

ONE OF the main rea­sons for Is­rael’s suc­cess in cre­at­ing al­liances in the re­gion – start­ing with the Kurds, through the pe­riph­ery al­liance with Iran, Tur­key and Ethiopia in the 1960s – was its abil­ity to use the in­flu­ence of the Jewish lobby. Even though us­ing this chan­nel was not al­ways suc­cess­ful, Is­rael’s im­age as hav­ing political clout in the United States achieved its goal. We can safely as­sume that this con­sid­er­a­tion played an im­por­tant role in the de­ci­sion of Oman, Chad and Su­dan to up­grade their ties with Is­rael.

Omar al-Bashir, the pres­i­dent of Su­dan, for ex­am­ple, has been try­ing for years to re­move his coun­try from the list of coun­tries sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism, and to this end he dis­en­gaged him­self from Iran and sent troops to help the Saudis in Ye­men. Al­ready in 2016 there were first re­ports that Is­rael was lob­by­ing the United States and Euro­pean coun­tries to help the regime in Su­dan.

The out­come of these de­vel­op­ments was the cre­ation of an op­por­tu­nity to main­tain clan­des­tine con­tacts, and more re­cently, even overt, with the Sunni Arab states. How­ever, three rea­sons can ex­plain the cur­rent tim­ing: First, most Arab coun­tries are pre­oc­cu­pied with do­mes­tic prob­lems that re­quire Is­raeli se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence as­sis­tance or help with reach­ing out to the US. Sec­ond, the Arab states re­al­ize that the ef­forts to re­solve the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict are stalled.

In other words, not only the Is­raelis, who are led by an ex­treme right-wing gov­ern­ment, do not show any will to pro­mote peace, but also the Pales­tini­ans, who are see­ing the end of Abu Mazen’s rule and the cleav­age be­tween the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity and Ha­mas do not want – nor can – ad­vance a political process. This un­der­stand­ing made ev­ery­one re­al­ize that what­ever the op­por­tu­ni­ties cur­rently are, they should be ex­hausted.

Fi­nally, the domino ef­fect may also have played a role. That is, just as the rev­o­lu­tion in Tu­nisia cre­ated a rip­ple ef­fect in other Arab coun­tries, the courage of one Arab leader to take ac­tion en­cour­aged oth­ers to fol­low suit. In other words, when the Arab pub­lic is pre­oc­cu­pied with mun­dane prob­lems, they may be less in­clined to deal with break­ing the taboo on overt re­la­tions with Is­rael.

How­ever, ev­ery­one – politi­cians on the Arab side and aca­demics on both sides of the di­vide – agree that the es­tab­lish­ment of diplo­matic re­la­tions with the Arab states will have to wait for a so­lu­tion of the con­flict with the Pales­tini­ans, or at least for a sig­nif­i­cant progress in re­solv­ing it. It is pos­si­ble that this logic is less valid for Mus­lim coun­tries in Africa and Asia, but only time will tell. The fact that Saudi Ara­bia de­nied a visa to Is­raeli chess play­ers – re­sult­ing in the trans­fer of the tour­na­ment to Rus­sia – is an in­di­ca­tion of the dif­fi­cul­ties of nor­mal­iz­ing re­la­tions overtly.

Iron­i­cally and para­dox­i­cally, the Arab Spring that led to chaos in the Arab world led to a spring in Is­rael’s re­la­tions with Arab and Mus­lim coun­tries. It should be em­pha­sized, how­ever, that this pos­i­tive devel­op­ment was not the re­sult of any crafted pol­icy of Ne­tanyahu’s gov­ern­ment, but rather of re­gional and global pro­cesses that the gov­ern­ment nei­ther con­trols nor in­flu­ences. Ne­tanyahu can boast that he achieved all this with­out dis­man­tling the set­tle­ments or giv­ing up Is­raeli land, but in fact, he was sim­ply in the right place at the right time to rake in political and diplo­matic cap­i­tal.

The writer teaches at the Depart­ment of Is­lamic and Mid­dle Eastern Stud­ies at the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem and is a board mem­ber of Mitvim-The Is­raeli In­sti­tute for Re­gional For­eign Poli­cies.

(Reuters)

PRIME MINISTER Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu meets with Oman’s Sul­tan Qa­boos bin Said al Said.

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