Reportedly rattled by Donald Trump and wary of his wavering policies on their region, Arab leaders meeting in Jordan for the recent Arab League summit reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution by reviving the Arab Peace Initiative (API). This plan, based on UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 242 and 338, offers Israel full recognition and normalization of relations with all Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a “just resolution” to the Palestinian refugee question. Originally adopted in 2002 and revived in 2009, the plan has been disregarded by successive Israeli governments and their international backers.
While Arab leaders may feel genuine concern about the future of the Palestinians, the likely impetus behind the revival of the peace initiative is far more self-serving. Converging military and technological interests and shared concern over Iranian influence has impelled some of the Gulf Arab states to surreptitious forms of cooperation with Israel. Without a wider settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, these states are reluctant to make such relationships formal and public. Reviving the API could thus shield their dealings with Israel from backlash by their own citizens. But, if history is any indication, Palestinians have reason to be wary of fraternal Arab governments as the latter’s growing affinity with Israel comes at their own expense.
ISRAEL AND THE GULF’S NOT SO SECRET DEALS
Despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, Israel is already deeply connected to Arab governments with which it does not have bilateral peace agreements. In 2012, Israel opened a formal mission in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the International Renewable Energy Agency (INERA), based in Dubai. The UAE insisted that the office did not represent a change in policy towards Israel (which it does not formally recognize) and would only deal with matters related to INERA. However, it is not inconceivable that the presence of such an office would facilitate cooperation between the two sides beyond the purview of the international agency’s work. Other examples of extensive high-level contacts between Israel and the Gulf states include communication between aides of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Arab officials, as well as Israeli trade offices in Qatar and Oman.
One of the fruits of such initiatives has been the extensive sale to Gulf countries of Israeli military and surveillance technology, with the UAE alone reported to have contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with private Israeli security firms. The Gulf Cooperation Council also purchased billions of dollars of Israeli-developed missile defense systems via Raytheon. According to a recent Bloomberg article on cooperation between Israel and the Gulf, when Saudi Aramco’s computer system was compromised by hackers in 2012, Israeli companies were invited in to help repair the damage. The Bloomberg story also disclosed sales by the U.S. subsidiary of Israel’s Elbit Systems to customers from Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And in 2015, using a Swiss company as an intermediary, the UAE bought an integrated border security system for use in Abu Dhabi from an Israeli firm. According to Bloomberg,
Twice a week at the height of the project, a chartered Boeing 737, painted all white, took off from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, touched down briefly in Cyprus or Jordan for political cover, and landed about three hours later in Abu Dhabi with dozens of Israeli engineers onboard, many of them out of the intelligence services. They lived and ate together—never in restaurants—carried location transmitters and panic buttons at all times, and disguised their nationality and Hebrew names as best they could. They called Israel “C country.”
Due to shared concern about Iran’s influence in the region, military cooperation between Gulf States and Israel has become quite overt. Besides participating in a number of joint air force maneuvers, the UAE flew its flag alongside Israel’s during the Iniohos 2017 exercises in Greece. While both sides undoubtedly have the desire to conduct such operations even more openly, as a recent report by the Israeli Institute of National Security Studies noted, “[T]he price for the willingness of the Arab states to form an open alliance, as opposed to more discreet cooperation, is likely to be progress toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
THE TROUBLE WITH REGIONAL PEACE
Thus far, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has shown little or no concern about these developments. A firm believer in a negotiated two-state solution, Abbas recently stated that the API is the only diplomatic proposal on the table, eliding the possibility that in the current regional context the Palestinians might be pressured to make concessions and compromises that preclude a just resolution of the conflict. The semblance of progress, or simply the establishment of some regional mechanism based on the API, could lead to the normalization of relations with some Arab Gulf countries, or even open collaboration with Israel, before any peace agreement is ever reached.
Israel may also find the regional approach more appealing in the current context. If the countries with which Tel Aviv shares military and technological interests could negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, or pressure them to make more concessions, Israel would surely find this to be in its interest. It might also be convinced to join such a framework if it believed that Donald Trump would exercise some pressure on the Arab states in question. Even before his inauguration, President Trump spoke of applying such pro-Israel pressure: Trump had called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and convinced him to withdraw the draft of what eventually became UNSC Resolution 2334 when Egypt was preparing to submit it. The resolution passed nonetheless in late November 2016. Given the United States’ leverage with the Gulf Arab states and its propensity to enforce Israel’s will, the Palestinians may be left between a rock and a hard place.
While the prospect of a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a welcome development, it should not be one that would, yet again, enable Arab states to supersede vital Palestinian interests.