Israel and the Gulf States: Between Iran and the Arab Spring

Here are the first few paragraphs of Yoel Guzansky’s paper on “Israel and the Gulf States: Between Iran and the Arab Spring”, published in Politique étrangère 4/2012.
Yoel Guzansky is an associate researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel-Aviv University.
Click here to download a full PDF version of the text in English.

Couv PE 4-2012_finalIsrael’s essential interests are—more than ever―influenced by the strategic situation in the Gulf and by the rise of Iran. While the Arab Gulf states[1] still regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a destabilizing factor, they also view Iran as their number one defense problem, and this perspective has already led to a tightening of security and intelligence relations between Israel and several of these states.

Over the years, the Gulf states failed to adopt a distinct policy on the Palestinian-Arab-Israeli conflict. In most cases, they preferred to adhere to the basic Arab position, albeit occasionally supplementing such a position with their own, not insignificant adjustments. The American diplomatic effort to break through the deadlock in the peace process, as well as the convening of the Madrid Conference in 1991, contributed to the official beginning of an understanding between these countries and Israel. This partial rapprochement was based on five topical work groups established following the conference. The creation of such groups, which considered the issues of water, environmental protection, economic cooperation, refugees, and arms control, marked an important milestone on the path toward normalization between Israel and its neighbors.

Bolstered by strong encouragement by the US in this regard, some of the Gulf states even responded slightly to these pleas for normalization, although their motivation for doing so came from other areas as well, including their contempt for and anger toward Arafat for supporting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, their developing relations with American Jewish organizations, and even a feeling of solidarity after Iraqi Scud missiles fell on both Riyadh and Tel Aviv. At the same time, the meager progress in the peace process during the ensuing years caused these Gulf states to revert to their anti-Israel positions, which were sometimes anti-Semitic.[2]

Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a forum for the six Persian Gulf monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) agreed to conclude the boycott imposed on companies having economic relations with Israel. Their representatives emphasized that this was to be distinguished from their direct boycott against Israel, which would remain in effect until a general peace was reached. As time passed, however, the Gulf states began to express reservations about the Oslo Accords and stressed that they were regarded as no more than a possible way to achieve a comprehensive peace rather than any regional turning point. Then, in March 1997, three major events led the GCC to suspend the modest normalization process which had begun at the Madrid Conference, that is, the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian demonstrators over the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in Jerusalem that same year. Additional reasons for suspending the normalization process were also present, especially from the perspective of the largest and most important Arab Gulf country, that of Saudi Arabia. These included disillusionment with US policy in Iraq and the Saudi Arabian rapprochement with Iran that began with the election of Khatami as president of Iran in May 1997.

A renewal of normalization measures was then announced by several Gulf states in 2005 when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. This highlighted the fact that the establishment of formal relations between Israel and the six GCC states were closely tied to decisions taken by Israel concerning a settlement with the Palestinians. In other words, Israeli action regarded by the Gulf states as positive steps toward such a settlement appeared to result in steps toward normalization. The foreign minister of Bahrain confirmed in 2005 that his country had decided to cancel its boycott of Israeli goods and his Qatari counterpart called on Arab countries “to respond positively to the step taken by Israel,” noting that “full diplomatic relations between Qatar and Israel were possible even before a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories.”[3] Both Qatar and Oman had already had low-level ties with Israel, but Saudi Arabia continued to object to such a development, going so far as to exert pressure on the smaller Gulf states to refrain from any official warming of relations with the State of Israel.

The efforts undertaken by the Obama Administration at the beginning of his first term to accelerate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through “confidence-building measures” reintroduced the possibility for a thaw in relations between Israel and several Arab Gulf states. Together with the pressure exerted by the Administration on Israel to grant concessions to the Palestinians, resulting in a ten month cessation of construction in the settlements, the American President unsuccessfully urged several Gulf states to make gestures of normalization toward Israel. Among the measures considered was a reopening of Israeli diplomatic missions in Muscat (closed since 2000, following the outbreak of the second intifada) and Doha (officially closed in early 2009 after Operation Cast Lead). The possibility of allowing El Al, Israel’s national airline, to fly over Saudi Arabian territory on their way to and from destinations in the Far East was also reportedly discussed. Such permission would shorten the flight time to these destinations and help make Israel a hub for airlines traveling between Europe and the Far East.[4] These gestures, however, while discussed were never embarked upon.

Read the full text here (PDF)

Yoel Guzansky


[1]For the purposes of this article, the “Gulf states” will refer to the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, that is, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, unless otherwise noted.

[2]For more on this subject, see Joseph Kostiner, The Marginal Peace: The Policies of the Gulf States towards the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process and Israel, Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, Tel Aviv University, 2008.

[3]Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), October 10, 2005.

[4] Zohar Blumenkrantz, “In the Framework of Discussions at the Air Salon: Passage of Israeli Airplanes over Saudi Arabia,” Haaretz, June 14, 2009.

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