A view of Jerusalem's Old City | Photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
A general view shows the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem's Old City December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun *** Local Caption *** 07.12.17 09.04.18

by Keren Setton

When U.S. President Donald Trump revealed his new plan to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians last week, there were a few guests in the room which may implicate a new development in the Middle East.

Business24

Speaking at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paused and acknowledged the presence of ambassadors from Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the room. “What a sign it portends of the present,” he said and applause followed.

In recent years the largely secretive ties between Israel and the Gulf states have improved. With public approval from Israeli officials and tacit consent from Arab leaders, Israeli delegations have been regularly visiting the region.

Last week, the Israeli interior minister announced Israelis could legally travel to Saudi Arabia for religious and business purposes. Under Israeli law, Saudi Arabia is an enemy state which Israelis are barred to travel to.

The dampening, almost knee-jerk, Saudi response was a reminder that there are still limits to the budding friendship. In an interview to CNN Arabic, Saudi foreign minister was quoted as saying “We don’t have relations with Israel and holders of Israeli passports cannot visit the kingdom for now.”

“Once there’s a peace deal…I think the integration of Israel into the regional context is very much on the table,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan told CNN.

While there is a major impediment to the normalization of ties and the way things are progressing. For the Gulf states, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solved, normalization will probably not be possible.

“The unresolved Palestinian question remains a constraint on the ability of Gulf governments to go any further in their public ties with Israel,” said Dr. Ian Black, a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, “The ties have become increasingly visible in recent years but they can only go so far.”

The gradual thawing of relations has been largely enabled by the growing dismay the Gulf states have with Iran.

“There is a sense of a common strategic threat from Iran…as the Iranian footprint in the Middle East has been growing in recent years, there is a common interest in confronting them,” Black told Xinhua.

“The more they disconnect from Iran, the closer they become to Israel,” said Dr. Yonatan Freeman from Department of Political Science of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In an unprecedented event last year, Netanyahu participated in a conference in Poland together with officials from the Gulf states. The conference, headed by the United States, was about combatting Iranian threats in the region.

Bringing the odd pairing together is also a mutual economic interest. The rich Gulf states economies are heavily dependent on their oil exports. They fear that in the future, this may not be enough.

“They are focusing more and more on attaining a future which isn’t dependent as much on oil as it is now,” Freeman told Xinhua, “There is more focus on renewable energy and new technologies which aren’t going to be using oil. They have found that Israel has shown the world how to get ahead technologically and economically without being dependent on natural resources.”

Israel’s position as a leading country in hi-tech and innovation has elevated its stature in the Gulf.

Israeli athletes have participated in competitions in the Gulf states and the national anthem was played in Qatar as an Israeli Judoka won a gold medal in a tournament.

Israel has confirmed it will participate in Expo world fair 2020 hosted by Dubai in what will be an historic first.

Public foreign trade data does not show any record of Israeli ties with the Gulf, but analysis conducted by several media outlets estimate millions of dollars in trade between Israel and the Gulf. Israeli media has also reported regular, non-commercial, flights between Israel and an unnamed country in the Gulf.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from being resolved. But the fact that it has been going on for years with no resolution on the horizon has players in the region putting it on a side-burner in their quest to achieve other goals, experts said.

“The conflict is less of a factor. Many in the Gulf are saying they do not want to wait for the solution to the conflict but rather they want solutions Israel can give them with their challenges in Iran and with energy and oil,” Freeman said.

The Gulf states did not condemn the largely pro-Israeli Trump peace initiative and Saudi Arabia said it was in favor of efforts to make peace. But as a reminder, an official statement read that Saudi Arabia stands by the Palestinians in an effort “to attain their legitimate rights.”

Public opinion in the Gulf states is still believed to be largely pro-Palestinian when it comes to the conflict with Israel.

“The Palestinian issue is still a pretty emotive one which (the Gulf) governments ignore at their peril,” said Black. Enditem

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