Israel and the Gulf states: It’s complicated
They have many common interests, but now more than ever, any rapprochement needs to remain secret, some officials say. So why did Jerusalem open a ‘virtual embassy’ in the Gulf?
In February 2009, a few days after Israel concluded its Operation Cast Lead against Gaza terrorists, the chief of protocol at Qatar’s Foreign Ministry invited Roi Rosenblit, who at the time headed Israel’s interest office in Doha, for a meeting in his office. Rosenblit knew exactly what awaited him: a few days earlier he had seen how then-Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim, angry over Palestinian casualties, announced live on al-Jazeera that the period of normalization with Israel needed to end.
The Qatari diplomat welcomed Rosenblit, friendly as always, served him tea with za’atar, and then handed him an envelope. In the letter, the government of Qatar politely yet determinedly informed the Israeli that he had one week to close down the Israeli mission on 15 al-Buhturi Street, and leave the country.
Since then, Israel no longer officially maintains diplomatic relations with any of the Arab states in the Gulf — or does it?
It is widely believed that Jerusalem still maintains some sort of engagement with various states in the Persian Gulf region. Yet the government is extremely careful not to publicly admit such ties — in order not to jeopardize them. One thing is certain: Jerusalem is vocally advocating for stronger ties with the overwhelmingly Sunni Gulf states in the Gulf, hoping both for commercial opportunities and geo-strategic advantages. On July 18, the Israeli Foreign Ministry opened a Twitter channel exclusively “dedicated to promoting dialogue with the people of the GCC region.” The GCC, short for Cooperation Council of Arab States in the Gulf, includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait. (Never mind that Israel still officially considers Saudi Arabia an enemy state and prohibits its citizens from entering the country.)
Within less than a month, the “official channel of the virtual Israeli Embassy to GCC countries” picked up more than 1,100 followers. On Tuesday, on the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr holiday (which marks the end of Ramadan), the channel hosted a live chat with Foreign Ministry director-general Rafi Barak. The top diplomat mostly stuck to slogans, saying that Israel is interested in peace and neighborly relations with all its neighbors. One Kuwaiti wanted to know how he could visit Israel in the absence of an Israeli embassy; “You can apply for a visa in any Israeli mission abroad,” Barak responded, suggesting citizens of Arab states turn to the Israeli embassy in Amman.
Benoit Chapas, a EU official dealing with the Gulf states, wondered whether Israel had any “plans to reopen” its offices in the area. “We will be happy to,” Barak replied.
@bchapas #EidTalk we will be happy to. Eid mubarak!
— إسرائيل في الخليج (@IsraelintheGulf) August 6, 2013
He might as well have said: “we already did,” because, since earlier this year, Israelis know that the Foreign Ministry has recently taken a symbolically meaningful and potentially significant step indicating that ties between Israel and the Gulf are warming up again. A carelessly edited version of the 2013 state budget revealed that Israel opened a diplomatic office somewhere in the Persian Gulf. On page 213 of the document, readers learn that between 2010 and 2012, Israel opened 11 new representative offices across the globe, including one in the Gulf. Foreign Ministry sources in the know said they asked the Finance Ministry to remove the sensitive clause from the budget, but it is still there for anyone to see.
The exact nature of that mission — where it is, how many diplomats are or were stationed there, and whether it is still open — remains unclear. Unsurprisingly, the Foreign Ministry is unwilling to comment any further on the issue. “Others in the Foreign Ministry disagree with me, but as I see it, talking about it publicly would serve absolutely no purpose, other than risking whatever cooperation we have,” an Israeli diplomat well-versed in Jerusalem’s relationship with the Arab world said.
Indeed, the secrecy surrounding Israel’s mysterious office in the Gulf goes so far that even senior diplomats, including those dealing on a daily basis with the GCC, gave The Times of Israel conflicting information about it. Some asserted that “we have absolutely nothing” in the Gulf and that the line in the budget must have been an error. Others admitted that there is — or was — something but declined to detail.
“This ‘virtual activity’ will put our tangible activity at risk,” one diplomat opined
Not everyone in the Foreign Ministry is happy with the idea of establishing a “virtual embassy” to openly engage with the residents of the Gulf states via social networks. “This ‘virtual activity’ will put our tangible activity at risk,” one diplomat opined.
Israel and the Arab world have been engaging for decades, in various, mostly clandestine ways. In the 1990s, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, trade and political ties grew stronger, so much so that the Israeli chamber of commerce published a guide in Hebrew on how to do business in the Gulf. In 1994, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman, where he was greeted by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said (who is still reigning in Muscat). In 1995, a few days after Rabin was assassinated, then-acting prime minister Shimon Peres hosted Omani foreign minister Yusuf Ibn Alawi in Jerusalem.
In January 1996, Israel and Oman — which has always been Jerusalem’s best friend in the GCC — signed an agreement on the reciprocal opening of trade representative offices. “Oman believes that the current step will lead to continued progress in the peace process, and increased stability in the region,” the Israel Foreign Ministry declared at the time, adding that the office’s main role will be “to develop reciprocal economic and trade relations with Oman, as well as cooperation in the spheres of water, agriculture, medicine, and communications.”
Four months later, Peres visited Oman and Qatar to officially open “Israel Trade Representation Offices” in both capitals.
At the airport in Doha, the Israeli prime minister reviewed an honor guard before heading to the Royal Palace for a meeting with Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (who ruled until last month, when he abdicated the throne in favor of his son).
Headed by a small team of three Israeli diplomats, the offices in Muscat and Doha functioned “basically like a regular embassy — just without the Israeli flag,” an official stationed in both missions recalled.
The overt ties with Oman didn’t last for even half a decade. In October 2000, in the wake of the Second Intifada, Omani rulers felt the public opinion turned against Israel, suspended relations and closed the mission. The Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed regret at the decision, emphasizing that the cessation of contact and dialogue does nothing to advance the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. “In days of crisis, it is especially important that lines of communication between countries be kept open,” the ministry declared.
However, despite shutting down the Israeli representative office, located on Muscat’s Al-Adhiba Street, the government of Oman quietly encouraged Israeli diplomats to stick around, as long as the ongoing engagement between the two countries stayed secret.
Official diplomatic relations with Qatar survived for nine more years, until Emir Hamad’s rage (or perhaps that of his subjects) led him to ask the Israelis to close up shop. But just like the ruler of Oman, the Qatari leader also hinted that, while the official channel needed to be closed, he would not mind if Israeli diplomats in his country continued their work, as long as they do it under the radar.
A few months after Qatar had expelled the Israeli mission, the country’s rulers twice offered to reestablish ties — including a reopening of the office in Doha. In return, the Qataris demanded that Israel allow the small Gulf state to take a leading role in the rebuilding of Gaza. They also demanded Jerusalem publicly express appreciation for the state’s role and acknowledge its standing in the region.
According to Haaretz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was initially inclined to accept the offer but eventually declined, mainly because the Qataris also demanded to be allowed to bring large amounts of cement and other construction material into Gaza, which Israeli officials said ran counter to the state’s security interest. The Qataris cannot hope “to restore cooperative relations with Israel without agreeing to reopen the trade office,” a senior Israeli official said at the time, according to a secret diplomatic cable published by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
So far, Oman and Qatar are the only GCC states that agreed to openly maintaining diplomatic contacts with Israel. Yet it is well-known that Jerusalem had (and might still have) contacts to probably most other states in the region. These clandestine ties are mostly the domain of the Mossad. On its website, the spy agency openly states that one of its key goals is “Developing and maintaining special diplomatic and other covert relations” and one can safely assume that Israeli agents are in touch with officials from at least a handful of Arab states in the region that would never admit to having any contacts with Israel.
Take Bahrain for example. Jerusalem and Manama never maintained diplomatic relations, but, in 2005, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa boasted to an American official that his state has contacts with Israel “at the intelligence/security level (i.e., with Mossad),” according to a different secret US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. The king also indicated willingness “to move forward in other areas, although it will be difficult for Bahrain to be the first.” The development of “trade contacts,” though, would have to wait for the implementation of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the king told the ambassador.
Other WikiLeaks documents show that senior officials from both countries have spoken in recent years, such as a 2007 meeting between then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Bahraini foreign minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa in New York. The Bahraini foreign minister in 2009 also signaled that he was willing to meet Netanyahu to try to advance the peace process, but ultimately decided not to go ahead with the plan.
It is not difficult to figure out why the Gulf states would be interested in closer cooperation with Israel. Most importantly, the Jewish state is a regional superpower, widely assumed to possess an impressive nuclear arsenal, and has openly vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring such weapons. The Gulf states, some of which have decades-old territorial disputes with Tehran, are just as scared as Israel is of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“In the Gulf, there is a particular concern over Iran and what appears to be the lackluster performance in Obama’s administration in stopping them from getting nuclear weapons,” said Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “This will lead, if it hasn’t already, to closer cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states.”
Indeed, Arabs in the Gulf believe in Jerusalem’s role in fighting Iran “because of their perception of Israel’s close relationship with the US, but also due to their sense that they can count on Israel against Iran,” then-Foreign Ministry deputy director-general (and current ambassador to Germany) Yacov Hadas-Handelsman said during a briefing with senior US officials in 2009. “They believe Israel can work magic.”
But it’s more than just Iran. Israel and the Gulf states also have in common their fear of extremist political Islamism, such as practiced by Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hezbollah. While it is true that Qatar has good ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas — last year, the emir became the first head of state to visit Gaza since it was taken over by the Palestinian terrorist group in 2007 — the GCC states in general are afraid of political and religious extremists that threaten their rule, especially from Shiite elements. (Qatar is unique in the sense that it manages good relations to all players in the region and even the US).
According to experts, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, are more worried about the Muslim Brotherhood than about Iran. “Israel and Gulf states seek stability and they work together to further this stability. This leaves lots of room for common tasks, as long as they keep it secret,” said Teitelbaum, whose research focuses on political and social development in the Arab world and the Persian Gulf in particular.
If the GCC and Jerusalem are in the same camp, geo-strategically speaking, why the need to sweep any sort of cooperation under the rug? “Why should they cause problems when there are none?” Teitelbaum said. “They have so many other issues to deal with, the last thing they need to is to publicly call for cooperation with Israel.”
Public opinion in the Arab world was always against Israel, and Qatar and Oman could only allow themselves to open up to Israel after Rabin’s peace process had come into gear. As soon as Israeli-Palestinians violence flared up, they cut all official ties.
‘The Gulf States couldn’t care less about the 1967 borders. It is the conflict that bothers them, because it strengthens the radical forces in the region’
Perhaps ironically, the Arab Spring does not make easier for the Gulf states’ autocratic leaders to get closer to Israel again, experts say. For the first time in history, public opinion has become a determining factor of the Arab world’s political system, and the rulers in the Gulf will think twice before admitting any sort of engagement with the Zionist entity.
It’s not so much about the Gulf nations’ love for the Palestinians. “The leaders of the GCC states couldn’t care less about the 1967 borders,” said a Jerusalem source intimately familiar with GCC politics. “For all that matters to them, the Green Line could be somewhere between Ohio and Maryland. It is the conflict that bothers them, because it strengthens the radical forces in the region.”
The recent resumption of Israeli-Palestinians peace negotiations, unlikely as they are to yield any results, will not be enough to allow the Gulf states to openly reengage with Israel. There are ways, however, in which Israel could make it easier for them to work towards an détente, Teitelbaum suggested. For example by speaking positively about the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative — in which the entire Arab world offered normal diplomatic relations with Israel in return for a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians — or making a similar proposal to reach regional peace.
In the mean time, the GCC states will just stand on the sidelines and go on with business as usual — covert cooperation in the economic and intelligence fields but no official rapprochement. “Unless there is an official treaty with the Palestinians, I don’t think we can expect anything like formal relations,” Teitelbaum said. “That’s just how they are. From their perspective, it just doesn’t much sense…they have everything to gain from keeping it the way it is currently.”
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