By Joseph Dubroff*
(FPRI) — Secretive interactions between Israeli and Arab officials, such as a group of Emirati military officials reportedly traveling to Israel to observe its operations of American-made F-35 fighter jets in July 2018, are small indications of the depth of the covert relationships developing between Israel and the Arab World. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that Israel’s cooperation with Arab countries—though mostly taking place behind closed doors—is at an all-time high, but it is not without controversy due to high levels of public support in Arab countries for the Palestinians.
The emphasis on security engagement between Israel and Arab countries today demonstrates a marked contrast from the post-Gulf War peace process. During this time, multilateral forums were organized to begin the process of regional integration that would come with the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israeli and Arab technocrats and government officials would come together with their counterparts for discussions of areas of common concern, including scientific issues. The issues that are the focus of these organizations are to varying degrees “common goods,” meaning that they are shared issues that require all parties to act or risk exacerbation that harms all. Concurrently, Israeli and Arab government officials met publicly, demonstrating optimism that the peace process would achieve its ultimate goal.
In the new era of Israeli-Arab engagement, which began with the United States’ efforts to peacefully engage with Iran during the Obama administration, scientific cooperation continues, but the aforementioned security engagement to counter Iran and its regional proxies has been the primary motivating factor bringing together Israel and “moderate” Sunni Arab countries. These include Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel has diplomatic relations, as well as others with which Israel does not, such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appearing lifeless, the atmosphere of this engagement is much less jovial than the earlier period of Arab-Israeli engagement; Israeli and Arab government officials are meeting, but popular support for the Palestinian cause keeps these meetings behind closed doors.
In this piece, the differences between these two periods through examination of the engagement between Israel and Arab countries within two scientific organizations, as well as their concurrent engagement outside of these organizations’ meetings, will be analyzed in this piece. In the earlier era, a positive outlook towards peaceful regional cooperation created a more open atmosphere for these relationships to develop. These relationships must now be developed covertly due to the status of the peace process, but both sides understand the necessity of contact due to their shared threat perceptions.
Peace Process Positivity: The Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources and Middle East Desalination Research Center
Among Israel and the members of the League of Arab States (LAS), water scarcity is a critical issue; as of 2016, only the Comoros, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa, exceeded 25% of the global average for renewable freshwater resources per capita. In the American-led post-Persian Gulf War peace process, the issue was prioritized in regional integration. Delegations representing Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation came together for their first meeting in Madrid in November 1991. Observers representing every LAS member except Iraq also attended. The initial meeting was considered confrontational, but marked an important first step towards normalization. The January 1992 follow-up meeting in Moscow was attended by delegations representing Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia, and featured the establishment of five multilateral working groups on issues of mutual concern, including water.
The United States was the preeminent world power at this time, following its successful leadership of a 34-country coalition in defeating Iraq—and the Soviet Union having collapsed. It would chair the Working Group on Water Resources (WGWR) with the European Union and Japan as deputy chairs. WGWR’s initial goals were “enhancement of water data availability; water management practices, including conservation; enhancement of water supply; and concepts of regional water management and cooperation.” The first WGWR meeting took place in April 1992, with the U.S. Department of State leading with technical advice from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, setting a precedent for delegations to include policy and technical experts in WGWR’s future deliberations. An example of successful collaboration between Israel and Arab countries within the WGWR was the creation of a regional water databank led by Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian experts.
Through its participation in the WGWR, Oman became the first Arab country outside of Israel’s neighbors to increase engagement with the latter. In April 1994, Oman hosted an Israeli delegation to a WGWR meeting led by then-Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin. Beilin returned in November for a visit that completed preparation for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s surprise visit to Muscat the next month. Shimon Peres succeeded Rabin after the latter’s assassination in November 1995—Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi would represent Oman at Rabin’s funeral—and would lead a business delegation to Muscat in April 1996. Israel and Oman would open reciprocal trade offices in Muscat in May 1996 and in Tel Aviv in August 1996, despite Omani concerns regarding newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to continue the peace process.
Emerging from cooperation initiated by the WGWR, the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), with Oman serving as its host and Israel as one of its executive council member states, was established in December 1996 and seemed to signal that institutions promoting Arab-Israeli normalization would survive the Netanyahu premiership. Among the other MEDRC Executive Council founding members were the United States, Jordan, and the nascent Palestinian Authority. MEDRC aims to research and develop more efficient desalination technology, train engineers to use the latest desalination technology, and facilitate greater cooperation in the region on water issues. Of the ten countries that are members of MEDRC’s Executive Council, eight have chosen to include one diplomat in their representation, implying that sideline discussions would be more likely to touch on political issues.
Oman and Israel continued their public engagement until October 2000 after Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount at the start of the Second Intifada. Oman closed their trade office in Tel Aviv and demanded the Israelis do the same. Since then, Israeli delegations have continued to participate in biannual MEDRC Executive Committee meetings, where clandestine sideline meetings between Israeli and Omani officials regarding other issues have taken place. Some public interaction has continued, such as then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Sayyid Badr Al Busaidi, Secretary General of the Omani Foreign Ministry and Executive Chair of MEDRC, addressing a September 2007 celebration of MEDRC’s 10th anniversary. Less than a year later, Livni would meet with bin Alawi on the sidelines of the 2008 Doha Forum.
Israel and Qatar had already begun to develop their bilateral relationship before the latter joined MEDRC’s Executive Committee in 2007, with a similar trajectory to the Israeli-Omani relationship. Immediately following his April 1996 visit to Muscat, Peres and the business delegation accompanying him went to Doha to sign a trade agreement. Qatar also pulled back from its relationship with Israel following Netanyahu’s 1996 electoral victory, but they still went ahead with opening reciprocal trade offices that year. The trade offices were closed in October 2000, though the Israeli outpost in Doha would secretly remain open to maintain a line of communication between Israel and Qatar.
High-level contact between foreign ministers and others was frequent. Qatar even requested Israel support its UN Security Council candidacy in 2005, which Israel obliged. Qatar’s voting record would prove to be a wasted investment for Israel as the former used its Security Council seat to vocally condemn Israel’s conduct in its conflict with Hezbollah. Qatar’s January 2007 entry into MEDRC coincided with a period of improvement in the bilateral relationship. That month, a group of Israeli students participated in a regional Model United Nations simulation at Georgetown University’s Doha campus. In September, Livni met with Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and would do so again while participating in the Doha Forum in April 2008. But Israel’s 2008-09 conflict with Hamas would again disrupt the relationship, as Qatar finally shut down the Israeli trade office in Doha. Israeli-Qatari ties would further deteriorate as the latter prioritized its relations with Hamas, allowing the terror organization’s leadership to be based in Doha and Emir Hamad making the first trip by a head of state to Hamas-governed Gaza in 2012.
In the cases of both Oman and Qatar, cooperation on water resources and desalination are integral components of their respective pursuits of relations with Israel. However, disruptions in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Israeli military campaigns targeting Hezbollah and Hamas would harm these burgeoning relationships. Regular interactions at MEDRC Executive Council meetings in Muscat continue to provide pretext for Omani and Qatari officials’ discussions with Israeli counterparts that go beyond water issues.
Shared Threat Perception: International Renewable Energy Agency
Fears of energy sources disappearing represent another key concern for both Israel and Arab countries. While Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab countries have decreased their economic dependence on oil rents, this revenue remains a significant portion of many Arab countries’ economies. However, there are concerns in these countries regarding the finitude of these resources. Israel has been geographically unlucky in its dearth of oil resources, pushing it to seek energy sources that would decrease dependence on non-friendly states.
In January 2009, Germany and the UAE were lobbying other countries to vote in support of their respective candidacies to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). IRENA was established “to support countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future, and serves as the principal platform for international cooperation, a centre of excellence, and a repository of policy, technology, resource and financial knowledge on renewable energy.” It advocates for countries to increase usage of sustainable, renewable forms of energy such as “bioenergy, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, solar, and wind.”
Germany and Israel have maintained a very close bilateral relationship, with Chancellor Angela Merkel having called it, “part of our national ethos, our raison d’etre.” But the whipping of votes occurred concurrently with new developments in Israeli-Emirati relations. Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba and his Israeli counterpart, Sallai Meridor, met together with President Obama’s Middle East advisor, Dennis Ross, to share concerns regarding Obama’s “willingness to talk to the Iranian leadership.” At the time, both had a history of confrontation with Iran. Iran has occupied three Persian Gulf islands that the UAE claims since 1971. Iran has been a major funder for the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas and the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah. Hamas frequently carried out terror attacks in Israel throughout the 1990s and during the Second Intifada. By 2009, it had controlled the Gaza Strip for almost two years, and for 22 days had fought Israel in December 2008 and January 2009. Hezbollah began targeting Israel during the Lebanese Civil War, carrying out attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America, and won the acclaim of the Arab public for its successes in its summer 2006 conflict with Israel.
Instead of longtime friend Germany, Israel voted for the UAE, which won the vote. Israel’s support for the UAE’s candidacy was based on the condition that the former could “open an official, publicly acknowledged diplomatic office there.” The basing of IRENA in the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, was made permanent in August 2011.
Unlike MEDRC, a regional organization meant to promote regional cooperation, IRENA is a global organization with 158 member countries, including many Muslim countries with which Israel does not have relations. Because of the size and scope of IRENA, national delegations participating in its meetings are larger than those attending MEDRC Executive Council meetings and could more easily hold sideline meetings away from the public eye. The basing of IRENA in a country with which Israel does not have relations has not hindered Israeli participation in the organization. In 2015, Israel was elected to a two-year term on the IRENA Council, a 21-member body which plans meetings of the organization’s full membership and formulates IRENA’s strategy for achieving its goals.
Cabinet-level participation in IRENA meetings is a regular occurrence, even for Israel. As Minister of National Infrastructure, Uzi Landau made the first public visit by an Israeli cabinet official to the UAE to attend a January 2010 IRENA meeting. However, the alleged involvement of Mossad in the assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud Al Mabhouh in Dubai angered the Emiratis, and is probably the main reason Landau’s successor, Silvan Shalom, did not participate in an IRENA meeting until January 2014. In between Landau and Shalom’s visits to Abu Dhabi, Netanyahu met with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the UAE, during the high-level segment of the 2012 UN General Assembly. The two had a great deal to discuss. Iran—and at its direction, Hezbollah—had intervened in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War and helped it push back against rebel forces. In 2011, worried that Iran would add Shia-majority Bahrain into its sphere of influence, UAE forces joined the Saudis to intervene and stop anti-regime protests.
By March 2015, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1) were closing in on an agreement with Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program. Two weeks before Israelis headed to the polls that month, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed a joint session of U.S. Congress regarding the danger Iran would continue to pose even with such an agreement. Netanyahu and his Likud party would garner the most votes in the election and form a governing coalition. With shared Emirati and Israeli fears of Iran—but contradicting views on Palestine—Netanyahu appointed Yuval Steinitz, considered a key figure in Israel’s policy towards Iran, to succeed Shalom.
The P5+1 and Iran announced their agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015. While Netanyahu disparaged the agreement, the UAE initially welcomed the JCPOA—despite lingering concerns regarding Iran’s regional behavior. Four months later Israel announced the opening of a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi. The Israeli foreign ministry would clarify that the mission was solely for dealings with IRENA, but Steinitz’s centrality to Iran policy made his sideline meetings the main focus of reporting on his participation in the January 2016 IRENA Assembly. Steinitz again attended the IRENA Assembly in January 2017, though without the same media attention as a year earlier.
Even with so many participants, the main focus of press coverage of the January 2016 IRENA Assembly meeting was Israel’s participation and its possible regional implications. The clarification regarding the nature of Israel’s mission to IRENA was meant to assuage doubts regarding the UAE’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, but cannot dispel the notion of Israeli-Emirati collaboration taking place while both consider Iran an existential threat. As evidenced by Al Mabhouh’s assassination, this relationship—like the aforementioned Israeli relationships with Oman and Qatar—is fragile and can be upset by certain actions.
Israel’s engagement with Oman and Qatar through the WGWR and MEDRC took place during a time when such engagement seemed integral to progress towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and eventual regional integration. It continues today through regular interaction in MEDRC, but has taken on similar characteristics to Israel’s engagement with the UAE. With no progress in the peace process and high levels of support for the Palestinian cause, Omani and Qatari officials continue to interact with Israeli officials—but must do so covertly. The UAE has similar restrictions in its engagement—even during the early, more optimistic period of the peace process. But engagement with Israel is necessary for the UAE in its primary goal: countering Iran. IRENA provides a plausible way for Emirati and Israeli officials to continue their meetings on this issue without bringing on popular opposition.
About the author:
*Joseph Dubroff is a Master’s candidate in International Security at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He wrote this article as a Research Intern with the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
This article was published by FPRI.