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Guzansky on the decades that led to today's Israel-Gulf relations

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Dr. Yoel Guzansky is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in Gulf politics and security. In an interview with Seth J. Frantzman posted below Guzansky looks back at the history of Israel-Gulf ties based on his decades of experience.

He was a Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, an Israel Institute Postdoctoral Fellow, and a Fulbright Scholar. He served on Israel's National Security Council in the Prime Minister's Office, coordinating the work on Iran and the Gulf under four National Security Advisers and three Prime Ministers. He is currently a consultant to several ministries. He has published many articles and books over the years.

Can you tell us about your background in researching the Gulf?

I started with the Gulf about twenty years ago. In the beginning I was on the other side of the Gulf, dealing with Iran, and I began that even before I joined the Prime Minister’s Office. I did my PhD and was already in this work, in the beginning more concentrated on Iran. I thought to myself that I need to do this, the Arab gulf because very few people did that, just one or two, including my teacher Yossi Kostiner. He was the main person who brought Gulf studies to Israel, and his students like Uzi Rabi and others. He died during the time he was my supervisor.

I fell in love with the Arabian Gulf. And I was fortunate enough when I left the [PMO] office that I could start going to the Gulf. I was invited many times, with my Israeli passport and it wasn’t a problem; and for a decade I went back and forth and I met Gulfies in the US and Europe. For the last ten years as a senior fellow at INSS, organizing and coordinating gulf studies in the Institute. . I did a post-doc at Stanford and I’m enjoy writing and researching , I have 11 books and monographs , some 25 academic articles and more than 400 policy papers and op-eds, so I’ve been busy and I like to write in English and Hebrew – including a new book I co-authored, the first of its kind, on Israel-Gulf relations with Oxford University press.

20 years ago there were limited relations, right?

You need to separate diplomatic with security relations. Let me tell you a story. When I first got to Oman, my counterpart was a senior Omani in the foreign minister, he said “listen I appreciate all your country’s efforts helping us, [it was ten years ago in Muscat]” I said what are you talking about? I knew about some of the connections, [later with me, Ephraim Halevy was open about everything, but heads of Mossad can do whatever they want, so he told about the early connections in the 1970s]. Here:

Israel helped Sultan Qaboos and others, and even the Saudis in the war in Yemen, so the connections are long time. The Oslo accords opened another channel, the groups that worked for example, on arms control and water, that pushed relations deeper and until this day you have in Oman, a center for water treatment that Israelis go there often on visits and it is something that started in the Oslo period, the five groups worked.

What about the other Gulf states

Qatar we had open relations, they are interesting, those ended in the second intifada, we had a role in Doha. I used to go to Qatar once a year and many Israelis did. Qatar wanted to show as it does now that it is open for dialogue with everyone, Israelis, Iranians, Hamas, so actually I would say Qatar was more pragmatic than the others. But the security dimension got stronger with the rise of Iran and I would say there was a big push actually during the Obama administration, the fear that Obama would turn to the Iranians, changed the situation of the US in the region and brought the Saudis, Emirates together with a small country doing what the Saudis are doing, Bahrain, all got Israel-Emirates- and Saudis in one bed. That is it. Let me remind you that when it comes secret cooperation, you can always find someone from Mossad who says he met some sheikh 20 years ago; there was also some dialogue quietly, it was not always sustainable, after the Mahmoud al-Mahboh [assassination in 2010] we had problems in relations with the Emirates, so we had ups and downs. It was not always music and roses. Each country has its own sensitives and calculations. You can see Saudi is not jumping into bed with us yet, they have reasons not to do so now. This issue will give me and some friends a lot of work in next coming years.

Let me remind you that the Gulf, the Gulf is not just Israel-Gulf relations, many things are happening there, you don’t have in Israel a lot of experts. Some who say they are experts are not really experts. . there is more to the gulf than Israel, it is fascinating, it’s like a lab, you can test all sorts of things, a fascinating neighborhood. The Gulf is a special place, in many ways its separated from the region, in economy and history and culture, it is in many ways more related to the Indian subcontinent and Asia, most of the population in the gulf is not native but is from Asia, and it is fascinating.

Is there something not being discussed sufficiently?

We are ahead of ourselves, this is in the DNA of Israelis, and they are saying ‘hold your horses’, we are lonely in this neighborhood and we want to have friends, but we must understand it comes with a caveat, there is a price to pay and there are sensitivities and let me remind you that a very interesting thing, this is an absolute monarchy and it’s hard to know what people think, people say there are flags of Israel and its important to say “come on”…some researchers are saying how much they love us…but they don’t love us, it’s about interests and cold calculations and this is fair and international relations and politics, I don’t blame them, we can argue if the price is worth it, I am leaning more towards the fact it is, depends on who comes next, depends on what their demands are and the demands will be higher with each, such as the Saudis, they will take what the UAE took as a bar and threshold and demand more, I would do that. It’s a negotiation, it’s not just with us, if Trump had stayed in office then there would have been continuation, but there is a halt now, they prefer to sit on the fence, and they are waiting for Biden. There are sensitivities, and there are things in the Gulf that could turn bad against us. There are trends such as the arms race and it existed before the accord, but the F-35 and munitions they are buying, there is also nuclear proliferation questions which may bother Israel, some are examining nuclear field and all kinds of dimensions in the nuclear field, not sure what the Saudis are doing behind closed doors, the Emirates are going fast forward with civil nuclear reactors, first in middle east and Arab world, so these are issues.

Issues can put pressure on the relations, and we didn’t mention the Palestinian issues, some interests of Israel could be jeopardized. One last thing, : we need to talk to our Emiratis friends and set some red lines: they may be more prone to risk in Mediterranean, as we are more prone to risks in the gulf.

We think relations are special but they aren’t?

We have bad examples with Jordan and Egypt and we want to be welcomed into the region and they know how to play all the right cords with us and talking about religious dialogue. This is what the world wants to hear. It’s not just because they are close to the us, but also to improve their image in the US and Congress. Like a modernized country. But In the end this is an absolute monarchy.. The Israeli tourists should remember that.

Economics is very real though?

There are relative advantages of each country, we come with something they want and they come with something we want. So money will flow to India and beyond via the Gulf?

Economic relations were there before, some 250 Israeli companies were there and we sold weapons before the accords.

But it’s direct now?

Yes and legitimate.

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