President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel and his much-hyped speech to Arab and Islamic leaders in Riyadh on Sunday portend a new phase of US engagement with the Middle East that is far more transactional and less values-laden than before. The Trump administration has thrown in its lot with Sunni Arab regimes and included Iran alongside the likes of Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State as threats to regional stability. Moreover, a close working relationship is said to have built up between Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, and the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Having been entrusted with the Middle East peace process by the president, Kushner has an opportunity to capitalise on a quiet realignment of interest between Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
While the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian issues remain capable of mobilising passionate feelings on all sides, they no longer represent defining fissures in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, even though they might not be buried as far underneath the surface of regional geopolitics as Israeli policymakers may sometimes wish. A rapprochement that sizeable sections of the Israeli military and security establishment have long wanted with the GCC has taken root since 2011, as the regional upheaval has provided the opportunity to deepen unofficial ties in areas of shared concern. A commonality of interest has arisen between Israeli and Gulf policymakers on several of the crucial issues in contemporary Middle East politics.
These include an assumption that Iran represents an external threat to regional stability, both for the Arab world and for Israel, and that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists pose a similar internal threat. In addition, policymakers in Israel expressed deep unease at what they considered US 'retrenchment' in the Middle East under the Obama administration - which they viewed as undercutting American allies and partners and emboldening US enemies in the region - in language strikingly similar to that voiced in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and other Gulf capitals at the same time. It is unsurprising that the post-2011 conditions of regional insecurity have meant that the defence and security sectors have grown into a microcosm of the evolving dynamic of Gulf-Israel ties.
The Eshki-Gold 'track two' meetings
Quiet meetings between Saudi and Israeli officials, both active and retired, have proliferated and a channel of communication has solidified around Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general who chairs the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, and Dore Gold, the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s longest and most trusted confidants. The two men have met on more than half a dozen occasions in a series of 'track two' meetings to discuss the challenge from Iran and other regional security issues, and it was Eshki who led a Saudi 'delegation' to Israel in July 2016 that met with Gold and, among others, Major-General Yoav Mordechai, the most senior official responsible for implementing Israeli government policy in the Palestinian territories.
However, in the absence of any meaningful re-engagement with the Palestinian peace process, Israeli and Gulf officials both acknowledge that it will be difficult to expand the fledgling contacts into a fully-fledged and open diplomatic relationship. The increased willingness of officials in both Israel and GCC states to explore the parameters of common interest rather than to seek a formal diplomatic breakthrough suggests a less strident and more pragmatic assessment of the possibilities (and limitations) of a way forward. Integral to this approach is the consensus that Iran poses the largest and most immediate threat to regional stability, and that officials in Jerusalem and GCC capitals are no longer confident of US backing in dealing with this threat and consequently feel encumbered to take matters into their own hands.
It remains to be seen whether this new phase of ties between GCC states and Israel can be more durable and expand beyond the informal and the unofficial level. One major challenge is to ensure that the burgeoning connections prove more resilient to regional geopolitical developments than were the ultimately short-lived trade offices that Israel was permitted to open in Qatar and Oman in the 1990s. Any revival of elements of the Arab Peace Initiative - as Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared to suggest was possible in May 2016 – would offer GCC leaders room for maneuvre vis-à-vis domestic public opinion that is less convinced of the merits of engaging with Israel. Repackaging the initiative away from the 'take-it-or-leave-it' offer of 2002 into a series of incremental steps also would magnify the prospects for a meaningful outcome and reduce the vulnerability of relations between Arab states and Israel to the periodic spikes in tension that have undermined past attempts to forge closer ties.
In the absence of formal diplomatic arrangements, GCC-Israel connections have instead thickened around technocratic cooperation in sectors of mutual interest that in themselves have multiplied in number. Two prominent examples include the Middle East Research and Desalination Center in Oman – the only surviving organisation from the 1993 Oslo Accords that has become a model of cooperation in shared research and capacity-building between Israel and Arab states – and the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi. A shared interest in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship as the spearhead of economic development and diversification is another centre of gravity around which Israel-Gulf ties could conceivably thicken, as Israel’s successful start-up culture and technology clustering is widely admired across the region, including by many across the six GCC states.
Discussions with policymakers in Israel and in Gulf capitals frequently elicit a desire to 'strip away' political constraints. The ability of initiatives to withstand external pressures may be enhanced if they are seen to pursue regional solutions to public policy issues that transcend geopolitical boundaries and produce tangible benefits to each stakeholder. A security and investment approach will not by itself resolve Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian issues, but could intersect fruitfully with the Trump administration’s transactional and personalised style of policymaking.