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

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.

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

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