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Other Arab states may not line up to normalize relations with Israel

Other Arab states may not line up to normalize relations with Israel
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Having hosted a successful White House ceremony to formalize the normalization of Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE announced that as many as six other states soon could normalize their own relations with the Jewish state. Hours later, the president revised that number, asserting that up to nine states would follow the UAE’s and Bahrain’s lead. 

It is difficult to see how he came up with either number. Among the Gulf states, Oman would appear to be the next candidate for normalization. Oman long has acted as a go-between for Arab-Israeli interaction. Since 1996 it has hosted the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MERDC), whose executive committee includes representatives of several Arab states, Israel and Palestine. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE paid a not very secret visit to Muscat in October 2018 to meet with then-Sultan Qaboos

Sudan may be another leading candidate for an agreement with Israel. Its clandestine ties with Israel have been neither as longstanding nor as continuous as some others, but unlike the rest of the Arab League, Sudan supported the 1978 Camp David Agreement that was the foundation of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. 

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Nevertheless, both Oman and Sudan may hesitate to move ahead quickly. Muscat has acted as an intermediary not only between Israel and the Palestinians but also between Washington and Tehran, and someday could do the same between Israel and Iran. The Omani royal family has not forgotten that it was Iran, admittedly under the Shah, that enabled it to put down the Dhofar rebellion in the 1970s. Formalizing ties with Israel would not only alienate Tehran, but also likely put an end to Oman’s go-between role — to which it attaches great importance. Sudan likewise is unlikely to reach a formal agreement with Israel unless Oman or another state does so at roughly the same time.

Apart from Oman, however, the likelihood that other Gulf states will normalize relations with Israel may be considerably more remote. Qatar is at odds with the Emirates and has a long history of friction with Bahrain. It is unlikely to sacrifice its ties to Turkey, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood to make peace with Jerusalem. Indeed, Qatar has leveraged its open connections with Hamas and more secretive ties with Israel to negotiate ceasefires between the two implacable enemies, a special position that parallels that of Oman and that Doha likewise would be unlikely to forego. 

Kuwait does not seem eager to normalize relations with Israel. Quite the contrary, the Kuwaitis — who expelled all resident Palestinians after the first Gulf War — now are seemingly fervent supporters of Palestine. As a Kuwaiti government official stated earlier this summer, “Kuwait … will be the last country to normalize with Israel.” 

Kuwait’s larger neighbor, Iraq, likewise has no short-term interest in any deal with the Israelis. Baghdad faces constant pressure from Iran and its proxy militias, and is in no position to add to its internal political woes by forging a relationship with Jerusalem. 

Nor are Saudi Arabia and Morocco rushing to negotiate a deal with Jerusalem. Certainly, the Saudis have signaled that they are not uncomfortable with a decision by any of their neighbors to normalize relations with the Jewish state. Riyadh has openly permitted El Al to overfly their territory en route to Manama or Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Moreover, without a Saudi green light, Bahrain would not have signed any formal agreement with Israel, since Manama is fully aware that if the Saudis are unhappy, their armored formations are but a causeway away. 

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Nevertheless, the situation in Riyadh is far more complex. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman reportedly is all in favor of at least some steps toward normalization, but his father has been adamantly opposed until there is a settlement with the Palestinians. The Saudi king, whose formal title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, sees himself as a leader of the Muslim world, and not, as Iran claims, only the Sunni Arabs. 

Indeed, it was the Shia who controlled Mecca in the 10th century, a fact that Iran has not forgotten. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei publicly insisted in 2018 that the Saudis relinquish control of the holy sites. An open Saudi agreement with Israel could energize the Iranian demand, and possibly win Tehran support from not only Shia-dominated Syria and Lebanon but also some Sunni Arab states. Indeed, the al-Saud family has only fully controlled Mecca since the 1920s — and, in the Middle East, a century is but a nine days’ wonder.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco equally is in no rush to formalize relations with Israel. Like King Hassan II before him, he has maintained cordial but informal ties with Jerusalem and quietly hosted Israeli leaders. King Mohammed considers the 1 million Israeli Moroccans to be his subjects, and many if not most of them in turn see him as their monarch. Israeli tourists constantly visit Morocco, and often stop at the kosher restaurants in Casablanca.  

At the same time, however, the king is chairman of the Islamic Conference’s Jerusalem Committee and, in that role, he is a formal advocate for the transfer of East Jerusalem and its two major mosques to the Palestinians. He simply cannot, and will not, move forward with complete normalization until Israel and the Palestinians reach a formal two-state settlement.

There indeed may be some Arab or Muslim states that will proceed toward normalization. Mauretania might restore the full diplomatic relations with Israel that it maintained from 1999 to 2010. Djibouti, where the United States (and China) has a base, also might move toward normalization. Both are very poor states, desperate for the economic and technical assistance that Israel potentially could offer them.

Nevertheless, given that, in any event, no Arab state has the slightest incentive to move ahead until after the U.S. presidential election, it is difficult to see how President Trump’s prediction that nine, or even five, additional Arab states are ready to normalize relations with Israel can come to pass. Of course, the president is no stranger to exaggeration and his announcement, in both its original and its optimistically revised forms, likely was nothing more than bluster.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.