Battling Iran in Syria, Israel Moves Closer to Gulf States
As Israel and Iran clash in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is courting Gulf Arab states at a time when broader policies align against their common rival Tehran.
Netanyahu on Thursday held surprise talks with Oman's Sultan Qaboos in Muscat -- accompanied by the head of Mossad, according to Netanyahu's office -- raising Palestinian fears of a normalization of ties.
Days later, controversial Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev toured the UAE's famed Sheikh Zayed mosque, Israel's communications minister spoke in Dubai and the Israeli national anthem played at a judo competition in Abu Dhabi.
Israel's transport minister is due to promote a rail link between the Israeli city of Haifa and the Gulf next week in Oman.
The apparent bolstering of relations comes as the United States pushes tighter sanctions on Iran and, like Israel, holds firm to its demand that Tehran have no say in the reconstruction of Syria.
In parallel, U.S. President Donald Trump has made no secret of his ties to -- and views on -- Saudi Arabia, which had cooled during the Obama administration.
Trump refused to take a firm stand on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has thrown into disarray Saudi Arabia's carefully crafted reformist image and could push the kingdom to seek support across the region. Saudi Arabia has not officially reacted to the Israeli visits.
And while Israel's attempt to woo the region has been a long time in the making, analysts say, the tussle between Iran on the one hand and the United States, Israel and Gulf on the other has propelled the talks to new, and public, heights.
- 'Window of opportunity' -
Gulf states have held clandestine talks with Israel for decades, going back to at least the early 1980s. Arab leaders have not, however, historically publicized talks over fears of a public backlash over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Broader policy alignment, primarily on the need to contain Iran, may have emboldened both sides to now make those talks public as Israel vows to prevent Tehran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria, where Iran backs President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war.
"Policy alignment is bringing them closer, if not yet together," said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
"Pressuring Iran and squeezing its regional activity is a first order priority in Israel and also in certain Gulf capitals. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and separately Tel Aviv, all feel it is imperative to seize the current window of opportunity -- in which the U.S. administration is also prioritizing Iran."
The Gulf initiatives also comes ahead of possible Israeli elections early next year, and improved relations with Arab states could boost Netanyahu's standing at home.
"Israel was always inclined to make such meetings public. It was the Arabs who were very sensitive to photo-ops of the sort because of public opinion" and the Palestinian issue, said Yoel Guzansky, senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former head of the Gulf department for Israel's National Security Council.
The public rapprochement could also aim "to acquaint the Gulf street, public opinion, to ties with Israel, so that when something happens it won't be a total surprise, and the public will understand the rationale -- that Israel is not the enemy.
"Someone else is the enemy. And this someone else is Iran."
- 'New pragmatism' -
Israel has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan.
Qatar has informal ties to both Israel and rival Iran, with which it shares a gas field. Until 2000, the emirate was home to an Israeli trade representative office.
Doha also provides humanitarian assistance -- and fuel -- to the Gaza Strip, under an agreement with Israel backed by United States.
At a regional defense conference in the Bahraini capital on Friday, Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah said it might be "time for Israel to be treated the same (as states in the Middle East) and also bear the same obligations" -- a statement endorsed by Bahrain.
The Omani statement, according to the forum's official blog, aims to "move the Israel–Palestine narrative on from past intractability to a new focus on pragmatism."
But Oman's position has sparked fears of what Palestinian presidential adviser Mohammad Shtayyeh called "the start of a public normalization and the end of the Arab peace initiative," a 2002 proposal for Arab states to restore ties with Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state.
"Arab dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain are cosying up to Israel's apartheid regime to curry favor with the Trump administration as a means to protect their shaky thrones," said Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
"Palestinians are counting on the peoples of the Arab region, including the Gulf, and not on the unelected, ruthless despots, to stand with us in our struggle for freedom, justice and equality," Barghouti added.