Analysis |

Israel Has Joined the Arab Axis. It Will Have to Start Paying Its Dues

Normalization with Bahrain and the UAE could complicate Israel’s relations with Qatar, its dealings with Turkey and any future action in Iran

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords, Washington, September 15, 2020.
Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords, Washington, September 15, Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The main headline of the Al-Ahram website dealt with the most important event in Egypt, the opening of the third phase of the Japanese-Egyptian University in Alexandria, in the presence of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who delivered a strong speech against the “forces of evil” wishing Egypt harm. A search for opinion editorials or commentaries about the peace agreements signed on Tuesday between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain turned up empty.

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This historic event did get a hearty blessing by al-Sissi, but in the press it appeared that nothing had happened. A few dry reports described the content of the speeches made by leaders from the White House balcony, with some papers noting that Egypt was the first country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. There were also some reports of Israeli reactions to the event on Israeli media. The explanation for this absence was given on the Lebanese Al-Akhbar website, a site associated with Hezbollah, which claimed that Egyptian journalists had received money from the Emirates in order to keep their mouths shut, seeing that the head of the Egyptian press union is a member of the press club in Dubai. Al-Akhbar also wondered why Egyptian intellectuals were silent, despite the fact that the Egyptian press union was the first to embrace a ruling forbidding any type of normalization with Israel.

While Arab publicists – except ones working for the media in some Gulf states – continue to cleave to the traditional position according to which they are the ones carrying the banner of the fight against Israel, even when their governments maintain full diplomatic relations with the country, the main question is how the Gulf states’ normalization of relations impacts the status and power of other Arab countries. In light of Israel officially becoming a full-fledged member of the pro-American and anti-Iranian Arab axis – which could further expand if other Arab states join, not just in the Gulf but in North Africa – the acceptance of Israel into regional strategic axes is a contentious issue.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaking during a summit between Jordan, Iraq and Egypt in the capital Amman, August 25, 2020.Credit: AFP

In addition to the convergence of interests between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Emirates with those of Israel with regard to its struggle with Iran, all these countries largely share the conception that Turkey is a hostile and threatening agent. But whereas Egypt and its Gulf partners are waging a real war against Turkey in Libya, Israel has trade and tourism-based relations with the country, maintaining low-level diplomatic relations with it.

Another deep dispute relates to oil and gas exploration in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, where Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus are in a conflict, including threats against Turkey’s oil exploration in areas considered by Greece and Cyprus to be in their sovereign waters. The Emirates are part of this struggle, sending planes to Crete in order to participate in aerial exercises, sending a message to Turkey. The oil and gas axis is heating up, and there is no guarantee that it won’t turn violent, mainly between Greece and Cyprus on one hand, and Turkey on the other. Where would Israel place itself, having signed an accord that forbids it from taking action against the interests of its co-signatories, as well as an accord forbidding it to sign agreements that could impact the interests of one of its allies?

Another volatile crossroads exists in Israel’s relationship with Qatar, which provides soothing financial aid to the Gaza Strip and is involved in calming things down every time they get out of hand. At this point, no other Gulf state is willing to replace Qatar as the paymaster for Hamas. Its position will continue to be important in confrontations that break out from time to time on Israel’s southern front.

But Qatar is the nemesis of the Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and the Saudis, due to its relations with Iran and the stance of Al-Jazeera against Arab regimes, especially those of Egypt and the Gulf states. Also problematic is Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its pact with Turkey, which has a military base in Qatar. Qatar has good relations with the U.S., which has its biggest base in the Gulf situated there. How would Israel respond if Qatar also decided to normalize its relations with the country? Could it reject the extended hand, when it relies on Qatar in its confrontation with Hamas, due to pressure by its new friends in the Gulf, or would it embrace it as another Arab state that is assimilating Israel into the Arab sphere?

Would an alliance with Qatar be viewed as a violation of the agreements with Bahrain or the UAE, as a blow to their interests? It’s possible that the Gulf states wouldn’t prevent Israeli-Qatar normalization from taking place. The Trump Administration continues to invest efforts toward ending the Qatari-Saudi feud, but such an example illustrates the considerations and the dilemmas Israel would face as a result of its new position in the Middle East. We can also now imagine the pressures that Israel would face, were it to decide to take action against Iran. But given Trump’s “promise” to sign a “deal” with Iran a short time after he’s reelected, it’s hard to imagine Israel taking military action against Iran beyond the Syrian arena, or the other operations it is blamed for. Still, there’s always the “what if” question. Saudi Arabia has already made clear by its declarations and conduct that it does not intend to take military steps against Iran. The UAE has signed a cooperation agreement with Iran to protect maritime activity in the Gulf and has witnessed calmness on the part of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Houthis who have attacked its ships in the past as a result. An Israeli war against Iran would put them in the direct line of fire of Tehran.

Palestinians burn pictures of Donald Trump, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and and Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against the Israel-UAE deal, Nablus, August 14, 2020.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

In general, the details of the agreements are vague enough to allow for broad interpretation, but they would all require any action to be carried out in coordination with the United States. This means that even Israel’s acts of aggression will, from now on, be subject not only to a nod from America, but to the special interests of Bahrain, the UAE and other Arab countries and their ties with the U.S.. These factors do not detract from the strategic significance of these agreements, but it’s worth recognizing the limits that Israel will face from here on in.

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