Israel seeks to woo Gulf Arab states in face of Iran threat

Netanyahu’s outreach to the Gulf has domestic implications for Israelis and Palestinians.
Sunday 11/11/2018
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addresses a session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, last September. (Reuters)
Top threat. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addresses a session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, last September. (Reuters)

LONDON - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s trip to Oman at the end of October was a historic occasion, marking the first time an Israeli prime minister visited the Gulf state since 1996.

The visit was widely seen as a significant development in relations between Israel and Gulf Arab states, which do not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

Speaking after the visit with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, Netanyahu said they discussed a range of issues, including air traffic over Oman to and from Israel and a railway connection between Muscat and Haifa.

One day after the Israeli prime minister’s visit, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said: “Israel is a state present in the region and we all understand this.” Speaking at a security conference in Bahrain, he added: “Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as others states] and also bear the same obligations.”

Oman did not offer to directly mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians, stating that it was waiting for the plan on what the Trump administration has billed as the “Deal of the Century.” However, Muscat promised efforts to help revive the peace process.

Several Israeli cabinet ministers visited the Gulf after Netanyahu’s trip to Muscat. Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev and Communications Minister Ayoob Kara travelled to the United Arab Emirates on separate occasions and Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel visited Oman for an international conference to present a railway plan to connect the Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea via Israel.

Several Gulf delegations, including one led by the Omani foreign minister, visited Jerusalem in the past year.

Until recently, long rumoured ties between Israel and several Gulf Arab states were mainly developed in secret, in part due to Arab states’ official support for the Palestinian cause.

“To be sure, hosting Netanyahu was a bold move,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of the Gulf State Analytics, a consultancy in Washington. “All Arab government officials risk facing domestic and regional anger if they are seen as too openly close to Israel.”

The meeting in Oman was a “very strategic development,” said Omar Shaban, founder of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in the Gaza Strip. It is in line, he added, with Israel’s perspective on the Arab Peace Initiative from 2002, which promised the normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab countries in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state. “Israel is dealing with the Arab world before a peace agreement” with the Palestinians, Shaban said.

However, the region has undergone tremendous change in recent years, including devastating wars, a more proactive Saudi policy to confront Iran and the fragmentation of the Palestinian political scene. This has allowed for improved relations between Israel and the Gulf nations.

“Arab support for the Palestinian cause is very weak at the moment,” said Shaban. He added that, in this changed environment, Arabs would not reject improving ties with Israel as strongly as in the past.

Key Arab Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Israel see Iran’s influence in the region as their top threat. In October, Netanyahu told the Israeli parliament that “Israel and other Arab countries are closer than they ever were before” because of the Iranian nuclear threat.

Netanyahu’s outreach to the Gulf has domestic implications for Israelis and Palestinians. Scoring a major foreign policy victory before the next elections — scheduled for November 2019 but there are rumours of early elections — could boost the prime minister’s chances to win a fifth term in office.

For Palestinians, the warming of ties presents a major challenge. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas travelled to Oman before Netanyahu’s visit and has since hosted an Omani envoy in Ramallah. Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, said Abbas hailed the “large” support by Oman for the Palestinian people, while Sultan Qaboos’s envoy said Abbas’s visit to Muscat reinforced the “deep fraternal relations” between the two countries.

A member of Hamas’s political bureau criticised what he called a “wave of normalisation by several Arab countries with the Israeli occupation.”

Abdullah Baabood, a former director of the Gulf Studies Centre at Qatar University, had a different take. “I believe Oman would not take this step without being asked by the Palestinians,” he said, adding that the Israeli-Omani meeting was aimed at kick-starting “the impasse in the relations” between Israelis and Palestinians, also pointing to a possible US role.

London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Abbas was supportive of Oman’s efforts.

Abbas has reiterated his intent to reject the “deal of the century,” which the Trump administration is expected to soon share with the Israeli government, news reports said.

While confronting Iran binds traditional adversaries closer together, the US peace initiative could be an obstacle for deeper ties between Israel and the Gulf.