Israel’s Efforts to Expand Arab Relations Slow Over Recent Turmoil

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By Dion Nissenbaum | April 9, 2023
The Wall Street Journal

Middle East governments are lodging complaints over conflict with Palestinians and Netanyahu’s far-right coalition

JERUSALEM—Israeli police raids on Jerusalem’s holiest mosque, army operations against West Bank militants and anti-Palestinian comments by officials have drawn condemnation from Arab leaders—putting a chill on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to deepen ties with Middle East neighbors.

When Mr. Netanyahu returned to office in December, he said it would be a priority to establish diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, after Israel normalized ties in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates and three other Muslim-majority nations in deals known as the Abraham Accords

Earlier this year, Israeli leaders expressed optimism that they could seal a deal with Riyadh within months, with help from the Biden administration, as security concerns over Iran brought Arab countries closer to Israel.

Instead, Israeli and Gulf officials said, Saudi interest in openly embracing Israel has cooled as violence between Palestinians and Israelis has intensified and Mr.
Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition has pushed to build more Jewish homes on West Bank land that Palestinians have expected to be part of an independent state.
“Circumstances have chilled enthusiasm,” an Israeli official said.

While quiet cooperation continues between Israel and Saudi Arabia on security, intelligence and business ties, efforts to expand relations with the powerful Gulf kingdom and other Muslim nations have slowed, according to people familiar with the efforts.

One clear sign of Saudi discontent is the flurry of official condemnations of Israel issued since Mr. Netanyahu returned to office in December. So far this year, Saudi Arabia has issued a dozen denunciations of Israeli actions for everything from West Bank settlement expansion to controversial remarks by a minister who called for the complete destruction of a Palestinian village at the epicenter of recent violence . Last year, Saudi Arabia condemned Israel in two cases.

“Saudi normalization right now is on ice,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, the London-based think tank. “There was too much hope that it would happen quickly.”

Israeli officials said they no longer think they can secure a deal to allow Muslims to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia for the sacred Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca this summer—something they had hoped to initiate for the first time this year.

U.S. officials tried and failed to broker such a deal last summer when President Biden traveled to the Middle East, and renewed efforts this year have faltered, said people involved in the discussions.

Domestic political upheaval over a judicial overhaul pushed by Mr. Netanyahu has sparked mass protests and diverted attention from the efforts to broker a deal with Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Netanyahu has asked Ron Dermer, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, who was tapped to lead talks with Saudi Arabia to focus instead on the domestic troubles. Mr. Dermer was a key architect of the Abraham Accords.

Mr. Netanyahu sees expanding relations with Arab and Muslim nations as a pivotal goal that could bolster Israel’s efforts to contain Iran’s military ambitions and dilute global support for creation of an independent Palestinian state.

With extensive U.S. support, Israel has developed stronger military and economic ties with the U.A.E., Morocco and Bahrain, since they signed normalization deals with Mr. Netanyahu in 2020.

Israel played host last year to a high-profile summit with top diplomats from the U.S., Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco and the U.A.E. in a bid to deepen relations. But plans for a second such gathering this year in Morocco have yet to materialize, slowing momentum.

Israel has made the greatest strides in its ties with the U.A.E., which has eagerly embraced the new relationship. But, even those links are facing challenges because of the new Israeli government.

Two weeks ago, the U.A.E. sent a top emissary to Jerusalem to deliver a private warning to Mr. Netanyahu, saying that the actions of his government were putting new strains on the budding relationship, according to people briefed on the discussions.

Israeli officials said they took note of the fact that the message was delivered by Khaldoon Al Mubarak, a senior Abu Dhabi official close to the ruling family who heads multiple U.A.E. organizations, including one of its biggest sovereign-wealth funds, Mubadala Investment Co. Mubadala has invested $1 billion in Israel’s natural gas industry.

Mr. Netanyahu sent a special delegation to Abu Dhabi before he returned as premier in December and said he wanted to take his first overseas trip as prime minister to the U.A.E., according to people involved in the planning.

The U.A.E. initially agreed, but the trip was scuttled after Mr. Netanyahu’s new national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, made a visit to the Al Aqsa mosque and Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem where he wants to change longstanding rules to allow Jewish worshipers to openly pray.

The status of the 37-acre plateau in the heart of the Old City is arguably the most intractable issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the holiest place for Jews because it was the site of two temples destroyed by conquerors. It is also where the Quran says that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, making it the most holy site for Muslims outside of Saudi Arabia.

When Israel seized the site during the 1967 Six Day War, it allowed Jordan to retain control of it. Some Israeli extremists want to destroy Al Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock that sit on the plateau so they can build a new Jewish temple in their place. That makes any effort to expand Israeli control and Jewish worship at the site an inflammatory move.

The U.A.E. publicly condemned Mr. Ben-Gvir’s actions—the first of a half-dozen such protests in the past three months.

“They are applying the brakes,” said Shibley Telhami, a nonresident senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It doesn’t mean they will change their strategic decision regarding Israel, but I think they will apply some brakes.” Dr. Moran Zaga, a researcher at the University of Haifa who focuses on the U.A.E., said the emirates have broader regional concerns, especially in countering Iran, that make a partnership with Israel a growing priority.

“Israel has significant strategic importance to the U.A.E. and that’s why immediate actions or inciteful rhetoric could be irritating on the one hand, but will not be likely to change the overall framework of the normalization between the U.A.E. and Israel,” she said.

People inspected the wreckage of a building hit by rockets during an Israeli army raid in the West Bank last month.