For years, the US has been working with its allies in the Persian Gulf on something that long seemed impossible: normalizing ties with Israel.
(Bloomberg) — For years, the US has been working with its allies in the Persian Gulf on something that long seemed impossible: normalizing ties with Israel.
For the Saudis that has meant working toward establishing formal diplomatic relations, for the United Arab Emirates it’s meant business deals worth billions of dollars, and for Qatar it’s meant cooperating on intelligence. The outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel now threatens to scupper those efforts — and in some cases, to freeze relations already thawed.
But the governments of these Middle Eastern nations aren’t giving up, according to local officials. They’re scrambling to contain protests and working diplomatic back channels to push both sides to de-escalate, according to several people familiar with these discussions, who asked not be named.
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Not all are sure they’ll succeed. Their calculus got trickier after a deadly Tuesday-night explosion at a Gaza hospital. Many in the Arab world echoed Hamas in saying the carnage at the hospital was the result of an Israeli air strike, even while Israel said its investigations showed a group called Islamic Jihad was responsible and the damage was inconsistent with aerial bombardment.
These irreconcilable verdicts underlined how friendship with their Jewish neighbor puts Arab leaders at odds with a citizenry keenly attuned to the Palestinian cause. Yet they had pursued that goal in hope of the economic and security prizes flowing from integration.
That’s one reason why the Saudi government hopes its rapprochement with Israel can resume one day, one of the people said, even though widespread anti-Israel sentiment makes that politically unpalatable right now. Before the Oct. 7 incursion by Hamas, the kingdom was on the cusp of inking a three-way deal with Israel and the US, with a halt to new Israeli settlements under negotiations.
The balancing act has become all the more complicated by news that US bases in Iraq and Syria were targeted by drones while a US destroyer intercepted missiles and drones launched from Yemen toward Israel. As a parade of western leaders turn up in Israel loudly proclaiming solidarity and quietly calling for restraint, countries in the region know they have a lot to fear from the war spilling over.
On Friday the leaders of Saudi Arabia and UAE had their first public encounter in over three years, in what appeared an attempt by the two regional heavyweights to overcome their disagreements to ensure Israel’s war with Hamas doesn’t morph into a wider conflict.
Normalization with Israel isn’t dead but putting it back on the table will require clear progress toward the goal of Palestinian statehood, two people with knowledge of the Saudi leadership’s thinking on this issue said. One of the people called the stakes much higher now that local sympathy for the Palestinians has been reawakened by Hamas’s Oct. 7 actions and Israel’s subsequent response.
“There is a feeling among the majority of people in the Gulf that with normalization we have given carte blanche to Israel to do whatever it wants, and we have received no concessions for the Palestinians,” said Ebrahim Sharif, a Bahraini opposition leader who has been involved in organizing protests in the island kingdom during the past two weeks.
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Not all Gulf nations have been seeking to formalize ties with Israel; some like Qatar and Kuwait just cooperate on an ad hoc basis. The countries who have relationships with Israel are using them to exercise pressure — while others are privately admitting those ties are now harder to maintain.
The UAE’s leader spoke by phone with his Israeli counterpart about the need to defuse tensions following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, according to a government statement. Emirati leaders are worried about the blowback from any escalation in Gaza on account of their alliance with Israel, a person familiar with regional discussions said.
While the UAE and Bahrain may resist breaking ties, an escalation of the violence could force them to reduce their contact to a minimum, the person said. A prolonged war — or one that ensnares other parties — could fuel local resentment toward Israel and derail joint business deals and investments, according to people involved in the UAE’s economic portfolio. Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, its state oil company and BP Plc have faced uncertainty over their $2 billion joint quest to take private NewMed Energy, an Israeli natural-gas producer.
The UAE and Bahrain established diplomatic relations with Israel in Sept. 2020, in what was the first time any Arab states had recognized Israeli sovereignty since the 1990s. More recently, the two nations’ ties have been tested by the surge in West Bank settlements under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition — which stoked misgivings from many of Israel’s neighbors.
Some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, reacted to the Oct. 7 attacks by saying they’d repeatedly warned of violent outcomes from Israel’s Palestinian policies. With their principal demand that of allowing significant aid to enter Gaza, Arab countries are trying to reach a consensus on how to proceed, according to a person familiar with regional discussions.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia are playing a central role. King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke by phone to US President Joe Biden. Still, after the hospital blast, he canceled an Amman summit Biden was meant to attend along with Egyptian and Palestinian leaders.
Disquiet is visible on the streets in many Arab nations in the wake of the bombing campaign Israel’s waged since the attack by Hamas, which the US and EU designate a terrorist group.
In Kuwait, thousands have been coming out to protests almost daily since Oct. 7. “Down down with normalization, down down with America” was the chant at a massive, Wednesday-night demonstration — an improbable sentiment in a country where, since Iraq’s invasion in the early 1990s, Americans have a reputation as liberators.
In Oman, where demonstrations are very unusual, dozens of people gathered outside the US embassy in the capital Muscat to denounce Israel. Even in Egypt, where protest is banned, the government allowed people to take to the streets the day after the Gaza hospital blast. In the run-up to December elections, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi is facing pressure over inflation running at 40%, and cannot risk antagonizing an electorate ill-disposed to see Israel’s point of view.
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There have been no protests in Saudi Arabia — there never are.
While Saudi Arabia and Israel have long had secret contacts, particularly over intelligence and security, as recently as last month the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, said his country was moving closer “everyday” toward mending ties.
On Wednesday, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning “Israeli occupation forces” for the “heinous crime” at the hospital.
“The earth has moved under MBS’s feet, he’s now in the eye of an unprecedented storm,” said John Hannah, formerly national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and who has met with officials involved in the normalization talks on all three sides.
He said in the face of increasingly vocal popular opposition to normalization, MBS’s instinct would be “to hit the pause button, look for cover and wait to see how the difficult and dark days of the coming weeks play out.”
–With assistance from Omar Tamo, Mohammad Tayseer and Gregory L. White.
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