Hailing Israel’s still clandestine yet growing ties with Arab states has become a standard talking point in Benjamin Netanyahu’s speeches. The Arabs realize that the world has changed and that Israel is not longer their enemy, the prime minister routinely argues, and although these contacts remain covert they could potentially become a catalyst for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Common wisdom used to say that as soon as Israelis solve their conflict with the Palestinians, they could make peace with the entire Arab world. “This is without a doubt always valid,” Netanyahu said earlier this month, “but more and more I think that this process can also move in the opposite direction; that normalization or the promotion of relations with the Arab world can help us to advance a more realistic, more stable, more backed-up peace between us and the Palestinians.”
The only problem with this strategy is that it will not work, and Netanyahu knows that it will not work. That, at least, is what a leading expert on the Arab world told The Times of Israel recently.
“The Saudis will wait for the Palestinians,” said Gregory Gause, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations. “It’s very, very unlikely that you would see the Jordanians, the Egyptians or the Saudis going to Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], and saying: ‘You have to lower your expectations about what you’re going to get from the Israelis and do a deal with them because we need Israeli cooperation vis-a-vis Syria, Hezbollah or Iran. I just don’t see that happening.”
Netanyahu must be aware that his strategy will not work out the way he publicly envisions it, Gause surmised. Rather, the prime minister professes to be waiting for the Arab states to pressure the PA in a bid to buy time in the face of growing international pressure. “He has the Americans constantly saying to him, ‘Why aren’t you doing more on the peace process?’ He goes, ‘Well, my theory is that we’re going to deal with the Arab states first.’”
To be sure, the claim that the Arab world has indicated its readiness to get closer to Israel, to a limited extent, is not entirely baseless.
In June 2015, former Saudi government adviser Anwar Eshki appeared at an event with Dore Gold, days before Gold entered his current position as director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. In May 2016, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror discussed regional issues with Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the regime’s former intelligence chief, at an event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
These events undoubtedly signal a warming in ties, but meetings of figures who were not holding government positions at the time are “the extent of what we’re going to see,” said Gause, speaking to The Times of Israel at the sideline of a conference organized by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “It would be hard for me to imagine a Saudi official who would meet publicly with an Israeli official. That would be a real change. And I don’t see the Saudis seeing the need for that. What are they getting out of that? If cooperation on issues of mutual interest is going on behind the scenes already, why do something publicly that’s not going to get you any benefit and only get you problems?”
As long as the Palestinian question is unsolved, it remains highly unlikely for the Gulf states to formalize their ties with Israel, asserted Gause, who heads the international relations department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
“There is a real barrier to any kind of formal diplomatic relations,” he emphasized. “There is enough of a commitment to the Palestinian cause, both among the Saudi elites and the Saudi population, that in the absence of some kind of Israeli-Palestinian settlement, I doubt you will see the Saudis opening an embassy in Israel.”
Rather, in the absence of tangible progress on the peace process, the Arab-Israel relationship will inevitably remain ad hoc, according to Gause. “It’s going to be defined by very specific interests and not by a more general understanding and relationship.”
It is mostly the rise of Shiite Iran that has brought the Sunni world and Israel closer together. Jerusalem and the Gulf states are believed to share intelligence and to cooperate on other security-related areas in a bid to thwart Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions.
That, argued Gause, is enough for the Arabs.
“There is no upside for the Saudi leadership in terms of their own domestic politics in having a public relationship with Israel,” he told The Times of Israel recently at the sidelines of a conference about Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and the New Regional Landscape at Bar-Ilan University. “The anti-Israel stuff still plays very well, domestically, in Saudi Arabia.”
‘If cooperation on issues of mutual interest is going on behind the scenes already, why do something publicly that’s not going to get you any benefit’
The repercussions of Riyadh owning up to its ties with Israel may not be as severe as they would have been in the 1960s or 70s, when the Palestinian issue was more prominent in Arab thinking, he allowed. The salience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has decreased in much of the Arab world, which today is focused on sectarian conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and anyway views Iran as the main enemy. “But even with that, you still get no credit for being nice to the Israelis in terms of your public opinion.”
The assertion often made by Israeli pundits that the ordinary Arab in the Gulf does not care about the Palestinians is not necessarily true, said John Jenkins, a former UK diplomat who currently heads the International Institute for Strategic Studies’s Middle East.
“On the street, the whole issue of Palestine has been and remains a very powerful and emotionally charged issue. I see it all the time,” said Jenkins, who is based in Bahrain. “That’s a big part of what keeps the leaders from making [their ties with Israel] public.”
It’s not that all Arabs constantly worry about the Palestinians, said Jenkins, who has served as Britain’s consul general in Jerusalem and ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Abu Dhabi. In fact, “quite a lot of them think it’s a pain in the arse and they just wish it would go away.” However, if their governments were to formalize their relations with Israel this could lead to public outrage, he said.
Moreover, more overt ties with Jerusalem would be used against the Sunni Arab states by its various detractors in the region, mainly Iran and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, Jenkins argued. Acknowledging partnership with Israel would be portrayed as the Arab leaders selling their Palestinian brethren down the river and would allow Tehran to present itself as the only remaining defender of the Palestinian cause and of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. “Anything that these guys can use they would use. It’s as simple as that,” Jenkins said.
Therefore, the relations between Arab states and Israel will remain hush-hush until Jerusalem makes credible moves toward a peace deal with the Palestinians, Jenkins concluded. Alab leaders who are already benefiting, under the table, from cooperation on security and intelligence have no reason to jeopardize their domestic stability by formalizing their ties with the Jewish state, he argued.
Gause, the Texas A&M University scholar, said Arab leaders do not necessarily view an open relationship with Israel as an enormous threat to their domestic stability. After all, Saudi Arabia has long been allied with the United States, dismissing vocal criticism from other Arab states.
Rather, what prevents the Arab nations from acknowledging their ties is the fact that they have gain nothing from it. They get what they need from Israel through secret channels and therefore see no reason to make the relationship public, Gause said.
Since the Arab states seem to greatly value Israel’s security cooperation, could Israel pose an ultimatum, demanding formal recognition in exchange for continued collaboration?
“The risk of that assertiveness would be the closing of the channel, at least temporarily,” Gause replied. “There would be enough people in the Saudi system who would basically say, ‘Well, if they don’t want to talk to us, to hell with them.’”