Decoding the relationship between Israel and the Arab Gulf states has become a kind of Middle Eastern Kremlinology. Because none of the Gulf states officially recognize Israel as a state, and because some of them, like Saudi Arabia, actively fund and promote some noxious anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda, relations can’t really unfold in the public eye. Or can they?
Israel has a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi, and it’s not surprising anymore when an important former Gulf official will appear in public with a prominent Israeli, or a delegation of Saudi scholars travels to the Jewish state. It’s far from clear what this all actually amounts to, but one of the best primers on the topic is this 2015 article by Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, which attempts to square various rumors of Sunni-Israeli cooperation with the practical realities of Middle Eastern politics. Henderson cautiously concludes that “despite some turbulence, ties are already at a cruising altitude.”
This awkward balance was on display at the Iran Risk Summit, held on September 19 in New York City. The event was United Against A Nuclear Iran’s day-long assessment of the aftermath of the U.S.’s July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and was timed to correspond with the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, taking place this week. The event included talks from scholars, government officials, and experts from the U.S. and the Middle East, and Europe, including former UANI president and ex-Obama Administration arms control official Gary Samore, who supported last year’s nuclear deal, and former Senator and current UANI president Joseph Lieberman, who did not.
The event frequently hinted at the Arab-Israeli thaw. On three different occasions over the course of a roughly 40-minute long talk, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ longtime ambassador to the United States, listed Hezbollah in the same breath as Hamas in discussing Iranian proxy groups active throughout the Middle East. When asked what he believed the incoming American president’s priorities should be, Otaiba mentioned getting Washington’s Middle East alliances “back on a solid footing.” He then rattled through a list of regional states, ending with Israel, a country he called by its actual title (thereby eschewing the various euphemistic alternatives, like the “Zionist Entity,” “Occupied Palestine,” or the more neutral “Tel Aviv”). He couched the nuclear deal in the same kind of careful, highly conditional terms that Israeli leaders have used in the year after the agreement: “In our view the [nuclear agreement] was going to be a good deal if it allows us to focus our efforts on Iran’s behavior in the region,” Otaiba said. “Whether it’s a good or a bad idea largely depended on our policy towards Iran the day after.” Like the Israelis, Otaiba seemed skeptical that either the US or Iranian’s stances had changed much.
Otaiba’s statements were a glimmer of increasing official acknowledgment of Israel among the Gulf states, but they also unintentionally revealed the limits of whatever relationship may actually exist. As Foundation for Defense of Democracies Gulf expert David A. Weinberg pointed out on Twitter, the UAE does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization. And while the country’s ambassador to Washington might be willing to say Israel’s name out loud in front of a foreign audience, the UAE does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, while its leaders have clarified that the opening of the Abu Dhabi diplomatic mission does not signal any future “normalization” in relations. It’s a mixed picture, and the fact that observers have to go hunting for rhetorical evidence of a rapprochement hints at how fragile or coldly pragmatic any thaw in relations might actually be for now.
One reason for the covert on incomplete status of the upgrade in the Israel-Gulf relationship is the lack of any apparent progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Tzipi Livni, one of the heads of the Knesset’s opposition Zionist Union party and Israel’s former Foreign Minister and Justice Minister, said as much during the day’s most noteworthy event: A panel discussion with former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski; Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, the former Bahraini Ambassador to France and Spain; a former president of the UN General Assembly; and someone whom Lieberman introduced as a current adviser to the Bahraini government. Like the UAE, Bahrain does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. But that didn’t stop a prominent Bahraini official—someone who is in fact a member of Bahrain’s royal family—
Livni spoke of having “completely different strategic relations with the moderate Sunni states,” but said she realized “that in order to do so we need to take steps with the Palestinians.” She remarked on the possibility that the “window of opportunity to work with the region” would close because of stasis in the peace process. Afterwards, I asked Livni if there were any specific Israeli steps towards the Palestinians that she had in mind.
“Freezing settlement activities for example [is] a small example of what can change the environment,” she replied.
During the panel, Khalifa talked about the importance of upholding the remaining sanctions on Iran, and advised against investing too much confidence in Tehran’s ability to behave itself: “We shouldn’t trust what they say,” Khalifa cautioned. Afterwards, I told Livni that I found it interesting that Khalifa had not mentioned the Palestinian issue at all during her remarks. “Why should she?” Livni replied. “We are talking about Iran, and they all understand Iran is the threat. If you would have asked about Israel, the answer would have been, Palestinians. But we were all focused on Iran.”
Of course, Iran is an infinitely more pressing threat to Bahrain’s ruling family than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it’s understandable why Khalifa avoided even mentioning the topic. In 2011, the country’s Sunni royal family brutally suppressed a popular uprising among the island’s majority-Shi’ite population, with the help of a military deployment from Gulf Cooperation Council members, most notably Saudi Arabia. In the absence of any meaningful political change on the island, the once-peaceful uprising has morphed into a very low-level, Iran-backed insurgency. The Khalifa family might believe that openly signaling their tolerance of Israel is a small price to pay for helping to secure the regime’s long-term durability—another discomforting reminder of how much the Israeli-Gulf detente is driven by the specter of a common enemy.