In a dramatic change that is transforming the Middle East, Israel’s ties with moderate Arab nations are soaring while the Palestinian Authority finds itself cut off from its former patrons. Since Israel’s founding, it has faced relentless wall-to-wall opposition to its existence from the Arab world. Stemming from a mixture of religious factors and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab nations imposed a boycott on Israel and showered anti-Israel terror groups with cash.
Today, only Jordan and Egypt recognize Israel. To illustrate the depth of the Arab world’s hostility towards Israel, there are no direct flights from Israel to any Arab city other than Cairo and Amman.
However, recent developments show that alliances are shifting. In place of the traditional Arab hostility towards Israel, a new Middle East is forming that has the potential to completely transform the region.
Israel has long been rumored to have covert relations with moderate Arab nations such as Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Managed under the auspices of the Mossad espionage agency and Israel’s Defense Ministry, ties between the Jewish State and the aforementioned nations were seldom reported on due to the diplomacy’s sensitive nature.
The quiet relations have been bursting into the open lately, however, as Arab nations have dropped their longstanding opposition to Zionism and the Jewish State.
In October, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a surprise visit to Oman at the invitation of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. Following the visit, senior Israeli and Oman sources told the press that Netanyahu and the Omanis will start publicly cooperating on a host of issues, including building a railroad from Israel to Muskat and having direct flights from Ben Gurion Airport to the Gulf.
A high-ranking diplomatic official later told The Jerusalem Post that the Palestinian issue was not mentioned during Netanyahu’s Oman visit and added that “there will be other” such visits to Arab countries.
In a first, Israeli judokas were allowed to participate a week later at the Judo Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi under the Israeli flag. Previously, Israeli athletes were forced to compete wearing International Judo Federation Uniforms and faced a host of obstacles when competing in Arab lands, such as the ban on playing the “Hatikva” anthem after Israeli victories and snubs from their competitors.
This time, however, Israel’s national anthem was heard after judokas won a slew of medals. During the tournament, the United Arab Emirates also hosted Culture Minister Miri Regev at Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Official visits to the world’s third largest mosque are normally reserved for world leaders, highlighting the diplomatic significance of such a step.
During the same month, Israel’s Communications Minister Ayoub Kara visited Dubai for a conference, the first time that an Israeli minister has visited the state in an official capacity.
Another nation that has embarked on a charm offensive vis-à-vis Israel is Bahrain. On Sunday, the Israeli media reported that Bahrain is about to announce diplomatic ties with the Jewish State. In May, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed supported Israel’s right to defend itself, something unprecedented in the Arab world. Bahrain also participated in the Giro D’Italia bike race in the Jewish State. In September 2017, Bahrain’s King announced that his citizens are now allowed to visit Israel.
Meanwhile, Egypt celebrated Israel’s 70th birthday in May with an official celebration that was attended by the nation’s elite, the first time Cairo celebrated Israel’s creation since the two nations established diplomatic relations in 1981.
The main cause for the Gulf states to embark on a charm offensive with their former sworn enemies is a direct result of Iran’s subversion across the Middle East.
Taking advantage of the chaos caused by the Arab spring and emboldened by the Obama administration’s permissive attitude, Iran has been systematically extending its influence across the region. Via proxy groups managed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Islamic Republic has a hand in civil wars in both Yemen and Syria, has completely taken over Lebanon through its Hezbollah militia, and is funneling weapons to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The anxiety felt by the moderate Arab nations rose when then-President Obama signed the Iran deal in 2015. While the merits of the JCPOA are contested, it is undisputable that moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and Jordan saw the deal as an absolute betrayal of their interests in favor of their sworn enemy, Iran.
With Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif meeting regularly with then-Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration refusing to stop the Islamic Republic’s harassment of American navy ships in the Persian Gulf, the aforementioned countries concluded that the U.S. could not be counted on to protect them from Iranian subversion.
No longer trusting the U.S., the Gulf Arab states looked at Israel, which had already demonstrated an impressive track record of countering Iran’s ambitions in Syria. A New Yorker article published in May shed light on the covert ties that developed between Israel and their former adversaries as they both sought to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal.
As reported in the expose, after then-President Obama signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, “U.S. intelligence agencies learned of phone calls between senior United Arab Emirates and Israeli officials, including calls between a senior Emirati leader and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
Allegedly, Hillary Clinton was heard telling people as a presidential candidate that she “knew that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were already working together behind the scenes with Mossad to counter Iranian influence.”
The New Yorker added that U.S. intelligence entities “picked up on a secret meeting between senior UAE and Israeli leaders in Cyprus.”
The Obama administration’s decision to embolden Iran resulted in a paradigm shift among their neighbors in the Gulf. Rather than viewing Israel as the root cause of the region’s instability, Israel began to be seen as a stabilizing factor with a proven track record of countering Iranian influence.
“The Arabs looked to the left and see Iran running wild. They then see Israel, which has never started an offensive war with an Arab nation but routinely attacks Iranian weapons convoys and stole their entire nuclear archive,” a current member of Israel’s parliament told this writer.
While the Iranian threat is the key factor behind the decision by multiple Arab states to develop ties with Israel, the said states are also anxious to benefit from Israeli technology. The United Arab Emirates have been eagerly buying Israeli-made surveillance systems and cyber defense software. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia had bought offensive Israeli cyberweapons to monitor dissidents, according to Israel’s Haaretz daily.
In September, reports said that the Saudis are attempting to purchase Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system to defend Riyadh from rockets fired by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The one-of-a-kind Israeli-developed Iron Dome system intercepts and destroys short-range rockets while they are still airborne.
The main victims of the newfound closeness between Israel and the Arab states are undoubtedly the Palestinians. Locked in a violent battle against Israel since its founding in 1948, the Palestinians were traditionally the Arab world’s unifying factor. Arab states constantly reiterated that Israel could only enjoy diplomatic relations with its neighbors after the establishment of a Palestinian State, along with the “right of return” for the estimated 5 million refugees and their descendants who fled the Jewish State in 1948.
With Israel’s stature rising in Arab capitals, however, the Palestinian Authority has slowly been realizing that the popularity they traditionally enjoyed is over. Instead of their traditional role as the main player in Israeli-Arab affairs, the Palestinian’s status is now akin to a child who prevents the adults from having a serious conversation at a dinner party.
If Arab nations once saw themselves as tasked with promoting the rights of their brothers in Palestine they are now anxious to move past the intractable Israel-Palestinian conflict in order to counter Iran’s regional destabilization.
The biggest illustration of the new approach vis-à-vis the Palestinians is Saudi Arabia’s role in the peace process. In 2002, Saudi Arabia published its peace plan. Known as the “Arab Peace Initiative,” the Saudis conditioned full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab world on a full withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Jerusalem, along with a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem.
The plan was never endorsed by Israel, which was averse to flooding its borders with millions of hostile Palestinian refugees. In the meantime, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has become a key player in hammering out President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Today, however, Saudi Arabia’s solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is drastically different. Rather than prompting the Palestinian narrative, Saudi Arabia adopted all of Israel’s demands and appears to be paying the Palestinian Authority little more than lip service.
According to reports, the Saudis agree that the strategic Jordan Valley will remain part of Israel in any peace deal. Nor will the Jewish state be obligated under the proposal to dismantle Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, long seen as a prerequisite by the Palestinians for ending the conflict.
In another development that allegedly left Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in shock, Saudi’s Mohammed bin Salman departed from the key demand that Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian State, telling the Palestinian leader that their capital would be on the outskirts instead.
The crown prince also reportedly told Abbas that the Palestinians would not be getting a state of their own but a limited stretch of territory he deemed a “state minus,” resulting in deep hostility between Ramallah and Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to turn their back on the Palestinians occurred as the desert kingdom made several previously unthinkable moves that signaled its covert alliance with Israel. Within the past year, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince acknowledged that Israel “has a right to exist,” permitted Israel-bound flights to overfly its territory, and ordered Saudi diplomats to brand Hamas as a terror organization.
A central player in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s turn towards the Jewish State is significant because of the influence the country wields over its neighbors. In fact, the news that Bahrain would normalize relations with Israel came as the crown prince was visiting Bahrain in what reports said was part of a U.S.-backed push to form a regional anti-Iran alliance that included Israel.
The United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally, have also let its once-close ties with the Palestinian Authority flounder. Once a major patron of the PA, the United Arab Emirates ceased lavishing the Palestinians with the considerable sums of money is was accustomed to receiving. While the UAE gifted the PA with $87 million annually between 2008 and 2013, the Gulf state cut off the annual aid in 2014 and has not given the PA anything since.
The honeymoon between Israel and the Arab world is likely to develop further within the next few years. Iran’s meddling in Yemen and Syria shows no signs of ending; Russia recently admitted that is was unable to remove the Islamic Republic’s proxy forces from Syria. With Israel at the forefront of the anti-Iran effort, and with its intelligence apparatus racking up an impressive string of successes in Syria and Iran, Arab nations aren’t likely to put an end to the cooperation with Israel.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been actively encouraging the newfound rapprochement between the former enemies. Massive potential infrastructure projects such as a train between Israel and Oman will also make it difficult to reverse the trend of normalization.
The unpredictable wild card in the whole phenomenon is the Arab public. Accustomed to seeing Israel portrayed as the enemy for generations, Arab rulers will have to be cautious in order to give their people a chance to get used to the idea of cooperating with Israel, especially at the expense of their Palestinian brethren.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as important for them as it was before, but they are afraid of making official relations with Israel without any major movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” explained Israeli Brigadier General Udi Dekel earlier this year at a conference examining Israel’s newfound ties with the Arab world. “Without that movement, the people on the street will ask them, ‘for so many years you told us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important problem. How can you accept that Israel is controlling the West Bank and is not giving Palestinians any rights?’”