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Friends With Caveats

Will Israel and the Gulf States Form a United Front Against Iran?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, in Oman in 2018 Israeli Prime Minister's Office / REUTERS

Something is brewing between Israel and its Arab Gulf neighbors, at least if public diplomacy is any indication. When Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, traveled to a conference in Washington last month, he publicly met, shook hands, and stood for a photo with his counterpart from Bahrain, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. Earlier in July, Katz had flown to Abu Dhabi to take part in a UN conference, while Yossi Cohen, director of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, claimed that Israel had received approval to open a diplomatic mission in Oman. The Omani government, which took the unusual step of playing host to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, halfheartedly denied the announcement, but there is little doubt that some form of rapprochement is under way behind the scenes.

Not long ago, such a thaw in Arab-Israeli relations would have been unthinkable, and many view the recent flurry of diplomatic activity as heralding a rapprochement of historic proportions. There is some truth to this narrative. The monarchs of Gulf states no longer consider the Palestinian issue as central a priority as they once did. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long a seemingly insurmountable barrier to closer ties, has therefore receded into the background, allowing the Gulf state governments to take public, if cautious, steps toward normalizing their relations with Jerusalem. They have even acquiesced to the Trump administration’s paradigm-shifting pro-Israel policies, such as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.

The convergence of interests between Israel and the Gulf states is narrow and possibly temporary.

But the détente has its limits. The convergence of interests between Israel and the Gulf states is narrow and possibly temporary, centering on a shared desire to contain Iran and its proxies in the region. Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and other Gulf governments benefit from quietly working with Jerusalem toward that objective. But the cost of more open measures—such as formally establishing relations with Israel—still

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