Co-authored by Andrea Petrelli
Since Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ascended to the throne in January 2015, there has been much discussion about an “unlikely partnership” or “tacit alliance” between Israel and the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. Earlier this month, the Arab Gulf states outlined in an unreleased discussion paper an offer to establish better relations with Tel Aviv if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commits to reinvigorating the Palestinian peace process.
Under the terms, if Israel would halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank and permit freer trade into the Gaza Strip, the GCC states would establish direct telecommunication links with Israel, allow overflight rights to Israeli aircrafts and lift certain trade restrictions. Although Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the paper, the initiative underscores the vastly improved ties between Israel and the Arab Gulf states, which have no official diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
In light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia and Israel the first two countries of his first official international trip this month, and his administration’s stepped up anti-Iranian posturing and rhetoric, the idea of a more official GCC-Israel alliance would receive extensive support from the White House, as well as from American lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
To be sure, there is an undeniable partnership between the Israelis and Arab Gulf states based on a common threat perception of Iran. Since 2016, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has participated in joint military exercises that included Israel. The most recent one, held in March, was aimed at “strengthening ties among the participating countries, maintain[ing] joint readiness and interoperability.” In 2009, Tel Aviv lent its support to Abu Dhabi’s bid to headquarter the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), now an Abu Dhabi-based international agency that assists countries with renewable-energy usage. In November 2015, Israel opened its first diplomatic mission in the UAE to represent itself as IRENA.
The story of Mati Kochavi, an Israeli entrepreneur whose high-tech security companies built monitoring systems at New York’s airports and undertook a major project in the UAE, is telling. Kochavi was a part-time resident of the US, with companies based in several countries. He offered one of his firm’s services to the UAE’s leaders. He was transparent about his company’s technology and its employees being mainly Israeli. The Emirati officials maintained that, as long as none of the contractors were permanently based in Israel, there was no problem.
Kochavi’s company, AGT International, based in Zurich, installed surveillance gear (cameras, sensors, license-plate readers, etc.) throughout the UAE’s capital and along the country’s border with Saudi Arabia. AGT International’s operation in the UAE, which lasted from 2007 to 2015, was “the most comprehensive integrated security system in the world at the time,” according to Bloomberg. Kochavi managed it out of the US and Switzerland, but Logic Industries, another Kochavi company based in Israel, provided the brainpower for the project.
In addition to the UAE, Israel has cooperated with other Arab Gulf states. For decades, Israel and Saudi Arabia have maintained backchannel communications. Recently, since the Syrian crisis erupted, Saudi and Israeli officials have held meetings in Jordan to discuss Riyadh and Tel Aviv’s common concerns over the ongoing conflict. Israeli defense officials have engaged in covert dialogue with their Saudi counterparts on the Iran file too. Between the end of 2013 and June 2015, Saudi and Israeli officials secretly held five bilateral meetings in India, Italy and the Czech Republic to discuss what both governments perceive as a grave threat posed by Iran to the Middle East.
Eran Etzion, a former head of policy planning at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted that by 2009 there was security cooperation between Israel and the GCC members. This limited cooperation, nevertheless, set a precedent for enhanced collaboration in the months between the announcement of the Geneva interim agreement or Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in November 2013 and the actual agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), later in July 2015. During this period, Etzion claimed that Israeli and GCC officials were collaborating in their lobbying in the Beltway against Iran.
There is also a history of significant interaction between Israel and Qatar. After the Israelis and Palestinians signed interim peace accords in 1993, Doha and other Arab governments lifted an economic ban on Israel. In 1996, Israel opened a commercial office in Qatar during a trip that then-Israeli Deputy Prime Minster Shimon Peres took to Doha. Over a decade later, Peres returned for the “Doha Debates” and answered 300 Arab students’ questions. Qatari-Israeli relations took a downturn in 2009, however, when Qatar shut down the commercial office in response to Operation Cast Lead.
Twice in 2010, Doha offered to restore commercial ties in exchange for Israel’s permission to provide Gaza with building materials and financial aid. Citing “security reasons,” Israeli officials rejected both offers. However, since the devastation resulting from Operation Protective Edge, Israeli officials have cooperated with Qatar’s rebuilding of 1,000 homes in Gaza with the importation of materials into the strip all under Israel’s eyes. In 2013, an Israeli delegation visited Doha to discuss Qatari investment in Israel’s hi-tech sector. A year ago, Netanyahu hinted at returning to better relations between Israel and Qatar, when he expressed his hopes to receive an invitation to the Arab Gulf emirate during an online conversation with an Al Jazeera anchor.
Part of Israel’s interest in pursuing better ties with the GCC relates to Hamas and the Palestinian group’s relationship with Iran. The Israelis would prefer to see Hamas shift toward the GCC states’ sphere of influence while away from Iran’s. The logic is straightforward: Hamas receives arms from Iran while Qatar provides the group with humanitarian assistance, and given that Doha, unlike Tehran, is a close ally of Washington, the Qataris are not expected to provide resistance factions in Gaza with weapons. Thus, with Hamas within the orbit of the US’ “moderate” Sunni Arab Gulf instead of Iran’s, the Israelis believe the group will pose less of a threat. Given that Hamas’ ties with Tehran caused substantial friction between the Palestinian group and Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah’s rule (2005-2015), Riyadh and other GCC capitals would also prefer to see Hamas completely sever ties with Iran.
PERCEPTION OF THREAT
The key question is the following: Can the threat perception of the Islamic Republic lead to more formalized relations between Israel and the GCC? This seems quite unrealistic given the positions embraced by Israel’s current government on the Palestinian question. Odds are good that the GCC states will not follow Egypt and Jordan in establishing formal diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, unless Israel agrees to the Arab-Peace Initiative or some agreed-upon peaceful resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict that gives Palestinians a sovereign and independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The GCC states are under pressure to keep a low profile when it comes to any cooperation with the Israelis. Although the Arab Gulf governments are keen to work pragmatically with those actors that share their interests, in the GCC countries public opinion is firmly on the side of the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel, even if the plight of Palestinians is not as much a central issue across the greater Arab world as it once was decades ago. Arab Gulf rulers have to take stock of this reality. Their own countries’ public opinion has pressured them to interact with Israel either discreetly or through a third party, such as Washington. Similarly, as underscored by both Qatar and Oman’s closing of Israeli trade missions in their countries following violence against Palestinians in 2009 and 2000, respectively, the GCC governments cannot afford to be seen as too close to Tel Aviv when Palestinians are suffering under Israel’s occupation and apartheid system.
Discussions about an Israel-GCC alliance will likely continue to intrigue many. Undoubtedly, Israel sees Iran’s regime, much more so than any Sunni Arab one, as a threatening force. The Arab Gulf states, in turn, do not perceive Israel as a direct threat to their security, yet Saudi Arabia and some other council members view the Islamic Republic as an existential threat. Given that Israel and the GCC maintain close alliances with the US, there is certainly much more potential for deeper cooperation in the pursuit of countering Iran. Yet in all probability, Tel Aviv’s relationship with the Arabian Peninsula’s six monarchies will remain unofficial and controversial.
Andrea Petrelli is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt) and a consultant for the World Bank’s Education For Competitiveness Initiative.