Recent statements by the Israeli Minister of Energy regarding secret contacts between his country and Saudi Arabia, whose common concern is Iran, prompted no comments from any Gulf State officials. And yet in an interview given to the Israeli army radio, the minister declared: “We have an ongoing relationship, partly secret, with Arab and Islamic countries. Generally speaking, this is not something we are ashamed of, it is rather the other parties which prefer to keep it secret. So that while ordinarily we have no problem with these contacts with Saudi Arabia or other Arab or Islamic countries, when they acquire any real importance, we respect the other parties’ wishes. Some of these dealings are quite developed, but we keep them a secret.”
This was the first time an Israeli official has mentioned these contacts. In a talk given from Washington on Radio Monte-Carlo Doualiya1 the exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashakji spoke of “Riyadh’s strategic mistake” and deplored the Kingdom’s “hastiness in a matter where it has nothing to gain.”
Protests on Social Networks
At another level, the social networks in the region expressed concern over a recent trip to Saudi Arabia taken by the Israeli blogger Ben Tzion, who posted on his Facebook page a video shot inside the mosque of the Prophet Mohammed in Medina with the following commentary: “Prayer for Peace! Side by side with my Arab brothers. Peace for everyone everywhere in the Middle East. Peace between Jews, Muslims, Christians, Copts, Druze, Bedouins and all the descendants of Ibrahim-Abraham. Salaam, Shalom.”
The video was widely circulated and prompted many comments, most of them hostile. Most cybernauts accused Riyadh of normalizing its relations with Israel and wondered how the blogger got into Saudi Arabia and was allowed inside that mosque.
In November, an Israeli racing driver took part in a motor race on the international circuit at Manama, the capital of Bahrain—though the Israeli flag was not displayed on his car as the organizers wanted to avoid offending pubic opinion—while Qatar hosted Israeli delegates at a conference on economic prospects in the Middle East. In both instances the social networks were submerged by a wave of protest with both Qatar and Bahrain accused of normalization.
On the other hand, these occurrences aroused no official reaction from Gulf countries, where the authorities remain unfazed by accusations of treating with the enemy. As for the media machine—official or unofficial—it is too busy holding forth about the threat of Iranian expansionism and nuclear program.
“The Zionists are working to create a climate of reconciliation and normalization with the Arab Gulf countries, but we are not prepared to recognize the right of a thief to steal our brothers’ house [an allusion to Palestine],” declared Dr. Zafer Alajmi, director of the Gulf Monitorng Group, on the radio program “Saa khalijia.”“The Gulf countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, are preparing people’s minds for a normalization with Israel and to this end are enlisting the aid of a number of writers and analysts,” adds Jamal Khasakji.
“The chief obstacle in the way of peace is not the leadership of the countries around us but Arab public opinion which has been subjected for years to propaganda presenting a false and tendentious image of Israel,” wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his Twitter account in Arabic, dated 21 November.
A declaration by Abdullah al-Hadlaq on the Kuwaiti channel Al-Rai is an illustration of Jamal Khashakji’s assertion: “When the State of Israel was created in 1948, there was no State called Palestine. That people never existed, they only had scattered communities (. . .) Canaanites, Amalekites, or Jabbarines. There is therefore no state called Palestine,” claimed the journalist.
Similarly, in a recent appearance at his own request on Channel 10 in Israel, Bahraini journalist Abdallah al-Junaid claimed that Iran was as much a threat to the Gulf countries as it was to Israel. And he added that President Trump’s flight from to Riyadh to Tel Aviv was a moment of historic importance.
This recognition of the State of Israel is a new development in a region reputed for its hostility towards the Zionist entity and where the idea of accepting the existence of Israel and cooperating with that country was absolutely unthinkable.
Following the 1996 Madrid peace conference, Qatar and Oman had actually allowed Israel to open trade offices on their territory, but these were closed when the Second Intifada broke out in 2000. But this has not prevented many products made in Israel from arriving in the Gulf countries. When people complain, the authorities have the merchandise removed from the shelves . . . unless they simply choose to ignore the complaints.
This official rapprochement has opened a breach for the advocates of normalization and the idea that Israel might become a partner or even an ally has gained a foothold in the minds of some, all the more so as the Gulf countries have toned down their hostility towards Israel to focus on the Iranian peril (or Persian or Safavid as it is sometimes described).
Normalization often takes the form of sporting relations. Thus the Bahraini Football Federation hosted last May the FIFA general assembly, in which the Israeli federation took part along with 207 other national bodies. “The hosting of the FIFA congress in Bahrain is an event of far greater importance than the presence of three members of the Israeli federation. We always like to look at the full half of the glass, in this case the tourist programs, the restaurant and hotel activities and the presence of international media sending out news of the football world from Bahrain,” was the way Ali Al-Khalifa, president of the Bahraini federation, put it.
“We’re not the only country that separates sport from politics. The FIFA congress, which involves 209 states is held in every country, and Bahrain is the second Gulf country to host the event after Qatar in 2003,” Ali Al-Khalifa pleaded, while the Bahraini Association against Normalization with the Zionist Enemy condemned the presence of Israel. “Athletic prestige is not more precious than the blood of our people and it is absolutely unacceptable that, in order to separate sport from politics we should allow a delegation of Zionists occupiers to defile our land and bow down to normalization on the pretext of hosting a world class event as important as the FIFA congress,” the association declared, denouncing an operation of unadorned normalization and the abandonment of the Arab nation’s constant position on Palestine, the common cause of all Arabs.
In the Name of “Iranian Threat”
“Rest in peace, President Shimon Peres, man of war and man of peace, a peace which still remains a distant dream in the Middle East,” wrote Khaled Ben Ahmad Al-Khalifa, Bahraini Foreign Minister in a posthumous homage to the former Israeli president. It is this same minister who tweets daily about the Iranian peril. Thus on last 6 November: “We are quite conscious of the fact that the true danger to the whole region is the Republic of Iran, with its party, its masses and its militias. All of its actions confirm the need to contain and to eliminate this danger.”
Already in 2013, the assistant secretary of Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hama Al-Amer, had clearly alluded to “the possibility of an alliance and normalization of relations with Israel.” Later, in an interview on the British satellite channel Sky News, the minister himself had admitted that Bahrain and other Gulf countries had begun negotiations in order to acquire, with the help of the USA, the high-performance Israeli anti-missile system, Iron Dome.
And finally, there are the numerous visits, some secret, some not, to Jerusalem and the neighboring towns for sporting events, congresses or parliamentary encounters. Ultimately these trips are leaked to the press in Israel or elsewhere and create a degree of unease in public opinion, but soon everything is back to normal.
Centrality of the Palestinian Cause
Young people around the Gulf who are opposed to normalization and feel the need to alert public opinion to the gravity of the situation have decided to organize a conference in Kuwait to discuss how to strengthen the boycott campaigns and make them more effective. The aim is also to make the youth of the region aware of the importance of the common struggle in support of the Palestinian cause, as the organizing committee put it in a press release.
“We must make the voice of the people heard and oppose every attempt at normalization, direct or indirect. We have the heavy responsibility of protecting our country from the Zionist project, and also of defending the Palestinian people, in particular by promoting awareness among the coming generations of that humanitarian cause so that they will join in the struggle,” says Mourad Al-Haiki, a member of the organizing committee in charge of press relations.
“We support the Palestinian cause and warn the people against the dangers of normalization with the Zionist oppressor, whose very existence is a threat to all the men and women living on Palestinian Soil and to the stability of the entire region,” says Mariam Al-Hajiri, a member of the Qatar Youth Group Against Normalization.
In an article which appeared in Al-Qods Al-Arabi, the Bahraini nationalist writer Ali Fakhro questions the relationship of the Gulf countries with Israel in the context of the confrontation with Iran: “Is it a simple matter of differing opinions, or are there rules and obligations which must imperatively be observed and admit no cheating in the name of some passing quarrel with this or that country? The history of the thought and rhetoric of the Zionist movement, the declarations of its leaders over the past century, the many wars of aggression, the murder by the Mossad of hundred of Arab politicians, scholars, militants and resistance fighters, the map of the Greater Israel stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, has all of that been directed solely against the Arab people of Palestine and the stolen territories of historic Palestine? Or against all Arab peoples and the whole of Arab territory? (…) Can we really trust a cynical, racist and contemptuous enemy, who always wants more and has no qualms about massacring children, women and old people? Can we count on them as a strategic ally of the Arabs? Who are these maniacs who claim to be realistic and rational? Do helplessness and lassitude explain the behavior of certain Arabs who are prepared to accept a life of humiliation and brutalization? And why do these leaders not ask their peoples if they approve of what they are doing?”
As for Khalil Buhazaa, a Bahraini activist, he denounces “the obviously normalizing initiatives taken in recent years by certain Gulf governments which turn a blind eye to the visits to the occupied territories by prominent personalities on the pretext of taking part in cultural or athletic events when their real goal is to water down our positions on the Palestinian cause and to present the occupying Zionist entity as a normal entity with which we must have dealings. There is every reason to question the grounds for this eagerness to establish relations with a racist entity which scoffs at international law.”
So how long will it be before relations are openly established between Israel and the Gulf countries? Before there is again liaison offices, or even before embassies and consulates will be reopened?
1A French public radio station beamed at North Africa and the Middle East.