In a long season of other crises, it may be tempting to look away from the simmering conflict in the Middle East that pits Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar. But that would be a mistake, as tensions among Washington’s key Arab partners remain high with no apparent resolution within sight.
The conflict first erupted in June 2017 when the self-declared anti-Qatar quartet imposed a blockade on Qatar over its alleged support for Hamas and terrorism. Most of what happened next is well known. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped in on Qatar’s side by engaging leaders from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and urging them not to be drawn into the crisis by going along with the quartet’s plans. Erdogan also dispatched Turkish troops to Qatar as part of a deterrence strategy against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iran likewise prevented Qatar’s economy from collapsing by opening up its airspace for goods and services, including food and vegetable deliveries, during the early stages of the blockade.
But what is less understood, however, is that Israel also played a decisive role in stabilizing the conflict as well. Even though the two countries had not had any diplomatic contact since 2012, it quietly extended Doha a diplomatic lifeline by accelerating plans to work together on reconstructing Gaza, which changed the narrative in Washington away from Qatar supporting Hamas to one that focused on its leveraging its relationship with Hamas to get all the parties to cooperate in support of the Trump-administration’s peace plan.
All this worked well with the Trump administration’s initial diplomatic strategy for the regional conflict, which was to provide the feuding parties with a face-saving mechanism for de-escalation. During a June 6, 2017, call with Saudi King Salman, U.S. President Donald Trump firmly rejected a Saudi proposal to invade Qatar. Soon after, the United States requested Kuwaiti mediation with the goal of resolving the conflict within the confines of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Israel, in the meantime, spoke out against legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress that would have effectively designated Qatar as a state sponsor of terrorism because of its links to Hamas. The legislation had been introduced by then-Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce, a Republican from California, and Israel’s de facto opposition to it became clear when neither the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or other mainstream pro-Israel groups lobbied for its passage.
At the same time, Israel strengthened its de facto strategic partnership with the UAE, Qatar’s regional nemesis, which included publicizing a positive meeting in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ambassadors of the UAE and Bahrain that came shortly after Trump began moves to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement that the Israeli leader had vigorously opposed. Israel’s relationship with the UAE has since moved out of the shadows and into the open. By strengthening its relationship with Abu Dhabi while at the same time extending Doha a hand in peace, Israel skillfully established itself in the process as an unlikely peacemaker.
Observers might assume that Israeli intervention has been unwelcome, but, in fact, it was the quartet that entangled Israel in their inter-Arab struggle by nearly exclusively focusing on the Qatar-Hamas linkage as the primary argument for soliciting Trump’s support for their blockade of Doha. In turn, Israel has evolved into an acceptable partner on this issue to the UAE, Qatar, and Oman because of its influence in Washington and ability to preserve the balance of power in the Gulf.
These dynamics hint at a potential strategy for productive engagement by Washington in the Gulf, namely through the kickoff of the long-awaited Middle East Strategic Alliance, a Trump administration initiative that has yet to be brought to fruition.
Formally announced in May 2017, the Middle East Strategic Alliance would include the six GCC countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—along with Egypt and Jordan. Because of Israel’s extensive role in Gulf affairs, it would also be worth granting the country observer status.
To be sure, Israel’s public participation in the Middle East Strategic Alliance would be controversial for the Arab states in light of their own long-standing support for the Palestinians. For Israel to be included, Ramallah would have to be granted observer status as well. But therein lies an opportunity: Just as Israeli-Arab security cooperation has had a surprising stabilizing impact on regional rivalries, perhaps Israeli-Palestinian cooperation through the framework of the new forum—along with all GCC members, Egypt, and Jordan—could enhance regional security as well.
While it is unclear when the Middle East Strategic Alliance will be launched, it could be headquartered at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, which houses U.S., Qatari, and other allied troops. The U.S. presence would effectively provide Qatar with some security against future embargos or worse. Further, given that the GCC headquarters is already based in Riyadh, establishing the new grouping’s counterpart at Al Udeid Air Base would not only strengthen the balance of power within the Gulf but also ensure that not all of the Gulf region’s multilateral organizations are concentrated in one country.
Because of the extreme distrust among Washington’s GCC partners, the Middle East Strategic Alliance’s strategic objective would for all practical purposes be to preserve the peace on the Arabian Peninsula as opposed to establishing an anti-Iran alliance.
While the Gulf states and Israel are indeed drawing closer, it is not primarily driven by fear of Iran but rather by inter-GCC rivalry, including in Washington.
And in that respect, Israel has shown that it can help uphold the balance of power within the Gulf. In the process, it has transformed itself into a reliable strategic partner for the UAE, Qatar, and Oman. That is progress that all interested parties should want to double down on.
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