Israeli-Palestinian Violence Unlikely to Deter Long-Term Ties to Gulf States

JERUSALEM — As the most intense violence in seven years continued this week between Israel and the Palestinians, uncertainty emerged about Israel’s new relationships with some Gulf and Arab countries, which could potentially transform the region.

Analysts say the ongoing violence, which began over the holy city of Jerusalem and has killed dozens of Palestinians and several Israelis, could test the political and business ties that have emerged out of the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, which Israel signed in August to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Normalization deals will Morocco and Sudan followed, along with hope that others, including Saudi Arabia, would one day follow suit, especially as the region seeks to counter Iran.

“These events could certainly slow the progress in enlarging the group of countries to establish relations with Israel,” says Natan Sachs, a fellow in and director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “While I think the UAE is genuinely interested in a relationship with Israel, it may have to pause the public side of it, at least for now.”

As of Thursday, at least 87 Palestinians — including 18 children and eight women — have been killed with more than 530 others wounded from Israeli strikes, Reuters reported. At least seven people in Israel, including a 6-year-old child, have been killed and more than 100 others have been injured from the rockets fired from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Before the tension and violence escalated last week, recent months had featured business and political delegations between Israel and the UAE, online events and larger deals, including a memorandum of understanding that Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala would buy a $1.1 billion stake in one of Israel’s large offshore natural gas fields, and a preliminary agreement to transport Gulf oil through Israel to ports on the Mediterranean, where it could reach European markets.

On Wednesday, a fire still burned on a storage tank near that pipeline after it was hit by a rocket from Gaza on Tuesday night, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives targeted dozens of Israeli cities, spurring Israel to launch airstrikes targeting leaders of those groups, which the U.S., Israel and others consider terrorist organizations. Also on Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Israel had assassinated several Hamas commanders and hinted at a possible ground invasion of the group’s enclave in Gaza.

[MORE: ICC Prosecutor Warns Against Crimes in Escalating Violence]

But Sachs and others said that tension in Jerusalem, and the strong Israeli police response to Palestinian rioting in the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex since last week, could have a larger effect on the relations and the burgeoning economic ties with these Arab countries than how Israel handles the rocket attacks from Gaza, which continued on Wednesday.

Earlier this week, the UAE “strongly condemned,” police raids on the mosque, where more than 200 Palestinians and 17 police officers were injured. A pending Israeli court decision to evict several Palestinian families from homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheik Jarrah neighborhood also sparked criticism from the UAE.

“Jerusalem matters for sure to the Gulf,” says Zeyad Almajed, an entrepreneur based in the UAE and Bahrain, who is setting up a fund to invest in Israeli food tech companies. But analysts also pointed out that so far, the UAE’s response has only been rhetorical, and the strong language could perhaps be an attempt to stave off initial Palestinian criticism of the Abraham Accords, which did not, like previous Middle East peace deals, rest on a commitment to a Palestinian state.

“Maybe the UAE wants to use the opportunity to say that they didn’t forget about the Palestinians,” says Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Meanwhile, Israel’s responses to the more than 1,000 rockets that members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have launched from Gaza, while controversial among many in the Gulf, “will not deter the business and collaboration momentum,” Almajed says. He called the rockets “desperate terrorist attacks.”

Guzansky went so far as to say that according to his research, many in the UAE want to see Israel respond strongly to Hamas, which has ties to Iran, a country that Gulf nations increasingly sees as a threat and a rival.

[ANALYSIS: Violence Upends Joe Biden’s Middle East Policy]

“No one will say it out loud, but if Israel doesn’t hit Hamas hard, it might go against Israel’s status in the region as a strong player, and it is this strong status that has helped it in recent years grow closer to the UAE and other Arab countries,” Guzansky says.

But Sachs also pointed out that the UAE, unlike Sudan and Morocco, which signed normalization deals partly to receive certain benefits from the United States, has always had more desire than others to work with Israel.

“The UAE is really the cornerstone of these agreements,” he said.

Meanwhile, Washington D.C.-based political consultant Ahmed Alkhuzaie, originally from Bahrain, remains optimistic, saying that even though the process of cooperation and investments may slow, it will pick up in the longer term.

“Investors seek stability before all else, and such turbulence is, up to a limit, considered as a calculated risk in Israel,” he says. “But business will be conducted as usual once a de-escalation process starts. After all, that’s what a healthy relationship should be like.”

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