The Spring of Israel’s Relations with its Arab Neighbors

Prof. Elie Podeh December 2018

In the past few weeks it seems that Arab and Muslim countries have been competing with each other over Israel. Following news on back-channel intelligence ties with Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to a well-publicized visit to Oman. Later, Chad’s president arrived in Israel for a visit, during which Netanyahu revealed that Sudan and Bahrain are about to upgrade their relations with Israel as well.

It is difficult to follow the rapid developments and to understand the connection, if there is any, between the various developments taking place throughout the Middle East and Africa. What we are witnessing is the fruition of seeds sown more than a decade ago, when prime minister Ariel Sharon instructed Mossad chief Meir Dagan to seek ways to strengthen ties with Sunni Arab states that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. The goal was to create a joint front against Shi’ite Iran that seeks to develop nuclear weapons. The American invasion of Iraq in April 2003, which overthrew Saddam Hussein and brought a new Shi’ite regime to power, changed the balance of power in favor of Iran and against the Gulf states.

The regional change was particularly noticeable during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, when the Sunni Arab states in the Gulf, Jordan and Egypt verbally attacked the Shi’ite Iranian-led Hezbollah organization. Thus, these countries informally stood by Israel during that war. The ties the Mossad started weaving back then continued during the term of prime minister Ehud Olmert who, according to foreign sources, met a senior Saudi official in Jordan in 2006. WikiLeaks documents dating from 2008-2009 show that Mossad and Foreign Ministry officials met with senior officials from the Gulf states, such as Oman and Bahrain, and possibly from other countries too.

The Arab Spring revolutions that broke out in December 2010 in Tunisia brought about the overthrow of regimes and triggered civil wars. They created chaos in an area that was wellserving the supporters of radical Islam, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Once the regime in Egypt was stabilized in June 2013, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not hesitate to seek Israel’s assistance in his war against terrorism in Sinai, whether by obtaining permission to increase the Egyptian military force in Sinai, by exchanging intelligence information, or by using Israeli drones. The Jordanian regime, which survived the turmoil, was also assisted by Israel in various ways to confront internal and external threats. The nuclear agreement with Iran, signed during Obama’s presidency (in July 2015) by the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, gave further impetus to the informal alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. All the countries threatened by Iran found themselves in the same boat with Israel, which turned out to be the one representing their interests around the world, including in the US Congress.

The beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017 marked a significant policy change toward Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and gave a tailwind to the unwritten alliance that had developed between Israel and the Sunni Arab states since the mid-2000s. Moreover, the positive attitude towards Netanyahu in Washington, improved Israel’s prestige in many capitals in the region.

One of the main reasons for Israel’s success in creating alliances in the region – starting with the Kurds, through the periphery alliance with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia in the 1960s – was its ability to use the influence of the Jewish lobby. Even though using this channel was not always successful, Israel’s image as having political clout in the US achieved its goal. We can safely assume that this consideration played an important role in the decision of Oman, Chad and Sudan to improve ties with Israel. Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, for example, has been trying for years to remove his country from the list of countries supporting terrorism, and to this end has disengaged from Iran and sent troops to help the Saudis in Yemen. Already in 2016, there were first reports that Israel was lobbying the US and European countries to help the regime in Sudan.

The outcome of these developments was the creation of an opportunity to maintain clandestine contacts, and more recently, even overt, with the Sunni Arab states. Three reasons can explain the current timing: First, most Arab countries are preoccupied with domestic problems that require Israeli security and intelligence assistance or help with reaching out to the US. Second, the Arab states realize that the efforts to resolve the IsraeliPalestinian conflict are stalled. In other words, not only the Israelis, who are led by an extreme right-wing government, do not show any will to promote peace. The Palestinians, who are seeing the end of Mahmoud Abbas’ rule and the cleavage between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, do not want – nor can – to advance a political process. This understanding made everyone realize that whatever the opportunities currently are, they should be exhausted.

Finally, the domino effect may also have played a role. Just as the revolution in Tunisia created a ripple effect in other Arab countries, the courage of one Arab leader to take action encouraged others to follow suit. In other words, when the Arab public is preoccupied with mundane problems, they may be less inclined to deal with breaking the taboo on overt relations with Israel. However, everyone – politicians on the Arab side and academics on both sides of the divide – agree that the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Arab states will have to wait for a solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, or at least for significant progress towards its resolution. It is possible that this logic is less valid for Muslim countries in Africa and Asia, but only time will tell. The fact that Saudi Arabia recently denied a visa to Israeli chess players – resulting in the transfer of the tournament to Russia – is an indication of the difficulties of normalizing relations overtly.

Ironically and paradoxically, the Arab Spring that led to chaos in the Arab world led to a spring in Israel’s relations with Arab and Muslim countries. It should be emphasized, however, that this positive development was not the result of a coherent policy of Netanyahu’s government, but rather of regional and global processes that the government neither controls nor influences. Netanyahu can boast that he achieved all this without dismantling the settlements or giving up Israeli land, but in fact, he was simply in the right place at the right time to rake in political and diplomatic capital.

Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

Mailing ListContact UsSupport Mitvim