Middle East Eye / November 15, 2022
The Gulf is less vulnerable to downturns in Israeli ties than Jordan and Egypt, but they are not immune to extreme-right policies.
Benjamin Netanyahu promised to expand peace deals with Arab states after being tapped to form a new Israeli government, but he will have to contend with far-right and ultra-Zionist allies who could complicate those efforts.
On Sunday, Netanyahu said he would work on “further peace deals, peace through strength, peace in exchange for peace, with additional Arab countries – and thus, to a large extent, end the Israeli-Arab conflict”.
But the ability of Israel’s longest-serving premier to follow through on that pledge may depend on the makeup of his new government.
Netanyahu secured a majority in parliament this month thanks to an alliance with far-right lawmakers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who have promoted far-right views and dangerous policies such as annexing large swaths of the occupied West Bank, expanding illegal settlements and allowing Jewish prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
As Netanyahu works to form his government, both men are angling for powerful ministerial positions that could let them shape future Israeli policy on those issues.
Smotrich is a contender for Defence minister, a post that would put him at the centre of sensitive security ties with Arab states and give him power over civilian and military policies in the occupied West Bank. Ben Gvir has asked to be made Public Security minister, with oversight of the police who control security at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“The Abraham Accord countries are less vulnerable to downturns in the relationship than countries like Jordan and Egypt, but they are not immune,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, told Middle East Eye.
“A lot will depend on just how provocative, how assertive this new government is,” Miller added.
There have already been some signs of unease among Gulf states. Before the elections, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed reportedly warned Netanyahu against including Smotrich or Ben-Gvir in a future government.
Following the vote, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an influential Emirati political commentator and noted critic of the Abraham Accords, slammed the electoral success of “racist settler parties that hate Arabs [Palestinians] and raise the slogan of death to the Arabs”.
“I think it is appropriate to freeze the Abrahamic Agreement temporarily, and I hope that Netanyahu and those with him will not set foot on the land of the Emirates,” Abdulla added.
A lightning rod
Unlike Israel’s ties with Jordan and Egypt, the Abraham Accords are unique in that the countries have publicly embraced relations. Israeli tourists have flocked to the Emirates and Morocco. In May, Israel and the UAE signed a historic free trade deal. Arms sales from Israel to its Arab neighbours are booming.
“The normalisation process won’t be stopped,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former member of Israel’s National Security Council, told MEE. “Both sides have interests to keep going.”
Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s potential inclusion in an Israeli government could reveal just how much the Abraham Accords countries are willing to absorb on the Palestinian conflict.
Israel’s closer ties with its Arab neighbours were forged by factors spanning concern over Iran, a mutual animosity towards Hamas, the group which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, and a desire to tap into each other’s economies.
“We have seen a general fatigue with the Palestinian issue from many Arab governments and to a certain extent people in the region,” Aziz Alghashian, a Riyadh-based expert on Israeli-Gulf ties told MEE.
“But Netanyahu’s coalition with explicitly racist partners makes the optics of the Abraham Accords more difficult,” he added.
Although many analysts say the Palestinian issue was not a central driver of normalization, the UAE still billed the establishment of ties with Israel in the context of the conflict with Palestine.
In an interview last year, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, said: “The reason it (the Abraham Accords) happened, the way it happened, at the time it happened was to prevent annexation.”
Alghashian says he can see a scenario where a Netanyahu-led government moves too close to Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s positions that it actually creates a backlash in the Arab world, pointing to al-Aqsa Mosque as an example.
As part of a decades-old arrangement, non-Muslims are allowed to visit al-Aqsa complex under the supervision of the Waqf, a joint Jordanian-Palestinian Islamic trust that manages the affairs of the mosque.
While Muslims are allowed to pray in the courtyards and prayer halls of the mosque, Jews are forbidden from praying there, a long-standing precedent that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir want to overturn.
“Al Aqsa remains a lightning rod issue in the Middle East, even in Gulf states that have moved closer to Israel. That could emerge as a real flashpoint going forward,” Alghashian said.
So far, the public reaction from major Gulf powers to Israel’s election has been muted. Israel has even been able to claim a small diplomatic success, albeit temporarily.
Last week, Qatar said it would receive direct charter flights from Israel for the World Cup. Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it would allow Israeli flights over its airspace was heralded as a major breakthrough this summer. Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia lacks official diplomatic relations with Israel.
“The arrangement between the Qataris and the Israelis to allow charter flights at a time when you are on the cusp of ushering in the most right-wing government in the history of Israel is a remarkable reality,” Miller said.
But Netanyahu’s pledge to expand the Abraham Accords is likely to be a tougher bet, particularly with the region’s main prize, Saudi Arabia.
“An Israeli government that includes extremist Jewish nationalists would make it much more difficult for Riyadh to move forward with normalization,” Douglas Silliman, a former US ambassador to Kuwait and Iraq, now president of the Arab Gulf states Institute in Washington DC, told MEE.
Saudi Arabia had already shown coolness towards normalizing with Israel during President Biden’s visit to Jeddah in July, and that was before a feud between Riyadh and Washington over oil production erupted.
“I don’t see a downgrading of Israel’s relations with Arab states, but it’s now more difficult for others to jump on the bandwagon,” Alghashian said.
Sean Mathews is a reporter for Middle East Eye covering US foreign policy and national security