The Electronic Intifada / July 9, 2019
More than ever before, Gulf states are moving their decades-old clandestine relations with Israel into the limelight.
Since the Saudi-led regional isolation and blockade of Qatar began in June 2017, there has been a big rise in overt displays of normalization with Israel, led by Saudi Arabia and followed by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman.
In an effort to curry favour with the United States to combat its pariah status in the region, Qatar invited some of the most extreme supporters of Israel on all-expenses-paid trips and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to some of the most right-wing pro-Israel organizations in the United States.
But at the core of the blockade against Qatar and the warming relations between certain Gulf states and Tel Aviv is their common enmity towards Iran.
The climax of the trend in normalization happened on the stage of the US-sponsored conference in Bahrain last month, where the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain discussed the “threat” of Iran with US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif stated that the so-called “B-Team” – Zarif’s term for US national security adviser John Bolton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – pressured US President Donald Trumpto pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.
Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa was arguably the most brazenly pro-Israel Gulf official at the conference, conducting interviews with Israeli journalists and posing with Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni in a picture she posted a day after the Manama workshop.
This was not the first time Al Khalifa met Livni.
The Bahraini minister approached Livni at the February 2017 Munich Security Conference to relay a message on behalf of Bahrain’s king, that he had decided to move towards normalization with Israel and wanted her to inform Netanyahu, according to a report by Barak Ravid for Israel’s Channel 10.
Livni once asserted that Israel shares values with “moderate” Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, as well as with Egypt and Jordan.
The former minister has been pursued internationally by prosecutors for questioning over her role in war crimes in the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, in a sign that economic relations are also moving into the open, potatoes imported from Israel have been seen on sale in a Bahraini supermarket, according to the Bahraini Society Against Normalization with the Zionist Enemy:
The group said it would call for a boycott if the goods are not immediately withdrawn, and no Israeli products are imported or sold in the island state.
UAE hosts Israeli government official
Days after the Bahrain workshop, Israeli foreign minister Yisrael Katz led a delegation on an unannounced trip to the United Arab Emirates, flying over Saudi Arabia on his way there.
According to Itay Blumental, a reporter for the Israeli publication Ynet, Katz flew in a private jet from Israel that first made a brief layover in Cyprus. From there it took off for Abu Dhabi through the airspace of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This ruse allowed the flight to be designated as originating from Cyprus, rather than Israel.
Israel has no formal diplomatic ties with any Arab states, with the exception of Jordan and Egypt.
Katz was attending the UN Climate Change Summit in Abu Dhabi. He also met with an unnamed senior Emirati official to discuss the countries’ mutual animosity towards Iran as well as with UN Secretary-General António Guterres during the trip.
Katz paid a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – one of the largest in the world – where he said he was “happy to stand here in Abu Dhabi to represent the interests of the state of Israel in regards to Gulf states.”
Katz was not the first Israeli minister to publicly visit the Abu Dhabi mosque.
The Israeli foreign minister, who also holds the intelligence portfolio, said he “discussed regional issues and relations between the two countries.”
“I will continue to work with the prime minister to push for the policy of normalization that we’re leading based on Israel’s capabilities in the issues of security, intelligence and different civil opportunities,” Katz added.
While in Abu Dhabi, Katz pushed his plan to build a regional rail network through Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman, linking them to the Mediterranean via Israel.
Israel’s Arabic-language propaganda Twitter account published a cartoon depicting the proposed railway featuring the flags of the states he hopes will be involved:
This was not the first time Katz visited a Gulf state with which Israel has no diplomatic relations to discuss the rail network.
In November, the Israeli minister attended a meeting of the International Road Transport Union in Oman at the invitation of the Omani government, where he proposed the plan amidst a warm welcome that Katz likened to the “end of days”:
Secret but significant
Mossad chief Yossi Cohen claimed earlier this month that Israel and Oman are close to establishing full diplomatic relations.
“Just recently, renewal of formal relations with Oman was declared and the establishment of a representative office of the foreign ministry in that country,” Cohen said at a conference in Tel Aviv, according to The Times of Israel.
Cohen added that discreet but significant relations exist between Israel and Arab countries with which Israel has no formal ties.
“We do not yet have with them official peace treaties, but there is already a commonality of interests, broad cooperation and open channels of communication,” he added.
Oman’s foreign ministry declared that Cohen’s claim that Israel had opened a representative office “had no basis in truth” and reaffirmed Oman’s commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The inclusion of the Iraqi flag in the cartoon of the Israeli-Gulf rail network is noteworthy.
It comes as Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Fareed Yasseen, talked about the desirability of diplomatic ties between his country and Israel last week.
“There are objective reasons for the establishment of relations between Iraq and Israel, including the fact that there is a significant Iraqi community in Israel,” Yasseen can be heard saying in a video.
The ambassador also cited Israel’s supposed prowess at irrigation technology as another reason for establishing ties.
On Saturday, Iraq’s foreign ministry distanced itself from the ambassador’s “inappropriate” remarks and reaffirmed the country’s opposition to normalizing ties with Israel.
“We do not establish any relations with the occupying state and abide by the principle of boycott,” the spokesperson for Iraq’s foreign ministry stated, adding that the country rejects “all forms of normalization with this entity, the usurper of the land” that “kills, displaces and [destroys] life aggressively.”
Saudi Arabia’s tightening embrace of Israel has extended to include journalists and citizens alike as the country cracks down on Palestinians within and outside its borders.
The Saudi government intensified its arrest campaign of Palestinians living in the country since last month, detaining dozens of students, residents, academics and businesspeople as well as those accused of having ties with Hamas, according to the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar.
Saudi watch group Prisoners of Conscience stated that several Saudi citizens were also “detained because of their charity efforts and because they hired Palestinian employees.”
The kingdom is also halting or slowing money transfers to the Gaza Strip, the London-based Al Khaleej Online reported in June.
The publication stated that both official and private money transfers were “almost completely halted” in the days leading up to the Eid al-Fitr holiday, a prime time for such transfers.
“The main victims of this move are residents of the Gaza Strip,” the publication stated, adding that transfers are unusually slow at times when they do work.
A banker based in Gaza told the publication that “the Arab countries that money transfer offices face the most difficulty with in the Gaza Strip are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman” – all Gulf states that have accelerated their normalization with Israel in recent years.
Other forms of crackdown include preventing dozens of people from leaving the kingdom, threatening to revoke work permits and deportations of Palestinians from the country, according to Al Khaleej Online.
Meanwhile, several Gulf journalists and public figures have embraced their countries’ alliance with Israel.
A video of Saudi journalist Fahd al-Shamri circulated on social media earlier this month denigrating Palestinians and ridiculing reverence for Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque.
“Muslims have hundreds of thousands of mosques in the world,” he claims, adding that “the Palestinian issue will not be solved, and it is not in the interest of anyone to attempt to solve a problem between beggars.”
“Get lost,” he also tells Palestinians.
In another video, the same journalist threatened Arabs critical of Saudi Arabia after the murder by Saudi agents of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s Istanbul consulate last October.
In the video, al-Shamri waves around a saw – a reference to the bone saw that was used to dismember Khashoggi’s body.
Meanwhile, UAE journalist Hamad al-Mazrouei declared on Twitter his support for states that sent representatives to the Manama conference, gaining much resistance from Arab users of the social network:
And, Israel’s Arabic-language propaganda Twitter account shared a picture it claimed was sent to it by someone making a pilgrimage to Mecca with a message that said “Shabbat Shalom.”
These propaganda tactics attempt to market normalization between Israel and Arab countries as a form of religious tolerance.
In reality, rejection of ties with Israel among Arab publics is deeply rooted in solidarity with Palestinians.
But as regimes pay little heed to what their people want, it may be only a matter of time before an Israeli embassy pops up in a Gulf capital.
Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada