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Israel and the Arab Gulf: An Israeli-Saudi Alliance in the Making?

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Israel has recently been in top global news with the elections to the Knesset held on September 17, 2019. As they ended in a deadlock between incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his contender Benny Gantz, Netanyahu might face the end of his political career. In addition, US President Donald Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century” for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, which is expected to be released shortly, has created quite a sensation (Asseburg 2019). In comparison, the Times of Israel’s October 5 report on Israeli foreign minister Noam Katz’s initiative to advance a non-aggression deal with several of the Arab Gulf states and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – attracted little interest (TOI Staff and Ahren 2019; Ahren and TOI Staff 2019). However, in terms of a lasting impact on regional affairs in the Middle East, Katz’s initiative bears much higher potential for structural change than Netanyahu possibly being voted out of office or Trump’s “Deal of the Century.’”

With regards to Middle Eastern policies, Gantz is in line with Netanyahu, particularly as the two leaders basically agree on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and because they share a strong stand against the regime in Tehran. This includes Gantz’s endorsement of containing Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah inside Lebanon and in Syria (Beck 2019a). What has been leaked about Trump’s plan so far is that it attempts to buy off Palestinian political ambitions by disbursing financial aid (Chulov 2019). Thus, not much more is to be expected than the symbolic funeral of an idea – the two-state solution – that has already been clinically dead for years. Structural change in Middle Eastern affairs is unlikely to happen as an outcome of the deal as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has no leverage (Asseburg 2019; cf. Hadar 2019). As is argued in the remainder of this article, much more intriguing than all this are the potential regional repercussions of a non-aggression deal between Israel and the Arab Gulf countries headed by Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s interest in normalizing its relations with the Arab Gulf

Israel has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries: Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and Jordan did so in 1994. Benefits for Israel are manifest, in particular as the two by far longest international borders of Israel – in the East with Jordan and in the West with Egypt – have been completely calm for decades. Yet, there are limits with regards to all three basic dimensions of politics, which are to be addressed in the following: security, political economy, and legitimacy.

In the 1960s, Egypt’s army posed the strongest regional security threat to Israel. However, Egypt never recovered from its disastrous defeat in the June War of 1967. Moreover, advancements in rocket technology imply that traditional policies of securing borders by land in the Middle East do not conform to the standards of modern security policies anymore. Major threats as perceived by Israel come nowadays from Iran and its allies in the Mediterranean respectively: strongholds of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria (International Crisis Group 2018). As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) consider Iran and Hezbollah enemies, a strategic alliance with the Arab Gulf states would be in the interest of Israel.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt also spearheaded Arab attempts at developing their economies by state-led industrialization. However, Egypt and the other labor-rich but capital-poor Arab countries failed to successfully adjust their socio-economic systems to the imperatives of a world economic system driven by neo-liberal globalization. Egypt’s current crony capitalist system is not competitive and has lost touch with the dynamic forces of the global economy. The development paths the labor-poor but capital-rich Gulf states have been pursuing since the oil price revolution of the 1970s are rather flawed, too: Rather than primarily using the income generated from the oil sector to build strong, productive economic systems, they devoted the bulk of their resources to establishing distributional systems to legitimize their rule over their populations. However, the sheer........

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