The current picture
The Arab states as players in the trajectory of the Israeli–Palestinian drama: leading, supporting and cameo roles
Three Arab states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) could play a major part in the evolution or resolution of the conflict. In Egypt’s case, this is due partly to its geographical adjacency to Israel and Gaza and partly to its diplomatic and military weight in the Middle East, something recognized in Washington.
Although not geographically adjacent to Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia is also likely to be a key player. This reflects several factors, including its wealth and size and the prestige its rulers have in the Arab and Muslim worlds as guardians of the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina. Access to power in Washington is also a major factor: although such access has varied greatly over time, for now the Saudis’ close personal connections to the Trump administration give them great potential influence in the White House (though not in Congress, where, because of the war in Yemen and the Jamal Khashoggi affair, their standing is much lower than it was). Another factor has been the Saudis’ inclination to be much more active in the Middle East generally than they used to be. This did not start with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, but has been most noticeable since then.
The UAE, while lacking the size and religious clout of Saudi Arabia, is nonetheless both wealthy and active. Like Saudi Arabia, it enjoys privileged access in Washington.
Given that Jordan is a small, vulnerable and indebted state in a volatile region, dealing with Israel is a necessity rather than a matter of choice
A fourth state, Jordan, has a huge stake in the trajectory of the conflict. Jordan shares a border with Israel and the occupied West Bank, and the majority of its population is of Palestinian origin. Moreover, the country’s Hashemite rulers are strongly attached to their role in the protection of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem (something set out in the 1994 treaty with Israel). Given these interests, and the fact that Jordan is a small, vulnerable and indebted state in a volatile region, dealing with Israel is a necessity rather than a matter of choice. (Israel may also, however, be a source of opportunities for Jordan.) Not having the wealth of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the size of Egypt, or special access to the White House, Jordan has less ability to influence events than those three states have. But Jordan does have one major asset in its quest for allies who might protect its stake in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: namely, its contribution to the containment of instability in the region.
Other Arab states have involved themselves in various ways in the conflict but do not have the weight of Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the UAE. Qatar is both wealthy and active (mainly in respect of Gaza), although its influence has been reduced since June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with it.
Other Arab states – more distant geographically from the conflict, less wealthy, preoccupied with their internal problems, or more cautious about becoming involved in the conflict – have been and will probably remain much less significant. A partial exception is Morocco, which chairs the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and which could have a niche role in respect of Jerusalem.
The potential influence of all these Arab states is greatly increased by their relationships with Israel. These relationships take a variety of forms, as outlined below.
Egyptian and Jordanian relations with Israel
Egypt and Jordan have bilateral peace treaties with Israel. Both countries have security and economic relations with Israel. Egypt works with Israel to contain Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza and to counter insurgents in Sinai: in an interview in early January, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged that his country’s cooperation with Israel was ‘the closest and deepest’ ever. Moreover, Egypt aspires to become an export hub for liquefied natural gas, with imports of Israeli gas as part of that concept.
For its part, Jordan cooperates extensively with Israel on security, as well as on practical matters such as gas (Jordan has signed an agreement to buy supplies from Israel) and water, which the two countries share under the terms of their 1994 treaty.
Gulf states’ relations with Israel
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states maintain less formal relationships with Israel. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the perceived threat from Iran has probably been the most important driver of closer ties with Israel.
Interactions between Israel and the UAE became particularly visible during the course of 2018. In March, UAE and Israeli fighter jets took part in an international exercise in Greece
These Gulf–Israel relationships include discreet security cooperation against Iran and its allies (the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis feel the need for such cooperation particularly acutely) and joint counterterrorism work, as between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The meeting in the White House in March 2018, at which senior Saudi, Emirati, Qatari and Omani officials discussed with their Israeli counterparts how the humanitarian crisis in Gaza might be alleviated, represented another manifestation of greater Arab acceptance of Israel. (The Palestinians, however, boycotted the event, in reaction to US policies on Israel–Palestine.)
Interactions between Israel and the UAE became particularly visible during the course of 2018. In March, UAE and Israeli fighter jets took part in an international exercise in Greece. In late October, the Israeli national anthem was played for the first time in the UAE when an Israeli athlete won gold at an international judo competition in Abu Dhabi. Just as remarkable was the fact that this took place in the presence of Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture and sports. Regev also visited the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. And in December 2018, a synagogue was opened in Dubai.
Oman has also been ready to develop its relations with Israel. In late October 2018, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Muscat. Within days of Netanyahu’s visit, Yusuf bin Alawi, the Omani foreign minister, told a conference in Bahrain that ‘Israel is a state present in the region and we all understand this’. The following month, the Israeli transport minister, Yisrael Katz, spoke at an international transport conference in Muscat and proposed a rail link between the Gulf and Israel, via Jordan.
Saudi Arabia has been less publicly forthcoming than the UAE and Oman. Moreover, the Saudis’ position vis-à-vis Israel has been harder to read. Mohammed bin Salman has referred publicly to the ‘right’ of Israelis as well as Palestinians ‘to have their own land’. He has developed a close relationship with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, who is known both for his close ties to the present Israeli government and for his disregard of Palestinian red lines relating to a resolution of the conflict. (Netanyahu is a family friend of the Kushners.) The crown prince’s father, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, however, has followed a more traditional Saudi line. At the Arab League summit in April 2018, he announced an ‘extraordinary contribution’ of $50 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In a speech in November 2018, he said that Palestine would always be his country’s ‘first issue’.
The Saudis have not made the same high-profile gestures of friendship towards Israel as the Emiratis and Omanis have done. Saudi Arabia does now allow Air lndia to use its airspace for flights between New Delhi and Tel Aviv – something the Saudis had previously refused to permit, despite US entreaties, when the Oslo process seemed close to producing an Israeli–Palestinian deal. (The flights also use Omani airspace.) According to the media, the Saudis have allowed Israeli business people to visit the kingdom using special travel documents rather than their Israeli passports. However, these are much lower-key concessions to Israel than having Israeli ministers visit or letting Israelis take part in sports/competitive events in the kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Arabia recently forfeited the right to host the world chess championship because of its refusal to allow the entry of Israeli competitors.
In early December 2018, an Israeli media report indicated that Netanyahu wanted to formalize diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and hoped to make his country’s ties to Saudi Arabia public ‘in coming months’. There has been no Saudi reaction to what looks like early electioneering on Netanyahu’s part. And there is little likelihood of the formalization of relations between the two countries in the absence of progress towards a resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Gains for Israel, gains for the Arab states
The arrangements described above work well for all sides. Gains for Israel include a partial end to its isolation in the region, a reduction in international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians, and receipt of foreign exchange from sales of goods. The gains to the Arab states in terms of economic and security benefits have been outlined above. At least as important to these states is the diplomatic pay-off, in the form of a more sympathetic hearing in Washington.
On the other side of the coin, the disunited nature of the Palestinian leadership (especially the split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza) has been a factor in discouraging Arab regimes from offering vigorous support to the Palestinians: why support a cause when its leaders cannot act together, let alone effectively?
Keeping it discreet
While it appears that some Arab leaders regard the Palestinian cause as a lower priority than their relationship with Israel (and, through Israel, with the US), they nevertheless want to avoid the unrest that open and formal relationships might provoke. The discreet nature of the exchanges – often handled by intelligence agencies rather than overtly by diplomats – provides some protection against accusations from their own people that they are ‘selling out’ the Palestinians.
To prevent Iran (or other rivals, such as Turkey) from posing as the Palestinians’ champion, regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to give rhetorical support to the Palestinian cause. However, these regimes have so far refrained from using the influence they possess to try to change Israeli and US policies and actions. In the case of the US, the Saudi and Emirati regimes may feel that such ambitions might jeopardize the indulgence they enjoy in respect of their domestic policies and their conduct of the Yemeni conflict. For the Omanis, friendly gestures towards Israel may be seen as offering some insurance against US, Saudi or Emirati irritation with certain aspects of Oman’s foreign policy (such as its good relations with Iran and contacts with the Houthis in Yemen). For their part, the Qataris probably accord a much higher priority to the need for Washington to restrain the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians than they do to the promotion of the Palestinian cause.
Furthermore, behind their lowest-common-denominator statements, the Arab countries are far from united. One major rift, to which allusion has already been made, is that between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other. Another but less public tussle is that between Jordan, which wants to retain its custodianship of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, and Saudi Arabia, which wants to challenge Jordan’s role. Such divisions undermine the potential for common action in support of the Palestinians, even should the will to take such action exist.
There certainly seems to be little appetite on the part of the leaders of influential Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE for making the development of closer cooperation with Israel contingent on a resumption of peace talks on terms acceptable to the Palestinians. This is not true of all Arab states: some, such as Kuwait, remain prepared to champion the Palestinian cause. But the readiness of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman (as well as Egypt and Jordan, and – separately – Qatar, over Gaza) to deal with Israel without progress in Israeli–Palestinian negotiations leaves the Palestinians in a weak position vis-à-vis both Israel and the US.