The nuclear threat posed by Iran has brought Israel and the Gulf States closer together. This nascent tacit security regime allows these countries to address the common threat while sidestepping the more intractable issue of Palestinian statehood.
Israel and the Arab Gulf States do not have diplomatic relations; indeed, some do not even recognize Israel as a state. However, shared concerns of Iran have, since 2006 brought these erstwhile foes closer together. These relations, short of an explicit alliance, are an expression of realpolitik rather than shared values or of deep intimacy. However, the Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis, underpinned by shared perceptions of threats to be countered and interests to be realised, have been cooperating on security related matters for some time.
For Israel and the Gulf States, the nuclear deal with Iran singed in July 2015 has done little to curb Iran’s regional conduct or indeed its longer term nuclear ambitions. Another motivation that bring the sides closer relates to disagreements with the Obama administration over its Middle East policies and deep concerns that in the long run their main security guarantor will lessen its commitment to their security and further decrease its military and diplomatic leverage across the region.
Although relations between the sides warmed up in recent years, they are not new. For example, Oman and Qatar, whether it was to find favour in the eyes of the Americans or to anger the Saudis, established official relations, albeit partial ones, with Israel. Israel opened missions in both countries, but the second intifada in 2000 and Operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza led to their closure. Now, however, it seems that Saudi Arabia in particular is more willing to acknowledge its ongoing dialogue with Israel, if only to test how its public will react to more overt relations. It already got the attention of Iran and Hezbollah.
This new openness that carries with it a heightened political symbolism, is gradually breaking a long-held taboo that any Saudi, let alone one identified so closely with the ruling family, could ever appear in public with their erstwhile foe. These days, one does not have to look hard to find opinion pieces by senior Israelis or Saudis in each other media outlets. State-run media in the Gulf appears to be softening its reporting on Israel, running columns floating the prospect of direct relations, quoting Israeli officials, and filling its news holes with fewer negative stories on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. The outspoken Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was also very candor speaking about the startling relations of Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and the Jewish state and noted that “For the first time, Saudi Arabian interests and Israel are almost parallel … It’s incredible.”
Faced with crumbling Middle East state order, Israel is, again, actively looking to form ties with states and non-state actors, some even former enemies. While in the past they stood in the shadows of others, the Gulf states too have adopted a more assertive foreign policy needed to confront regional changes. It remains unclear, however, if the two sides will be willing to take the same foreign policy risks, this time towards each other, to realize the full potential of their relations.
The fact is that the shared antipathies towards Tehran does not preclude competition or divergent interests pursued in other fields. Gulf States, have strongly supported the recent adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 regarding Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore, Saudi officials make clear that unless Israel is willing to engage seriously with the Arab Peace Initiative and with it, tangible progress towards realising Palestinian self-determination, overt ties with Jerusalem will hardly move beyond the symbolic handshakes at academic symposia. Netanyahu too remains hamstrung, politically as well as ideologically by a domestic constituency unwilling to accept substantive territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
The hierarchy of threat in favour of Iran trumped any immediate desire among the Gulf states to push the Arab peace initiative, however signalling it’s still “on the table”. Furthermore, at the end of 2015, the most senior cleric in the Kingdom, Shaykh Abdulaziz al-Shaykh stated that ISIS was in reality an adjunct of the Israeli army. Such statements emanating from such an authoritative figure are indicative of the current boundaries of the relationship on the Arab side.
Internal constraints on all sides will continue to determine the type and intensity of external engagement. Indeed, neither side is willing to pay the price needed to realize the strategic potential inherent in their relations. Both sides are benefiting from the advantages of covert ties without having to pay a political price for pulling them out of the closet.
This nascent tacit security regime between Israel and the Gulf states has, for the most part, been shaped by its lowest common denominator, the perceived threat from Tehran, while sidestepping perhaps the more intractable issue of Palestinian statehood. Whether, overtime, the contours of the regime can foster the confidence building measures that will be required to reach a formal treaty satisfactory to all sides will, in truth, be the real test of its leverage beyond the immediate purchase of hard security. For now, all concerned remain the best of adversaries.
An attempt to change force such relations from the shadows would undermine what has been achieved so far but even so, there is a wide range of policy options between full diplomatic relations and a total lack of contact, and the actors involved can and indeed have taken advantage of this. Israelis in particular have increasingly taken the opportunity to express in public forums the interests shared between Jerusalem and what Major General Herzi Halevy, Head of Israeli military intelligence, referred to as “pragmatic Sunni countries” and the opportunities therefore to be realised.
Israelis and Arabs alike hope that the Trump administration will reverse the Obama-era policy of leading from behind. But if Trump follows suit and makes good on his pledge to Make America Great Again, beginning at home, Washington’s Middle East allies could find comfort in their secret, under the-table relations. Those already become an important template for understanding shifts in alliances and regional security systems, across the wider Middle East and beyond.
Clive Jones holds a Chair in Regional Security (Middle East) in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University, United Kingdom. Yoel Guzansky is Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. They are the authors of “Israel’s relations with the Gulf states: Toward the emergence of a tacit security regime?”, Contemporary Security Policy, 38, forthcoming. It is available here.