The withdrawal of US troops from Syria has the potential to warm Israel’s ties with the Sunni Arab states, a prominent American rabbi and interfaith activist with extensive ties in the Gulf said this week, arguing that US President Donald Trump’s unexpected move exacerbates the Arab world’s worries about Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.
The rabbi, Marc Schneier of New York, also predicted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to Bahrain next month, and that the small Gulf kingdom will soon establish formal ties with Israel.
“The US moving out of Syria might accelerate this deal of bringing Israel and the Gulf together,” Schneier told The Times of Israel in an interview Sunday in Jerusalem, citing a conversation with unnamed senior official sources in the Arabian peninsula.
“The Gulf has two existential threats: an economic downturn in the Gulf, [caused by] diminishing demands of oil, and the aggression by Iran and its allies,” Schneier went on. “Now, with US troops moving out of Syria, Iran has now taken over the top position.”
Schneier said Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Khalid bin Salman, recently told him that the reason for the Gulf’s rapprochement with Israel was his country’s current enmity toward the Islamic Republic.
“That’s reason number two,” the rabbi cited the ambassador as saying. “Reason number one is economics.”
The kingdom wants to reform its economy, and “we can’t do it without Israel,” Schneier quoted bin Salman as saying.
But, the rabbi went on, “what happened now, based on my conversation last night, is that Iran has now taken over the race” and has become the number one force driving the Sunni Arab world’s opening to Israel.
Trump’s surprising announcement last week that he would withdraw the remaining 2,000 US troops from eastern Syria sparked worries in Israel and across the region about Iran seeking to fill the vacuum and expand its aggressive actions. Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions have been the main factor in the Arab world’s increasingly open but still undeclared alliance with the Jewish state.
Schneier, the founder and head of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, has for many years conducted extensive ties with the rulers of many Muslim countries, including nearly all Gulf states.
Earlier this month, he was named a “special adviser” to the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. In this unpaid position, the rabbi was tasked with assisting the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence based in Manama, and to “help in preserving and growing the country’s Jewish community,” he said.
I am honored to be appointed by H.M. King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, and the Bahrain Royal Court as…
“There’s a growing interest on part of Gulf leaders to developing Jewish life,” said Schneier, who established and runs a Jewish community in the Hamptons.
Earlier this month, The Times of Israel for the first time revealed the existence of a tiny Jewish community in Dubai. Jewish communities exist also in Bahrain and Qatar, according to Schneier.
“There is a genuine commitment and desire to establish relations with Israel,” he said. “It used to be, ‘Let the Israelis and Palestinians work our their differences and then call us.’ Now it’s, ‘Let the Israelis and Palestinians be in discussion and at the same time we can discuss establishing relations,’” he said.
“I predict that in 2019 it will happen. You will see one or two Gulf states establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. I think Bahrain will be the first.”
Netanyahu, who in October unexpectedly visited Oman, will probably be invited to Manama as soon as next month, he envisaged. “My gut tells me that it’s going to happen in January,” he said. “I know that the king of Bahrain is very committed to establishing relations. Their only hesitation would be to allow the Saudis to have the honor first.”
Earlier this month, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa defied Arab consensus and defended Australia’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He also expressed support for Israel’s operation to expose and destroy attack tunnels the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah has dug across the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Schneier, who is married to an Israeli, dismissed the Arab states’ vote against a US-sponsored United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Hamas. “Two steps forward, one step back,” he said.
Many Israelis mistakenly believe that the Gulf leadership no longer cares about the Palestinians, according to Schneier, who regularly travels to the region. “There is nothing further from the truth. They are still very concerned about the Palestinian cause,” he said.
“I am not saying we have arrived at the promised land of Gulf-Israel relations. But the good news is that the journey has begun. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have hurdles along the trail.”