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The ninth MEI Speaks on 26 August 2020 was a talk on Israel’s Bridge to the Gulf by Mr. Jason Isaacson, Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer, American Jewish Committee. The session was moderated by Dr. Sreeradha Dutta, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

The talk centred on the events that led to the landmark announcement of the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates for normalization of relations. The speaker noted that the idea of normalization with the Arab states, particularly the Gulf, has always appealed to Israeli political and military establishment along with the business sector. He underlined the brief low-level diplomatic relations that existed between Israel-Oman and Israel-Qatar, following the Oslo Accords. During that period, Israel maintained trade offices in Doha and Muscat. Since 2000, he observed that there had been an unacknowledged relationship in the form of business and intelligence exchanges.

Furthermore, Isaacson said that in the past few years, Gulf States had grown increasingly frustrated with the Palestinian leadership, and some of them have even cut-off their aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). In the last few years, countries in the region have openly exhibited their desire to normalize ties with Israel. There was a breakthrough in October 2018, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Muscat on the invitation of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. This was followed by the visit of Israeli Minister Miri Regev to the UAE along with the Israeli judo team which was participating in the International Judo Federation (IJF) championship in Abu Dhabi. In 2019, Bahrain hosted the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Manama to unveil the economic elements of the peace plan between Israel and Palestine.

There were a few more positive indications of growing understanding. Israel maintains a mission to the UN International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi. Moreover, the AJC cooperated with UAE in promoting Emirates as the home to the new UN agency. Notwithstanding the optimism associated with such an agreement, Isaacson flagged a few pertinent issues. Given the significance of the Israel-UAE agreement, he observed that the American sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE is entirely conceivable. On the issue of Israeli annexation, he elucidated that the annexation is suspended but not off the table. AJC has expressed its concerns about the annexation, given the adverse impact it would have on the prospect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

There are strong reasons for the UAE and other countries in the region to re-examine their stand on Israel. The most glaring reason is the threat to both Israel and Sunni-Arab countries from Iran and its proxies. The likelihood of access to technology is another driving force underlying the rapprochement. Search for medical, cybersecurity technology, and other characteristics of Israeli innovation also explains the rationale behind the change in attitudes of the monarchies. Furthermore, he submitted that collaboration with Israel would yield opportunities for the Palestinians and other Arab states. The Israel-UAE agreement can lead the way for countries like Bahrain and Oman to follow suit. About the upcoming US elections and its influence on Israel-US relations, he clearly expressed that Israeli security is a bi-partisan issue in the US. Therefore, the likelihood of a change in US-Israel relations is minimal.

A lively Q&A session followed the talk. About India, he said that the relations between India and Gulf hold a promising future. He was optimistic about the Israel-Qatar relations, notwithstanding the impediment that may arise in future. On the question of conservative clerics in Saudi Arabia, he said that Mohammed bin Salman has not yet been able to overcome the influence of the clerics. Furthermore, he cautioned that the prospect of annexation is not going to wither away anytime soon and suggested that the Palestinians must find a way to negotiate with Israel, otherwise the situation will get challenging for them.

Finally, Honorary Director MEI@ND concluded the session and thanked all the guests and participants.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy