Gulf states ask US to respond to Smotrich’s comments on Palestinians

Gulf Cooperation Council ministers blast comments, in fresh sign Israel’s ties with Arab world are heading south; UAE condemns law repealing West Bank disengagement

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends breakfast with the foreign ministers of Gulf Cooperation Council nations during the 77th United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 23, 2022. (David Dee Delgado/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends breakfast with the foreign ministers of Gulf Cooperation Council nations during the 77th United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 23, 2022. (David Dee Delgado/Pool Photo via AP)

As Israel’s relationships with its Arab partners show signs of significant strain, the foreign ministers of the six countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council sent a letter Sunday to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemning Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich for his recent comments about Palestinians.

The letter urged Blinken to “respond to all measures and statements that target the Palestinian people,” according to the UAE-based The National.

Last Sunday in Paris, Smotrich said that the Palestinian people were “an invention” from the last century and that people like himself and his grandparents were the “real Palestinians.”

Earlier this month, the minister — a senior figure in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition — stirred international outrage when he called to “wipe out” a Palestinian town in the West Bank after a Palestinian terror attack that killed two Israeli brothers, and was followed by a deadly settler rampage. He later walked back the comment and apologized.

The GCC Ministerial Council – made up of the six foreign ministers – had met in Riyadh last week. In their joint statement, they “condemned the racist statements of the Israeli Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, which called for the destruction of what remains of the Palestinian village of Hawara.”

They also blasted Israel for “repeated incursions by Israeli settlers into the courtyards of the Holy Al Aqsa Mosque”; settlement construction; military raids in the West Bank; expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem; and “attempts to change [the] legal character, demographic composition, and arrangements for Islamic holy places.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks in Paris on March 19, 2023. (Ynet screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israel established full diplomatic ties with two GCC countries — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — in 2020, and officials regularly express hope about the chances of normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and Oman as well, though neither country has shown any indication that they are about to make such a move. The organization also includes Qatar and Kuwait.

The letter is the latest sign that the much-touted Abraham Accords are starting to fray, and that other Arab countries have little appetite to join.

Also Sunday, the UAE “strongly” condemned the Knesset vote to roll back legislation that ordered the evacuation of four northern West Bank settlements.

The statement underscored Abu Dhabi’s “rejection of all practices that violate resolutions on international legitimacy and threaten to further exacerbate escalation and instability in the region.”

Visitors at the evacuated settlement of Homesh in the West Bank, August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Last week, a senior United Arab Emirates government official met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reportedly warned him that the Israeli government’s conduct was straining ties between the countries.

Khaldoon Al Mubarak was dispatched by UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to whom he is a senior adviser, in order to convey a message to the Israeli government concerning its treatment of Palestinians, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, right, greats UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, upon his arrival at the Hamad airport in Doha, Qatar, December 5, 2022. (Qatar Amiri Diwan via AP)

“The direction of this government goes completely against the Abraham Accords,” Mubarak was quoted as having told Netanyahu.

According to a Channel 12 report, Mubarak warned Netanyahu that instability would have a detrimental impact on Emirati financial investments in Israel.

“Your situation doesn’t look good and it could impact our investments,” he was quoted as saying.

In response, the Prime Minister’s Office retorted that the report was “inaccurate,” and added that “the prime minister is leading Israel’s foreign relations responsibly.”

Also last week, Transportation Minister Miri Regev said in a speech that she did not like visiting Dubai and would not be going back to the city in the United Arab Emirates.

She later disavowed the remarks as an attempt at humor, accusing the media of twisting her words. She also said she spoke to the Emirati ambassador to Israel about visiting the Gulf city again.

Minister of Transportation Miri Regev speaks at an Israel Lands Authority conference, in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu was set for his first official visit to Abu Dhabi in January, but Al Nahyan canceled the trip after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited the Temple Mount, which the UAE denounced as a “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.”

Since then, Netanyahu has not been reinvited to Abu Dhabi, and has told members of his government that they are forbidden from visiting the Gulf state until he pays the UAE capital an official visit, Channel 12 reported.

The UAE also called for a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council following the settler rampage in Huwara in February, which left a Palestinian dead while dozens of homes and vehicles were torched.

Arab leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) attend their summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 14, 2021. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

There are ample indications elsewhere that the Abraham Accords are not progressing as Israel would like. The data show a worrying and unmistakable trend: As time goes on, the Abraham Accords are becoming less popular on the streets of Israel’s new allies.

Washington Institute polling showed 45% of Bahrainis holding very or somewhat positive views of the agreements in November 2020. That support had steadily eroded to a paltry 20% by March of this year.

The trend is the same in the UAE. The 49% of the country that disapproved of the Abraham Accords in 2020 has grown to over two-thirds as of last month. And only 31% of Moroccans favor normalization, according to Arab Barometer.

Saudi Arabia, the main prize for Israeli diplomacy in the Arab world, doesn’t seem to be moving toward an agreement with Israel. In fact, earlier this month it signed a major agreement with Israel’s arch-enemy Iran.

“When Saudi Arabia and the UAE look at Israel now, they say nothing very good is going to come out of this in the near future,” said Joshua Krasna, director of Center for Emerging Energy Politics in the Middle East.

But some experts still see room for optimism.

“Note that the criticism is directed at Smotrich personally,” said Moran Zaga, expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “That means that Gulf leaders are wary of statements against Netanyahu and against Israel.”

She also pointed at the fact that Israel’s ambassador to the UAE Amir Hayek has not been summoned for a reprimand. “It indicates that there is still room for patience with Israel and an opportunity for moderation.”

Ash Obel, Michael Horovitz and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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