Fraternal Enemies: Israel and the Gulf Monarchies by Clive Jones and Yoel Guzansky is a revealing history of the complex and fast-evolving relationship between the Jewish State and the Gulf States. The authors claim that a ‘Tacit Security Regime’ has emerged between these ‘fraternal enemies’ based on their extensive shared interests – security, economic, diplomatic and cyber – and on the personal relationships that have been assiduously built up, in no small part by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Clive Jones spoke to Fathom deputy editor Samuel Nurding on 7 February 2020.
Samuel Nurding: The book is timely. What led you and Yoel to write it?
Clive Jones: I started off thinking I would write about Britain’s involvement in the Yemen civil war in the early 1960s. Israel became involved because some of the documents I was examining and some of the people I interviewed alluded to Israeli involvement I found that intriguing. Later I met somebody who was intimately involved in Britain’s support for the Royalist guerrillas in the mountains of northern Yemen, and he showed me not only his private papers demonstrating what he was up to in Yemen but also the list of the Israelis involved in Yemen at the time. By now I was thinking more about Israel’s periphery doctrine: how did Israel try to court and influence allies when developing its regional security agenda?
At around that time, I was asked to review a book by Yoel, who had come from working in the Prime Minister’s office in Israel and the Iran desk at the National Security Council. By chance, he told me about a new book he was writing on the Arab Gulf monarchies, and he had read some of my own pieces on Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. So, the book emerged through a confluence of intellectual interests – that’s the genesis of the project.
Tacit Security Regime
SN: You claim that most theoretical frameworks fail to explain Israel’s historic ties with the Gulf states. You argue that a Tacit Security Regime (TSR) is the best conceptual framework to help explain the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states. What are the key elements of a TSR model and why did you choose it over other frameworks?
CJ: Let’s start with the second question first, the why? It would be very easy to explain the relationship through a realpolitik lens, and clearly there is a strong element of power politics at play here, and equally we could have applied Security Regime Theory. These theories look broadly at how state actors cooperate overtly towards the attainment and maintenance of shared interests which can, in some cases, result in formal agreements or treaties. The problem with doing that, however, is twofold. Firstly, when you look at security regimes, they tend to be grounded in either some form of bilateral agreement or treaty, but that is not the case with Israel and the Gulf monarchies. Secondly, Security Regimes Theory still tends to be dominated by structural realist approaches, which look at the way in which states interact with one another at the global or regional levels, but fail to analyse domestic determinants and domestic constraints: these are often called ‘ideational constraints’ by political scientists. It seemed to us, therefore, that traditional Security Regime Theory, and realist theory by extension, do not seem to capture fully the dynamic that underpins the complex relationship between Israel and many of the Gulf monarchies.
In this vein, we were influenced by the insights of an Israeli scholar, Aaron Kleiman, who developed the idea of a Tacit Security Regime to look at the relationship between Jordan and Israel from the late 1960s and early 1970s until the treaty signing in 1994. For us, this seemed the more fruitful way to go, especially as we are aware from the archives that there were indeed close relations, even intimate ties between Jordan and Israel, but equally there were clear constraints on the extent to which those ties could be made public, due to Jordan’s position in the region. Developing Kleiman’s framework seemed to capture the essence of many relationships we saw emerging between Israel and Gulf monarchies including Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The long evolution of the Tacit Security Regime
SN: We are used to hearing ‘revelations’ about increasing ties between Israeli and the Gulf states, but your book shows that such ties are not a new phenomenon. What are some of the key moments in Israel’s ties with the Gulf?
CJ: There’s no denying the fact that many of the ties Israel has forged with the Gulf since 1948 have been born from shared security concerns. Let me give you one example: we can trace Israel’s ties to Oman back to the mid-1970s, when Israel offered and provided security advice to Sultan Qaboos on border security, when Qaboos was faced with the Marxist-oriented Dhofar Rebellion. Israel provided intelligence based on its own experience of securing its borders against the PLO cross-border attacks from Jordan.
The real benchmark was the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, which allowed the opening of low-level ties between Israel and many Gulf countries. Of course, these ties fell into disarray following the outbreak of the Second Intifada. But nonetheless, the opening of low-level ties after Oslo set a precedent for further interactions in the future, and even when some Gulf states such as Oman and Qatar are forced to suspend ties, institutional links often continue in order to maintain diplomatic dialogue. For example, in Qatar the Middle East Desalination Research Center, where Israeli research expertise is greatly valued, or the International Renewable Energy Agency are used by Israel as a means of ensuring diplomatic contact between Israel and Gulf interlocutors. Therefore, I think Oslo marks a sea change.
Another key date is 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon. At the time, Hezbollah was pedestalled as this vanguard-like organisation able to resist Israel on behalf of the Arab world. But we now know there was clear unease amongst the Gulf states over the great power of Hezbollah and its role in furthering Iranian power across the region. These states hoped Israel would cut the head off the snake and deal a crushing blow to Hezbollah. Despite the Israel-Palestinian question, there are shared interests between Israel and the Gulf monarchies. From 2016 onwards, these interests have been expressed more forcefully, and indeed sympathy has been shown more readily for Israel’s position vis-a-vis Hezbollah.
The Arab Spring
SN: One event referenced a lot in the book is the Arab Spring. What impact did the Arab Spring have on how the Gulf states viewed Israel?
CJ: We often go back to the view that Iran is fanning the flames of resistance to the Saudis, Bahrainis and the Emiratis. But equally, from the perspective of the Gulf monarchies, what does the Muslim Brotherhood represent to them? The Muslim Brotherhood is often seen as the organisation behind much of the unrest in places such as Egypt. The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood denies the centrality of dynastic rule, born from tribalism. This ideology, married with the fact that organisations such as Hamas are outgrowths of the Muslim Brotherhood, creates the perception of another major threat. Again, the fact that Iran has continually supported organisations like Hamas in their opposition to dynastic rule is where this confluence of interest between Israel and the Gulf monarchies arises from. The only exception to this, of course, is the position of Qatar, but even in the past Qatar has reached out to Jewish organisations when seeking to gain favourable status in Washington. When the Qataris do this, the Israeli government does offer clear health warnings to the US, but even the Qataris understand that their support for the Muslim Brotherhood does come at a price in terms of the leverage they can wield in Washington.
SN: Are there non-security related interests that are shared between Israel and the Gulf states?
CJ: While the relationship is somewhat dominated by hard power concerns and hard power interests, Israel has been successful in using its soft power, namely cyber diplomacy. Especially in the case of the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies have benefitted from the use of Israeli cyber technologies. There is enough evidence to show that Israeli companies have sold extensive surveillance equipment to, for example, the UAE. There is publically-available evidence that Asia Global Technologies, run by a man named Mati Kochavi, has been responsible for setting up border surveillance technologies across the UAE. I think this in and of itself brings influence to Israel. Without doubt, Israel’s expertise in cyber technology is greatly valued by monarchical regimes.
Of course, Israel will say that ultimately the recipients of this technology can use it how they please as sovereign states, as Israel has been criticised for exporting technologies that infringe upon civil liberties, crackdown on dissent and so forth. But this form of soft power has undoubtedly given Israel clout with the Gulf monarchies, and its potential to build broader platforms of Israeli-Gulf ties in the future should not be underestimated.
Leveraging Israel to move America
SN: How important has Jerusalem’s special relationship with Washington been to flourishing Israeli-Gulf ties?
CJ: I think it’s been crucial, especially since the Arab uprisings in 2011. Certainly, in terms of Jerusalem urging pro-Israel groups in the US not to hinder Congress in providing Gulf monarchies with the sale of appropriate defence equipment. Israel has become a lot less vocal in voicing any hard-core objections that would prevent those deals passing through US Congress, and I think that is a very visible expression of how Israel sees the Gulf states as the frontline in the confrontation with Iran. That said, this is a difficult balancing act for Israel to perform, because ultimately nothing is formally enshrined in a treaty or agreement, and because Israel also needs to maintain its qualitative military edge in the region.
In the longer term, these links have another dynamic: Israel has proved to the Gulf states, based on its own performance against its external threats, that it is willing to take on what is seen as Iranian aggression and aggrandisement in Lebanon and Syria, demonstrating that Israel is a partner to curb Iranian military influence throughout the region. This acts as a reassurance to many Gulf states who see Israel as more reliable than the Trump administration, whose unpredictability means that Gulf states cannot be sure of what the medium to long term US policy in the Middle East and Gulf region is going to look like. Despite the controversies over Trump’s decision-making processes, he is widely regarded as following the Obama administration with regards to the processes associated with Middle Eastern retrenchment. Israel represents a reliable long-term ally in the fight against Iran, when the US, sometimes, does not.
SN: Looking ahead, what impact do you think a declining US influence in the Middle East will have on Israeli-Gulf ties?
CJ: What these ties have demonstrated is a great closeness in the relationship between Abu Dhabi, Manama, Riyadh and Jerusalem. If you are looking at the broader strategic trends, there is clear concern amongst the Gulf monarchies, which one can trace back to 2006, with regards to a potential ‘Shi’a crescent’ from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Unless there is a sudden a realignment of attitudes among the Gulf monarchies towards a more benign view of Iran, the ties that have been established between these ‘Fraternal Enemies’ will likely endure in the short to medium term even as Washington increasingly backs away from the region.
The importance of personal ties
SN: How important are personal relations to these strengthening ties?
CJ: Without doubt, the strength of the ties that have emerged, from Israel’s perspective, is down to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For example, Bibi met with Sudanese leaders in Uganda in early February: I don’t think this meeting could have been made public if it was not for the fact that Bibi has been able to court Arab leaders into expanding their ties with Israel. More, these ties simply could not be as open as they are today without someone laying the ground first. Netanyahu deserves a great deal of credit from an Israeli perspective in brokering new ties and establishing a new agenda with countries that, to be blunt, 10 years ago would have been highly embarrassed if any interaction with Israel was exposed to the public media. But the calculus has changed. Sudan wants to be taken off the US list of terror-sponsoring states. The Sudanese look at the relations other Arab states have built with Israel and their subsequent growth in influence in Washington and think they should adopt the same strategy. Dare I say it, the sanctions on Sudan may well be lifted, and if they are there is no doubt that Sudanese relations with Israel will have played a vital part in that.
SN: If Bibi goes, could these relationships change with new leaders? Or is the regional setting making these relationships unavoidable?
CJ: This is a very interesting question. This is, in effect, a debate between structure and agency: how much is improved relations due to personal relationships or how much is improved relations due to a wider perception of congruent strategic interest? In the case of Israel, I think these ties could survive beyond Netanyahu if he were to lose the election in March. These relations are now part and parcel of how Israel understands the region. However, whether they would survive the collapse or even diminution of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) influence regime in Saudi Arabia is more difficult to gauge. I would suggest yes, if the situation with Iran remains static and does not change. But if any rapprochement with Iran was on the cards, I would suggest the Gulf monarchies’ relationship with Israel would change. We are seeing no signs of that, so I do not see Israeli/Gulf ties changing significantly in the future.
Is the absence of Palestinian statehood still the glass ceiling on the relationship?
SN: You and Yoel make an interesting point in the book that attempting ‘to force such relations from outside the shadows would undermine much of what has been achieved’. What do you mean by this? Do you think there is a point when Arab states will say ‘that’s enough and you’ve gone too far’?
CJ: Yes, I do. As much as Netanyahu hopes the outreach he has engaged in will eventually lead to peace treaties, he certainly realises where the limits are. Importantly, Netanyahu sees relations with the Gulf states through an outside-inside strategy: by improving relations with the Gulf, he can leverage more effectively against the Palestinians. Most Israeli leaders know that there will not be a formal peace treaty with the Saudis or whoever it may be, so I think Israel knows the pace and scope of the relationship has to be calibrated to the regional context. However, in saying that, Israel has far exceeded what many observers estimated it could have done.
Also, although the Trump peace plan has been met with widespread criticism across both the Arab world, including the Arab League, and the West, contrast these positions with that of the Saudis and Egyptians: they say the plan should be ‘explored’. In and of itself this kind of ‘outside-in’ approach has placed Israel in a very strong position vis a vis the next steps regarding its relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and any kind of peace agreement that can be reached with the Palestinian people.
SN: Is the Palestinian issue the glass ceiling for Israeli-Gulf relations?
CJ: Well, you can never say ‘never’. With the current Saudi leadership and MbS’ allegedly strident criticisms of the PA’s authority in Palestine, it seems like some Gulf figures are adopting the narrative that the ‘Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’. But I think that even for the Saudis, forcing through a peace agreement that sees Palestinians sacrifice their national dreams and sovereignty over East Jerusalem would be a step too far. We may have reached the apex in the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states, but this apex is one that does indeed suit all sides.
Will the informal be formalised?
SN: Israeli policy-makers believe that Israel would not benefit from a more formal, institutionalised relationship. Why do you think this is the case?
CJ: I think this is the case for two reasons. Firstly, traditional Israeli policy has been to negotiate with its neighbours and interlocutors on a one-to-one basis, rather than negotiating with its neighbours as a collective. There is a perception in Jerusalem that the latter places Israel at a diplomatic disadvantage. Secondly, from a strategic perspective, Israel has nothing to gain from pushing a formal diplomatic agreement or solution when most of the Gulf states are ‘on board’ anyway. Israel holds most of the diplomatic cards and thus there is no need for Israel to tie its hands.
There is little incentive for Israel to push this Tacit Security Regime towards a formal alliance or treaty. If anything, this could undermine many of the gains made by Israel; one of the reasons we chose the TSR framework was because we are aware that although very little has been done for the Palestinians by the Gulf monarchies, Arab nationalism, and the notion of Al-Quds as an independent Palestinian state, still enjoys emotional and political support on the Arab street, so why upset the apple cart?