By Sean Savage
In recent years, the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings, the Syrian civil war, and the growth of jihadist terror groups like Islamic State have countered the perception that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of instability in the Middle East. Adding to the mix, mutual concern over the Iran nuclear deal and declining American leadership in the region has made ties between Israel and some Arab states warmer than ever before.
In line with this narrative, Israel recently announced that it is opening its first-ever diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Is the opening of the diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi a major breakthrough in Israeli relations with the Arab world? Or will long-held Arab beliefs about the Palestinian issue still put a damper on Israeli-Arab relations, despite the common threats and challenges?
The Israeli office will not constitute formal diplomatic representation to the UAE, but instead to the United Nations International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which has its headquarters in the Gulf state.
Dore Gold, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, visited Abu Dhabi in late November to discuss the future activities of the office and to finalize the opening of the mission, including meeting with IRENA Director-General Adnan Amin, Haaretz reported.
The opening of the mission follows a several-year process by Israel to establish a presence in the UAE. In 2009, Israel supported the UAE’s bid to host the headquarters of IRENA with the understanding that it would eventually allow Israel to have a diplomatic presence in the Gulf state. In 2010, Uzi Landau, then Israel’s minister for infrastructure, participated in an IRENA conference in Abu Dhabi, marking the first time an Israeli cabinet minister had visited the UAE.
Shortly after the visit, the assassination of a Hamas terrorist leader in Dubai, which the UAE blamed on Israel, set back the process. But in 2014, Israeli infrastructure minister Silvan Shalom gave a speech at the IRENA conference in Abu Dhabi. Israel will now be the only country in the 145-member IRENA to have its diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi accredited solely to IRENA.
Israel does have a history of diplomatic relations in the Arab Gulf states. During the 1990s, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, Israel established trade offices in Oman and Qatar. While those offices were eventually shuttered, Israeli diplomats still maintained low-level contacts within those countries, while it has long been believed that the Mossad spy agency maintains secret contacts elsewhere in the Arab world.
The opening of the mission may also mean that the leaders of the Gulf states view the Palestinian issue as less important than in the past, especially considering the large number of geopolitical challenges they face. The decline in oil prices, coupled with a U.S. retreat from the region and the threat of Iran and terror groups like Islamic State, may have changed the calculus of Arab Gulf leaders.
“It is an indication that the Palestinian issue is not predominant in Gulf assessments—although it is still important for Gulf populations,” Simon Henderson—director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank—told JNS.org.
Henderson described the opening of Israel’s Abu Dhabi office as “not major but significant, and more significant than is being generally reported.”
A report by Sky News in October suggested that Bahrain and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are in negotiations to buy the Israeli-developed Iron Dome anti-missile system to defend against “a growing arsenal of Iranian missiles.”
“The Israelis have their small Iron Dome. We’ll have a much bigger one in the GCC,” Khalid bin Mohammed al Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, said during a visit to London in October.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of Israel’s desire to work more closely with Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE. Israel currently works very closely with both Egypt and Jordan—the only two Arab states who have peace treaties with the Jewish state—on military and security matters as well as economic issues. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has long promoted the Arab Peace Initiative, which was first proposed in 2002, as a means to normalize relations between the entire Arab world and Israel in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal back to its pre-1967 lines.
Over the past several years, there have been numerous reports of Israel cooperating with Saudi Arabia on the Iran nuclear threat, including reports that Israeli aircraft could use Saudi airspace to launch attacks on Iran’s nuclear program.
“Israel is working closely with our Arab peace partners to address our common security challenges from Iran and also the security challenges from ISIS and from others,” Netanyahu said in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in late September.
“Common dangers are clearly bringing Israel and its Arab neighbors closer,” Netanyahu added.
At the same time, during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, Dore Gold— who had not yet been tapped as director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry—and Anwar Eshki, a former Saudi general and ambassador to the U.S., revealed that they had been covertly conducting diplomatic talks to discuss Iran over a series of five meetings since 2014.
Some Israeli analysts have argued that the geopolitical situation is shaping up in Israel’s favor from the perspective of relations with Arab states.
“Due to America’s gradual withdrawal from its obligations in the region, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE now need Israel at least as much, if not more, than Israel needs them,” Haaretz columnist Israel Harel recently wrote.
“Israel’s interests in the region are not dependent on energy sources or on exploiting competition between the superpowers. They are existential and immutable,” he added. “Israel will be a loyal ally to those countries who need it.”
Yet the relationship between Israel and Arab states, including the UAE, will likely still be limited in the near future by concerns about Israel among the Arab nations’ populations.
“Ordinary people in the Gulf would disapprove [of relations with Israel] and the Gulf leaderships cannot ignore local thinking,” the Washington Institute’s Henderson told JNS.org.
But Henderson believes that going forward, what might help Israeli-Arab ties would be a gesture along the lines of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, which later led to the Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. “Perhaps a visit by a significant figure, either to Israel, or an Israeli to the Gulf,” said Henderson, could help bring relations to the next level.