Israel-Arab Alliance Hangs on Palestinian Peace

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- About two years ago, an opportunity emerged to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by bringing Israel and Gulf Arab countries closer together. It didn’t happen, and the last chance may depend on next week's election in Israel.

The opportunity for a new strategic partnership was based on mutual antipathy to Iran. Shared Israeli and Arab opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement and Iran's use of terrorist groups like Hezbollah to destabilize the region started to overcome decades of hostility.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to recognize the opportunity and pitched it as a way of reviving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which haven’t resulted in any agreements since 2005 and collapsed completely after President Barack Obama failed to secure a settlement freeze from Israel in 2011.

The idea was that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies could provide new incentives for Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, and more inducements and Arab political cover to the Palestinians to make concessions of their own.

It hasn't gone well.

While there has been diplomatic activity, most recently a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman and his meeting with Gulf leaders at a Warsaw strategy conference in February, Israel and the Gulf Arab countries aren't actually forming an open alliance against Iran. There’s been some clandestine intelligence-sharing and commerce with Israeli cyber-security firms, but that’s about all.

Contrary to Israeli and American hopes (and Palestinian fears), Gulf Arab countries are insisting on movement toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Gulf Arab governments consider the Israeli occupation of the West Bank a threat to their security and stability.

The Trump administration apparently didn't understand this, and has repeatedly blocked the path to the kind of progress the Gulf governments want to see.

First, the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital without distinguishing between West Jerusalem and the city’s occupied East, which fed the deepest suspicions of Arabs and Muslims. It also wrecked the peace framework reached in 1993 that set Jerusalem and four other subjects aside as key “final status” issues to be determined only by agreement and after other key issues were resolved.

Then, the U.S. cut off most ties and funding to Palestinians, undercutting any efforts by Gulf countries to prod the Palestinians back into U.S.-brokered talks.

Finally, by endorsing Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights last month, the White House handed Israel another victory at Arab expense and in defiance of international law.

Since the Jerusalem announcement, Saudi King Salman has seized hold of the Palestinian issue personally and repeatedly clarified that Saudi Arabia would not alter its commitment to creating a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.

Hopes of bringing Israel and Gulf countries together are fading but not extinguished, as recent statements by the U.A.E. minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, demonstrate.

In a March interview, Gargash lamented the Arab history of ignoring and boycotting Israel, which he called "very, very wrong.” But he also insisted that Gulf countries need "progress on the peace front" to facilitate "the strategic shift" to a rapprochement with Israel, which he evidently favors.

It's been clear for a couple of years that several key Gulf countries were open to mutually reciprocal small steps: Arab moves toward diplomatic recognition of Israel in exchange for Israeli steps toward easing the plight of the Palestinians and facilitating renewed negotiations.

Gulf Arab openness to creating this virtuous circle with Israel has been met with effusive Israeli enthusiasm about a new relationship, but frostiness on concrete steps toward lessening tensions with Palestinians, except for failed Egyptian-led efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The current ultra-right Israeli governing coalition, in which Netanyahu is among the most liberal members, is not likely to change the dynamic.

Hope depends on Israel's April 9 election to deliver either a new government or a different Netanyahu-led coalition that’s open to engaging Palestinians as a response to Gulf overtures.

The Blue and White Party that’s challenging Netanyahu is led by several former generals and has adopted a tough negotiating stance towards the Palestinians. But it’s also criticized Netanyahu for avoiding talks and has pledged to resume peace efforts. Its leaders say they understand Israel’s security needs better than he does; if so, they will not let an opportunity pass.

In recent years, Israeli officials have often boasted about "our Sunni Arab allies" in the struggle to contain Iran. As things stand, that's hyperbole.

The strategic alliance that Israel wants is possible. But it depends on a recognition by Israeli leaders that the Gulf Arab governments must be able to point to progress toward advancing Palestinian rights.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.