The Gulf is in Flux About Israel-Palestine
With Trump out of office, the Gulf leadership should start to see Netanyahu’s actions as a liability, rather than an asset, in their far more important relationship with the United States. Another caveat against further normalizations.
After eleven bloody days of warfare between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Gaza-based Hamas, some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states find themselves in an unenviable political position. The recent violence in Jerusalem and Gaza has revived popular support for the Palestinian cause in Gulf public opinion, and contributed to changes in the region’s geopolitical situation. An important factor to this shift is U.S. President Joe Biden’s new foreign policy, which has affected Israel, Palestine, and the Gulf in different ways.
Until recently, the Palestinian issue would have elicited a common response among the Gulf states and their populations, even between regional rivals. To one degree or another, all the states in the Gulf have supported the Palestinian cause, if only rhetorically. Although only one Arab state from the Gulf, Iraq, has ever sent its army to actually fight the Israelis in a conventional war, all of them have until recently tended to accept a common anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian line. In the early 2000s, all had rallied behind the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, known as the “Abdullah Plan,” to offer ‘normal’ relations with Israel once it settled its problems with the Palestinians.
Aftershocks in the Gulf
In spite of the diplomatic relations between Israel and two GCC members, almost all GCC media outlets have fiercely condemned the Israelis and supported the Palestinians, without distinction between those residing in Gaza, the West Bank, or Israel proper. Even the government-controlled press, which has an interest in maintaining good relations with Jerusalem, has not hesitated to condemn the Israelis. Social media platforms have been awash with images of Israeli security forces firing stun grenades and tear gas at worshippers and protesters in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, of Palestinian families fighting eviction from their homes, and of deadly protests across the occupied West Bank. The few Gulf voices that have criticized Hamas, such as Emirati cleric Waseem Yousef, have been subjected to a flood of Twitter attacks.
Although it is not a representative democracy, the UAE’s leadership is not immune to popular passions; the leaders understand that they must demonstrate to their population that their assurances about protecting the Palestinians and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are not empty words. However, the recent conflict has instead demonstrated that Abu Dhabi is either unable or unwilling to influence Israel’s decisions regarding Palestinians’ rights. However, Arab social media will likely ensure that the continuing images of the Israeli forces attacking Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank will not let them ignore the issue altogether.
The same argument applies to the rest of the GCC as well. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped that his meeting with MBS in Neom last November would lead to Saudi recognition once MBS succeeded his father to the Saudi throne. Recognition by Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, would have provided a massive boost to Netanyahu’s credibility, possibly keeping him in power as well. While it is not certain what the ultimate fate of the tacit Saudi Israeli relation will be, the 2021 Gaza conflict has made further progress in relations politically unacceptable for Riyadh—and Netanyahu’s opposition, despite its own internal discord, appears to be on the cusp of ousting him.
Biden’s New Policy Comes with New Realities
The international context matters, too. President Donald Trump’s unconditional support for Netanyahu clearly played a significant role in the UAE’s decision to recognize Israel. With Trump out of office, the Gulf leadership should start to see Netanyahu’s actions as a liability, rather than an asset, in their far more important relationship with the United States. Another caveat against further normalizations.
The Biden administration would probably not oppose Saudi normalization with Israel. However, it has likewise given MBS no reason to believe that he would receive any political benefit in Washington from doing so. Nor will Oman, Qatar, or Kuwait find anything to gain from taking such a step now. This means that the process of normalizations with Israel, which began in August 2020, will probably come to a halt for the time being.
Finally, Iran, which has taken the most consistent stance against Israel of any Gulf state, will also reap some propaganda benefit from the recent conflict. Alone among the Gulf nations, Iran publicly supports Hamas’ political aims, and it has openly admitted to its role in funding and arming the group. With Hamas claiming victory, Iran can bask in a sort of reflected glory, while the Gulf governments that normalized in 2020 will try to remain as quiet as possible and wait for the crisis to pass.
The Gulf’s Changing Geopolitical Landscape
The recent eruption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians comes at a time when the Gulf states are trying to digest unprecedented changes in the geopolitical landscape. Biden has indicated that he shares his predecessor’s desire to limit U.S. involvement in the Middle East. More interestingly, the Gulf states have taken regional steps that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Most significant were the 2020 “Abraham Accords”, in which the United Arab Emirates agreed to “normalize” its relations (a euphemism for diplomatic de jure recognition) with Israel, followed in short order by Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
The Trump administration generously rewarded the recognitions by agreeing to sell F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE, removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region. However, while these political incentives appear to be the only clear reason for recognition by the latter two states, Washington and regional pundits have assumed that Abu Dhabi saw positive relations with Israel as a strategic asset in its adversarial relationship with Iran. The same pundits rushed to add that this recognition proved that the Palestinian issue had lost its appeal to the elites and the “street” in the rest of the Arab world, citing the lack of significant pushback against the normalization in any of those countries. Furthermore, the Abraham Accords effectively rendered the Arab Peace Initiative a dead letter; Israel no longer has any incentive to abandon its post-1967 land in exchange for recognition.
Nor are the GCC’s relations with Israel the only change being made. A few weeks ago, news leaked that Iraq had hosted secret meetings between Iranian and Saudi intelligence officers looking for ways to improve relations between the two principal powers in the Gulf region. These leaks were soon followed by a groundbreaking interview by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expressing his desire for good relations with Iran. MBS described Iran as “a neighboring country, (with which) we all aspire to establish a good and distinguished relationship” hoped for its prosperity, and added, “We have interests in it and it has interests in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to push the world and the region to prosperity.” Shortly thereafter, both countries acknowledged ongoing discussions.
Despite the popular assumption that the UAE linked itself to Israel for diplomatic support in a confrontation with Tehran, Emirati negotiators have also spent time talking to their Iranian counterparts. Qatar and Oman already have a significant relationship with Iran, and Kuwait maintains furtive links to the Islamic Republic as well. Public statements by the GCC states opposing the restoration of the JCPOA have grown both fewer and feebler, leaving Israel and its conservative allies in the United States as the sole outliers fighting against the American return to the Iranian nuclear agreement. Beyond those circles, the contention that Iran would cave to “maximum pressure” if it were maintained by the Biden administration is not taken seriously. Even Iran’s attention appears to be turning inward as the date for its domestic election nears.
The Violence Escalates
Against this backdrop of de-escalation, detente, and diplomacy, the Israeli police abruptly and illogically decided to shut down the call to prayer from the Haram Ash-Sharif because Israeli President Rivlin wanted to give a speech at the Western wall at the same time. To add to the tension, Israeli settler organizations secured court orders evicting Palestinians from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah—court orders based on a law allowing Jewish Israelis to recover property lost in 1948 but denying Arab Israeli citizens the same right. Images of the police at work went viral, and demonstrations soon turned violent as Jewish and Arab vigilantes attacked each other.
Hamas, apparently frustrated by the cancellation of elections by the Palestinian Authority which they had hopes of winning, quickly displayed their relevance to the conflict by launching rocket attacks against Israeli urban areas. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu launched an Israeli air and artillery bombardment into Gaza. Biden tried to avoid being drawn in, but, facing pressure from his own party and widespread horror at the images of bombardment, forced Netanyahu to agree to a ceasefire.
More than 240 Gazans died during the conflict, including more than 70 children, and some 70,000 were displaced during the fighting. On the Israeli side, roughly a dozen civilians and one soldier were killed. Despite the disparity in these numbers, Hamas claimed victory, on the basis that it had withstood a fierce Israeli assault until the ceasefire was mediated by the Egyptians and the Qataris. International media and even U.S. government statements legitimized Hamas by declaring that it was a party to a ‘ceasefire’ with Israel, a term previously reserved for Israel’s wars with other Arab states. Ismail Haniyeh proclaimed Hamas as the ‘defender of Jerusalem’ to a cheering crowd in Qatar.
Escalations Cause Bewilderment for the Abraham Accords
Hamas’ grandstanding poses no small problem for the GCC states. Hamas had few friends remaining among Gulf governments; even Qatar, Gaza’s biggest benefactor, has made a point of keeping Hamas at arm’s length while coordinating its aid to Gaza with the United States. Despite this, Hamas benefits from the fact that, while the ceasefire ended fighting in Gaza, the turmoil in the West Bank and for the Arab citizens of Israel continue. In fact, world media attention has now begun to focus on the plight of the Arab citizens of Israel, giving Hamas another cause to champion. Early reports indicate that Netanyahu has doubled down on his support for Israeli settler encroachments on Palestinian property and the Haram Ash-Sharif.
On May 22, as Israeli police attacked and ejected worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque to clear the way for Israeli demonstrators to access the Haram, a quandary was created for Abu Dhabi and Manama, which publicly justified their ‘normalization’ as giving them leverage to protect the Palestinians and the Muslim Holy Places against the settler-led campaign to displace them and gain control of the Haram Ash-Sharif. If it plays its cards adroitly, Hamas could come to be regarded as the foremost champion of a revived Palestinian cause. If that happens, it might make the situation far more complicated for Riyadh, and comparatively easier for Iran and the GCC states that declined to normalize their relations with Israel.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.