Gulf states rebuke, reach out to Israel

AP, DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Thu, May 17, 2018 - Page 6

Arab states resoundingly condemned the killing of more than 50 Palestinians in this week’s Gaza protests, just as they have after previous Israeli violence going back decades — but behind the scenes, fears over Iran have divided Arab leaders, with some willing to quietly reach out to Israel.

Saudi Arabia, which has used its control of holy sites in Mecca and Medina to brand itself the protector of Islam around the world, offered a brief statement of condemnation and reaffirmed its support for “the Palestinian brotherly people” and their “legitimate rights.”

Over the past year its powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has cultivated close ties with US President Donald Trump’s administration. Palestinian officials say Saudi Arabian intermediaries have conveyed details of US peace proposals that strongly favor Israel. The administration is said to have been working on a plan for more than a year, but has released no details.

In March, just as the weekly Gaza protests were getting under way, the crown prince met with pro-Israel Jewish-American leaders, where he was quoted by Axios, an online newsletter focused on Washington politics, as saying the Palestinians should accept the proposals or “shut up and stop complaining.”

The prince later appeared to acknowledge Jewish claims to Israel, telling The Atlantic that Israelis “have the right to have their own land.”

He also suggested that if there is peace, relations between Gulf Arab states and Israel would be of mutual interest.

At a ceremony on Monday to mark the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem — one of the targets of the Gaza protests — Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner said alliances are already shifting in favor of Israel.

“From Israel to Jordan to Egypt to Saudi Arabia and beyond, many leaders are fighting to modernize their countries and create better lives for their people,” Kushner said. “In confronting common threats and in pursuit of common interests, previously unimaginable opportunities and alliances are emerging.”

He spoke as Israeli forces shot and killed at least 59 Palestinians and wounded more than 2,700 during mass protests along the Gaza border.

Kushner has developed a particularly close relationship with the Saudi crown prince, who has used the relationship to build pressure against Iran. The kingdom was one of the few countries to welcome Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last week.

It is not just Saudi Arabia that has inched closer to Israel. Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa tweeted support for Israel after an attack on Iranian targets in Syria last week. The tiny Gulf country, where the Sunni monarchy put down an uprising supported by its Shiite majority in 2011, has long viewed Iran as a threat.

Despite signs of outreach with Israel and a shared enmity for Iran, Bahrain condemned the targeting of Palestinian civilians on Monday and reaffirmed support for an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also condemned Israel’s “current escalation in the Gaza Strip.”

State-aligned media took a tougher line. A front-page editorial on Tuesday in Dubai’s Gulf News ran with the headline: “Mr. President, you killed any glimmer of hope for peace.” The front page of Abu Dhabi’s the National described the US embassy move as “a new catastrophe.”

Tough rhetoric aside, Israeli businessmen are known to work in the UAE, often traveling in on US or European passports. The UAE hosts an Israeli representative to the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency, while Israeli judo stars spar in annual competitions in the Emirati capital.

Among Arab Gulf states, Qatar’s statement was the most fiercely worded. It described the violence as a “brutal massacre and systematic killing committed by the Israeli occupation forces against unarmed Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, including children and women, during their peaceful and legitimate protest.”

Qatari leaders have spent millions of dollars on rebuilding the Gaza Strip and, in coordination with Israel, supplying humanitarian aid there. Qatar has also hosted Hamas leaders over the years.

However, even as it has provided aid to the Palestinians, Qatar has welcomed prominent pro-Israel figures from the US over the past year for conversations with the ruling emir.

Qatar’s outreach appears to be driven by an effort to maneuver politically in the face of a nearly year-long blockade by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

The standoff was ignited in part by Qatar’s support of extremist groups, such as Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and has fought three wars against Israel. The other Arab states are also angered by Qatar’s warm relations with Iran.