Arab Gulf States, Israel is Emerging as an Ally
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Wall Street Journal
May 5, 2017
For decades, rejection of Israel—sometimes mixed
with outright anti-Semitism—has been a defining theme of Arab politics,
uniting bickering countries against a common foe.
Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim
Brotherhood leader who was deposed in a 2013 coup, had gone on TV three years
earlier to brand Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs.” In 1988, the
Palestinian militant group Hamas adopted a covenant that cited the notorious
anti-Semitic forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as proof of a
global Jewish conspiracy.
But attitudes are beginning to change in some parts of the
Arab world. Mohammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa, the secretary-general of the
Muslim World League, a Saudi-based global organization that has been accused of
spreading extremism, recently pointed to a lesson in coexistence from Islam’s
past. “The neighbor of the Prophet [Muhammad] was a Jew, and when that Jew was
ill, the Prophet visited him and gave him kind words,” said Mr. al-Issa, who
is also a former Saudi minister of justice. “The hard-liners don’t wish to
This new tone toward Jews—and, to a lesser degree,
Israel—is becoming particularly prominent in the Gulf states, led by Saudi
Arabia. For these wealthy Sunni monarchies, it is Shiite and Persian Iran that
poses the most pressing current threat to their interests. They view the Jewish
state—a foe of the regime in Tehran and its regional proxies, including
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia—as their de facto ally.
This unlikely partnership has gathered steam with the rise
of Saudi Arabia’s new deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the architect
of the Yemen war, who wants a more vigorous response to Iran. And it has
received new momentum since the election of Donald Trump, the preferred
candidate of Israel and the Gulf states. The White House said Thursday that Mr.
foreign trip as president will feature stops in both Israel and Saudi
“We have the same enemy, the same threat,” Saudi Maj.
Gen. Ahmed Asiri, now the kingdom’s deputy intelligence chief, said in
February. “And we are both close allies of the Americans.”
Pressure from the Gulf—particularly from Hamas’s
longtime backer Qatar—played a key role in the Palestinian group’s decision
Monday to remove slurs against Jews from its
revised charter. Israel scoffed at the changes, noting that Hamas retained
its goal of “liberating” all of historic Palestine—which would mean
eradicating the Jewish state.
shift on Hamas. “Most of [Hamas’s] support came from
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in the past,” said Ayoob Kara, a lawmaker from Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the only Arab minister in
Israel’s cabinet. “Now the Saudi Arabian coalition understands more and more
that Hamas is an extremist organization and that extremism and terror are also
against them, not just against Israel.”
The Gulf states also shape opinion across the Arab world:
Most of the influential TV news channels and pan-Arab newspapers are owned by
Saudis, Qatari or Emiratis. “On TV, we no longer hear the usual words
‘Israeli aggression.’ Now, it’s mostly about the ‘Persian aggression,’
” said Ahmad al-Ibrahim, a Saudi businessman and political analyst.
Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and rejection of Israel
still run deep in the region, particularly in countries far from Iran that
don’t view it as much of a threat. Such feelings are widespread among the
people of the Gulf states too, so most of the recent cooperation with
Israel—focusing on intelligence and security matters—has occurred in secret.
But some small steps have been public. An unofficial Saudi
delegation, led by a retired general, visited Jerusalem last year and met with
Israeli officials. The United Arab Emirates has permitted a small Israeli
mission to the U.N.’s renewable-energy agency, based in Abu Dhabi, and Emirati
officials are weighing whether to allow low-key Israeli participation in the
2020 Dubai World Expo.
Such an erosion of Arab hostility to Israel rattles many
Palestinians. “I am in favor of normalizing between Israel and all Arab
countries—one minute after an independent Palestinian state is established,”
said Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab bloc in Israel’s parliament.
“Agreements between Israel and Arab countries before the Palestinian issue is
solved will weaken the Palestinian cause.”
Many in the Gulf shrug at such complaints. “Saudi Arabia
has always wanted to support the Palestinian cause. It negotiated on their
behalf, it spent a lot of money on their behalf,” said Mr. Ibrahim. “But
unfortunately, the Palestinian leaders do not want to get along and are not
working for their own people. You cannot just say no to everything.”