Foreign minister says he’s working toward open ties with Gulf ‘frenemies’

Foreign minister says he’s working toward open ties with Gulf ‘frenemies’

Formal deals ‘realistic’ even if disagreements over Palestinians persist, Israel Katz says at maiden appearance before powerful Knesset panel

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

FM Katz, right, speaks at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, August 6, 2019 (Yitzhak Harari/Knesset)
FM Katz, right, speaks at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, August 6, 2019 (Yitzhak Harari/Knesset)

Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Tuesday that promoting Israel’s rapprochement with the Arab world is his top priority, adding that it was realistic to expect formal peace deals with moderate Sunni Gulf states within a few years.

“My goal, with the full backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is to work toward an overt normalization, to extend it and turn it public, and to get to the signing of diplomatic [peace] agreements with the Gulf states. This is the challenge; this is the goal,” he said.

Noting Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, Katz (Likud) said it was “realistic” to expect full normalization with the Gulf states “in the coming years,” even in the absence of a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians.

“We don’t have border disputes. We don’t have any other disputes,” he said. Israel and the Arab world have different views on the Palestinian issue, but these arguments should not stand in the way of a wider Arab-Israel detente, he said.

In one of his recent meetings with a senior Arab official, Katz referred to Jerusalem’s complicated relationship with Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a harsh critic of Israeli policies, he recalled. “We don’t like him, he doesn’t like us,” he told his interlocutor. “Obviously there is a conflict, but trade with Turkey continues to increase.”

In the Middle East there are “frenemies,” Katz went on. “You can argue about one thing and cooperate on other matters. Therefore, you, the Gulf states, have no reason not to work with us on some issues, even if we disagree about the Palestinian issue,” he said, citing his conversation with the senior Arab official.

Jerusalem’s special relationship with the current US administration is another factor that brings Israel closer to its Arab neighbors, Katz said. “Of course they very much want Israel as a connecting factor.”

Katz, who is also intelligence minister, made these remarks during the open part of his maiden appearance in front of the Knesset’s influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Besides his brief statement at the beginning, the session was held behind closed doors.

Only four lawmakers — and only one from the opposition — attended the session: committee chair Avi Dichter, Gideon Sa’ar and Uzi Dayan (all Likud); and Tal Russo (Labor). The rare meeting, held while the Knesset is in recess ahead of next month’s election, was also attended by Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem and other senior ministry officials.

In this photo released on July 1, 2019, Foreign Minister Israel Katz visits the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Courtesy Katz’s office)

In early July, Katz visited the United Arab Emirates to attend a United Nations climate conference. In Abu Dhabi, he met with an unnamed senior government official, his office said at the time.

Three weeks later, the foreign minister met with his Bahraini counterpart, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, during a conference in Washington, where the two men posed for a rare photograph.

“I will continue to work with [Netanyahu] to advance Israel’s relations with the Gulf countries,” Katz said at the time, adding that he and Khalifa “discussed Iran, regional threats and bilateral relations, and agreed to remain in contact.”

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