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Interview

With or without normalization, expert on Gulf sees Israel as regional peacemaker

In new book on Middle East’s changing alliances, Sigurd Neubauer explores Jerusalem’s little-known role as mediator in rivalries between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar

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

Sigurd Neubauer, right, with a senior Omani official at Oman's Consultative Assembly, Muscat 2019 (courtesy)
Sigurd Neubauer, right, with a senior Omani official at Oman's Consultative Assembly, Muscat 2019 (courtesy)

One may be tempted to think Sigurd Neubauer’s new book on Israel’s relations with Arab Gulf states was doomed to become antiquated even before it came out.

The official publication date for “The Gulf Region and Israel: Old Struggles, New Alliances” was September 1 — two weeks after the United Arab Emirates surprisingly announced that it had agreed to normalize relations with Israel, and two weeks before both countries signed a historic peace agreement at the White House lawn. In between, Bahrain also agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

But the dizzying pace of developments in the region is actually good news for him, the Washington-based Middle East analyst said in an email interview this week, because it sheds new light on a lesser-known aspect of the Israel-Gulf alliance: Jerusalem’s quiet but crucial role as a regional peacemaker.

“While the UAE-Israel relationship has been strategic in nature for over a decade, the timing of the accords is of significant geopolitical value,” he said, as they came after “Israel had established itself as a peacemaker in the Gulf after it had helped stabilize intra-Gulf disputes, including between Qatar and its immediate neighbors — the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — and between the UAE and Oman.”

Israel took “decisive steps” to maintain a balance of power between the region’s rival Arab states to prevent Iran from taking advantage of the Gulf crisis, he posited.

In 2017, Qatar was accused by four Arab states of supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups. They imposed a choking blockade on the small country, but Israel threw Doha “a diplomatic lifeline” by cooperating on aid for the Gaza Strip, Neubauer argued. “In this context, Qatar’s motivation for cooperating with Israel — to help alleviate Gaza’s precarious humanitarian situation — is not motivated by fear of Iran per se but by the threat posed by its own neighbors.”

Jerusalem letting Qatar give money to needy Gazans “changed the narrative in Washington away from Qatar supporting Hamas to one that focused on its leveraging its relationship with Hamas to get all the parties to cooperate in support of the Trump administration’s peace plan,” Neubauer previously argued in a piece for Foreign Policy in August.

“All this worked well with the Trump administration’s initial diplomatic strategy for the regional conflict, which was to provide the feuding parties with a face-saving mechanism for de-escalation.”

Israel also opposed a a bill proposed by Republican Congressman Ed Royce that would have designated Qatar as a state sponsor of terrorism because of its links to Hamas, Neubauer noted. “At the same time, Israel strengthened its de facto strategic partnership with the UAE, Qatar’s regional nemesis,” he added, and thus “skillfully established itself in the process as an unlikely peacemaker.”

Author Sigurd Neubauer in his Washington home (courtesy)

Neubauer, 40, was born and raised in Lillehammer, Norway and studied Jewish history and political science at Yeshiva University in New York before he moved to Washington to work for the US defense industry and several think tanks.

In his new 368-page book, he disputes the prevalent notion that it’s mostly the common enmity toward Iran that brings Israel and the Gulf states together.

“While the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain are indeed drawing closer to Israel, their respective motivations are not primarily driven by fear of Iran but rather by inter-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) rivalry, including in Washington,” he asserted in the interview.

Oman, for instance — the Gulf country with the closest ties with Iran — hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2018 to show its hostile neighbors that it has Israel’s support, he suggested. And the UAE’s rapprochement with Israel “is primarily driven by securing its own standing in Washington” and only then by concerns about Iranian aggression, he argued.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

Here is a full transcript of the interview.

The Times of Israel: Your book, “The Gulf Region and Israel: Old Struggles, New Alliances,” was officially released on September 1. Two weeks later, Israel and two Gulf countries signed historic peace agreements, dramatically changing the Middle East’s diplomatic landscape. The title of your book notes, of course, that Jerusalem and some Gulf countries have been cooperating even before the Abraham Accords, but how surprised, or perhaps frustrated, were you when you first heard about the Israel-UAE normalization deal?

Sigurd Neubauer: I was very lucky with the timing of my book, although the research for it took some 18 months to complete.

While the UAE-Israel relationship has been strategic in nature for over a decade, the timing of the Accords is of significant geopolitical value for the following reason: The Abraham Accords came after Israel had established itself as a peacemaker in the Gulf after it had helped stabilize intra-Gulf disputes, including between Qatar and its immediate neighbors — the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — and between the UAE and Oman.

It can even be argued that the Gulf crisis is the ugly stepchild of the Abraham Accords

Only now is the public beginning to understand Israel’s critical role as a peacemaker in the Gulf, a key theme in my book.

Because Iran remains its principal strategic adversary, Jerusalem took decisive steps to uphold the balance of power among the rivaling Arab sheikhdoms with the strategic objective of preventing Tehran from capitalizing on the Gulf crisis. At the same time, Israel strengthened its respective relationships with Abu Dhabi, Doha and Muscat by demonstrating its reliability as a strategic partner during a time of chaos in Washington.

It can even be argued that the Gulf crisis is the ugly stepchild of the Abraham Accords.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Because of how the crisis over Qatar played out in Washington in 2017, my guess is that the UAE may have offered Israel at that time full normalization of diplomatic relations, including with Bahrain, in exchange for supporting its position vis-à-vis Qatar. If that offer was ever made, Israel did not take it.

Instead of joining the blockading states, Israel extended Qatar a hand in peace by accelerating Gaza reconstruction even though the two countries did not enjoy diplomatic relations when the Gulf crisis erupted.

As a testimony to how Qatar-Israeli cooperation in Gaza is flourishing, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin recently thanked Doha for mediating a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.

Fast forward: Because UAE, Qatar and Oman have positive experiences dealing with Israel, Jerusalem, ironically, is the only non-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) actor which is acceptable to both sides of the GCC schism, unlike Turkey and Iran.

For the UAE, its relationship with Israel is primarily driven by securing its own standing in Washington and secondarily by the fear of Iran

Because of Israel’s unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, it is a strategic partner that is difficult for all of the GCC countries to fully embrace. At the same time, and perhaps because of the high stakes of the GCC crisis, Israel has exercised its influence in the Gulf with great responsibility.

Because of Israel’s role as a peacemaker in the Gulf, especially between Qatar and the UAE, it is clear that the Israel-UAE normalization deal won’t come at the expense of Abu Dhabi’s Gulf rivals.

The UAE cites Israel’s willingness to suspend its planned West Bank annexation as the trigger that allowed it to sign the Abraham Accords. But as you explain at great length, covert ties between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi go back many years. Why did Mohammad bin Zayed decide at this particular point to take the plunge?

In my book, I predicted that the UAE would strengthen its relationship with Israel even though the two countries have enjoyed a strategic partnership since 2008, when a military back-channel focusing on the Iranian threat was established.

The cover of Sigurd Neubauer’s book on Israel-Gulf relations (Courtesy)

The timing of the Abraham Accords has created a win-win scenario for the three parties; for the Trump-administration, it could point to a diplomatic victory ahead of the upcoming elections in November; for Israel, it achieved a long-term strategic goal of normalizing diplomatic relations with two Arab countries; and for the UAE, it was able to frame it as preventing West Bank annexation.

The backstory, however, is a bit different: the Abraham Accords afforded Mohammed bin Zayed an opportunity to reverse the UAE’s diminishing standing in Washington over its aggressive regional agenda and controversial alliance with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

One of the few sticking points in the budding Israel-UAE romance is Abu Dhabi’s desire for American F-35 jets. Does such a deal, which both sides reportedly seek to conclude within weeks, have the potential to derail Jerusalem’s relationship with the Emiratis? What can Israeli leaders do to thwart the sale of these jets to the UAE without antagonizing its new friends?

For Israel’s defense establishment, the potential transfer of the F-35 fighter jet to the UAE would not only erode its QME  [Qualitative Military Edge], but the obvious questions Israeli policymakers will face is this: Will the F-35 umbrella be extended to every Gulf country deciding to normalize relations with Israel?

And because the Gulf states are divided amongst themselves, can and should the United States — with presumed Israeli support — provide the F-35 to only one side of the Gulf schism and not the other? In the highly personalized disputes between the Gulf monarchs, which are deep and long-running, what happens if the F-35 is used at a future stage against a fellow Gulf country?

In this August 5, 2019, photo released by the U.S. Air Force, an F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. (Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/US Air Force via AP)

And what happens if the F-35 is obtained — in the UAE or elsewhere in the Gulf — by either Russia or China? Then it is no longer a question only about Israel’s QME, but a key threat to US national security. These are, of course, uncomfortable questions, but I am confident that Israel will make a responsible decision in how it proceeds.

On page 190 of your book you write: “A prevailing narrative in Washington is that Gulf-Israel ties have strengthened during the Trump presidency because of mutual animus towards Iran. Yet this is not fully accurate.” If not the common enmity toward Tehran, what is it that brings Israel and the Gulf states together?

While the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain are indeed drawing closer to Israel, their respective motivations are not primarily driven by fear of Iran but rather by inter-GCC rivalry, including in Washington. For Qatar, for example, it did not enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel at the eruption of the Gulf crisis in 2017 when UAE surrogates in Washington accused it of supporting Hamas and terrorism.

By accelerating Gaza reconstruction in cooperation with Israel, Jerusalem extended Qatar a diplomatic lifeline at a time when Doha faced an existential threat from its immediate Arab neighbors. In this context, Qatar’s motivation for cooperating with Israel — to help alleviate Gaza’s precarious humanitarian situation — is not motivated by fear of Iran per se but by the threat posed by its own neighbors.

A Palestinian policeman waves on a truck as it enters through the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip on September 1, 2020, after a Qatari-mediated deal with Israel. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In the case of Oman, Oman is the Gulf country with the closest ties with Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat in October 2018 was about demonstrating Israeli support for Sultan Qaboos as he faced a hostile UAE and Saudi Arabia; the details are in my book. Thus, Oman’s primary motivation for cooperating with Israel is not because of its fear of Iran either, but rather of its own Arab neighbors.

For the UAE, I argue in my book, its relationship with Israel is primarily driven by securing its own standing in Washington and secondarily by the fear of Iran.

As opposed to Egypt and Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain seem eager to make sure that their peace with Israel will be a “warm peace.” Are the populations of these countries ready to embrace a country its leaders have for decades accused of mistreating their Palestinian brethren?

There is no doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed’s decision to normalize ties with Israel was a bold move which should be commended. He is genuinely popular among his people, but at the same time, dissent in the UAE is not tolerated under any circumstances. The Emirati affection towards the Jewish people, including Israel, I believe, is nonetheless genuine and sincere.

Sigurd Neubauer, left, with then-foreign minister of Bahrain, Khalid al-Khalifa, in Manama (courtesy)

In Bahrain, the leadership — spearheaded by the royal Al-Khalifa dynasty — has long held progressive views about Israel but its own relationship with the island state’s Shiite majority is far from harmonious, unfortunately.

Shiites and Islamists in Bahrain are unlikely to support their King’s geopolitical alliance with Israel. Because Israel’s peace with UAE and Bahrain are motivated principally by the shifting geopolitical landscape on the Arabian Peninsula, Jerusalem likely required a warm peace as a condition for essentially protecting these two Arab monarchies.

The UAE and Bahrain still pledge alliance to the Palestinian cause but have in fact thrown the Palestinians under the bus. Is that the beginning of the end of the Arab world’s consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as embodied by the Arab Peace Initiative?

I disagree. The Abraham Accords is a legitimate bilateral peace agreement between Israel and the UAE, and between Israel and Bahrain, and does not come at the expense of the Palestinians. I don’t believe that the Palestinians have been neglected.

Abu Dhabi and Manama, along with other Gulf countries, will continue to advocate for the Palestinians in their respective dealings with Jerusalem. The Arab Peace Initiative (API) was always a starting point for negotiations and not a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, Bahrain’s former foreign minister once told me. I agree with him. The API will continue to be part of the conversation.

Which country do you think is next in line to normalize relations with Israel?

According to various media reports, it seems to be Sudan but I honestly don’t know.

Saudi Arabia is said to be on its way to formalize ties with Israel, with Crown Prince Muhammad in favor but his father, King Salman, still opposed. How do you see this inner tension in the country’s leadership play out?

Saudi Arabia is a notoriously opaque society, but the Saudi state media’s positive coverage of Israel and of the Abraham Accords in particular is [evidence] of the Kingdom taking concrete steps towards mobilizing popular support in favor of a future peace with Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa during the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, April 21, 2016. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

What the conditions for such a peace are, is impossible to predict at this moment because of the personalized state of affairs between President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But what is clear, however, is that the crown prince appears fully in control of his country and that any dissent — including on Israel/Palestine — won’t be tolerated.

The fact that Bahrain followed the UAE lead could very well mean that Saudi Arabia could normalize relations with Israel, especially in the event Trump is reelected.

You describe Kuwait as the most pro-Palestinian country in the Gulf, and the one least likely to embrace Israel. Why is that?

Kuwait’s uncompromising stance on normalization with Israel is driven by its domestic politics as the ruling family has to adhere to public opinion because of its relatively independent parliament and diverse discourse across society. This has been Kuwait’s position for a long time.

The Abraham Accords is a legitimate bilateral peace agreement between Israel and the UAE, and between Israel and Bahrain, and does not come at the expense of the Palestinians

Once the Emir dies, it is unclear whether Kuwait can maintain its neutrality in Gulf disputes and its sovereignty may very well be challenged, which potentially provides Israel with an opening to help it balance off UAE or Saudi Arabia. Kuwait prefers US assistance over Israeli. But these dynamics depend on Washington and whether Trump will be president or not.

When do you think we’ll see a larger Israel-Arab peace, as envisioned by President Trump, with all or most Arab countries openly recognizing Israel? What needs to happen in the region for that to occur?

Sigurd Neubauer, right, playing chess with Omanis during a visit to Muscat in 2019 (courtesy)

The Trump administration has effectively conditioned its bilateral relationships with the respective Gulf states on how they deal with Israel, which has in the process also elevated Jerusalem’s standing in the Gulf.

The United States does not have that kind of leverage over the Maghreb countries (of northwest Africa), which means that they are unlikely to yield to US diplomatic pressure to normalize ties with Israel beyond the parameters of the API. Sudan, because of its own situation, is the outlier among Arab states geographically removed from the Gulf region.

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