Netanyahu’s ‘Full-On Right’ Government and Gulf Normalization
The new Israeli government’s policies will probably not lead to the suspension of the Abraham Accords by those states whom already joined. However, according to various knowledgeable sources in the Gulf, it may lead to a slowdown of steps to concretize and operationalize them.
According to these sources, the compelling strategic, economic, and geopolitical logic that caused the UAE and Bahrain (and Morocco) to formalize relations with Israel has not changed. As Narayanappa Janardhan of Abu Dhabi’s Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy told me, “The normalization was not taken as a knee-jerk reaction… There will be no reversal of the process of tolerance and cultural change”. The profile and intensity of relations will, however, signal these governments’ attitudes toward the nature and policy of Israel’s government. They will not in the near time encourage “people-to-people” engagement (viewed with a certain level of suspicion in any case by the leaderships of the two Gulf partners).
One interesting question, which arose more than once during my visit, regards who precisely in the UAE, a country where over 85% of residents are non-citizens, is the object of people-to-people efforts? The non-Emirati Arab population in the UAE – over two million, according to official statistics – is, according to one well-informed member of the community, overwhelmingly opposed to the normalization (“that is how they were brought up”). This may be less important than it would seem, however, since, like most Emirati non-citizen residents, they are careful to not express positions which could harm their status. Several foreign diplomats noted, however, that the media landscape in the UAE is largely shaped by non-Emiratis.
UAE and Bahrain, like the other Arab states that have normalized with Israel, are not democratic. However, they are attuned to domestic and Arab public opinion regarding Israel, and especially Jerusalem. Symbolic steps are being delayed indefinitely: no date has been set for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s much-desired state visit to the Emirates. The date for the next summit of the “Negev Forum,” planned for March in Morocco, has not been set. As one long-time non-Emirati Arab resident explained: “[the UAE leadership] don’t have public opinion as such, but they listen and are concerned. Their relationship with the people is built on trust. If opposition to Israel goes viral, the leadership is not directly affected but can’t continue at the same pace … If Netanyahu did visit, there would be expectations, and if those were not met, it would be considered a failure.”
Several knowledgeable foreign and Emirati observers noted little support for normalization in the Northern Emirates, specifically mentioning Sharjah, the third most-significant Emirate. One well-connected Bahraini told me that among the majority who don’t support the Accords, there is little differentiation between the current government and its predecessors, as there is little knowledge or interest regarding the detailed political currents in Israel.
A former American diplomat told me that the actions of the new Israeli government “can harm, but not totally derail” the normalization process; they note that the Emiratis “know Netanyahu, and know that the Abraham Accords are his baby and his legacy: he is their big enigma.” A Gulf analyst told me that Netanyahu’s actions since the Abraham Accords –his 2020 public denial of an agreement to F-35s for the UAE, his attempts to embroil the new Gulf allies in Israeli politics during his election campaigns, and renewed hints of possible annexations in the West Bank – are widely perceived as harming the relationship. Abdulla Aljenaid, an influential Bahraini geopolitical columnist, told me: “What the Israelis need more than anything else is tough love. The Accords weren’t signed with a specific government but with Israel, and we didn’t do it out of love or appeasement, but because we share the same geography”. The Emirati government, it seems, wants to avoid being perceived as an enabler of the current Netanyahu government.
Various experts in the region agreed that if the situation in Jerusalem and the West Bank continues to deteriorate to the level of a new Intifada, the UAE’s policy would be affected and especially dependent on the Arab position, especially those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The UAE, as well as Bahrain and Oman, are also highly supportive of Jordan in its Israel and Jerusalem policy. Increased tensions and widespread violence might lead to reduced political and economic engagement; among possible steps mentioned are calling the Emirati ambassador home for consultations, lowering the level of diplomatic representation, suspending official visits, and the “slow-rolling” of investments (a ten billion dollar UAE fund Netanyahu bragged of in the past has not yet materialized), and agreements. Mohammed Baharoon, Director General of B’huth Dubai Public Policy Research Center, told me, “If this continues for one or two years, this will be less and less appetite for things like the Negev Forum. Not enough goodwill has yet been created … the UAE can’t do it on its own, and not everything thinks the same way [regarding the merits of normalization]. He added that the UAE has “in our arsenal diplomatic tools to reduce the level of cooperation” as well as leverage in Israeli politics, which it so far forebears from using.
Israeli media reported (so far, without confirmation) that the UAE informed Israeli officials it intends to stop the purchase of defense systems from Israel due to the actions and statements of Israeli ministers; Abu Dhabi leader and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan is reported to have said: “Until we make sure that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a government that he controls, we will not be able to do joint things.” Israeli press also reported that the Sheikh’s envoy, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, met with President Yitzchak Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week and raised concerns over the actions of the Israeli government, which could endanger relations with the UAE and other Arab countries, as well as regional stability (he reportedly was also concerned about the safety of Emirati investments in the Tamar gas field).
It is, however, noteworthy that the two countries on March 26, on the background of enormous internal tension within Israel, signed into effect their free trade agreement, reached last May. Informed Gulf sources point to this as evidence that the Emirati government sees the Abraham Accords as “a strategic direction” and the current Israeli government as a “road bump.” They note, however, that the profile of the signing was low (it passed unnoticed in the Emirati media) and that the trade minister did not journey to Israel to sign the deal (which was signed by the Emirati ambassador and the Israeli Foreign Minister). A perhaps similar signal was given when MBZ, who, as noted, has not yet set a date for Netanyahu to visit the UAE, met on March 27 with former prime minister Naftali Bennet. Meanwhile, Emirati investments in Israel’s energy sector, perceived in Abu Dhabi as a long-range interest, continue, as seen in this week’s offer by ADNOC (with BP) to buy half of Israel’s New Med gas company, which holds 45% of the Leviathan gas field.
Israelis seem, in the view of many of my Gulf interlocutors, to have misunderstood the background and motivation of the Abraham Accord countries. They did not normalize relations with Israel because they were indifferent to the Palestinians: far from it. They may have thought that the old paradigm of letting the Palestinians set the pace was flawed, but it doesn’t mean that they weren’t interested in the Palestinians’ (if not necessarily the Palestinian government) benefiting from the process as well. The Emiratis, especially, saw their intensified engagement with Israel as a means of influencing it to take a more positive approach to the Palestinians and to restart the political process. The Accords were supposed, Baharoon said, to be a catalyst to a wider change in Israeli-Palestinian relations by making Israel feel more comfortable in the region, so they would be more willing to move forward on the Palestinian issue. “The Accords should have been offset by movement on the Palestinian issue; that did not occur…, the Israelis have not ‘made the next payments’”. That is, in his view, a primary reason that the Saudis and others are holding back from formalizing relations: for them, the Palestinian issue is the key issue. Many of my interlocutors expressed their dismay that some of the new Israeli ministers seem not to understand, or to care, that their actions and statements could harm the fragile new relationships. It seems, says Baharoon, that “right now in Israel, Jewish identity is stronger than Israeli identity.” Other states in the region, he says, are not sure of the Israeli commitment, and “our argument is weaker.”
On 16 February, the Moses ben Maimon synagogue in Abu Dhabi, part of the Abrahamic Family House, which also includes a church and a mosque, was officially opened. The Abrahamic Initiative ties in with the Abraham Accords, but despite their similar nomenclature, the two are distinct. The UAE had made religious tolerance and interfaith engagement a key component of its policy before the normalization process occurred, and are careful to distinguish between the two initiatives. There have been accusations, mostly external and from those opposed to normalization, that the UAE is trying to make a new “Abrahamic” religion, separate from Islam, which regime supporters have combated. The concept of the Abraham Accords, one of my senior Emirati interlocutors explained, was to move the conflict from the religious to the Israeli-Palestinian political realm (“it is not a conflict between Muslims and Jews”); it was never meant to be solely bilateral, but rather to encourage regional stability.
American diplomats I met in the region displayed significant concern about the future of the Accords under the new government in Israel and asked, “has the high point of the normalization process passed?”. The possibility of more Arab states joining those who have already normalized seems remote in the short to medium term.
Originally appeared in smerconish.com