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Why Saudi Arabia Is Now in No Rush to Recognize Israel

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A woman walks in front of a banner showing (from R) Saudi King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanand Saudi Arabia's founder late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. Dammam, last month
A woman walks in front of a banner showing (from R) Saudi King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanand Saudi Arabia's founder late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. Dammam, last month.Credit: Amr Nabil,AP
Hussein Ibish
Hussein Ibish

Given the recent visit to the UAE by Israel's Foreign Minister, and de facto cabinet leader, Yair Lapid, and fully-realized exchanges of ambassadors, the normalization process initiated last summer under the rubric of the "Abraham Accords" seems virtually irreversible.

That this progress is happening in the immediate aftermath of the latest spasm of Israeli-Palestinian violence clearly indicates that that tension was not close to sufficient to derailing the process. 

The current situation remains in a honeymoon stage, with both Emirati and Israeli societies primarily excited by new economic, cultural and, above all, strategic opportunities.

But honeymoons don't last forever. Signs of what could go wrong or at least cast a much deeper shadow over the relationship certainly did emerge. So Israel is on notice about where Gulf Arab sensitivities persist, even in the midst of a strategic rapprochement.

The biggest problem was at the beginning of the violence centered in Jerusalem. The core of the last outbreak was the ongoing effort to evict six Palestinian families from an area of occupied East Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah, where they have lived since arriving in the city as refugees in 1948.

Palestinians run from sound bombs thrown by Israeli police in the al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem this year as a cease-fire took effect between Hamas and Israel.Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

It became much more awkward for the UAE, Bahrain, and even those Arab countries contemplating normalization with Israel when heavily armed Israeli troops stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque, purportedly looking for caches of stones intended for demonstrators to throw at Israeli troops or worshipers. The unprecedented mobile phone footage of teargas and stun grenades inside the mosque proved extremely awkward for the UAE and Bahrain.

Both countries were compelled to issue stronger statements than they surely otherwise would have liked, denouncing the violence and calling for protection of the inviolability of holy places. Obviously Islamic sensitivities regarding the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, are well known, and their ability to shift the diplomatic position of the UAE, in particular, ought to be carefully noted.

So should the immediate rush by Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE, to embrace and reinforce Jordan's position and authority as the custodian of the Muslim and Christian holy places in occupied East Jerusalem. The role of Jordan in helping to shape and set boundaries for Gulf Arab responses to unrest in Jerusalem cannot be underestimated.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II welcoming Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces at the Marka military airport earlier this year.Credit: YOUSEF ALLAN / AFP

The slight diplomatic tremor between the UAE and Israel would have become much more pronounced if the Jordanians had begun making categorical political and diplomatic moves to register extreme anger at the events.

Had the Jordanians, for example, recalled their ambassador to Israel, or expelled Israel's ambassador from Jordan, the UAE's hand would undoubtedly have been forced. What, exactly, they would have felt compelled to do is unclear, but that they would have had to take tangible steps to reinforce and echo Jordan's position seems almost uncontestable.

But it's not just the venerable holy places that are problematic. The attempted evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and another, similar, neighborhood, Silwan, encapsulate almost all the most crucial aspects of the Palestinian, and by extension Arab, narrative about Israel, its founding, its relationship with Palestinians in general, and the occupation in particular.

Because the targeted residents were refugees from 1948 already, the specter of them being once again expelled strongly reinforces the Palestinian narrative of dispossession and forcible displacement.

A Palestinian man watches Israeli security forces searching buildings after Palestinian shops were demolished in East Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood of Silwan last month.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

Because similar groups are acting under Israeli laws that allow Jews, but not ever Palestinians, to try to reclaim areas lost in 1947-1948, discrimination against Arabs, including Arab citizens of Israel, by the Israeli state could hardly be more powerfully illustrated.

It reinforces widely-shared Arab instincts to view the founding of Israel as in large part a giant land-grab against existing Arab owners and residents in the 1940s.

And that narrative, particularly reinforced, appears to validate the standard Arab interpretation of the post-1967 occupation as in essence perpetuated to violently seize land and homes from Palestinians, albeit often in a piecemeal fashion, and transfer them to Jewish Israelis, especially in strategically and culturally significant areas.

When Hamas intervened after the first two or three days of unrest in Jerusalem, and by launching a barrage of missiles towards Israel made the issue once again about them and primarily about competing aerial bombardments between Israel and Gaza-based militants, the Abraham Accord countries were effectively taken off the hook.

Hamas militants parade through the streets in Gaza City, on Saturday.Credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo

There was still a great deal of sympathy for Palestinian civilians and anger at Israel's disproportionate and sometimes indiscriminate bombardments. But there was also dismay, as usual, at the conduct of Hamas, which especially in the UAE is widely viewed as a terrorist organization.

In effect, the Gulf countries were able to throw up their hands and implicitly say that here was yet another senseless war between a belligerent and recalcitrant Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, trying to save his own political skin by fueling another conflict with Palestinians, versus a fanatical and extremist Palestinian group in the thrall of Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Iran.

Under such circumstances, the narrative implicitly holds, there is very little, if anything, the Gulf could have done to prevent or attenuate the conflict once it began.

Rockets from Gaza are met with Iron Dome rocket interceptor misses over Israel overnight FridayCredit: ANAS BABA - AFP

The lessons of recent weeks are obvious.

First, the normalization agreements are strategic decisions that are robust and enduring and that can, and will, withstand significant stress.

Second, unrest in Jerusalem, whether in holy places or otherwise, presents a completely different strain than events in the far less evocative Gaza, and is especially differentiated from anything that involves or can be laid at the doorstep of Hamas.

Third, Saudi leaders were undoubtedly watching carefully and calculating how much more difficult it would've been for them had they already normalized relations with Israel.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman gets ready a televised interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia earlier this year.Credit: COURTESY OF SAUDI ROYAL COURT/

The existing agreements are fairly secure and were not really threatened by the unrest. But probably the most significant impact of the fighting was the way it undoubtedly focused minds in Riyadh on the potential downside to Saudi Arabia's own possible normalization with Israel.

Saudi leaders were already well aware that they have Arab regional and Islamic global leadership roles that would have been significantly strained by the normalization process. And Saudi Arabia has a far larger, more complex and more brittle political architecture than its smaller neighbors.

In recent years, it's likely Saudi leaders like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were largely focused on the potential benefits of a possible opening to Israel. The recent violence undoubtedly called close attention to the potential pitfalls as well, and will fortify, for now, Saudi Arabia’s assessment that on normalization, they have no reason to move quickly, and every incentive to wait and see.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Twitter: @ibishblog

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