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Regional monarchs nervously watching events in Israel-Palestine

The situation is particularly complicated for the UAE and Bahrain, two Gulf countries that signed the Abraham Accords.

Analysis | Middle East

What recent bloodshed in Jenin, East Jerusalem, and Jericho means for the greater Middle East remains to be seen. But, with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history now in power and Palestinians justifiably worried about it inciting settler violence, Gulf Cooperation Council officials are closely monitoring the highly volatile situation.

For the GCC’s two Abraham Accords members — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — such violence poses dilemmas. In 2020, one of Abu Dhabi’s main talking points for persuading regional audiences of the benefits of normalization was that the Abraham Accords stipulated that Israel would forgo formal annexation of the West Bank (at least according to the Emirati interpretation). Yet, given the agendas of extremists such as Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, large-scale land grabs in the occupied territory will be a high priority for the new government — a direct challenge to the Abraham Accords’ legitimacy.

In an interview with Responsible Statecraft, former senior U.S. diplomat Ferial Saeed explained that the fact that the Biden administration is not making any serious efforts to de-escalate tensions makes the situation more challenging for GCC states. “The burden is heavier on states in the region to do something. I don’t think they’ve figured out what that something is,” said Saeed.

Although the UAE and/or Bahrain are highly unlikely to abrogate their normalization deals with Israel, Abu Dhabi and Manama must strike a balance. On one hand, both Gulf states remain interested in all the benefits of the Abraham Accords, including trade, investment opportunities, technology transfers, defense coordination, and intelligence sharing with Israel, as well as political gains in Washington. On the other, however, Emirati and Bahraini leaders can’t ignore domestic and regional considerations.

As polls demonstrate, Emirati and Bahraini public opinion opposes normalization, as is the case across the Arab world. At a time when Israeli violence against Palestinians intensifies, regional governments cannot afford to ignore views held by their Arab/Muslim constituents. Suffice to say, while Israel’s then-prime minister, Naftali Bennett, paid visits to the UAE and Bahrain last year, Benjamin Netanyahu probably won’t be a guest in any Gulf Arab country in 2023.

“At best, both Abu Dhabi and Manama are holding their noses up, both because they are unable to effect any changes in Israeli behavior and, worse, because their positions go against their own respective populations’ perceptions of what Israelis are inflicting in terms of gratuitous violence on the hapless Palestinians,” Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh, told Responsible Statecraft.

“So far, for the Bahrainis and Emiratis, they’re trying to treat this as business as usual,” explained Courtney Freer, a fellow at Emory University, in an interview with Responsible Statecraft. “I think it’ll become more difficult for them to do that, however, with the Netanyahu government in power.”

Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said the UAE inviting Ben-Gvir to its embassy in Tel Aviv before he was given a ministerial position was about trying to “mitigate such turbulence” while signaling the UAE’s stance that Ben-Gvir’s “actions should not be something that undermines the developments of the Abraham Accords.” Essentially, the Emirati message to Ben-Gvir was: “Don’t be the person that ruins this.”

Like Abu Dhabi’s previous condemnations of Israeli human rights abuses following the UAE’s signing of the Abraham Accords, the Emirati leadership denounced the January 26 Jenin raid. The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation demanded that Israeli authorities “assume responsibility for reducing escalation and instability in the region” while emphasizing “the need to support all regional and international efforts to advance the Middle East Peace Process, end illegal practices that threaten the two-state solution, and establish an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Saudi Arabia slammed the raid as constituting “serious violations of international law” and called for ending the Israeli occupation. With Netanyahu having spoken to high-ranking U.S. officials and the media about his ambition to bring Riyadh into the Abraham Accords, this objective appears unrealistic in the absence of serious progress on Israel’s part in terms of respecting Palestinian rights.

“Few should be surprised by Riyadh’s strong condemnations of Israeli violence in the Occupied Territories,” said Kechichian. “Even fewer should fathom improved Saudi-Israeli relations as long as conditions remain the way they are.”

Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar have all firmly stood by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, reflecting the “Arab consensus” that normalization with Israel must only occur after Israel returns to the 1949-67 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Unsurprisingly, Kuwait City, Muscat, and Doha immediately and strongly condemned last month’s raid in Jenin.

As the GCC state most firmly opposed to the Abraham Accords, Kuwait will likely harden its anti-normalization position. Given the semi-democratic nature of Kuwaiti governance, the country’s leadership must be particularly sensitive to public opinion. “Kuwait has said it would be the ‘last state’ to normalize with Israel,” noted Freer. “I do think that’s true. Because of how powerful parliament is in Kuwait, the state can’t really ignore how unpopular the Abraham Accords would be in…Kuwait. Basically, it would not be able to sweep it under the rug or brush it away given how outspoken legislatures have been in Kuwait.”

Yet, most Arab states in the normalization camp (Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE) spoke out against the January 27 attack by a Palestinian gunman that killed seven Israelis near an East Jerusalem synagogue. In condemning “all targeting of civilians,” Saudi Arabia also denounced the shooting. The Atlantic Council’s Alissa Pavia called that reaction a “rare show of support to Israel” by Riyadh.

“The Saudis have the advantage now of being able to step back, see what is happening, and how this will play out with the signatories of the Abraham Accords now,” according to Freer. “The Saudis have brought up the Arab Peace Initiative in recent years. I wonder whether that will become a part of any active negotiation or any kind of potential future relationship with Israel. In the past the Saudis have said we have a template for how this relationship can work. But they haven’t necessarily held the Israelis to account in terms of abiding by that arrangement. So that’s something else that could be important.”

Saeed does not interpret the Saudi condemnation of the January 27 attack in East Jerusalem as constituting any change in Riyadh-Tel Aviv relations, which are witnessing rapid commercial growth. “I see the Saudi condemnation in that light, as enabling continued growth in de facto ties. If anything, the Saudis have put normalization on the back burner, keeping it warm while they figure out how to navigate this political minefield,” she explained. “They would lose credibility in the Arab world if they left the Palestinians out of a normalization agreement with Israel. That matters to Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the region. A two-state solution has been a long-standing Saudi position.”

Looking ahead, Bahrain and the UAE can be expected to continue enhancing cooperation with Israel on technocratic levels in the domains of economics, defense, intelligence, technology, and trade. Yet, both Abu Dhabi and Manama will probably take steps to avoid appearing too friendly toward Israel’s extremist government. The GCC members that haven’t normalized are highly unlikely to do so with Netanyahu’s current government in power, if ever.

“The Abraham Accords might be a framework that gives Abu Dhabi and Manama economic leverage, but not political leverage,” said Alghashian. “The main reason is because the Abraham Accords was not motivated by resolving political issues, but rather, a materialization of economic interests.”

Photo: Oren Ravid via shutterstock.com
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