Strategic Assessment (100): The Repercussions of the Gulf Crisis on the Palestinian Issue

//Strategic Assessment (100): The Repercussions of the Gulf Crisis on the Palestinian Issue

Summary:

The Gulf Crisis affects the Palestinian issue in numerous direct and indirect ways, given the dimensions of the stances of the countries blockading Qatar related to the “Political Islam” movements, the peace process and resistance in Palestine, relation with Iran, and Qatar’s media policies.

There is a strong Israeli desire to exploit the crisis to push an agenda of normalizing ties with the Gulf countries before reaching a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian issue, and to play the cards of “counter-terrorism” and counter-balancing Iranian influence to present itself as a natural partner of these countries. In parallel, Israel wants to curtail the influence of Hamas and resistance forces, and head off Iran’s potential attempts to capitalize on the Gulf crisis.

The catastrophic scenario involving a war on Qatar by the blockading countries seems to be off the table for a number of reasons. The diplomatic scenario remains the most plausible, through compromises acceptable to all sides, entailing some Qatari concessions, which may carry some setbacks for Palestinian resistance forces, especially with the growing US-Western role in attempting to resolve the crisis. Therefore, the resistance forces must work hard to thwart attempts to designate them as terror groups, rearrange their cards, but also avoid to enter into any alignments with any of the sides of the crisis and call for a political settlement among the Arab “brethren.”


Introduction

Israel’s Perception of the Gulf Crisis

The Scenarios of the Gulf Crisis and Its Implications for the Situation in Palestine

The Likely Scenario

Recommendations


First: Introduction

The Gulf Crisis, which erupted between three Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia (KSA), United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain) and Egypt, and Qatar, on 5/6/2017, is not isolated from previous crises witnessed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which had seen the withdrawal of ambassadors. Some of them were publicized, for example in 2002 and 2014, while others were not, but could be detected through the sudden cooling of relations between some GCC countries or the failure of the GCC to implement and complement integration measures. The essence of these crises revolves around four main dimensions, each directly or indirectly carrying implications for the Palestinian issue. They are:

1. The threshold of Gulf relations with Iran, which have at least two dimension: Iranian policy vis-à-vis Arab states in general, and Iranian policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue.

2. The threshold of Gulf relations with the “Political Islam” movements, especially the Muslim Brothers (MB) movement. Some Gulf countries such as KSA and the UAE believe that the MB movement are the largest and most politically experienced group in the Arab world, and believe they are working to take power in the Arab states, given their prominent and multifaceted political roles in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere. From the Saudi point of view, the MB movement could extend their influence to the Gulf countries, especially in the kingdom, with historic roots and social structures that may respond to the political literature of the group. Based on this view, this entails a play for power in these Gulf countries, especially in KSA, and therefore, they must be contained and suppressed. Given that the Palestinian factions most active in the conflict with Israel have historical links to the MB movement, the Gulf crisis has cast a shadow over these groups, especially the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).

3. The threshold of media freedoms in the Gulf, at the heart of which lies the editorial policy of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network. The Gulf states (especially KSA and the UAE) perceive the network as a platform for “incitement,” and as a tacit platform for the MB movement, not to mention the fact that it goes far outside the traditional editorial norms of the Arab media, causing “ripples” in the stagnant waters of the Arab public opinion. This was particularly visible during the period that saw the eruption of Arab uprisings in late 2010 to the present day, while taking into account the fact that Al Jazeera’s editorial policy places the Palestinian issue in a very prominent position.

4. The centrality of the Saudi role in determining the political decisions of the GCC: Since the organization was established in 1981 in response to the threat posed by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia saw the GCC as an means to contain the fallout from the revolution in the Gulf, with the Saudi role being central to this, given the kingdom’s weight in the Gulf region. Following the announcement of the Arab Peace Initiative for the settlement of the Palestinian issue in 2002, of which the KSA was the main architect, Saudi Arabia increasingly sensed the centrality of its role in shaping not just the Gulf but also Arab grand strategy. This was met with some “concern” from certain Gulf countries, especially Qatar, a Omani reluctance to accept the Saudi centralizing tendency, and a Kuwaiti sensitivity over the same issue. As the Palestinian issue is one of the most important components of Arab strategies (regardless of their worthwhileness), Saudi Arabia saw it necessary to direct the issue to serve other orientations, which was not received well by a number of Gulf and non-Gulf Arab countries.

Second: Israel’s Perception of the Gulf Crisis

It is necessary to understand the Israeli-Gulf relationship from both a historic and contemporary perspectives to understand the Israeli position on the Gulf-Egyptian blockade of Qatar and the circumstances of the Gulf Crisis. The following highlights of this relationship may be identified:

1. Israeli-Gulf Relations (KSA and the UAE)

One may consider the year 1990 to be a turning point in US efforts to bring together the GCC countries and Israel. Perhaps the direct flight taken by US President Donald Trump in May 2017 from Saudi Arabia to Israel in his most recent trip to the Gulf is a sign of “silent” Israeli-Gulf relations. The existence of these relations can be detected through many indications. For example, Saudi academic figures with former links to the Saudi intelligence agencies visited Israel, while reports in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz spoke of an Emirati participation in military exercises alongside Israel, the US, and European militaries in Greece. A year before that, the UAE had taken part in exercises with Israel and Western states in Nevada, USA. In November 2015, Israel opened a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi under the umbrella of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report in February 2017, “The office has the capacity to function as an embassy for Israel’s expanding ties in the Gulf,” [1] deepening the relationship between Israel and the Gulf countries. According to the Times of Israel, a series of secret Saudi-Israeli meetings were held,[2] not to mention that the Israeli Foreign Ministry started using social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc) to create a virtual embassy to GCC states since 2013. Individuals in the Gulf can communicate with Israel through this virtual embassy, which was run by the Israeli diplomat Yigal Palmor. In these contacts, the establishment of commercial ties is encouraged – through a third party – which could eventually increase trade volume (through a third party) to about $0.5 billion according to estimates by Yitzhak Gal, professor of political economy at Tel Aviv University, in remarks to the Financial Times.[3]

2. Qatari-Israeli Relations

As is known, commercial relations between Israel and Qatar were launched in 1996, in an event attended by Israeli former President Shimon Peres, who visited Qatar again in 2007. Although Israel’s commercial office was closed down in 2008, Qatar received an Israeli trade delegation in 2013. In 2008, then Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with Sheikh ‘Abdullah bin Khalifa Al Thani at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In 2008, Israel’s then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with the Emir of Qatar at a UN conference, before she visited Doha in the same year, meeting with a number of Qatari officials. Qatar also said it would allow Israel to take part in the 2022 World Cup tournament it is hosting if its national team qualifies. Qatar, and in accordance with Israel, built the Doha Stadium in the Palestinian town of Sakhnin in the territories occupied in 1948, as the two sides continue to communicate to arrange the delivery of Qatari aid to Gaza Strip (GS) amid the ongoing Egyptian isolation of Hamas. According to the Daily Telegraph, Qatar was also part of the efforts to arrange a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in GS.[4] According to Israeli sources, Qatar played a role in the migration of a number of Yemeni Jews to Israel in 2013.[5]

On the other hand, Israel has expressed its ire over Qatar’s support for Hamas and Hamas’s right to participate in the Palestinian political system, as well as Qatar’s efforts to lift the GS blockade and rebuild the coastal enclave. The Qatari position remains one of the most advanced for an Arab country in support of the Palestinian issue, and a chief critic of this role is Israel’s hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The Israeli Perspective vis-à-vis the Gulf Crisis

Israel perceives the crisis, according to many Israeli analysts whose views are best summarized in a report issued by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS),[6] from two angles – the implications for Hamas, and the implications for Iran, as follows:

1. The crisis, according to Israel, is a sign of the fragmentation of the “Sunni” front against Iran. For this reason, Israel is encouraging the US administration to mediate to prevent the collapse of the anti-Iran front. Israel believes the mediation offered by Donald Trump to the Emir of Qatar in June 2017 must accomplish several objectives:

a. The US mediation must be conditioned upon Qatar reducing its support for “Hamas specifically,” which would increase financial pressures on GS and make Hamas more open to accepting the return of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the Strip, and the replication of the West Bank (WB) model of security coordination with Israel, an outcome preferable to the GCC countries and Egypt.

b. Heading off any Iranian attempt to capitalize on the crisis with Qatar, as pressure on Qatar could push Doha into aligning with Russia, Iran, and even Syria and Iraq. Early signs of this included Iran opening up its airspace to the Qataris, sending food to Doha, and receiving a high-level Iranian delegation in Qatar’s capital.

c. On the other hand, Israeli parties have a desire for Qatar to “moderate” Hamas’s positions. Furthermore, Qatar’s deportation of Hamas leaders (according to Israeli reports) from Doha is an indication that pressuring Doha could obstruct the gradual and calm Qatari decrease of support for Hamas.[7]

2. Israel believes that mending the divisions in the GCC is extremely important to guarantee the continuation of support for Syrian opposition, who have been affected by the Gulf Crisis, because Israel wants to prolong the war in Syria for as long as possible.

3. Israeli studies, in the course of analyzing the crisis, suggest there may be personal dimensions for the row between the Qatari and Saudi leaders, requiring a high level of diplomatic tact to address it. However, Israel also believes these personal differences should be exploited to further Israeli objectives.

4. On the other hand, the Gulf Crisis is an important opportunity for Israel, the US, and the West to blackmail the Gulf countries politically, economically, and militarily, including by pressuring Gulf countries to normalize ties with Israel, under the pretext of appeasing the US and counter-balancing Iran.

Third: Israel’s Perception of the Gulf Crisis

The possible progression of the Gulf Crisis could proceed along one of the following scenarios:

1. Catastrophic Scenario

This scenario would see ongoing complications in the crisis, pushing each side into further escalation against the other, up to precipitating a military confrontation, especially since 20% of arms purchases around the world went in 2015–2016 to GCC countries, while the volume of Gulf arms purchases doubled in the period between 2011 and 2016.[8]

This scenario could lead to material losses that lead to a significant decrease in financial support for the Palestinians, and could cast a dark shadow on the priority assigned to the Palestinian issue in Arab diplomatic activities. Yet the worst outcome possible in this scenario would be if Israel capitalized on this war, with the Gulf countries vying to appease Israel as a way to benefit from the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States to obtain official US support. This would serve as a pathway for Israel to normalize ties with larger Arab countries, especially that there is a growing Israeli inclination to pursue a settlement on the basis of giving priority to normalizing ties with Arab countries at the expense of settling the Palestinian issue. Indeed, Israel appears confident that the status of the Palestinian issue has declined in the political “consciousness and calculations” of a large segment of Arabs, and therefore, believes the door is more open to expanding its presence in Arab capitals. This means Israel will make negotiations over normalization of ties precede any effort on its part to identify the nature of a peace settlement with the Palestinians, and thus allow Israel to further tip the scales with the Palestinians in its favor, meaning the continuation of the Judaization of PA and deferring the resolution of the conflict at the expense of its Arab neighbors.

Factors that Hinder This Scenario

It seems that the likelihood of this scenario (war) remains weak. No one can give an absolute answer about whether a war will or will not erupt in the Gulf, because an unexpected event may alter all courses (e.g. a conflict over power in one of the countries blockading Qatar). Therefore, answering this question remains within the threshold dictated by “rational” hypotheses, in which case the possibility of a war with Qatar remains weak and unlikely. Instead, this may take the form of “muscle-flexing diplomacy,” such as with the deployment of forces near the border with Qatar, deploying more Turkish troops to Qatar, holding military exercises near Qatar’s borders or shores, or violating Qatar’s airspace, but without reaching the stage of invading Qatar, which remains unlikely due to the following reasons:

a. The lack of any serious desire by the blockading countries to go to the war scenario, as evident from the political and field conduct of these countries.

b. Oil prices: If war erupts, shipping traffic in the Gulf region will come to a complete halt. If we recall that the Gulf produces around 24 million barrels per day or 30% of global oil output, war would drive up prices in a way that will benefit primarily Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, countries the West do not want to see recover economically. This would also cost Europe dearly, with oil and derivatives representing 78.2% of European imports from the Gulf. The halt of trade would also hurt Europe, which trades with the GCC countries to the tune of $138.6 billion annually, and hurt China, India, and Japan, who together account for 49.5% of the GCC’s total external trade.

c. The risks for foreign expats and investments in the Gulf: Foreigners account for about 48% of the total 51 million people, who comprise the population of the Gulf countries. In Qatar, they account for 90% of the population. Foreign investments, most of which originate in Europe and the United States, despite the fact that they declined from about $58 billion in 2008 to less than $25 billion in 2016, would also be at risk from any war, which is unacceptable to the countries that own these investments.

d. US bases and troops (nearly 35 thousand are deployed in GCC countries) would be in a difficult position in the event of war. If they intervene in the war, this would mean intervening against country with US troops. If they don’t intervene to defend the areas of their deployment, especially in Qatar, then they would prove to be of no value to their host country. In other words, intervention and non-intervention would both be a problem for the US, which applies to the other countries with military presence in the Gulf, such as Britain and France.

e. A war in the Gulf means strategic gains for Iran, with the weakening of the Gulf countries, and encouraging some to seek Iranian help whether logistically or otherwise, depending on the course of the war. This is not in the interest of the Western countries or the GCC countries, in light of their stances on Iran.

f. War in the Gulf would divert attention away from Syria, which undermines the strategy of the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia as it has sought to change the regime in Damascus.

2. Diplomatic Scenario

The continuation of US diplomatic efforts in particular, and the Arab and European and other efforts in general, could help produce a settlement in which both sides achieve some gains, commensurate with the political, economic, and military balance of power on the one hand, and that do not cause any side to lose face. No doubt, this scenario is the most suitable for the Palestinian side, because it averts the catastrophic implications of the first scenario. However, it does not mean that the Palestinian issue in this case would be spared from “all losses” resulting from the crisis, including:

a. The coming period may prove to be the most difficult for Islamic movements, especially the MB movement, in light of four main factors: the lack of any powerful regional backer to counter pressure on these movements, who are no longer able to take advantage of Arab contradictions as was the case during the Nasser era or shortly after it, given the narrowing of the political space available to them. Furthermore, a number of militant Islamic groups that have taken part in the Arab uprisings since 2010 to the present day have tarnished the image of armed action and made it less appealing to the public, especially in light of their civil war and the excesses and abuses in their tactics and methods at home and abroad. In addition, there has been an international backlash against these movements, with both moderates and extremists facing restrictions. Finally, Arab military institutions are hostile to Islamic movements. No doubt, this climate we described here does not favor Palestinian movements with an Islamic character, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

b. Clearly, the designation of Islamic militant movements, be they terrorist or none terrorist, has expanded to include Palestinian Islamic movements, something that Israel, the US, and Britain have worked hard to accomplish. The Saudi and Emirati support for listing Hamas on terror lists is one of the worst recent developments in the Arab position on the Palestinian issue. It seems that removing Hamas and some pro-resistance Palestinian names from the recent Gulf terror list, which included 59 individuals and entities, was the result of Egyptian efforts rather than a Gulf position, given the complex relations between Egypt and Palestine, especially in light of indications of some breakthrough in Egyptian-Hamas relations.

c. The Gulf crisis has put Palestinian decision-makers, especially in the resistance factions, in a tight spot, forcing them to choose Iran or the Gulf countries. Perhaps the Qatari financial support, and some popular support from other Gulf countries, with the Iranian moral and material support, are the two most important sources of support for Palestinian resistance movements. Losing either of them will bring further pressure on the resistance and its Palestinian supporters, especially as they are already suffering from Israeli restrictions, and the PA gradual financial restrictions. The early indications suggest that the Palestinian side will experience more financial restrictions in the coming phase, especially in light of Arab and US pressures (particularly the role of the US president’s wing in the US administration compared to the calculations of the US State Department) and from some European countries. The demand for extending the authority of the PA to GS and its security coordination with Israel may be the primary direct objective of all these pressures. It seems that Iran’s ability in the coming phase to overcome the Arab and international siege of resistance forces will be weakened compared to previous phases, for internal Iranian causes as well as regional and international ones. Amid the current Gulf crisis, Iran is motivated by two main things: A desire to deepen Iranian-Qatari relations to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, and to exploit such a developed Iranian-Qatari relationship to coopt the Qatari position in Syria. It seems that in the current stage, Iran is focused on the first issue, but it will work at a later stage if successful to achieve the second. [9]

Fourth: The Likely Scenario

If we discount war, the interest of the Western powers, particularly the United States, Britain, and France, lies in the continuation of the crisis within some boundaries, in such a way as to encourage militarization (i.e. arms deals or inviting more Western troops to the region, which would provide cover for further encirclement of Iran), but without reaching the stage of war. The Gulf countries may be prompted to open up to Israel to guarantee the support of the Israel lobby in US institutions in the Gulf standoff, as explained earlier.

Examining the developments of the crisis yields the following observations:

1. There does not seem to be any possible solution outside the US vision. Mediators (Americans or Arabs) will work within the parameters set by the United States for the resolution of the crisis. Any settlement overseen by the United States will not be interested in any outcome that is favorable to Palestinian interests.

2. It is unlikely that the crisis would be resolved militarily, especially in light of the presence of 35 thousand US troops on the territories of all parties. It is also in the interest of the major powers that the crisis does not escalate, given the adverse effects on energy policies and investments, which indirectly serves Palestinian interests.

3. It seems that meeting the demands of KSA and UAE will come ahead of Egyptian demands, which involve the extradition of certain figures to Egypt. This means the implications for the Palestinian side will remain limited, unless there is insistence on seeking US support for achieving major Qatari concessions.

4. The coming phase may be the most difficult for the MB movement in particular and the Islamic movements in general across the Arab world, most prominently in Libya, Syria, and Palestine.

5. If Qatar agrees some concessions, Al Jazeera will most likely not be shuttered, but its board may see some changes and some senior anchors may be removed, with a gradual, calm, and long-term adjustment of its editorial line in a way that does not embarrass the Qatari diplomacy, which is of less benefit for the Palestinian side.

6. It is unlikely for the pressures on Hamas to exceed their current levels, but Hamas may be “gradually phased out” in the Qatari outlook. It may be in Hamas’s interest at present to carry out a “limited and calculated” escalation of tension with the Israeli army to thwart the bid by Arab states to normalize ties with Israel, particularly amid the climate produced by the recent Israeli policy at al-Aqsa mosque, imposing new security measures rejected by the Palestinians, given the prominent position of the sacred mosque.

7. Qatari-Iranian relations are expected to remain at their current levels, with Qatar affirming its “rejection of Iranian interference in Arab affairs and the Arab identity of the three islands.” However, economic relations with Iran will remain unchanged, which does not affect the Palestinian issue.

8. It seems that the crisis in the medium and long terms could lead to a relative downscaling of Qatar’s role in the region, which could deny Hamas and Palestinian resistance forces a key Arab backer.

9. It appears that the instigation of a Sunni-Shia conflict (and other sectarian and ethnic conflicts) is a project that has run its course, with an opportunity for it to gradually lose steam. However, some Arab, regional, and international forces will seek to inflame it again. In general, the de-escalation of sectarian and ethnic conflicts in the region benefits the Palestinian issue.

Fifth: Recommendations

In light of the above, it may be worthwhile if the Palestinian grand strategy includes the following:

1. Armed resistance factions must focus their diplomatic efforts in the coming phase, and rally popular and official support locally, regionally, and internationally, to prevent their inclusion in terror lists, because this would give legitimate cover to Israel and Arab countries to disarm the resistance and extend security coordination to GS.

2. The Palestinian resistance must make amends with its former allies, but in a gradual manner, and mobilize Arab and non-Arab regional forces that would benefit from the restoration of the resistance front (e.g. Iran, Turkey, Hizbullah, and some Arab movements that support the resistance and countries like Algeria). The coming phase will likely witness growing pressure, especially from the financial and military aspects, on the Palestinian resistance especially in GS.

3. It is necessary for the Palestinian factions to avoid joining clear alignments in favor of any party in the Gulf crisis, and focus on a diplomatic solution between brethren and refrain from making remarks that can be interpreted unequivocally.

4. Pushing in the direction of resolving the region’s problems in a peaceful manner between the countries concerned, and keeping the American and Israeli sides away from intervening in the crises of the region.


[1] Site of Bloomberg Businessweek, 2/2/2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-02-02/how-do-israel-s-tech-firms-do-business-in-saudi-arabia-very-quietly
[2] The Times of Israel online newspaper, 17/6/2017, http://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-saudi-arabi-said-to-discuss-open-economic-ties
[3] Site of Doha News, 25/7/2013, https://dohanews.co/israel-opens-virtual-embassy-to-reach-out-to-gcc
[4] Site of The Telegraph, 16/6/2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/11678800/Israeli-and-Hamas-officials-meet-in-Qatar-to-discuss-a-five-year-ceasefire-deal.html
[5] The Jerusalem Post newspaper, 21/1/2013, http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-Features/Yemeni-NGO-criticizes-govt-for-treatment-of-Jews
[6] Kobi Michael and Yoel Guzansky, “Qatar under Siege: Regional Implications and Ramifications for the Palestinian Arena,” INSS Insight, no. 935, site of The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), 12/6/2017, http://www.inss.org.il/publication/qatar-siege-regional-implications-ramifications-palestinian-arena
[7] Ian Lee, What the Qatar crisis means for Hamas, site of Cable News Network (CNN), 13/6/2017, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/13/middleeast/qatar-crisis-hamas/index.html
[8] Adam Hanieh, The Qatar Crisis, site of Jacobin, 26/6/2017, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/06/qatar-saudi-arabia-uae-crisis-middle-east
[9] Michael J. Koplow, How Israel Should Navigate the Gulf Crisis, site of International Policy Digest (IPD), 16/6/2017, https://intpolicydigest.org/2017/06/16/israel-navigate-gulf-crisis

* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Prof. Dr. Walid ‘Abd al-Hay for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.


The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 20/7/2017 


 

2017-10-26T11:03:38+00:00 July 25th, 2017|Categories: Strategic Assessments|0 Comments

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Overview:

Al-Zaytouna Centre conducts strategic and futuristic academic studies on the Arab and Muslim worlds. It focuses on the Palestinian issue and the conflict with Israel as well as related Palestinian, Arab, Islamic and international developments.

General Manager

Mohsen Moh’d Saleh, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Modern and Contemporary Arab History, the general manager of al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, editor-in-chief of the annual Palestinian Strategic Report, former head of Department of History and Civilization at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and former executive manager of Middle East Studies Centre in Amman.
He was granted the Bait al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) award for Young Muslims Scholars in 1997 and the Excellent Teaching Award (College level), given by IIUM in 2002. Dr. Mohsen is the author of 13 books and some of his books were translated into several languages. He contributed chapters to seven books. He is the editor/ co-editor of more than 30 books. Dr. Mohsen is the editor of electronic daily “Palestine Today,” which has so far published more than 3,777 issues. He has published many articles in refereed scholarly journals and magazines. He presented papers at innumerable academic local and international conferences and seminars. He is a frequent commentator on current issues on broadcasting media.