The Warsaw summit on the Middle East held earlier this month served as the latest reminder of the growth of unofficial relations between Israel and Sunni-Arab Gulf states.
The conference saw Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu share a platform with foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Yemen and Oman. These Persian Gulf countries have no official ties with Israel as of now, but are nevertheless expanding their engagement with the Jewish state.
This partnership is fueled by the shared threat posed to the Middle East by radical Shi’ite Iran. Tehran’s nuclear program and regional expansion program threaten Israel and Arab states alike, creating an opportunity for cooperation that has grown considerably in recent years.
Israel could potentially supply its new partners with advanced missile defense technology and intelligence. The Gulf states could provide Israel with the kind of diplomatic recognition and acceptance that Jerusalem has long sought and share their own intelligence on Iran.
Ambassador (ret.) Zvi Mazel, former ambassador to Egypt and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said that this cooperation is a certain cause for concern to Iran. He added, however that “it does not seem to have stopped, at this stage, Iran’s activities.”
Iran is well-aware that Israel and the Gulf states are not going to sign a defense treaty, said Mazel. But the Iranians are also aware that Israel can supply Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE with advanced missile-defense systems and other means that can “undermine Iranian military superiority and harm its ability to maneuver in the Gulf,” said Mazel.
He noted some international media reports that said Israel has already sold the Iron Dome missile-defense systems to the Saudis.
“One can say that the Gulf-Israel cooperation has already been taken into account by Iran. With Iran’s actions in Yemen with the Houthis, its ties with Hezbollah, and its activation of the popular militias in Syria and Lebanon, Iran is certainly gazing with concern at the developing ties between Israel and the Gulf states,” said Mazel.
The budding relationship holds strategic value to both sides, Mazel said, adding, “at the covert level, it looks like Israel is doing everything it can to deepen these ties.”
As part of this effort, maintaining ambiguity is “highly desirable,” to avoid embarrassing these states, he argued. “They will not move to the stage of open relations without a solution to the Palestinian problem. Although the days that Palestine served Arab leaders as the No. 1 issue to distract their nations from their real problems and served as a pressure-release valve have passed,” he said.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told The Atlantic last year that he believes that every nation has its rightful place and right to live in peace, including Israelis and Palestinians. But he also called for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that will provide stability and a normalization of relations.
“The Palestinian issue is part of the religious-national experience of Arab states, and the Gulf states will not be able to normalize relations with Israel so long as there is no tangible progress on this issue,” Mazel cautioned.
“The big question is whether Saudi Arabia and its allies will pressure the Palestinians to stop the ridiculous boycott by [P.A. leader] Mahmoud Abbas on the United States, and to enter negotiations with Israel on the basis of [the Trump Administration’s] ‘deal of the century,’ which is about to be publicized,” he said.
Asked about intelligence cooperation, Mazel referred to international media reports that have mentioned a “fruitful dialogue between the intelligence services of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.”
He added that both sides could be gaining benefits. “Israel can supply these states with warnings of terror activities, while the Gulf states, which observe Iran and know its culture well, possess important intelligence on its movements and intentions,” said Mazel.
It is possible that both sides are also cooperating on covert operations in Iran, he assessed. “There is no doubt that both sides have a vital interest in continuing the cooperation.”
‘Could be a geo-strategic and dramatic turning point’
As the quiet alliance unfolds, Israel’s standing among Sunni governments is improving.
“In the current phase, the Gulf states are offering Israel de facto recognition,” maintained Professor Yoram Meital of the Middle East Studies Department at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“Full [de jure] recognition could form a historic breakthrough in Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. Since its formation, Israel has hoped for recognition and its acceptance as a legitimate state in the Arab space,” stated Meital.
Israel partially achieved this objective by signing peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, he said. “Recognition from the Gulf states, and in particular from Saudi Arabia, could be a geo-strategic and dramatic turning point in the Middle East.”
At the same time, Meital said, this cooperation is not about to dent Iran’s regional policies. He described the motivation for those policies as being shaped, “first and foremost, by Iran’s view of its interests.”
Israel’s cooperation with some of the Gulf states has little influence on Iran’s maneuvers in the region or in the Gulf, according to Meital.
The leaders of Iran’s regime—its religious leadership and military command—act on the basis of an assumption that “their country and policies are under severe internal and external threats, which could topple the regime,” he argued. “This perception lies at the base of the Iranian concept of the need to build-up significant military power and bases of influence in the Gulf, and in the whole of the Middle East.”
To further develop its quiet alliance with the Gulf states, Israel needs to safeguard its special standing in Washington, said Meital, and to “avoid a patronizing approach, which holds that ‘we will deliver the brains and the progress, and the Arabs will bring the money.’ ”
In the meantime, the only significant achievement in stopping Iranian expansion has come from “Israel’s air strikes in Syria,” said Mazel. It is these bombings—and them alone—that have led the commander of Iran’s overseas special operations unit, the Quds Force, and its commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, to fail to achieve his goals so far.
Soleimani was planning to build a military system of Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah bases in southern Syria, and use it to “activate terrorism against Israel, and exhaust it,” stated Mazel.
While Iran and its agents are still in Syria, he said, Israel’s successful campaign has already caused them to turn to Iraq, where they began building bases for missiles, and aiming them at Israel.