Playing with fire: Gulf Arabs and Israelis tacitly explore cooperation amid Israeli diplomatic tsunami

Egyptian protesters scale the walls of the building housing the Israeli embassy in Cairo (Source: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

By James M. Dorsey

Amid the diplomatic tsunami hitting Israel with its embassy in Cairo stormed by protesters, its relations with Turkey at an all-time low, the United Nations set to recognize Palestinian statehood and the influence of the United States, its closest ally, substantially diminished, conservative Gulf states and Israel are quietly exploring common ground.

Both Israel and the Gulf states are eager to curb the ten month-old wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that have already toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and are shaking the fundaments of autocratic regimes in Syria and Yemen.

Similarly, the storming this weekend of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by protesters led by militant soccer fans raises the specter of the rule of the street, sending chills down the spine of Israeli and Gulf leaders. If Israel’s ambassador to Turkey was last week expelled by the government, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt was driven out of the country by protesters against the will of their rulers.

Israel and the Gulf states are also worried about the emergence of Egypt’s Sinai desert as a largely abandoned frontier for weapons smuggling and human trafficking that could become a launching pad for attacks on Israel alongside the Gaza Strip that is controlled by Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist group. This weekend’s storming of the Israeli embassy followed last month’s killing of five Egyptian soldiers in a border skirmish sparked by a cross-border attack on an Israeli bus.

Lost in the focus on the storming of the Israeli embassy with its potential implications for the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace was the fact that the nearby Saudi embassy was targeted too. The protesters vented their anger at the treatment of Egyptian pilgrims returning from the holy city of Mecca, who had been delayed at Jeddah airport for days and insulted by Saudi airport officials for putting ousted President Mubarak on trial for responsibility for the deaths of hundreds killed in the protests early this year that forced him out of office. In a telltale sign, Gulf television stations, including Al Jazeera, initially offered limited coverage of the protests in front of the embassies and launched into live coverage only when the extent of the demonstrations could no longer be ignored.

Finally, Israel and the Gulf states both see Iran as a major threat to regional stability and do not want to see the Islamic republic succeed in its alleged efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

If the protests against the Israeli and Saudi embassies complicate the feelers being put out by Gulf states and Israel, it benefits, in a perverse twist of logic, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) despite the protesters chanting of slogans that demanded an end to military rule and compared SCAF head Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi to Mr. Mubarak.

The storming of the Israeli embassy in particular shifts the focus of attention to Israel and away from mounting discontent with the continued use of military tribunals for civilians, the convolutions in the trial against Mr. Mubarak trial, the complex negotiations to draft an electoral law and the military’s failure to set dates for parliamentary elections. The embassy incidents further weaken anti-military opposition by driving a wedge among the protesters with liberals warning that the popular revolt was reeling out of control.

In many ways, Turkey’s tough stance on Israel – lowering of diplomatic relations, suspending military ties and pledging to have Turkish warships escort future aid ships attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza – has put Egypt and other Arab states on the line. It is likely to complicate any Gulf effort to tacitly cooperate with Israel in furthering perceived common interests. Egypt, the Gulf leaders and other Arab rulers will find it difficult to be seen as taking a less firm stand against Israel than non-Arab Turkey and fear that failure to do so could fuel public discontent.

Nonetheless, Dubai’s Khaleej Times published days after the announcement of Turkey’s tougher stance towards Israel and on the day that Israeli embassy staff fled Egypt a relatively rare op-ed piece written by an Israeli businesswoman and former foreign ministry official that described the lack of commercial, economic and technical cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors as a “lose-lose situation for everyone.”

Naava Mashiah argued that “Israel has been spearheading research and innovation to overcome a harsh climate and water scarcity. But there is very little knowledge sharing between Israel and other countries in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Although food security would best be addressed in the framework of a regional peace, the absence of such peace between Israel and its neighbors should not get in the way of cooperation on this issue, given how critical the situation facing the region is.”

Ms. Mashiah’s comments played on Arab concerns that rising food prices were a key factor in prompting Arabs across the region to take to the streets. She noted that the Arab world imports 50 per cent of its food requirements and need to become self-sufficient and less dependent on volatile world markets despite the fact that they have limited arable land and a shortage of water supplies.

“Israel, for its part, has made much progress in crop yields, green houses technologies, seed acclimatization, drip irrigation, dew collectors, waste-water management and other unique water technology innovations. Shouldn’t the successful results of high crop yields in arid climates be shared amongst other countries in the region? Time is a big factor. R&D investment is time consuming and starting research from scratch is not the same as benefitting from previous discoveries. De-nationalizing technologies and sharing knowledge is the way forward. The sooner we realize this, the better we can deal with the urgent challenge that all countries of this region share,” Ms. Mashiah wrote.

Israel and the Gulf states no doubt share a host of common political and economic interests. Yet, the opportunity to capitalize on that communality is shrinking at the very moment that they would benefit most from increased cooperation. Nonetheless, the risks involved in taking those feelers a step further grow by the day as the fallout of Turkey’s move becomes increasingly apparent and emotions take a front seat as the Palestinians gear up in the United Nation for recognition of their statehood in what is likely be a largely symbolic victory, but one that could dramatically change the legal playing field on which Israelis and Palestinians fight their battles.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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