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OP-ED: Cozying up to Israel

  • Published at 10:16 am August 22nd, 2020
Palestine Israel protest
Photo: REUTERS

In an effort to contain Iran, the Gulf States have abandoned the Palestinians

AE’s decision to set up diplomatic relations with Israel may have dismayed many Muslim countries and enraged the Palestinians, but it should not come as a surprise to Middle East observers. This slap in the face of the Palestinians was a long time coming, only the Palestinians did not see it.

For the last decade or so, the politics of the area which have always been boiling in the cauldron were taking a new direction even before Donald Trump, self-declared friend of Israel, had come to occupy the White House. It started with the gradual whittling away of opposition from the Arab states to Israel’s relentless extension of the Jewish occupation of the West Bank and the cooling off of enthusiasm for the ongoing strife between Palestine and Israel.

Emboldened by the lack of a unified opposition to Israel from the Arab states for its persistent attacks on Palestinians in the name of defending its own people, Israel kept on allowing its citizens to dig deep into the West Bank with Jewish settlements. It is not a surprise that this unbridled annexation of the West Bank raised few eyebrows in the US, but what was a shock was that few protests were made in any of the Gulf states, most importantly in Saudi Arabia.

Therefore, Netanyahu declared his plan to officially annex 30% of the West Bank, leaving 70% for the Palestinians. This should have been the last straw on the camel’s back. But not for the Gulf Arab states. They would not even raise an issue with that soft-coddling association, the feckless Arab League.

Why would Netanyahu make such a bold plan of annexing the West Bank? He was not only certain that the USA under Donald Trump would not raise a finger to stop him, but he was equally sure that the Arab States led by Saudi Arabia would look sideways even if Israel were to annex half of the West Bank.

To the Arab States, Palestine was not a priority anymore. It did not matter to them if the dream of a two-state solution with a sovereign Palestine died in the Red Sea. It did not matter if millions of Palestinians were deprived of their rights to exist. Because the priority for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Allies was how to contain Iran, and Israel would more than extend its helping hand to stop Iran’s influence in the Middle East.

According to Aaron David Miller of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, there are three significant factors explaining the shift in the Arab States’ attitude toward Israel and Palestine.

Rising terrorism

The rise of Iran and Sunni jihadists spewing terror across the region has created a narrow but important coincidence of interests between Israel and the Arab world. Increasing exhaustion and frustration with the never-ending Palestinian cause has opened up more space for Arab states to follow their own interests. But behind it all lay a White House enamoured of Arab money for arms sales and investment in the US, and eager to marshal the Arabs in the service of its anti-Iranian and pro-Israeli agenda. 

Indeed, in an effort to court the Gulf Arabs, Trump and his Middle East envoy son-in-law Jared Kushner have given the Saudis carte blanche to pursue disastrous policies while holding their coats. And Arab nations, sensing opportunities with an autocrat-friendly US president, have been only too happy to follow.

This nexus of interest between the Arab States and Israel began well before Trump’s arrival on the scene. Saudi Arabia had always been leery of Iran since the country had torn off its relationship with the USA after the violent overthrow of the US protégé, the Shah of Iran, and the country became an Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Saudi Arabia not only had not approved of this revolutionary change in Iran and the acrimonious relationship of the new leadership with the USA, it also became suspicious of the new leadership’s intentions in the Middle East. The war between Iran and its neighbour Iraq, which is  believed to have been financed and facilitated by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states with US support, was an attempt by Saudi Arabia to cut Iran to size, which to its chagrin did not work out.

Developing nuclear power

Iran came out of the war shattered economically but could not be annihilated. It recouped its losses and turned back on its wings with a boom in oil business and export of oil to Europe. Very soon, Iran turned its eyes to develop nuclear energy, thereby arousing suspicion and annoyance in the United States, and of course Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s continuance with nuclear energy development would subsequently lead to further hardening of the US’ relationship with Iran and US sanctions against Iran. These sanctions were of course welcomed by Saudi Arabia with glee. 

But with the unchecked growth of Iran and its overt and covert support of militant groups in Iraq (after the fall of Saddam Hussain), Yemen, and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and its Gulf State allies, Saudi Arabia grew more and more alarmed that Iran was out to establish hegemony in the region.

Saudi umbrage at the growing power of Iran took a new level under the Obama administration when the United States, along with five other nations, entered a deal with Iran to suspend all economic sanctions against Iran provided that Iran stopped its nuclear energy development activities.

Although officially Saudi Arabia could not criticize the US action as it had a long-standing defense contract with the US, Saudi Arabia strongly disapproved of this deal. (In fact, during his tenure, Obama was not a favourite with Saudi Royalty).

Two-state solutions and the West Bank

With Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Kingdoms obsessed with the containment of Iran, Israel found a politically open space to further its ambitions in the West Bank, albeit giving lip service to a two-state solution with a sovereign Palestine. The concept had been dangled before the Palestinians since the end of the Six Day War of 1973.

With the United States’ public support for a two-state solution and sometimes honest effort by several US presidents in the interim, the subject was kept alive for four decades. 

But vacillations from one presidency to another coupled with the lack of any strong desire in the Gulf states to see a viable Palestine gave subsequent Israeli governments the courage to keep on growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Israelis knew that with the Arab States’ mind dwelling in Iran, Palestine would be the last thing they would bother about. The Gulf states would rather promote an Israeli-Arab State cooperation to cement a common front against Iran and pressure Palestinians to come to the negotiating table.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states concluded that to contain Iran they must ally with the US and do its bidding. And what better way than to turn a blind eye to Israel’s action in the West Bank? 

Hence, the Gulf countries attended the Warsaw Conference on Middle East Peace and Security in 2019, had a low-key reaction to the US opening its embassy in Jerusalem, and Bahrain hosted a US-sponsored economic conference that was attended by Arab and Israeli representatives.

David Miller of Carnegie Endowment observed that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, see Iran -- not a seemingly intractable Palestinian issue -- as their most pressing national security challenge, and see Israel as a powerful partner in containing Tehran’s regional designs.

The need for this partnership began to crystallize with the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and the perception that Washington was opening the door to legitimize the Islamic Republic as a potential regional partner.

The UAE’s opening of a relationship with Israel this month has been building up for the last few years as the Gulf states prepare the way for a wider acceptance of Israel by all other Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. David Miller (Carnegie) stated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the UAE and Omani foreign ministers in the US.

Israelis, including Jerusalem’s chief rabbi, have been welcomed in Bahrain, and Bahrain has reached out to Israel for help in battling Covid-19. Israeli athletes have competed in judo competitions in the UAE where, for the first time, the Israeli national anthem was played and the Israeli flag displayed.

Trade between Israel and the Gulf states is now estimated at about $1 billion a year. One Israeli-owned company, AGT International, has reportedly concluded an $800 million deal with the UAE for border surveillance equipment. The UAE has stated that by opening its relationship with Israel, it has prevented Israel’s planned annexation of 30% of the West Bank.

The irony is that Israel currently occupies nearly as much of that land through authorized and unauthorized Jewish settlements. As of 2017, there were more than 620,000 Israelis living in more than 200 settlements in the West Bank. So, what the UAE’s opening of its relationship with Israel has done is stop the official recognition of the area as belonging to Israel.

In abandoning the Palestinian dream of a sovereign state and a two-state solution to the crisis, the UAE and other Gulf states are acting in self-interest. They are more eager to placate the US and keep hanging on to Israel to broker a badly needed alliance in its ongoing struggle against Iran and its growing influence in the Middle East.

It is an existential question for these states and not of Palestine. It may be a temporary respite for now. But soon they will realize that the Iran threat is not going to disappear soon, nor will there be a permanent ally in the US for them.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US. 

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