Goodbye Ramallah, Hello Tehran: The Warsaw conference

Because of the Iranian threat, the Gulf states understand: it is no longer possible to tie the progress of their relations with Israel to the progress of the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seated next to the FM of Yemen (Photo - Government Press office)

The meeting between PM Netanyahu and the Arab leaders in a recent summit in Warsaw was the culmination of a complex regional process focused on building a coalition against the Iranian threat and usher the Palestinian issue away from the political agenda.

The Warsaw conference that took place last week in Poland’s capital, presented the world a very uncommon and unusual image: an Israeli Prime Minister sitting on the same table with foreign ministers and leaders of the Arabic world, to discuss the acute threat that Iran poses to the world and for the Middle East  in particular. However important the Warsaw conference was, it did not reveal Israel’s ties with the Gulf states. No, these relations were built over time and the past year, was the culmination of the great work done behind the scenes.

For example, the Israeli delegation to the UNESCO conference in Bahrain in July came after the King of Bahrain delivered a speech at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, condemning the Arab Boycott of Israel and saying that Bahraini citizens were visiting Israel. Their foreign minister, Khaled Ben Ahmed, said in his Twitter account that Israel had the right to defend itself after Iran violated the status quo in the region. These statements, which paved Israel’s participation in the conference, are considered exceptional and almost unprecedented in the Arab discourse directed at Israel.

The visit of an Israeli minister and the participation of Israeli teams in sports events in an Arab country have already occurred in the past but this year, we have seen new developments in this field as well. The first novelty materialized when the Israeli Judo representative, Sagi Muki, won a gold medal in Abu Dhabi’s Judo competition and the Israeli national anthem was played. Furthermore, after the competition, Minister of Culture Miri Regev was invited by her equivalent to visit the largest mosque in the emirate, in an unusual gesture, since to date, most of the visits have been as short and as confidential as possible.

The visit of PM Netanyahu and the head of the Mossad to Muscat, and their meeting with Sultan Qabus ibn Saïd, was also a unique event. The last time an Israeli prime minister openly met with a leader of an Arab country that did not have relations with Israel, was when Yitzhak Rabin visited in Oman in April 1994. It is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu’s visit was coordinated and did receive the blessing of Saudi Arabia, Oman’s neighbor and to a large extent one of the closest countries that most influence the Sultanate. This assumption strengthens and expands the importance and uniqueness of the visit.

The Iranian Threat

The warming of the relations between the Gulf states and Israel, led Hamas and Fatah to issue a rare joint agreement and in the statements issued by both organizations, they agreed that any rapprochement between the two sides would be denied until a solution would be found to the Palestinian issue. These statements are an example of the conduct of the elements in power among the Palestinians, which frustrate the GCC leaders, who in effect refrained from taking any independent step and were for a long time “held” by the Palestinians and dependent on their (non)progress in the negotiations.

The conclusion reached by some of the leaders of the Gulf states is that it is no longer possible to tie the progress of their relations with Israel to the progress of the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason behind it is the increasing threat coming from Iran and other burning issues that require attention.

However, both Palestinians and Israelis can use these new channels to discuss ways of regulating the coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu’s visit to Oman took place a few days after Abu Mazen visited as well, and there is a reasonable ground to assume that the reason for this is an attempt to mediate between the sides and reach to agreements.

The concern over the Iranian threat has for many years paralleled the development of Israel and the Gulf states’ relations. The Iranian issue was on the agenda even during the previous meeting between Sultan Qabus and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. Currently, Iran who is dealing with President Trump, has its back to the wall and struggles even more than before. Yet it doesn’t prevent Iran from acting aggressively toward its neighbors and towards Israel. In order to cope with the threats, the targeted countries seek to close their ranks.

The cooperation between the United States, Israel and the GCC countries in the effort against Iran’s intentions includes a number of realms: dealing with Iran on an international level, via the international institutions, sharing intelligence, monitoring its economic activity and probably other confidential aspects as well. Israel’s actions – that are aimed to prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria – seem to also be contributing to the strengthening of the relations, since all sides are not interested in seeing Iran grow even stronger and consolidate its control in the region.

Nonetheless, we must remember that even if the leaders of the Gulf states believe that the institutionalization of relations with Israel is indeed in line with their interests and that they no longer consider the Palestinian issue a stumbling block, their local populations still think of Israel with hostility and their public opinion is still immature regarding the subject and is not interested in changing the situation between the countries. For example, the Qatari newspaper, Al-Watan, published a caricature portraying negatively the pressure of the GCC countries to embrace Netanyahu and Israel. Therefore, despite the apparent progress, it can be expected that official relations are still far from being institutionalized and will depend on profound societal processes in the Gulf states themselves.

*(Translated from Hebrew by Rachel Touitou)

Roie Yellinek is with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic StudiesBar-Ilan University and Middle East Institute

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