Will the Gulf-Israel rapprochement be derailed by annexation?

Netanyahu’s annexation plans could break the anti-Iran alliance Trump helped built between Israel and some Gulf states.

GCC Israel Trump photo AP
Activists prepare cardboard cutouts of Mohammed bin Salman, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump during a rally in Baghdad, Iraq [File: AP/Nasser Nasser]

The Trump administration has few well-defined foreign policy issues, but the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is one of them. That campaign requires international cooperation, and some of the few firm allies the administration has found in the Middle East region are the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Israel.

Washington’s attempts to create a de facto alliance between the two, however, is threatened by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank – a plan that has provoked outrage and anger throughout the Arab world. It appears to have been put on hold for the moment but could be revived at any time, and if Netanyahu presses ahead, the scheme will put Gulf countries warming up to Israel in a difficult position with regard to domestic public opinion.

In May 2018, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a 2015 treaty between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union. He thereafter imposed what amounts to a financial and trade blockade on Iran, preventing it from selling its oil. The US’s invisible blockade, which deploys threats of sanctions on third parties that do business with Iran, reduced Iranian oil income in the year to March to about $9bn, compared with $119bn in March of 2011.

The US strangulation of the Iranian economy has produced powerful tensions, as Iran seemed to covertly strive to demonstrate that the policy would not leave US allies untouched. In May 2019, four commercial tankers were attacked off the coast of the UAE, and in September of the same year a drone or rocket attack on facilities at Abqaiq temporarily knocked out the majority of Saudi Arabia’s refining capacity. In both cases, Iran was suspected of being complicit.

This heightening of tensions with Iran pushed several of the GCC states closer to Israel. The Trump administration also used this opportunity to promote good relations between a number of GCC countries and the Israelis.

In late June 2019, Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s plenipotentiary on Israel-Palestine, brought Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Bahrain for a two-day conference on his “deal of the century” plan for Palestine, although the Palestinian leadership itself refused to attend.

A recent Atlantic Council report also detailed extensive plans for tourism and scientific and technological partnerships between the UAE and Israel.

Bahrain has also warmed to Israel. Last fall, a representative of the Israeli foreign ministry was allowed to attend a conference in Manama on maritime and aviation security. The government has also sought cooperation with Israeli medical facilities in combating COVID-19 and squelched a local conference in May that planned to urge a boycott of Israel. As for Oman, last October Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Muscat in a failed bid to enlist the Gulf in restarting negotiations with the Palestinians.

In February of this year, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud signalled at the Munich Security Conference that if Kushner’s deal of the century were actually signed by the parties, Riyadh would move quickly towards normalisation, saying, “Upgrading relations with Israel will occur only when a peace agreement is signed and is in accordance with Palestinian conditions.”

Netanyahu’s announcement, after he secured a further term as prime minister this spring, that he would proceed rapidly to annex some one-third of the Palestinian West Bank, however, threw a spanner into the works.

In early June, the Saudi cabinet issued a sharp condemnation of the annexation talk, slamming any unilateral Israeli step that would derail the peace process and injure Palestinian rights. On June 16, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash addressed the American Jewish Committee by video and warned that Israel could not expect to normalise its relations with the Arab world if it proceeds with annexation plans.

He clearly made a distinction between a full normalisation of relations on the model of Jordan and continued sectoral cooperation, warning that annexation would make the former impossible. The minister said certain forms of scientific and other cooperation might go forward, including the Emirati-Israeli cooperation on vaccine research for the novel coronavirus.

In mid-June, Qatar announced that it would withhold its monthly aid for the Gaza Strip in July, as a result of the move to annexation. Qatar has pioneered a diplomatic agility in the region, with correct relations with both Iran and Israel, even in the aftermath of the blockade by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, which fatally disrupted GCC solidarity against Iran.

Doha has been giving millions of dollars a month in charity to Gaza, something that had been welcomed by the Netanyahu government. The Qatari funds allowed the Israeli prime minister to appear to keep a strict blockade on the small territory without risking a humanitarian implosion there. Israeli authorities reportedly see these handouts as a safety valve.

However, Qatari officials are keen to avoid any appearance that they are enabling the further usurpation of Palestinian land. For now, the aid will continue, but Doha has made it clear that practical steps towards annexation would place it in jeopardy.

The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran ran into a further obstacle with the leak – from Iran – of China’s plans for the incorporation of Iran into the ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative. Actual implementation of this plan could potentially save Iran from economic ruin, though at the cost of its further integration into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization security bloc that includes China, Russia, and Central Asian states.

Even as Iran has built a back door to East Asia, the Trump administration’s attempt to erect a further firewall against Iran in West Asia by encouraging an Israel-GCC alliance has faltered. Saudi Arabia’s powerful ruling family has consolidated power in the hands of King Salman and his ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, but they would not want to risk domestic turmoil by openly siding with Israel on the annexation of Arab land.

The UAE, with its tiny citizen population and vast petroleum wealth, is better placed to defy public opinion, but even the Emirati authorities seem chary of normalisation if Israel is going to pursue an aggressive Greater Israel policy. Qatar, as well, does not wish to appear to be an enabler of annexation.

Usually soft-spoken Kuwait condemned annexation as an “act of enmity”, and along with Oman, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, signed a strong anti-annexation statement. Bahrain waited until late July to condemn annexation talk, though it did not specify any consequences.

A divided GCC and an expansionist far-right Netanyahu have proven a thin reed on which to found a united front in the region against Iran.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.