Thaw Between Washington and Tehran Brings Israel and Gulf States Closer

Much like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Arab foreign ministers are voicing concern over an Iranian 'honey trap’ that could ensnare the U.S.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

NEW YORK - On Thursday, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, a Saudi diplomat turned to his Israeli counterpart. “What’s going on here?” he asked. “What do you make of all this?”

Over the past week, similar conversations have taken place between senior Israeli diplomats and officials from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and other Sunni Gulf states. An Israeli official who requested anonymity said there was a common message in these conversations and a shared sense of anxiety.

“All governments in the moderate Sunni states, especially in the Gulf, are very worried about the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Iran,” the senior Israeli official said. “They’re afraid that the American-Iranian deal will come at their expense. There’s pressure not only in Jerusalem, but in the Gulf as well. They’re really wetting their pants."

The official added that the angst being relayed to the White House over the negotiations between the United States and Iran is emanating from Jerusalem and – perhaps mainly – from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

According to the Israeli official, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, held tense talks with senior administration officials over the past few days and asked for clarifications concerning the U.S. position on Iran.

The Iranian issue was also the focus of talks in recent days between Kerry and the foreign ministers of the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait on the sidelines of the General Assembly. Each Arab foreign minister warned – much like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – of a kind of Iranian honey trap that could ensnare the United States.

Israel and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and Jordan, have always had common interests in halting Iran's nuclear program. But since the swearing-in of President Hassan Rohani in early August, the exchange of messages between Israel and Arab states has become more frequent and intimate.

About a week ago, a few days before Kerry and Zarif’s meeting and the phone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Rohani, a closed dinner was held at the International Peace Institute in New York. The hosts were veteran Norwegian diplomat Terje Rod-Larsen – who heads the institute alongside his position as senior aide to the UN secretary-general – UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

Seated around the long table were about 40 senior officials from around the world, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the foreign ministers of Qatar, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and the head of the Arab League.

After a talk by Bill and Melinda Gates on the Syrian humanitarian crisis and the war against polio came an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Livni, PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo and U.S. envoy Martin Indyk outlined the progress of the direct talks that have taken place in recent weeks.

No Arab minister attacked Israel, and not one stood up and left the room when he found out that a high-ranking representative of the Israeli government was sitting beside him. On the contrary, everyone showed keen interest and asked questions. When the open discussion began, the officials had little more on their minds but Iran.

Although the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have not yet yielded a breakthrough, the renewal of talks has improved the atmosphere. With direct talks and at least the feeling of a thaw, it's much easier for Arab states to have contacts – both open and discreet – with Israel.

“This has a huge strategic importance for Israel,” a senior official in Jerusalem said. “When there is progress on the Palestinian issue, our common interest with the Arab countries on the Iranian issue can be addressed.”

Rohani (Photo by Reuters), and Obama (Photo by AFP).

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