Seeing the president of Chad, Idriss Deby, shaking hands with Netanyahu and touring Yad Vashem while in Israel this week did little to arouse emotions like, say, Sadat’s address to Knesset or Rabin and Arafat at the White House.
It’s not just that Chad ranks among the bottom three countries in the world for democratic rights. After all, Israel happily maintains relations with human rights sinkholes like China, Russia and Egypt because economics or the politics demand it. There’s a strategic logic for getting cozy with Saudi Arabia to face off their common Iranian enemy.
But Israel doesn’t need to succumb to realpolitik vis a vis Chad, an impoverished landlocked country of little importance in the world community.
The only argument that can be made for making friends with Chad and others like it reportedly waiting in the wings, such as Sudan and Bahrain, is that they are Muslim countries. Israel is sending the world the message that the Palestinians are of no consequence even to their Arab and Muslim brothers. If so, as Bibi asked a year ago, why should Europe care either?
In fact, the Palestinians have been knocked off the top of the world’s agenda, and not just because of Donald Trump. After 70 inconclusive years, fatigue has set in for much of the world, and the chaos that resulted from the Arab Spring and Iranian ambitions have created much more serious problems for the Middle East.
Bibi’s diplomatic drive to diminish the Palestinians’ standing in world priorities is wasted energy and it is generating rapidly diminishing returns as we curry favor with countries that offer little back.
Are there bigger reasons to pursue relations with the Arab and Muslim world?
Theoretically, it could eventually lead to diplomatic relations and usher in an area of peace and stability. But the reality is that we’re unlikely to see anything like that in our lifetimes, unless Israel were to reach an agreement with the Palestinians – which is exactly what Bibi is trying to avoid with his campaign for closer ties. Arab leaders like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman may see a strategic logic in doing business with Israel, but the Palestinians cause remains sacred to the Arab public. It would take a courageous leader to risk defying it, and there would have to be tangible benefits.
Secrets and ties
One of those could be economic. The argument goes that as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil countries seek to diversify by turning themselves into service-based, high-tech economies, Israeli technology could play a major role. A Brookings Institution report on “Why everyone loves Israel now” published earlier this year suggested that has been one of the factors moving Israel and the Gulf states closer together.
In fact, there is a surprisingly large amount of trade between Israel and the Gulf. A study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change estimates that Israel exported $1 billion just to Gulf Cooperation Countries alone in 2016, all via third countries.
We don’t know for a fact what Israel is selling these countries since official trade figures don’t reveal anything.
However, we can get a hint from leaks to the media, like the story about the Israeli firm NSO’s offering to sell the Saudis cellphone-hacking technology or the approach made to former prime minister Ehud Barak for the Saudis to acquire Israeli cybersecurity equipment. Those deals apparently never happened, but the $1 billion shows that others no doubt did. The Saudis aren’t buying a billion dollars’ worth of Bamba peanut puffs and Ahava skin treatments. Even Chad reportedly sees purchasing Israeli weapons as a key to its new-found friendship with Israel.
The Tony Blair Institute says that “under normal trading conditions” (presumably meaning diplomatic relations and direct trade links), Israel could be exporting as much as $25 billion a year to the GCC countries and Iraq. Now, that’s real business.
But it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Besides the fact that none of the Gulf countries have shown much inclination to engage in an open and public dialogue with Israel, much less to normalize ties, you have to make two assumptions that that kind of trade can happen.
One is that the Gulf countries need specifically Israeli technology. It’s true that Israel specializes in the kind of tech the Arab world needs, in water, agriculture and renewable energy. But it’s not as if these technologies aren’t available elsewhere from companies and countries that have long been present in the Gulf, know the system and know which hands to grease. Even if Israeli companies were welcome, they would struggle to compete.
The other assumption is that the diversification Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries aspire to will actually get off the ground. No doubt they need to do something, but the kind of advanced economy MBS and others are envisioning won’t be easy to pull off.
Making the transition from a rentier economy based on oil profits into one based on entrepreneurialism and innovation isn’t the kind of thing you can order from the top by putting into place a few reforms and spending hundreds of billions of dollars. It requires the kind of human capital and political freedoms the Gulf doesn’t have and won’t have anytime soon.
The region has changed a lot since Shimon Peres articulated his grand vision of a “New Middle East” generation ago, but it hasn’t changed that much. The beautiful friendship of Israeli technology and Arab capital is a long way off and may never happen.