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November 27, 2020
News Analysis

Gulf-Israel ties: A new Middle East or a distraction from domestic chaos?

Israeli foreign minister tells MEE he is confident about projects to bring Israel and Gulf states closer, but analysts question timing and scope

Katz, centre, sits next to Omani officials at the International Road Transport Union World Congress in Muscat last year (AFP)
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in

Tel Aviv, Israel

In the midst of what is for Israelis and Palestinians a very old and ailing Middle East, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz is trying to create a new regional dynamic – or not, depending on who you speak with.

Some in Israel say much of the talk right now about projects that would bring Arab Gulf states closer together with Israel is, in fact, more about forming a new government than a new Middle East.

But when speaking with Middle East Eye in late November about his efforts, Katz sounded enthusiastic and sure of himself.

There are two projects on his radar. The most recent one, announced in October, is an attempt to sign – with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s backing – non-aggression agreements with Arab Gulf states.

Formally, none of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council recognises Israel, but the agreements, Katz tweeted, aim to pave the way for future peace deals.

The other project, first made public last year, but recently set in motion, is “tracks to regional peace” as Katz and Netanyahu call it, a railway running from Israel to Saudi Arabia through Jordan, connecting the kingdom and Israel by rail and bypassing dangerous maritime routes.

The route will be similar to the once important Hijaz railway, which until 1920 ran up from Damascus to Medina with a branch to Haifa; although the new one will omit Syria for obvious reasons.

The nickname, though, suggests a much more ambitious initiative, something Katz isn’t shy about emphasising.

“The Iranian threat has to be answered with security measures, but at the same time, it provides a historic opportunity to form both a security and civil alliance between Israel and moderate Arab countries and to promote regional cooperation,” said Katz.

‘The Iranian threat has to be answered with security measures, but at the same time, it provides a historic opportunity’

– Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz

“Those agreements are of utter importance for Israel as they officially mean an end of conflict and mutual commitment not to cooperate with hostile entities who exercise violence against one of the countries involved. That sets the ground for civil and economic development until peace agreements are signed.”

Katz said that the current political crisis in Israel has no impact on his diplomatic efforts and will have “no consequence for the progress made with both American administration and Arab states involved”.

And what about the Palestinians, struggling with the Israeli occupation, mostly hostile towards Saudi Arabia and watching this process of normalisation?

“Haven’t heard from them on that issue,” said the Israeli foreign minister abruptly. But that’s not exactly accurate. Palestinians have stuck by their position of total rejection of any plan, even if a segment of the track near Jenin could be of service to them.

Katz also mentioned that he is pitching the projects to partners beyond the region, including to Greece and Italy.

Going nuclear

Katz’s willingness to share details with MEE, however, ended the moment he was asked about concerns in Israel over recent developments in Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s main worry is that if Iran has a nuclear breakthrough, the Saudis will ask the Pakistanis, whose nuclear programme is partly funded by Saudi Arabia, to allow the kingdom to station an airplane on its soil which is capable of carrying nuclear bombs.

Argentina has recently supplied Riyadh with a nuclear research reactor, and earlier this year, it was reported that Saudi Arabia had acquired the Iron Dome missile defence system, although no one in Israel will formally confirm this.

As Saudi Arabia approaches the nuclear threshold, Israeli experts believe Israel should be more concerned than they seem or pretend to be. “What if,” ask those concerned, “more radical regimes come to power there?”

Katz dismissed that question with a short: “I don’t want to talk about it”.

Lingering secrets

It is now clear that the much-discussed “secret alliance” between Israel and Saudi Arabia is certainly no longer that secret.

Recent geopolitical developments, from Iran’s emergence as a dominant power to the Arab uprisings, have been fertile ground for common interests and similar agendas that have led to a more open partnership.

Israel has done nothing to deserve normalisation with the Arab world

Read More »

But even while it is more out in the open than ever, there are still many pieces of a strategic cooperation that goes back to the late 1960s which remain under wraps.

“Most parts of this cooperation still remain tacit,” Danny Yatom, the former head of Mossad and military secretary to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s, told MEE.

In both capacities, Yatom was involved in intelligence cooperation between the Saudis and Israelis, a relationship which has had reason to flourish in recent years, particularly with the rise of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

“At the peak of IS terror activity, [the Saudis] understood they need a strong military power,” he said.

“They did not trust Trump enough to rely on him and turned for help from Israel. That move was never officially confirmed by Israel, though it is in the better interests of Israel to conduct open relations to better navigate in the Muslim space.”

It is certainly moving in that direction, at least for the time being. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are no longer confined to occasional photo-ops of dignitaries side by side or intentional – or unintentional – leaks.

The message is loud and clear, especially from the Israeli side, which may be a bit too much for the Saudis who are much more circumspect in their comments.

Exaggerated ties?

Still, words unsaid are of no less importance. Saudi Arabia, for instance, said next to nothing when the Americans moved their embassy to Jerusalem last May. If necessary, observers said, the kingdom uses Bahrain as its proxy to say what they are reluctant to say in the open.

“The statements I read coming out of Bahrain are extremely friendly towards Israel,” Yoel Guzansky, senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies and author of several books on the Gulf states, told MEE.

‘There is nothing new in Katz’s Middle East or at least it is all highly exaggerated and romanticised’

– Yoel Guzansky, Institute for National Security Studies  

“They often sound as though they are coming directly from the Likud ruling party,” he added jokingly.

Before he joined INSS, Guzansky served on the national security council in the prime minister’s office coordinating the work on Iran. He is extremely sceptical about the developments as presented.

Like others who spoke with MEE, but were more reluctant to go on record, Guzansky said he believes there is a fair amount of exaggeration in the picture portrayed by Israeli lawmakers in the wake of a domestic political crisis.

“There is nothing new in Katz’s Middle East or at least it is all highly exaggerated and romanticised,” he said.

“It is true that once Saudi Arabia gave up on America as their great protector against the Iranian threat, they leaned towards Israel. Yet even now, they leave room for negotiations with Iran.”

Saudi Arabia, he said, has sent signals to Iran through Iraq and Pakistan that it was ready to talk.

Meanwhile, attacks on two of the kingdom’s oil facilities on 14 September, widely believed to be the work of Iran, has highlighted the value of the relationship with Israel to the kingdom – for now.

“As long as the mutual enemy – Iran – is here and the not so reliable ally – America – remains indifferent to September 14th attack, there will be no erosion in the relations with Israel,” said Guzansky.

Via-Middle Easst Eye

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