STASA SALACANINGULF (GCC) (Interview)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (l) speaks with the Emirati Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus in Abu Dhabi, Jan. 13, 2019. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
By Stasa Salacanin
THE ISRAELI PRIME MINSTER’S plan to effectively annex parts of the occupied West Bank has created a major uproar in the international community and media. While almost the entire world strongly opposes Israeli unilateral actions, which will have severe security ramifications possibly leading to a new intifada, the reaction of the Gulf Arab states remains a great puzzle.
As key defenders of the two-state solution and traditional backers of the Palestinian struggle for independence, much is expected from the Arab Gulf states, which along with the EU, the United Nations and the Arab League are expected to push back against the annexation. However, it is quite unclear how far they will go in opposing Israel.
In the last few years, there has been a quiet rapprochement between the two sides around a shared fear of Iran’s alleged goal of forming a “Shia Crescent,” a term coined by Jordanian King Abdullah II in 2004, stretching from Tehran to Beirut, passing through Baghdad and Damascus. Importantly, Israeli-Gulf detente also closely aligns with the current U.S. administration’s hard-line policy toward the Islamic Republic, resulting in a series of statements and public appearances of Israeli and Gulf (mostly Saudi and UAE) officials, giving the impression of a significant breakthrough in their relations. But this chapter may end soon.
WEST BANK ANNEXATION
According to an agreement with his coalition partner Benny Gantz, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was granted the right to proceed with the process of annexation as early as July 1.
Netanyahu has said the plan is “not annexation,” claiming that it aims to apply Israeli sovereignty (law) to parts of the West Bank. Reportedly, this may include almost 30 percent of the West Bank with roughly 130 heavily fortified colonies, dozens of satellite outposts and other areas, which are, in Netanyahu’s view, important for the country’s “security, heritage and future.” Palestinians, on the contrary, see the West Bank as the heart of their hoped-for-state, and deeply fear that prior and current Israeli actions, through expanding Jewish settlements and other measures, have been effectively turning the Occupied Palestinian Territories into a fragmented patchwork of isolated enclaves or “bantustans,” negating any possibility of creating a geographic entity called a Palestinian state.
GULF RESPONSE: BARKING DOGS RARELY BITE
The Palestinian leadership called for international pressure in order to prevent Netanyahu’s intentions and their prime minister said Palestinians could declare their own independent state on almost all of the West Bank if the Israeli action proceeds. Arab Gulf states also responded by repeatedly warning Israel not to go ahead with annexation.
The UAE ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, warned Israel against annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, saying the move would “upend” Israel’s efforts to improve ties with Arab countries.
In a similar fashion, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry expressed the Kingdom’s rejection of Israel’s plans to annex or apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the occupied West Bank and repeated the “Kingdom’s steadfast stance toward the brotherly Palestinian people, and support for its choices, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” The Arab League went even further when stating that “Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank would amount to a war crime and a serious violation of international law, if implemented.”
But, despite declared rejection, many believe that Arab reaction may well be lip service without substance, as neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi’s stance were particularly harsh.
However, these statements did not go unnoticed in Israel. According to Dr. Nir Boms, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, the issue is highly contested in Israel even among the coalition partners, who are not sure that a significant unilateral move will indeed be helpful to Israel. Indeed, Netanyahu’s coalition partner, Benny Gantz, from the Israel Resilience Party, has repeatedly spoken against unilateral annexation.
Conversely, if Israel announces a stronger annexation move along the Jordan Valley, the response, in his opinion, might be different. Zaha Hassan, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed out that even when Israel had indicated its intentions to annex parts of the West Bank, planes from the UAE were landing in Tel Aviv, security cooperation was ongoing with Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government was welcoming Israeli private companies to partner on Saudi 2030 vision projects. “This kind of schizophrenic foreign policy may prove to be untenable as the situation between Israel’s military and Palestinians deteriorate on the ground,” she added.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to know exactly how the Gulf states will respond to Israeli annexation, but it seems fairly clear that overt gestures toward normalization, of the kind we’ve seen in recent years, are likely to be put on hold, said Khaled Elgindy, director of the Middle East Institute’s Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs.
In Boms’ opinion, much of this depends on what happens on the ground. “If Israel annexes the Etzion bloc [Jewish settlements between Jerusalem and Hebron in the West Bank] or advances toward a move which appears more symbolic—I do not expect a significant response from the majority of Arab players,” he said.
Thus, a minimum expectation from Dr. Elgindy is that the Gulf states would freeze normalization efforts. But in terms of Arab states, let’s not forget Egypt, which also has a peace treaty with Israel and could take a stronger position against annexation than the Gulf states.
ABSENCE OF PUNITIVE MEASURES
It is also unclear whether Arab states will adopt any punitive measures by targeting Israeli economic or political interests. Europe, for example, openly threatened to introduce sanctions on Israel and Josep Borrell, the 27-nation bloc’s foreign policy chief, warned that Israel’s actions would not go “unchallenged.” Hassan recalls that the European Court of Justice has already upheld the French “country of origin” requirements on Israeli settlement goods and Ireland is on the verge of passing a bill to prohibit Israeli settlement goods from entering Ireland. There are also ever louder voices calling on individual European states to recognize Palestine and to impose measures that would differentiate Israel from its settlements in the West Bank in a more methodical way.
But for Elgindy, the EU position is anything but clear or unified. Despite condemning the annexation, Elgindy noted that Borrell has also said the Trump plan “can be used to start joint international efforts on the basis of existing internationally-agreed parameters.” He said that neither the EU nor the Arab states have laid out any clear consequences for Israel if it goes ahead with annexation. While further Israeli actions may push Gulf countries to take more serious measures of their own and perhaps end the more public demonstrations of warming relations with Israel, Hassan is convinced that, behind of scenes, security cooperation with Israel will likely continue.
In addition, Elgindy warns that the real danger is not acceptance but acquiescence. What Israel is counting on is that while initially there will be complaints and condemnation about annexation, they will eventually, albeit reluctantly, learn to live with it.
But Hassan thinks that the response will be “stronger condemnations in public but little change in relations but, over time, the Arab Gulf States will find it difficult in maintaining relations with Israel.” The Gulf reaction would also be determined by the dynamics and level of coordination between Israel and the U.S. As the main backer of Netanyahu’s aggressive foreign policy, the U.S. will probably block any U.N. Security Council resolution condemning or suggesting legal actions against Israel.
It is hard to believe that Gulf reaction would risk their relations with the Trump administration and jeopardize their security arrangements with the U.S. for the sake of the Palestinian cause. Bom hypothesizes that, if needed, they could easily manage a response which helps demonstrate their public discontent while not touching other dimensions of the geo-political relations. He points out the case of Israeli-Egyptian relations where there is intimate security cooperation, mediation on Gaza, and open channels that are otherwise in parallel to a hostile public climate and visible public criticism when it comes to the Palestinian issue.
However, Hassan thinks that the Palestinian issue is not something that Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries can so easily discard because of their own domestic concerns. That is why Saudi Arabia led efforts at the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to condemn annexation and actions in Jerusalem. She said that Saudi reliance on the Trump administration to back it up with Iran and on the Jamal Khashoggi matter did not prevent the king from taking such public stands against the American and Israeli plans to liquidate the Palestinian national project.
But, given that Saudi Arabia has lost much of its standing in both U.S. legislative houses and the recently reported withdrawal of two Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia at a time of high tensions with Iran, has raised speculation regarding the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations. The possibility of losing U.S. military protection has caused a cautious response toward any crisis in the region where Saudis may collide with the unpredictable U.S. president and his hawks. But while the Trump administration is aware of their opposition to annexation and to his plan, the main question, according to Elgindy, is whether annexation would disrupt Arab Gulf states’ willingness to cooperate with Israel against the perceived threat from Iran.
Nevertheless, Gulf Arabs, in general, share deep sympathies with the Palestinians and their struggle for an independent state, something even Gulf absolute monarchies cannot ignore when approaching this sensitive matter. Despite the Arab Gulf’s warming relations with Israel and some attempt to influence Arab public opinion through film and cultural events that paint Israel in a sympathetic light, or normalize Arab-Israeli relations, Hassan is convinced the majority of Arabs and Muslims will not abandon their brothers and sisters in Palestine, who are the only thing standing in the way of extremists who seek to rebuild the Jewish Temple on the Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem.
For years, Jordan and Egypt have had peace agreements with Israel and those have yet to translate into any peace between the peoples. Likewise, in Hassan’s opinion, people in the Arab Gulf will remain supportive of Palestinian rights and their governments will continue to reflect that support. Boms concurs, but believes that there might be a difference between that “public” response, which will focus on criticism of Israel and on satisfying the “pro-Palestinian” voices, and the “nonpublic response” that will continue to take into account the geopolitical interests and the dialogue with the U.S. and Israel.
Stasa Salacanin is a widely published author and analyst focusing on the Middle East and Europe. He produces in-depth analysis of the region’s most pertinent issues for regional and international publications including the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, Middle East Monitor, The New Arab, Gulf News, Al Bawaba, Qantara, Inside Arabia and many more.