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Gulf Leaders Warm to Israel but Citizens don’t follow

Specials- King Salman World Rapid
Participants attend the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Championships, the first international chess competition held in Saudi Arabia, in the capital Riyadh on December 26, 2017. The Israel Chess Federation said it is seeking compensation from the organisers of a tournament in Saudi Arabia, after the Gulf state refused to issue visas for its players. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ STRINGER

Gulf leaders are warming up to Israel in a bid to normalize ties, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS) is leading the charge.

In April 2018, the brash young king-in-waiting told a delegation of Zionist Americans that the Palestinians should make peace with the Israelis or shut up, sparking outrage among the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) leadership. The same month, MBS told The Atlantic magazine that Israel has the right to its own land. In the same interview, he reiterated that Saudi Arabia could only normalize ties with the Jewish state after a peace deal is inked between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet any peace deal that Jared Kushner – US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and national security adviser – proposes will do more harm than good to Palestinians. MBS does not care and has even tried to pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into accepting a deal that would require Palestinians to give up the right of return and surrender sovereignty over the occupied territories.

MBS’ comments, and fraying relationship with Abbas, indicated that the Palestinian cause was no longer a priority for the kingdom. Instead, MBS saw an opportunity to form a regional alliance with Israel to offset Iran.

However, the crown prince’s power has limits. On 29 July, King Salman reassured his allies that Saudi Arabia is committed to supporting the PA in negotiating a just peace, officially overruling his son’s foreign policy stance.

Basem al-Agha, the Palestinian ambassador in the Saudi capital Riyadh, told Reuters that King Salman has promised Abbas that he will not abandon him, as MBS has done. Al-Agha added that the fact that King Salman named the 2018 Arab League conference ‘the Jerusalem Summit’, while providing millions of dollars in aid for Palestinians, were signs that negotiating the return of refugees and reclaiming East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital were essential requirements to any peace deal.

King Salman enjoys far more support across the region than his successor. According to the latest survey conducted by the Arab Opinion Index (AOI), a project of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 87 per cent of Arab citizens disapprove of their government’s attempts to abandon the Palestinian cause by normalizing ties with Israel. Most respondents cited Israeli discrimination against Palestinians and Israeli expansionism as the reasons for their stance.

The strength of public hostility towards Israel was evident in early August, when the junior Saudi badminton team refused to participate in an international championship in Ukraine after they found out that a member of the opposing team was Israeli. The Saudi coach filmed his team walking out and uploaded it to Twitter.

With the exception of King Salman, most Arab citizens appear to be at odds with their leaders when it comes to the Palestinian cause. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for one, has established closer ties with Israel over the last few years. In September 2017, WikiLeaks revealed that the two countries were engaging in secret talks via Yousef al-Otabia, the Emirati ambassador to Washington.

The backchannel talks should not come as a surprise, however, since Israel already enjoyed warmer relations with the UAE, compared to its other Arab neighbours. In 2015, Israel opened an energy office in Abu Dhabi; and in 2010, Israel’s judo team was invited to take part in a tournament in the UAE for the first time.

Bahrain, which many observers consider a satellite state of Saudi Arabia, has also held several secretive talks with Israel. To date, the tiny Gulf nation looks destined to be the first to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel. In September 2017, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa even said that he was growing tired of the Arab boycott of Israel. Two months later, a delegation of clerics from Bahrain travelled to Israel to ‘send a message of peace’.

Even more surprising was a May 2018 tweet by Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Iranian aggression. At the time, Iran had fired 20 rockets at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, triggering Israel to retaliate by hitting Iranian targets in Syria.

‘As long as Iran has breached the status quo in the region and invaded countries with its forces and missiles, so any state in the region, including Israel, is entitled to defend itself by destroying sources of danger,’ the minister wrote.

Yet despite warming relations with Gulf countries, it seems unlikely that Israel will be able to normalize ties before ending its occupation of Palestinian, according to Philip Gordan, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. He believes that if relations are normalized before the Palestinian issue is resolved, it will trigger domestic turmoil in many Gulf states.

‘Facing massive domestic and foreign policy challenges – from low oil prices to threats from extremists – [Arab states] simply cannot afford to spend valuable political capital defending a rapprochement with Israel that most of their citizens would consider a betrayal of the Palestinian cause,’ Gordon wrote in a column for The Washington Post in June 2017.

Egypt experienced such turmoil on 6 October 1981, when President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood for signing a peace agreement with Israel two years prior.

Beyond the lessons of history, Gulf states would not want to cede the Palestinian issue to Tehran, said Varsha Koduvayur, a Gulf research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank.

“I think Gulf states are aware of the [risk] of Iran seizing the populist mantle of Palestinian resistance, and that’s why we’re seeing them in this delicate balancing act with Israel,” she told Fanack Chronicle. “[Gulf states] are slowly increasing outreach and communication but not committing to a full-fledged diplomatic relationship while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simmers.”

Despite attempts by Trump and Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu to persuade Arab states to establish official ties, Koduvayur emphasized that the road to normalization still passes through Palestine, not the other way around.

“There appears to be decreasing appetite for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among Gulf leaders, due to the conflict’s stalemate, the deadlock in Palestinian politics and the inefficacy of Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership,” she noted. “But the Palestinian issue does continue to be an emotive one for the Arab world. Normalizing without a resolution carries domestic political risks for the monarchies.”

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