Naturally, the closer the ties, the warmer the relations, between Israel and some powerful Arab states – Saudi Arabia and the UAE — the more enraged the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza become.
The Palestinian Authority is very angry about the Gulf States’ policy of establishing relations with Israel before a permanent settlement has been reached between Israel and the Palestinians. PA sources claim that this is a violation of decisions reached by the Arab Summit and the Arab League.
The PA cannot bear very much reality. The Arab states have changed, but not the PA. The Palestinians can complain all they want, but they are no longer the favored cause of the other Arabs. They cannot prevent a covert alliance with Israel against Iran that is clearly of great value to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The insistent whining by the PA about this convergence of anti-Iranian states has failed to convince Saudi Arabia or the UAE to change their policies toward Israel. Crown Prince Mohammed curtly told Mahmoud Abbas to “take whatever deal” he could with Israel, making clear that the Saudis had had enough of the “Palestinian cause.” He was signaling that the “Palestinians” were no longer a major concern for his government; the Saudis valued more highly their covert alliance with Israel than they did the “Palestinians,” both for the Jewish state’s superb intelligence on Iran, and its continued willingness to take on Iran militarily in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The Gulf states, which fear Iran and want closer ties with the United States and Israel, are ignoring Palestinian anger and slowly moving toward normalization with Israel without giving it an official or public stamp so as not to anger the Palestinians further.
Senior PA sources say that the Gulf states should open their eyes after the attacks on the Saudi oil installations and understand that no good will come from the Trump administration, which they argue failed to protect Saudi Arabia from Iran.
The failure of the U.S. to retaliate against Iran after the attack on Saudi oil installations merely underlined, for the Saudis, the great value to them of an alliance with Israel, which has not hesitated to unleash dozens of successful air attacks on Iranian bases in Syria and Iraq. That result is not what the PA had in mind, but it is what Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sensibly concluded.
According to them, the United States did not protect the Arab regimes from the “Arab Spring” either, which is why, for example, President Hosni Mubarak’s government fell in Egypt.
Yet the Gulf states do not accept the Palestinian claims; their fear of Iran is overriding. They believe Trump’s hands are tied by his desire to run in the next presidential elections. Some of them believe that if he wins the elections, he will change his stance regarding protecting them from Iran.
And what country is currently doing the most damage to Iran militarily? It’s the country that has repeatedly hit Iranian bases in Syria and Iraq, and the weapons depots of Iraq’s proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. It’s the country that helped convince the Trump Administration to reimpose those sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy. It’s the same country that has urged American policymakers to retaliate against Iran directly if it obstructs shipping in the Gulf. That country is Israel, which in Syria and Iraq has shown the Americans the right way to deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE must surely be thankful both for Israel’s attacks on Iran’s bases in Iraq and Syria, and for using its influence in Washington to have the crippling economic sanctions on Iran not just reimposed, but ratcheted up still further.
At the same time, secret and public visits continue between Israeli and Arab representatives. Netanyahu visited Oman in October 2018 and Katz visited the UAE in June 2019.
According to unconfirmed reports in some Arab media outlets, Netanyahu has also met secretly with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
“Similarly, some Gulf states have hosted Israeli sports teams, and even played Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva” when the Israeli teams won.
Israel’s attempt to advance a non-aggression agreement with four Arab countries is significant. This message should filter through to the Arab world and to the Palestinians who seek to block the normalization of relations with Israel.
Other Arab states may follow suit if they find that two powerful Arab states – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – have decided to make a non-belligerence agreement with Israel. It provides those states with the political cover to do what they may have wanted to do anyway. Bahrain is clearly worried about Iran’s stirring up trouble among the sheikdom’s majority Shi’a population and, in the worst case, backing a popular coup against the Sunni ruler; Israel is a natural ally for tiny Bahrain against a threatening Iran; if the Saudis make a non-aggression pact with Israel, Bahrain will surely emulate Riyadh. Morocco, whose king has been wooing Western tourists and investors, and who is alarmed that Iran has been sending weapons to the Sahrawi separatists, has nonetheless so far refused to meet with Netanyahu, who had wanted to accompany Secretary Pompeo on his recent visit to Morocco. The King has even left meetings where Netanyahu was present. Is this reluctance based on real animosity to Israel, or is it based on fear of an outcry from his political opponents at home? If it is the latter, then the closer and more open the ties forged between Israel and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE become, the more King Mohammad VI will feel able to emulate their example.
Oman is another Arab state that likely to improve its ties with Israel still further if the Saudis and Emiratis show the way with a non-belligerence agreement. Sultan Qaboos has already warmly welcomed Prime Minister Netanyahu to Muscat, a sign of desiring closer ties with Israel, which would require the political cover that Saudi Arabia and the UAE can provide. Yemen – the official government, not the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels – will likely follow the lead of its main supporter, Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis tell the Yemeni government to join a non-aggression pact with Israel, the Yemenis are in no position to deny their powerful backer. Tunisia is another Arab state that is interested in encouraging Western tourists and investors, has a strong secular tradition dating back to the rule of Habib Bourguiba, a strict secularist who became Tunisia’s first president after it obtained independence. Tunisia is wary of Iran, and appears to be much less interested in the “Palestinian” cause than it once was, when Arafat moved his PLO headquarters from Beirut to Tunis in 1982, and remained there until 1985. Perhaps the disruptive and dangerous presence of the PLO during those thirteen years wearied the Tunisians. Another factor that could help sway the Tunisians to start talking to the Israelis is the country’s dependence on aid from Saudi Arabia, which at the end of 2018 announced it was giving $830 million to Tunisia. The Saudis may want a favor in return, especially if the Tunisians come asking for similar aid in the future. They may want Tunisia to follow their lead, if indeed Saudi Arabia does sign a non-belligerence agreement with Israel. The more Arab states join Saudi Arabia and the UAE in making such an agreement with Israel, the safer each individual signatory becomes, and the less vulnerable to charges by the Arab street of treason to the “Palestinian cause.”
Israel’s policy of breaking the linkage established by the Palestinians between normalizing relations with Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is correct. The Palestinian problem no longer leads the Arab countries’ list of priorities. The Iranian danger has overtaken it, and in any case, the Palestinian arena is divided between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with the Palestinian leadership unable to reach a national agreement that would allow serious negotiations with Israel, the results of which would be binding upon all Palestinians.
The moderate Arab countries are following Israel’s offensive policy against Iranian entrenchment in Syria and the military attacks ascribed to Israel against Iranian targets. There is no doubt that this affects their relationship with Israel, which is proving itself to be a critical regional force that does not fear to confront Iran. It is worthwhile for them to ally with Israel even in secret and to coordinate efforts to halt Iranian influence.
In the Middle East, Israel has unquestionably become the most valuable member of the anti-Iran coalition. Israeli planes routinely bomb Iranian bases in Syria and Iraq, and attack Hezbollah’s missile depots in Lebanon. Israel encourages the American government to impose ever greater sanctions on the Islamic Republic, which the U.S. has done, thus sending Iran’s economy into a nosedive. Those Arab states that are ready to declare, through a non-belligerence agreement, their recognition of Israel’s value to them, and their growing indifference to the “Palestinian cause,” will at long last be doing what is both right, and is most likely to further their national interests. The dogs will bark in Ramallah and Gaza City, but the caravan moves on.
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