Israel’s breakthrough in relations with Arab states

Israel’s breakthrough in relations with Arab states
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“Israel is a state in the region; we all understand this,” Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s minister of foreign affairs told the Manama Dialogue summit on Oct. 27. “We are not saying that the road is now easy and paved with flowers, but our priority is to put an end to the conflict and move to a new world.” The unprecedented statement, from a country that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, came days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a historic meeting with Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said.

In one of several high-profile visits in the last week of October, Israeli ministers visited the United Arab Emirates, and Israel received plaudits from commentators in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — an unusual and positive breakthrough in Israel-Gulf relations. It could mean the start of a new era in the Middle East, as ISIS is defeated and the Syrian civil war winds down.

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Netanyahu traveled to Oman unannounced, but once there, he received a royal welcome. Oman borders the Straits of Hormuz, through which a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes daily on tankers. It also borders Yemen, where an Iranian-backed Houthi rebel group is fighting against the Saudi- and UAE-backed government. Oman, a relatively poor country, thus is one of the most strategically located countries in the Middle East.

Netanyahu’s visit came days after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Oman. Although officials in Oman have been talking about helping along Israel-Palestinian peace, the larger picture is that Israel wants to strengthen ties across the region — economic, security and technology connections — either officially or behind the scenes.

Two days after Netanyahu returned from Oman, the Israeli national anthem played for the first time in Abu Dhabi when Israeli judoka Sagi Muki won the gold medal at the Judo Grand Competition. Jerusalem’s culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, was on hand to congratulate the athlete. Regev toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where she spoke of unity and peace. Similarly, Israel’s communications minister, Ayoub Kara, called for “peace and security” in Dubai, an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi, at a telecommunications conference.

The three visits were greeted with scorn in Tehran, as Iran claimed that Israel is trying to create “rifts among Muslim countries,” and accused Israel of 70 years of “occupation” of Palestinian lands. Hamas also condemned the Israeli visits, claiming that Arab countries are “normalizing” relations with Israel at a time when it accuses Israel of “massacring children” in Gaza. Hamas has led 32 weeks of violent protests against Israel in Gaza, with a goal of getting Israel to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The anger in Gaza and Tehran demonstrate that Israel has outplayed attempts to isolate Jerusalem. In fact, Netanyahu has hinted of close ties between Israel and the Gulf states.

However, it’s not all smooth sailing. Jordan’s minister of foreign affairs, speaking at the Manama Dialogue summit, said in response to a question that countries must continue to push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, but publicly it is angered by lack of movement toward a Palestinian state. Similarly, Egypt and Israel have a peace agreement, but relations function primarily behind the scenes.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister also stresses the importance of a two-state solution for ties to exist with Riyadh. Yet Saudi Arabia and Israel share concerns about Iran, and about the emerging alliance of Turkey and Qatar. Both Turkey and Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt in 2012, and Turkey is one of the harshest critics of Israeli policies. Ankara opposed the U.S. decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem in May. On the security front, Iran is arming Hezbollah and entrenching in Syria. Confronting all these threats means Israel needs friends in places such as Abu Dhabi.

Israel’s public visits in late October brought praise. Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a commentator at Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya, lauded Israel for taking an important role against Iran. A Bahraini writer also suggested Bahrain is opening up to Israel.

Seven years after the Arab Spring began, Israel is encountering a new kind of relations with its Arab neighbors. As the Trump administration pressures Iran with new sanctions, and regional concerns grow over Iran’s aggression in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Israel has unlocked relationships that it might be able to leverage for its greatest diplomatic breakthrough in decades.

Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the state of the region after ISIS.