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Opinion: Israel's Annexation Plan Dims Hope For Better Ties With Gulf Arab States

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (right) and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at a session of the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December.
Fayez Nureldine
AFP via Getty Images
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (right) and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at a session of the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December.

Bilal Y. Saab, a senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute, served from August 2018 to September 2019 in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy as senior advisor for security cooperation in the Middle East. Charlotte Armistead is a research assistant at MEI's Defense and Security Program.

On July 1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows to commence the process to annex Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. This move, should it come to fruition, may kill any hope of peace with the Palestinians. But what it will also do is vastly reduce the chances of marked improvement in ties between Israel and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

This is relevant for Washington — which is still considering whether to support annexation — because significantly enhanced political relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states could crack the code of broader Arab-Israeli security cooperation, which theoretically should improve regional security, a primary U.S. interest in the Middle East.

Much has been made of the seemingly burgeoning relationship in recent years between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, and for understandable reasons. The two sides, which do not have formal relations, perceive and combat shared threats posed by Iran and Sunni terrorism. They have modestly cooperated on security since the 1960s, when Israel militarily aided Saudi-friendly factions in the 1962-1970 Yemeni civil war. In 2018, the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates held a joint military exercise in Greece.

Israeli and Gulf Arab leaders also have held talks in public and private, including in 2018, when Netanyahu visited Oman and met with then-Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

But writing this month in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba warned Israelis that annexation would harm Israel-Gulf relations. "Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE," he wrote.

Qatari authorities also threatened to stop aid to the Gaza Strip if Israel goes ahead with the annexation.

As significant as the Emirati and Qatari concerns are ( Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman also have condemned Israel's annexation plan), it is the Saudi attitude that matters the most. The kingdom commands the Gulf Arab pack. No GCC country will seriously contemplate normalizing ties with Israel unless Saudi Arabia does it first. And the Saudis, who have officially condemned the annexation plan as well, are nowhere close to that prospect.

No matter how risk tolerant Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may appear in foreign policy, on the issue of Israel he simply cannot move an inch. This is despite him warming up to Israel in 2018, at least rhetorically, saying in an interviewthat Israelis, like the Palestinians, "have the right to have their own land."

The de facto ruler of the kingdom may be champing at the bit to officially partner with the Israelis, who can bloody the nose of Saudi Arabia's archrival, Tehran, as no Arab power can. But he cannot, because he will risk losing everything he has been trying to accomplish at home.

Since his speedy ascendance and consolidation of power a couple of years ago, his top priority has been to reform the Saudi system by diversifying the economy, reducing the influence of the more conservative elements in the Saudi clergy and relaxing social mores — all of which require domestic control and cooperation, or at least minimal obstruction, from the Saudi religious establishment, which is already ticked off by the young leader's measures to open up the country culturally.

If the future King Mohammed (the health of his father, 84-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is believed to be deteriorating) were to officially embrace Israel before the Palestinians signed a peace accord with the Jewish state, the Saudi clergy would most likely revolt and make life extremely difficult for him.

As Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a title he will hold once he becomes king, the crown prince will be responsible for not only safeguarding and maintaining the two holiest sites of Islam, but also making sure that the fate of Jerusalem is negotiated justly and fairly between Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem, home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest Muslim site, is a historical cornerstone of any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and an issue that carries deep religious significance to Saudi society and Muslims worldwide.

The risk is not that the kingdom's clerics would unseat Mohammed bin Salman and take over if he were perceived as giving up Jerusalem. The threat is that their role and authority would catapult upward, jeopardizing all that he has promised, stood for and worked to fulfill in his country.

It is also possible that a premature official Saudi acceptance of Israel would lead to the reemergence of extremist militancy, which wreaked havoc in the kingdom in 1979 and then again from 2003 to 2004. Historically, the issue of Palestine, particularly Jerusalem, has been a widely utilized tool in jihadi recruitment and activities, including the creation of al-Qaida.

So until Israel concludes a peace accord with the Palestinians that fairly settles the issue of Jerusalem, a scenario that looks as remote as ever, given Netanyahu's reckless and politically motivated actions, don't bet on Saudi Arabia — or any other Gulf Arab nation — to officially recognize the Jewish state and team up against Iran.

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Bilal Y. Saab
Charlotte Armistead