Analysis |

Israeli-Arab Nonaggression Pact? Don't Celebrate Yet

Ex-Qatari PM's tweet reflects a growing discourse on such a move. But the real implications would be anything but military

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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File photo: Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the 25th Arab Summit in Kuwait City, March 25, 2014.
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the 25th Arab Summit in Kuwait City, March 25, 2014.Credit: Hamad I Mohammed/REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“On December 14, I tweeted about the ‘deal of the century.’ I said it would be released at the beginning of the year,” the former Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani noted in a tweet this week. “Now it will be followed by a nonaggression pact between Israel and the Gulf states, in addition to Egypt and Jordan, possibly also Morocco.”

Sheikh Hamad wrote that he is not opposed to a just peace. “And therefore I am not against signing a nonaggression agreement with Israel after we achieve clear results from the peace process.” In his opinion, however, any Arab countries supporting the “deal of the century” are adopting a short-sighted policy designed to help U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win votes in the upcoming elections that they face. Such Arab countries, he said, lack a long-term strategy.

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“I wonder if there are any Arab states that can exploit the Israeli and American need to satisfy their interests from the ‘deal of the century,’ instead of being tools used by others for their own needs,” the sheikh wrote.

Pre-election diplomatic coup

One wonders if Sheikh Hamad, who managed Qatar’s foreign relations until 2013 and has met with many senior Israelis, is basing his tweets on a simple personal assessment or on actual information. But talk about a nonaggression pact has been making the rounds in recent weeks, as part of efforts by Trump and Netanyahu to lay claim to a major political coup before Israel’s March 2 election – including hopes for a meeting between Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

On December 19, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah bin Zayed, shared an article on his twitter feed from Britain’s The Spectator about the new alliance taking share between Israel and the Gulf states.

Netanyahu hastened to applaud and share the tweet. And Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz was even more specific, tweeting: “Thank you @ABZayed! Now is a good time to advance the historic non-belligerency and economic cooperation agreements between Israel and the Arab Gulf countries.”

Later Katz told Army Radio that Israel and the United States are working toward an agreement. He talked about the main points of the initiative that he presented, via the Americans, to top people in the Gulf. It would include a commitment not to enter into an alliance with a third country that would intend harm to any of the signatories to the pact.

Katz tweet

The comments came shortly after an Israeli delegation went to Dubai to examine the arrangements for Israel in Dubai at the Expo 2020 world’s fair scheduled for October. In August 2019, Katz reported on a visit that he made to the UAE as part of an effort to advance a public process of normalization with the Gulf states. That visit took place against the backdrop of an American effort to create an Arab military coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf from Iran. It also followed meeting of the Warsaw Convention a year ago attended by 60 countries – including the Gulf states and Israel.

Such displays of normalization are in addition to Netanyahu’s visit to Oman and his recent meeting with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council in Uganda where the two discussed the possibility of normalization between the two countries, including civilian aircraft flying to and from Israel over Sudan.

Last week the Israel Defense website published a report about Saudi Arabia’s intention to buy Israeli-made Spike missiles to replace American Tau missiles. Saudi Arabia has not denied the report so far.

A nonbelligerence agreement, if signed, would formalize the political and military reality that exists between Israel and the Gulf states in any event. Its political implications are far more important than its military implications – since none of the Gulf states are in a state of war – either declared or in practice – with Israel.

Gulf Cooperation Council

But such agreement wouldn’t be devoid of limitations and obstacles. Three of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE – share a strategic interest with Israel to constrain Iran’s presence and influence in the Arab Middle East. They need Israel not as a military force but for its influence on President Trump’s policy towards Iran. But the other three council members, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, have their own independent policies towards Iran.

Qatar has an official economic partnership with Iran that relies on shared ownership and management of the largest gas field in the Gulf, which is adjacent to both countries. Qatar is also Saudi Arabia’s bitter rival and an ally of Turkey, which maintains a major military base in the country. Turkey and Qatar both support the internationally recognized Libyan government against the regime of rebel general Khalifa Hifter, who is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

If Qatar decides to enter into such a nonaggression pact with Israel, it might encounter pressure from Turkey, or at least find itself in a strategic dilemma regarding the other Gulf nations that sign onto the agreement with Israel. Despite the close relations between Israel and the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis and Saudis have shared interests, but they also have separate interests – in other areas of the Middle East such as Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

For example, the UAE signed a number of agreements last year providing for economic and security collaboration with Iran, bucking the Saudi and American position. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also at odds over how the war in Yemen is being pursued, after the UAE decided to withdraw its forces from Yemen and break up its military coalition with Saudi Arabia.

This week the UAE held a lavish ceremony marking the return of its soldiers from Yemen, where it had 30,000 fighters. If the UAE wants closer ties with Iran, the nonaggression pact with Israel could face a complicated feasibility test over which ally the UAE would opt for.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has reluctantly given up influence in Lebanon following the resignation there of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his replacement by Hassan Diab, who is close to the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement.

The Lebanese arena

But the situation in Lebanon is fluid. The government has no public support and Saudi Arabia could yet return to the Lebanese arena. A nonaggression pact with Israel could distance it even further from Lebanon, which is in a state of war with Israel. Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia will have to decide which ties matter to it more – those with the Lebanese government, which includes representation from Hezbollah but would be economically dependent on Riyadh – or Israel.

A nonaggression pact is part of the promise included in the Arab peace initiative that came out of the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002. Its principal innovation was the undertaking by the Arab countries to provide Israel with a safety net in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

That condition laid the foundations for a future peace agreement with the Arab countries and created a linkage between Israeli-Palestinian peace and an end to the conflict with the Arab states. If a “private” nonaggression pact is signed between Israel and the Gulf states, it would void the Arab peace initiative and eliminate the only carrot the Arabs still have to advance the peace process.

Ostensibly, that carrot didn’t stand any chance of developing in any event, primarily because of Israel’s objections to a withdrawal from the territories and the diplomatic rupture between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. But given the shared Arab position reached at the recent League summit in Cairo, which opposes Trump’s “deal of the century,” it is difficult to foresee even a few of the Gulf states agreeing to sign a nonbelligerence pact with Israel prior to any breakthrough in the process with the Palestinians. Such a move would complete the “betrayal” of the Palestinians.

It appears that the Gulf states will wait, just as the people of Israel are, for the Israeli election before making any historic moves that could place Israel in an unprecedented strategic position in the Middle East.

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