Should the Gulf countries maintain contacts with Israel if this would make life easier for Palestinians? Could having such ties propel the Middle East peace process forward?
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr, prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, spoke on al-Jazeera recently about last winter’s Israeli war on Gaza. Noting that the Turks were able to deliver emergency goods to the Palestinians immediately, he said, “I would have been glad if Egypt had done the same,” alluding to the fact that both counties have ties to Israel. He then added, “Everyone was asking us to shut the Israeli Commercial Office in Doha and we have done so. Show me now how this will benefit the peace process?” It could be argued that such commercial ties with Israel allowed Qatar in the past to donate $6 million to finance the building of the Sakhnin soccer stadium, which is mostly used by Arab Israelis.
The open secret is that all six Gulf countries maintain contacts with Israel and some have open commercial interests. Officials as senior as the current Israeli president himself have visited Oman and Qatar on various occasions. In fact, not too long ago a Gulf official asked me for contacts in the Israel Foreign Ministry (which I did not have). It was a very casual request, like introducing a potential business partner.
We now know that these ties exist thanks to the Internet, the ultimate taboo- and myth-breaker of the Arab world. For instance, I have over the past few years received via email photographs of former and current Gulf foreign ministers with Israeli officials, mostly Shimon Peres during his time as foreign minister of Israel. There is also a popular YouTube video of a Gulf ruler and his foreign minister meeting with then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni; the Gulf ruler gestures to the TV crew accompanying her to stop filming. As recently as a few years ago such a video would have not been seen at all, now it has thousands of viewers.
Der Spiegel uncovered the clearest example of Israeli rapprochement with the Arab Gulf states in early July when it reported that Israel voted for the UAE to host the International Renewable Energy Agency headquarters. The German journal attributed this to Israel wanting to build closer relations with the Gulf States. That strategy could be working: recently, five Bahraini citizens who were caught by Israel on board a ship were promptly handed over to an official visiting delegation from the island kingdom.
The Gulf States’ boldest step to normalize ties with Israel came from none other than Saudi Arabia: King Abdullah’s peace plan promises full normalization rather than a cold Egypt-style peace with Israel if an agreement with the Palestinians is reached. Additionally, Bahrain’s foreign minister last year suggested that the Middle East countries form a regional organization that includes Israel and Iran. In recent months, the United Arab Emirates allowed an Israeli tennis player, Andy Ram, to play in a WTP tournament held in the country. Previously, Israel Central Bank Governor David Klein visited the UAE in 2003 for World Bank and IMF meetings. Even conservative Kuwait recently witnessed a call by a candidate for the country’s parliament to establish relations with Israel.
What ties the Gulf states to Israel are mutual suspicions of the Iranian nuclear program. They also fear that a potential Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations could have serious repercussions for the Gulf states in economic, environmental and security terms. In contradiction to western media reports that the Gulf states have acquiesced in an Israeli strike, it is more likely that they would employ their contacts with Israel (and the US) to highlight the serious fallout of such a move. After all, the two Gulf countries with the closest links to Israel (via its former commercial representative offices there), Oman and Qatar, also happen to have the closest relations with Iran among all six Gulf states.
It is naive to think that simply having relations with Israel would make a difference to the peace process; some say it is counterproductive to reward the current hard-line Israeli government whose latest blunder is to insist that Arabic place names in Israel be rendered so as to present the Hebrew language equivalent (e.g., al-Quds becomes Yerushalayim, rendered in Arabic). However, it is equally naive to think that such ties don’t already exist, no matter how vehemently the Gulf states deny it.
Bahrain’s progressive crown prince recently highlighted the importance of communicating with Israel in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Clearly, the Gulf states can no longer be involved passively in perpetual peace processes that fail. One step they can take is to appoint a high-level peace envoy whose sole duty is to monitor and encourage, diplomatically and financially, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. What are needed now are practical steps that can finally improve the prospects for peace and dignified living for the Palestinians. If having ties with Israel can achieve that, then few Gulf citizens will condemn their governments.
This article was originally published in The Huffington Post. It first appeared in Bitterlemons International on July 23, 2010.