Prof. Inbar: “This has to be gradual. The informal is at times stronger than the formal. We should deepen these ties without making this more difficult for Gulf countries.”
The Jerusalem Post, 07.10.2019
Foreign Minister Israel Katz confirmed that he is promoting “non-aggression pacts” with the Persian Gulf emirates, a move that some Israeli experts applauded while others said was unnecessary and motivated by internal Likud politics.
Katz posted on Twitter a Channel 12 report from Saturday night revealing his efforts to reach the pacts with the Persian Gulf countries that would normalize economic ties and institutionalize anti-terror cooperation, despite a lack of movement on the Palestinian track. The report said that working groups were set up to discuss the issue.
Katz said that this effort, backed by the US, is “historic,” and would “put an end to the conflict and make possible civilian cooperation until peace agreements are signed.”
He said he presented the idea to US Mideast negotiator Jason Greenblatt and Arab foreign ministers he met two weeks ago at the UN General Assembly meeting. “I will continue to work to strengthen Israel’s status in the region and around the world,” he wrote.
But Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said that when it comes to agreements, Katz should save himself the trouble.
“If it is something official that they [the Arab countries] have to sign, then forget about it,” he said. “It is a good idea, but why would they sign it? Right now they get all the cooperation [with Israel] they want, without coming out of the closet.”
Asked why Israel should allow the ties to remain hidden since they are beneficial to both sides, and that bringing them out in the open would begin a process of the Arab public getting used to the idea of engaging with Israel, Inbar said that Israel could ask them to make the ties more public, but there is no need for formal agreements.
“Agreements commit them more,” he said. “This has to be gradual. The informal is at times stronger than the formal.”
Inbar said that it would be a mistake for Israel to put the Arab leaders in an uncomfortable position, when the level of cooperation now is strong and mutually beneficial.
“We should continue doing what we are doing [with the Gulf States], deepen those ties, without making this more difficult for them,” he said. “Why do we need agreements? The reality on the ground is what is important.”
And the reality, according to numerous reports, is that a significant amount of business and security cooperation is taking place between Israel and the Arab countries, though it is all happening “under the table.”
“Under the table in the Middle East is very crowded,” Inbar quipped.
“With all due respect,” Inbar said, “Katz is looking for headlines. At a time where there is no government, when the Arab countries don’t know what is going to happen to [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, surely the time is not right. “
Joshua Teitelbaum, professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Middle Eastern Studies Department and an expert on the Persian Gulf, also agreed that the effort now is motivated to a degree by Likud politics.
“I would take it with a grain of salt, because it is only coming from Katz,” he said. “There is a leadership fight going on there, and he has in interest in pumping this up.”
Teitelbaum noted that the whole history of the relationship of ties between Israel and the Gulf countries always comes from the Israeli side. “We will know there is something there when we hear from the Arab side,” he said.
Referring to reports about intelligence cooperation, Teitelbaum said that there are probably those inside Israel’s national security establishment who want to say the following to the Gulf States: “You guys have basically been getting this stuff for free, and we need some kind of quid pro quo in terms of making things public, and so forth.
“The big question,” he said, “is what they get out of it. Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? Israel may be saying at this stage, ‘You must buy the cow already’.”
Teitelbaum said that the leak about the plan to Channel 12 likely came from Katz’s team, and may be a trial balloon.
What will be interesting, he said, is to watch the Arab reactions.
“Will they say, ‘There is no such thing like this in the world’ and deny it, or will they be silent,” said Teitelbaum. He also said it will be interesting to watch how the issue is dealt with in the Arab press, as well as on social media.
Dore Gold, former director-general of the Foreign Ministry who now heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and has in the past had some ties with Saudi academics, applauded Katz’s initiative.
“When you go and try to develop these non-belligerent agreements, it is not a full peace, but it moves you along the route that could eventually become that,” he said.
Asked if he could imagine a scenario where the Persian Gulf countries would sign such an agreement, Gold replied, “Yes, if they could explain to their intellectuals and the academics that this is not a full peace treaty.”
Gold cited an example from the Cold War – the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 – that could be used as a model for this type of accord. That pact committed the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries to give prior notification of military exercises.
“This was not the end of the Cold War, but it certainly created institutional frameworks that allowed these countries to meet on a regular basis,” Gold said. “So if Israel and the Arab states would adopt a similar framework, it would create a much better regional environment.”
Unlike Inbar, who did not see value in this type of accord, Gold said that “anything that moves us down the road toward a greater diplomatic context is positive.”
Regarding what the Arab states would get by signing such an accord, inasmuch as they are now enjoying the fruits of cooperation without making it public, Gold replied, “There is no free lunch. These countries apparently feel that if they upgrade their relations with Israel, there may be positive benefits for them, such as their relationship with the United States, which they are very worried about at the present.”
BY HERB KEINON, The Jerusalem Post, 07.10.2019