Trump administration seen as nudging Israel, Gulf countries towards closer ties

An important factor is the perception of the common threat represented by Iran.
Sunday 27/05/2018
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C), White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner (L) and US President Donald Trump sit during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Washington, last March. (Reuters)
Shifts in motion. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C), White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner (L) and US President Donald Trump sit during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Washington, last March. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Encouraged by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are quietly exploring closer cooperation with Israel against regional rival Iran despite the violence in the Gaza Strip, analysts said.

The Gulf countries’ cautious movement is determined by the perception of the common threat represented by Iran.

Israel faced criticism from Riyadh and other Arab capitals after its troops killed more than 60 Palestinians on May 14. The violence was in part triggered by the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem and by US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise the city as the capital of Israel.

Trump’s Jerusalem move and Israel’s tough response to unrest in Gaza are not stopping Arab governments from discreetly reaching out to Israel, even though they do not recognise the Jewish state officially, said Joshua Krasna, a fellow in the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

“The relationship between Israel and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, has developed over the last years and is based on interests, not values,” Krasna said via e-mail.

The relatively limited reactions across the Arab-Islamic world to the US move and recent Israeli actions in Gaza have shown, experts said, an increasing inability of the Palestinian issue to mobilise support in a region consumed by more immediate concerns and challenges.

Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region are united by worries about aggressive Iranian policies and by uncertainty about the extent of protection they can expect from the United States, Krasna added.

Trump has repeatedly criticised previous US administrations for their expensive involvement in Middle Eastern affairs and has called for a quick withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

Krasna pointed out that the “axis of interests” between Israel and Arab Gulf countries emerged three years ago when they jointly opposed the Obama administration’s determination to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. “The Trump administration thus provides a ‘following wind’ to a dynamic that already existed,” he wrote.

He said he expects Israel and the Arabs to follow their own policies against Iran, “probably with a level of discreet coordination, in a way that will largely promote the interests of both of them.”

In a sign of shared goals, Saudi ally Bahrain signalled support for Israel after Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria this month. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz said in an interview with the Atlantic magazine that Israelis have “a right to have their own land.”

Security issues are at the centre of Israeli-Arab contacts. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state and former CIA director, said last December that Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were cooperating to fight “terrorism” in the region. Egypt has found common cause with Israel in containing Hamas and combating Islamic extremists in the Sinai Peninsula.

The US administration is strongly encouraging the development. Trump envisages a strong alliance of Israel and Arab countries in the Middle East that could serve to counter Iran and act in tandem with Washington, potentially lowering the burden for the United States in money and personnel.

“The common link is the Trump administration, the Kushner nexus,” said Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar at the Middle East Programme of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, referring to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in law and Middle East envoy.

Kushner has close ties to both Crown Prince Mohammed and the Israeli government. Speaking at the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, he said alliances in the region were shifting in Israel’s favour.

“From Israel to Jordan to Egypt to Saudi Arabia and beyond, many leaders are fighting to modernise their countries and create better lives for their people,” he said. “In confronting common threats and in pursuit of common interests, previously unimaginable opportunities and alliances are emerging.”

Bahout said Riyadh was able to pursue the Israeli-Arab connection without much scrutiny from a Saudi public that has strong anti-Israeli leanings, even as it tends to defer to its rulers on such high-stakes policies. “They can continue in secret,” he said about Israel and Arab interlocutors. “They don’t have to go public.”

Events such as the recent violence in Gaza are setbacks for the rapprochement but not fatal, Bahout said. Saudi Arabia still needs a cover of “Arab legitimacy,” he said, so an interruption in contacts after the Gaza killings was possible. However, after a short while, “the Saudis will go back to normal,” he added.

Still, there are limits to how far the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs will go in cooperating with Israel. “Formal diplomatic relations do not seem to be in the cards and will probably only follow the formal ending of the state of war between the states,” Krasna wrote. “This cannot occur, in my view, so long as the Palestinian issue, as unimportant as it is practically, simmers.”

In addition, the Arab uprisings of 2011 served as a lesson to Gulf leaders “that they cannot get too far ahead of their publics,” Krasna added. “Too close an identification between them and Israel could harm and delegitimise their efforts.”

Krasna also expressed doubt that Israel could offer much to the Gulf rulers in concrete terms, “apart from information, technologies and good connections in Washington.”

The Gulf countries’ cautious approach in dealing with Israel is also guided by disappointments brought about by the processes of normalisation between Israel and other Arab countries, in North Africa and the Middle East, including the only two — Egypt and Jordan — that have signed peace agreements with the Jewish state.