Reports circulated over the weekend that Israel is exploring establishing diplomatic ties with Bahrain and Sudan. There is a degree of vagueness surrounding the story: Are negotiations underway? Will Manama and Khartoum pursue full normalization with Israel or something short of it? What is the timeline for all upcoming developments, including a possible visit by Benjamin Netanyahu to Bahrain?
Israelis have reason to be optimistic about their relations with the Arab world. Still, the recent news about Bahrain and Sudan does not dramatically change my assessment in Ha’aretz earlier this month that Israel should temper its expectations about full normalization. With the exception of non-Arab Chad, whose president visited Jerusalem yesterday, no majority-Muslim country that lacks full ties with Israel has called for things like formal recognition and an exchange of ambassadors. Instead, Gulf Arab leaders have spoken in broader and more flexible terms, such as accepting Israel as a “reality” in the Middle East.
This is not to diminish the improvement in Israel-Gulf state ties in recent years. However, it seems the Arab governments have been able to strike a balance in which they receive maximum benefits from Israel (and the United States) without ever having to invest in a more comprehensive arrangement, along the lines of Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
Meanwhile, Israel makes for an easy sacrificial lamb for Arab governments in a bind, especially Saudi Arabia. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was once seen as the lynchpin of a regional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reportedly pushing the Palestinian Authority to accede to a Trump peace plan heavily tilted in Israel’s favor. But the Crown Prince’s stock has fallen dramatically in the aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination at the hands of Saudi agents, most likely under MbS’s direction.
The Khashoggi murder has generated serious negative fallout for Saudi Arabia. The killing, which took place in Istanbul, has given Turkey some leverage over the kingdom, hurting the latter’s regional stature. Major international corporations and media outlets pulled out of a late October conference sponsored by the Crown Prince and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. Even King Salman, who had largely outsourced key decision-making capacities to his son, apparently intervened.
In such a delicate situation, the last thing MbS will want to do is rock the boat among Saudi conservatives or the broader Arab public by risking a move that is perceived as too wide an opening with Israel. In an alternate reality where Jamal Khashoggi was never murdered, MbS might have led the Arab world effort for normalization with Israel in the context of a Trump administration peace plan. Bahrain, in particular, is highly dependent on Riyadh (Saudi troops helped put down an uprising there in 2011, and the island nation’s primary link to the mainland is through a causeway into Saudi Arabia). Manama might have been an obvious partner in such a campaign.
Yet that reality did not come to pass, and this leave us with two possibilities. The first is that Saudi Arabia is encouraging Bahrain to explore ties with Israel as a test-bed for a wider initiative such as the perpetually postponed Trump plan. If a Bahraini opening generates widespread backlash, the Saudis can pull back and mostly wash their hands of the affair, something that would be far more difficult if the move came straight from Riyadh. It is telling that the much-vaunted openings with Israel have so far come from Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan, and not directly out of Saudi Arabia.
The other eventuality is that Israel and its potential Arab partners are not on the same page. The Gulf states may be willing to host Israeli officials under the auspices of international agencies (something they are obligated to do in most cases anyways if they wish to retain their memberships or rights to host such meetings). Some may even go for a photo-op with Netanyahu. But a peace treaty, like those signed with Egypt and Jordan, is probably some time off. Saudi Arabia has long boosted the Arab Peace Initiative, which would trade normalization among the Arab governments for a two-state solution. The Arab League officially adopted the plan in 2002, but it has existed in some form or another since the early 1980s.
It has been clear for some time that the Gulf states are more concerned with Iran’s regional ambitions than with the Palestinian issue. But it is for precisely this reason that abandoning the Arab Peace Initiative or a normalization effort outside the context of an active peace process is unlikely. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies already benefit from covert Israeli assistance, both official and unofficial. Netanyahu himself went to bat for Saudi Arabia and MbS, lobbying President Trump to preserve ties with the kingdom despite domestic American criticism. At the same time, Washington has lauded Oman and Bahrain for their flirtation with Israel, and the two countries may expect that praise to translate into increased American aid. All of this has been accomplished without inking a treaty with Israel.
It’s not that the Gulf states won’t continue to cooperate with Israel, but there is no obvious reward for giving these relationships official weight. The signing of a Saudi-Israeli peace treaty or the arrival of a Bahraini ambassador in Tel Aviv are the kinds of things that would play right into the hands of the Iranian government and its proxies, offering a powerful recruiting tool and allowing Iran to up its cachet with otherwise skeptical Arab publics as the Islamic Republic positions itself as the lone patron of the Palestinian resistance and seeks a distraction from its military support for the much-despised Syrian government.
For this reason, the rhetorical gymnastics are likely to continue as Israel and the Arab states navigate their relationships. Arab governments may go further, but not all the way. And Israeli politicians may be split on the pace of normalization. On the one hand, there are those who view even the most basic gestures as diplomatic breakthroughs. But eventually, some may grow wise to grow wise to the Arab states’ game. However unstrategic, them more hawkish elements in the Israeli government may even seek to call the bluff. If Israeli and Arab expectations are indeed out of sync, such a disagreement could prove to be a real and serious test of these nascent relationships.