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Gulf Countries' Breakthrough with Israel Over a Shared Fear from Iran

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

The last few months have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in the Arab world's foreign relations with Israel, despite Israel's refusal to acknowledge a Palestinian State.

Until recently, ties between Israel and several Gulf Arab states were mainly occurring under the radar, partly due to Arab states' official support for the Palestinian cause, risking igniting both domestic and regional anger.

Nevertheless, significant changes in recent years enabled them to leverage closer relations for first time in decades, over a shared interest. Iranian's direct involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Trump administration's new sanctions on Iran and Saudi Arabia determination to contain it, all greatly affected the region and the Palestinian struggle has been cast aside.

Israel made great efforts to fix Mohammed bin Salman's reputation after the alleged attempt of murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the crown prince works towards normalization with Israel in return, among other reasons.

In an era that the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region is on the verge for economic breakout, Saudi Arabia has the largest economy in the region followed by the Emirati, Israeli engineers and startups could become natural partners in the Gulf tech industry ecosystem. For instance, Dubai is an international city, a fact that makes it easy for it to welcome Israeli businesses, which are already active from the U.S. to Japan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in October, other Israeli government officials and athletes' trips to Qatar and the UAE as well as the Saudi crown prince's rhetoric regarding Israel and Palestine are significant developments in the relations between Israel and Gulf States, which do not have formal diplomatic ties. In September, Saudi Arabia bought an Iron Dome missile defense system from Israel, accompanied by American mediation, to combat rocket attacks from Iran's proxies, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In fact, only in the last few months, Saudi Arabia has expressed its recognition for the Israeli regime and opened its airspace for Israeli flights. Additionally, there has been an air traffic agreement with Oman to and from Israel and a railway connection agreement between Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. This project, which has been discontinued in 2015, will be followed through with a Chinese company called Touchstoneand, and currently estimated at 4.23 billion USD. Moreover, Saudi Arabia recently acquired 250 million USD spy systems from Israel.

Additionally, on January, both Israel and Jordan pledged a total of 2 billion USD for a Red sea-Dead sea pipeline project, aimed at connecting the Red Sea port of Aqaba to an area by the south-eastern coast of the Dead Sea, both within Jordanian territory. The project will provide drinking water to Jordan and desalinated water for sale for the Palestinians and will include the construction of a hydroelectric plant.

Gulf, Arabs and Israeli officials held meetings for years, but lacked a motive to make a significant step to normalize the relations. The Middle Eastern dynamics revealed a coalition built on mutual interests, predominantly, battling Iran's growing influence in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia.

Simultaneously, militant groups including Hezbollah, members of Hashd al-Shaabi and the Houthis have strengthened in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, creating new political structures in the Arab world. The Trump administration, which also seeks to contain Iran, strongly supports closer ties between US allies in the Gulf and Israel. As a part of the battle, Israel and Saudi Arabia are trying to portray Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat.

While the relations between Qatar, Turkey, and Iran continue to evolve despite the sanctions, the threat over the status quo in the Middle East enhances. Due to its political significance, Saudi Arabia remains the central source for sustainable regional peace.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are both worried about the emerging alliance between Turkey and Qatar, which backed the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt in 2012. Turkey constantly presents hard front to Israeli policies and condemned U.S.'s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem in May. Security vise, Iran arms Hezbollah and entrenches in Syria. Both Iran and Turkey will never allow the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state at their borders.

Saudi Arabia and Iran terminated their ties in 2016, followed by warnings from the crown prince against a possible Islamic Republic military action. However, Saudi Arabia is already engaged in a costly military conflict, such as the war in Yemen, and face the risk of Iranian proxy wars, including channeling Hezbollah in Lebanon or Syria to direct more attacks towards Israel, an American ally, or provide more military support to the Houthis in Yemen.

Over all, the military defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in big parts of Iraq and Syria, ongoing negotiations between the Assad regime, Iran, Russia, and Turkey and the Iranian role in neutralizing the Kurdish aspirations all counter act the Saudis' interests. On the other hand, Israel refuses to allow Iran, which backs the Assad regime, to spread out militarily in Syria. Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Israel believe that it is vital to seize the current window of opportunity according to which the US also prioritizes Iran.

For Israel, normalization with the UAE, namely Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, will strengthen its reginal security and provide more local trading partners. For Saudi Arabia, stronger ties with Israel would provide them with better arms, military and cyber expertise against Iran's massive influence all the way until Iraq and Lebanon. Yet, it may require a price from Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian arena to accept the 2002 Saudi Initiative or other measures to end the conflict.

Similarly, improving the relations with Oman, which preserved cordial relations with countries that are adversaries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, for Israel could provide a back channel to communicate with some of its enemies in the region. Including Iran, Syria or even Hezbollah. For Oman, the meaning could be to, circuitously, get closer to the U.S.

The strategy of the raising anti-Iran coalition is divided into three parts. First, confusing the public opinion on the implications of the JCPOA in regards to U.S. security interests. Secondly, weaken Iran's diplomatic and economic position, optimally forcing European countries to choose between the U.S. and Iran. Thirdly, weaken Iran's connections with the Arab world.

For the Palestinians, the recent normalization trend with Israel, without forcing Israel to resolve the conflict diminish their relevance and hurts their odds to realize their narrative for their own state. It also harms the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which the 22 members of the Arab League signed up on, that offers Israel normal diplomatic relations with Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in the 1967 war.

Palestinians fear that Trump is using Iran to rally support from Gulf States in order to pressure the them into accepting a peace plan that falls far short of their demands. According to Trump's "Deal of the Century", Jerusalem will be recognized as the capital of Israel.

Nowadays, both the Arab world and Israel are the closest they have ever been to increase their ties and improve their position in the Middle Eastern arena. Followed by solid U.S. support, who aspires for an Arab coalition against Iran, are able to take that next step.

Gulf and Arab states use the Iranian threat to actually make cooperation with western world partners, such as the U.S., possible. Israel uses the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies to its advantage, while Iran is precedent above the Palestinian dilemma in terms of impact to the Arab states.

The most significant Israeli-Arab cooperation since the last peace process in the 1990s, is now taking place without it. This enables to reverse the notion that only peace with the Palestinians can ensure Israel's acceptance within the Arab world.

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