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Israel and the Gulf: long prelude to a ‘surprise’ deal

Thursday’s bombshell announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates will normalise relations in a US-brokered deal is the fruit of years of low-key diplomacy.

Several Gulf Arab states have been furtively building relations with Israel on the basis of shared animosity towards Iran, with the United States acting as cheerleader as its own relationship with Tehran deteriorated.

Here are some key points on the prelude to the deal and its likely implications.

– What led up to the deal? –

“Historic decision today from #UAE and #Israel to fully normalize relations. Contacts have been ongoing for years. It takes guts to make this final step. Diplomacy works,” former presidential envoy Brett McGurk tweeted.

Israel has been assiduously courting Arab nations which do not recognise the Jewish state, and in 2019 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held surprise talks in Muscat with the ruler of Oman.

Another nation that has voiced enthusiasm for engagement is Bahrain, whose foreign minister has called Israel “part of the heritage of this whole region”.

But regional powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had been squeamish about going public with any rapprochement in the absence of any progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

– What’s next? –

President Donald Trump hinted to reporters Thursday that further diplomatic breakthroughs were expected.

“Things are happening that I can’t talk about,” he said.

All eyes will be on regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, whose official stance is that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a precondition for normalising ties.

But relations appear to be warming regardless, a shift spearheaded by de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In 2018 Saudi Arabia quietly opened its airspace for the first time for an Israel-bound passenger plane.

And earlier this year, the kingdom announced the screening of a Holocaust-themed film at a movie festival, although it was later cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Saudi Arabia has pursued a bold outreach to Jewish figures in recent years even as it appears wary of a public backlash.

In February, the Saudi king hosted a Jerusalem-based rabbi in Riyadh for the first time in modern history. Israeli media published a photograph of Rabbi David Rosen with King Salman, hailing it as a “revolutionary moment”.

– Why are they cosying up to each other? –

The Gulf oil monarchies and the Jewish state are all staunch US allies who have common concerns over Iran.

The efforts at rapprochement came as Tehran, the arch-foe of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US, bolstered its influence in several Arab countries.

But while tensions with Tehran are a powerful motivator, there are also many financial advantages to linking up the wealthy Gulf states with the powerful Israeli economy.

Saudi attempts to attract foreign investment to fund its ambitious Vision 2030 economic reforms appear to be pushing the kingdom closer to Israel than ever.

“The Saudis recognise the important role that Israel plays in the region,” Marc Schneier, an American rabbi with close ties to the kingdom and the Gulf, told AFP in May.

“Just a couple of years ago, (Prince) Khalid bin Salman told me that the kingdom knows that Israel is an integral part of their achieving their 2030 economic plan. That is a major statement and really shows the warming of the ties.”

– How will the Arab world react? –

The new deal jeopardises the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative sponsored by Riyadh which called for Israel to withdraw from Arab territory occupied in 1967, in return for peace and the normalisation of relations between Arab nations and Israel.

Like other overtures, the Israel-UAE agreement is likely to be criticised by some regional governments and reignite criticism on the “Arab Street” that the regional powers are abandoning the Palestinian people.

The United Arab Emirates said the deal was “a bold step” to secure a two-state solution to the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“Most countries will see this as a bold step to secure a two-state solution, allowing time for negotiations,” the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told a press conference.

But the Palestinians have boycotted the US administration since Trump broke with decades of consensus by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city last year.

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, welcomed Thursday’s deal.

In a tweet, he called “a milestone in Arab acceptance of Israel in the region, and a brake on annexation, which would jeopardise Israel’s peace with Jordan and Israel’s own future as a Jewish, democratic state.”