By Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies
On 14 July, during his visit to Israel, US President Joe Biden held a virtual meeting with the leaders of a new economic group known as I2-U2, consisting of India, Israel, the UAE, and the USA. The announcement of the group’s establishment has raised many questions concerning its objectives, the timing of its formation, and the interests that unite its parties. Although the joint statement issued after the meeting stressed that the goal of establishing the group is a ‘particular focus on joint investments and new initiatives in water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security,’ the prevailing belief is that strategic goals stand behind the group’s establishment, considering the circumstances that led to its emergence and the nature of the relations and interests linking its members. This was noted by US State Department spokesman Ned Price when he said that the four parties discussed ‘expanding economic and political cooperation in the Middle East and Asia, including through trade, combating climate change, energy cooperation, and increasing maritime security’.
The I2-U2 group was established in October 2021 during a meeting between the US secretary of state and his Israeli and Emirati counterparts to monitor the implementation of the ‘Abraham Accords’, which triggered the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel on the one hand, and the UAE and Bahrain on the other. India, which enjoys strategic relations with Israel, joined the group a few days later, during a visit to Israel by India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Consequently, the four parties held a virtual meeting while Jaishankar was in Israel to attend the Indian Air Force’s participation in Israel’s Blue Flag exercise. While the tripartite group of Israel, the UAE and the USA appears understandable in light of the Abraham Accords, India’s accession has aroused several questions regarding motives, as well as the reason for choosing Israel as a setting for the announcement of its accession.
The four state parties are linked to a wide network of economic, strategic and security interests, with shared views on many regional and international issues, most prominently the issue of Islamist movements (although the ideology and practice of India’s ruling party is hostile not just to Islamist movements but to Islam more generally). They do have difference on other issues, such as Iran (with which India entertains friendly relations), and the failure of the UAE and Israel to share the hostile position of the USA and India on China. India, the UAE and Israel have been strengthening their bilateral relations in recent years, eventually making it possible to establish a regional alliance under US auspices.
Following the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel in 1992, relations between the two states have flourished, especially since the ascension to power of India’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. Trade between them had ballooned to more than four billion dollars by the end of 2016, from one billion in 2000. In 2017, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, undertook the first visit of an Indian prime minister to Israel, followed by a visit by the former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to India in January 2018. The progress of Indo-Israeli relations has covered many areas, including research and development and joint manufacturing in the defence sector, science and technology, trade and innovation, agriculture, health, telecommunications, water, and smart cities. But the defence and security sector remains the most important in their bilateral relations. Within a few years, Israel became one of the three most important sources of weapons for India. During the Indian foreign minister’s visit to Israel in October 2021, the two countries signed a ten-year defence cooperation agreement. Previously, in April 2017, the two governments signed the biggest deal in the history of the Israeli military industry, valued at two billion dollars. India is currently the largest importer of Israeli weapons; it imports about 45 per cent of all Israeli produced weapons. Israel is a convenient source of arms for India because, unlike the USA, it does not tie its exports to any conditions.
India’s high economic growth numbers, accompanied by an increase in its energy needs, added a strategic dimension to its relations with the Gulf region. Energy and maritime security have become the glue of these relations, and India has set its sights on strengthening relations with Gulf states, and building a strategic partnership with them to secure the oil and gas for its continued economic growth. India is currently the third largest oil importer in the world, and the Gulf region provides about 70 per cent of India’s imported oil; the vast majority from Arab states, and the rest from Iran. Although India’s relations with all Gulf countries have undergone extensive development, New Delhi and Abu Dhabi are particularly close, especially since the BJP came to power. In February 2016, the then crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, visited India. In January 2017, he again visited India as the guest of honour for its National Day celebrations. On the other hand, India’s prime minister Modi visited Abu Dhabi in February 2018, and again in August 2019, when he was presented with the Order of Zayed, the highest honour in the UAE. During this visit, the two countries also signed a partnership and strategic cooperation agreement that included energy, investment, defence and maritime security. Meanwhile, trade between the two countries amounted to USD57 billion in 2019.
In February 2022, the two countries signed a comprehensive economic partnership agreement to increase trade from its current level of USD60 billion to USD115 billion within five years. Symbolic of the relationship between the two countries, the UAE insisted on inviting India to attend the ministerial meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that was held in Abu Dhabi in early 2019, despite Pakistan’s threat to boycott the meeting. Later that year, India abolished Kashmir’s seven-decade self-rule.
While the UAE seeks to enhance its technology, security and defence clout by strengthening its relations with India, ideology is also an important factor in the development of its relations with India, as well as with Israel, The UAE agrees with the Israeli and Indian definition of terrorism, generalising and seeking to eliminate all variations of Islamist forces, and cooperating with them to restrict and shut down Islamic organisations that are active in representing the interests of Muslims in Europe and the United States.
Despite a long history of secret relations between the UAE and Israel dating back two decades, according to some sources, security relations have progressed remarkably quickly, especially after the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020. On 18 August 2020, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen visited the UAE where he met the Emirati national security adviser, Tahnoun bin Zayed, to discuss ‘prospects for cooperation in the fields of security’, and ‘exchanged points of view on regional developments and on issues of common interest’.
In March 2021, the Emirates Defense Advanced Technology Group (EDGE) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Israel Aerospace Industries Company to develop joint security and military production and build an advanced anti-drone defence system. In November 2021, the head of the Arms Export Department of the Israeli Ministry of Defence, Yair Kolas, visited the Dubai International Airshow, accompanied by seven Israeli security, military and cyber companies, in order to enhance the joint security and military cooperation between the two countries, and to design and manufacture unmanned ships capable of implementing M-170 anti-submarine attacks. On the political level, Naftali Bennett made the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to the UAE in December 2021, and returned in June 2022 with reports that Israel had installed radar systems in the UAE to intercept any attacks from Iran. Economically, the volume of trade between the UAE and Israel increased from USD125 million in 2020 to USD700 million in 2021. In March 2022, the UAE announced the establishment of a USD10 billion fund to invest in strategic sectors in Israel, including energy, water, space, healthcare and agricultural technology.
Thus, the Abraham Accords prepared the ground to bring together India, the UAE, and Israel as partners within the framework of an Asian-Middle Eastern regional alliance based on shared interests and sponsored by Washington. As soon as normalisation between Israel and the UAE became public, the International Federation of Indian-Israeli Chambers of Commerce was established, and Dubai was selected as its main international headquarters. The opening of the headquarters was attended by the heads of the Indian and Israeli diplomatic missions in Abu Dhabi and the UAE ambassador to India, in addition to numerous Indian businessmen based in the UAE.
On 14 February 2021, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) organised a virtual symposium titled ‘India, Israel, and the Gulf: New Opportunities’. Israel views Dubai as an important bridge to the large Indian market, as Dubai hosts about 500 Indian investment groups, as well as the headquarters of every Indian company operating in the Middle East, in addition to the 23 Indian banks with branches in the Dubai International Financial Center. On the other hand, New Delhi considers the presence of direct flights between Dubai and Tel Aviv helpful in strengthening the relations of Indian companies with Israel. Israeli representatives in Dubai hastened to establish relations with Indian businessmen in the Emirates, while several Indian companies in Dubai announced the launch of activities in Israel in the fields of healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services, and gold and jewellery, among other sectors. The three countries have shown great interest in strengthening cooperation in the field of technology and artificial intelligence, in which Israel and India are pioneers, while the UAE boasts the capital to invest in these projects. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Brookings Institution in 2019, the UAE and Israel are, remarkably, considered the most reliable partners for Indian political elites.
With Washington being party to this regional grouping, the three countries hope to gain access to advanced US technology in security, defence, aerospace, healthcare and emerging technologies, and also hope to access the best weapons technology and to cooperate in containing the Islamist groups that they consider their greatest threat.
Meanwhile, Washington hopes that cooperation with India in the Gulf will replace, if only partially, China, and will lead to the emergence and development of a defence-security architecture that can confront China. The USA is looking for cooperation not only in terms of defence, but also to compete with Chinese trade. To this end, it has been proposed that Indian ports, such as Mumbai, may be linked Greek ports through the Jebel Ali port in Dubai, and a railway line may be constructed from the Emirates through Saudi Arabia and Jordan to the port of Haifa. Washington believes that supporting such projects will help restructure global supply chains and international trade lines away from China and its Belt and Road Initiative. This would be consistent with the vision of the G7 countries, adopted at their last meeting in June 2022, to provide USD600 billion to finance infrastructure projects to rival and limit the expansion of Chinese mega projects.
* This article was first published by the Arab Centre for Research & Policy Studies, Doha
Many people are questioning the value (and even the purpose) of US president Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East last week. While the trip’s objective was obfuscated by the White House, one thing is clear: while some part of the visit was about energy security for the West, much of it was about Israel.
It was clear beforehand that Biden wanted to repair the damaged relationship between his administration and Saudi crown prince (and effective ruler) Mohammed bin Salman (or MbS), in order to get the Saudis to increase their oil production and ease high energy prices in the US and Europe. But White House spokespersons sought to downplay the notion of a US president begging at the Saudi palace and said the trip was about normalising relations between Israel and Arab states, and particularly, Saudi Arabia. They hoped this would seem like a strong reason for Americans, given historical support for Israel in the US and within his Democratic Party. It was a miscalculation, but that the trip had a lot to do with Israel was true.
The more substantial stops on the tour were Israel and Saudi Arabia, with a brief visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
In Israel, Biden did not mention anything about the expanding settlement project – illegal under international law and a violation of US policy. He reiterated support for Donald Trump’s relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, which is not recognised as Israel’s capital under international law; made no comment about reopening the US consulate that had served Palestinians before Trump shut it down; pledged to continue the annual $3,8 billion military aid package to Israel; condemned Iran for wanting to develop nuclear weapons (Iran doesn’t; Israel is the only Middle East state with nuclear weapons); and signed an anti-Iran declaration with Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid.
In Ramallah, after a brief meeting with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Biden declared that “the ground was not ripe” for peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, pronouncing his verdict that Palestinians should remain under perpetual Israeli military rule in an apartheid state. That visit might as well not have happened; the Palestinians, to Biden, do not exist.
Though not the first US president to do so, Biden symbolically flew from Tel Aviv to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to hint at a possible new relationship between the two capitals.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden met the heads of the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) and of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. He had two objectives here: mainly to convince MbS to increase oil production (which he failed to do), and to nudge Saudi Arabia towards normalised diplomatic relations with Israel (which he failed to do, except to get the Saudis to open their airspace to Israeli flights, itself, admittedly, an advance in Israeli-Saudi relations). It was an interesting image of a US president, cap-in-hand, asking the Saudis for help, and a more spectacular brushing off of the request by the latter.
In his presidential campaign, Biden had pledged to make MbS accountable for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which, the CIA said, the prince had a role in, and to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state” for its human rights abuses. He did raise Khashoggi with MbS but was brushed off, as he would be, considering he was doing the begging. And this effectively has closed the Khashoggi matter for the US.
The rhetoric of global human rights has featured a great deal throughout his presidency. Yet he legitimised and heaped lavish praise on two governments known for publicly and spectacularly murdering journalists (including US resident Khashoggi, murdered by the Saudis, and US citizen Shireen Abu Akleh, murdered by the Israelis). No mention of other – ongoing – Saudi human rights violations; no mention of repeated and ongoing Israeli human rights violations and apartheid (as described by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as UN bodies). Indeed, he legitimised the human rights violations and crimes against humanity of Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as of other major violators such as the UAE and Egypt.
His attempt to portray the visit as building an anti-Iran alliance also fell flat. The Iranians (legitimately) accused him of spreading “Iranophobia”; the Saudis and Emiratis were not interested because they are in separate processes normalising their own relations with Iran and would prefer to do it without US interference; Egypt and Kuwait are quite happy nurturing their own relations with Iran on their terms. Only Lapid was thrilled with the anti-Iran rhetoric.
Biden also tacked on a promise that the US will not “walk away [from the Middle East] and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran”. Did he, perhaps, miss the fact that the states in the region (including Israel) have started “walking away” from the US, strengthening relations with Russia and China, attempting to restore relations with Iran (except Israel), and no longer believing in the US as a protector or patron?
By Zeenat Adam
The recent visit by US President Joe Biden to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Saudi Arabia was underwhelming, but cast a spotlight on the unprecedented rapprochement underway between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In what appears to have been an entrenchment of the “deal of the century” and the Abraham Accords initiated by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, the visit not only reinforced the “normalisation” of relations between various Arab states and Israel, but also took additional steps towards concretising an anti-Iran alliance, and endorsing closer security and military cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s occupation of Palestine was a marginal issue on the agenda, and Biden’s statement about a “two-state solution” and his assertion that “the ground is not ripe” for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians reinforced the notion that he had no political will to end Israel’s colonialism, and that, in fact, he was content with a perpetual Israeli military occupation. Meanwhile, Arab states continue to abandon the Palestinians to a fate of apartheid and slow genocide.
In the context of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden had passionately asserted that Saudi Arabia was a pariah state, but his visit has exposed him as a geriatric figurehead for the US political machinery that has not deviated from its pro-Zionist positions, despite heightened expectations that emerging Democratic Party leaders such as congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar might shift US policies to a more balanced position in addressing human rights atrocities in the Middle East.
Biden’s statements indicated that journalists like Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh, who were both vehement advocates for human rights, and who exposed the Saudi and Israeli regimes for their atrocities, are dispensable in the interests of US strategic considerations. The Biden administration makes no apologies or excuses for its hypocritical stance in relation to Khashoggi (who, at the time of his murder, was a resident of the US), despite a US intelligence assessment blaming the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), of possibly having authorised the killing. In preparation for his visit, his administration backtracked on its previous position on Saudi Arabia, including the 2021 freezing of sales of “offensive weapons” to the kingdom. The new soundbite of Biden’s team was “reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years”. It is therefore unsurprising that Biden has shied away from raising matters of human rights concern with Saudi Arabia, praising that country for cosmetic changes, while MBS’s draconian policies continue with the unlawful and extrajudicial incarceration and execution of dissidents who he views as a threat to his authoritarian rule.
Saudi Arabia has refrained from any commitment to normalising relations with Israel, and has maintained that peace with the Palestinians would be a prerequisite, based on the Arab Peace Initiative that Saudi Arabia had championed. Biden’s visit has highlighted that the Arab Peace Initiative is dead, and the skies are clear for deepening relations with Israel.
Before Biden’s visit, MBS had embarked on a tour of the region that included cosying up to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ushering in a “new era of cooperation” that would include billions of dollars of Saudi investments into the struggling Turkish economy, and Saudi’s possible purchase of drone technology from Türkiye. Ahead of the visit, Erdogan controversially transferred the Khashoggi case to Riyadh, ending any possibility of justice and accountability for the journalist’s murder. These moves are largely seen in the context of Türkiye’s internal politics that will likely see Erdogan fighting for political legitimacy in next year’s election, in the face of growing opposition.
Türkiye’s relations with Israel have also transformed after Israeli the visit of the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog to Ankara in March 2022 – the first visit of its kind in more than a decade. Although Erdogan and Herzog announced a turning point in relations between their countries, they agreed that there was a divergence of views regarding Israel’s occupation and Türkiye’s support for Palestinian resistance movements. Nevertheless, it is clear that Türkiye has moved on from Israel’s attack on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, off the Gaza coast in 2010.
More significant cooperation in the context of regional relations was evident in June 2022 when Turkish authorities foiled a plan for Iranian attacks on Israelis ahead of the visit to Istanbul by Yair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister (now prime minister). The arrests of Iranian agents happened as Iran-Israel tensions heightened, after the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) office, Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, in his Tehran home on 22 May; Iran blamed Israel for the killing. The arrests also followed Israeli air raids on Iranian military installations in Syria. The Türkiye-Qatar-Iran entente concretised during the four-year-long blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain, appears to be mutating amidst the changing landscape of the region. The trilateral alliance hinged on common cause regarding Palestine, and deterring the prospect of war with Iran.
Qatar paid the price then for not toeing the Saudi-led line on an anti-Iran alliance, being determined, instead, to craft its own foreign policy. It appears now that Qatar has been artful in its mediation, balancing along fragile fault lines and craftily supporting a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal. Its shuttle diplomacy and hosting indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Doha seeks to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf, where Qatar shares a lucrative and strategic gas field, the South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field, with Iran. But these diplomatic manoeuvres are unlikely to steer too far from the trajectory that has been cast by larger powers in the region, including Saudi Arabia; the recent mending of Gulf relations with Qatar is still too fragile for the Qataris to rock the boat.
While Qatar’s efforts to mediate between the USA and Iran on a return to the JCPOA has not yet produced the desired results, Doha has proposed hosting a regional dialogue between Iran and the GCC+ nations (the six GCC members – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – together with Egypt, Iraq and Jordan), for which Iran has shown enthusiasm.
Concurrently, while Qatar may continue to be a firm critic of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, and it repeatedly claims that it will not entertain the notion of normalisation with Israel while Palestine remains occupied, it does, however, maintain a “working relationship” with Israel in the context of negotiating aid for the besieged Gaza Strip. Publicly, though, tensions appear to have deepened after the murder of Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, and previous attacks by Israel on Qatari assets in Gaza, including Al Jazeera offices and the Hamad Bin Khalifa hospital. Interestingly, earlier in July 2022, Israeli military officials were surreptitiously dispatched to Qatar’s Al-Udeid base, headquarters of the US Central Command (Centcom). Israel was included in Centcom in 2021, in line with plans for normalisation. In addition, it was recently reported that senior Qatari officials attended a secret meeting convened by US military officials in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in March 2022, purportedly organised to explore coordination against the “Iranian threat” of improving missile and drone capabilities.
The Emiratis proudly boast of their love affair with Israel in the past two years. Emirati leader, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), has paraded Israeli delegations before the world’s cameras and has cultivated strong military ties with the Zionist state.
Although Biden’s visit is considered the first open acknowledgement of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two states have maintained in covert cooperation for many years, and steps towards overt diplomatic and intelligence ties were in the pipeline for at least two years. In 2019, the former Saudi intelligence chief, Turki Al Faisal, disclosed that clandestine relations between Israel and most Gulf States had been ongoing for at least 25 years. In November 2020 it was widely reported that Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, secretly travelled to Neom, Saudi Arabia, for the first known meeting between MBS and a senior Israeli official, signalling a potential breakthrough for Israel as it strives for acceptance in the region. Although the Saudis denied the encounter, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu spent many hours with MBS, and the two were joined by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Mossad director Yossi Cohen. MBS has even gone as far as calling Israel a “potential ally”.
MBS has used soft diplomacy tactics, welcoming Israeli visitors as tourists, businesspersons, and, more recently, military personnel. Through his modernisation drive and Vision 2030, he also touts Saudi Arabia as a futuristic destination that has transformed from its previous image as a conservative religious nation. His critics argue that MBS has abandoned core Islamic values by redesigning school curricula, promoting international music concerts, supporting Saudi social media influencers to praise Israel, appointing a pro-Zionist imam to lead the Hajj prayer in Arafat, and describing Palestinians as ungrateful.
Saudi defence expenditure since MBS’s rise has been superfluous. Had Saudi Arabia taken a different course and not proceeded to entertain relations with Israel, it could have provided some form of deterrence to the Zionist state, considering its prolific shopping spree of military hardware in the past five years. Under MBS’s leadership and ambition, Saudi Arabia’s defence expenditure reached an all-time high in 2015 at the apex of the war on Yemen. While there has been a considerable effort to decrease defence spending in recent years, the kingdom remains one of the largest arms’ importers globally. With new goals on the horizon, Saudi Arabia is now building its local military production capability. The military might has, however, not deterred drone attacks on Aramco oil infrastructure, allegedly by Iranian proxies. Israel has punted the notion of a Middle East Air Defence Alliance to act as an early-warning mechanism against potential Iranian threats. In addition, Israel is campaigning to sell its laser-powered air defence system to Arab states aligned against Iran. Israel’s other defence equipment is marketed as “battle-tested” or “combat-tested”, meaning that these sophisticated weapons have been tested against Palestinian civilians – in clear violation of international law, but this humanitarian tenet does not seem to bear any weight with megalomaniacs in the Gulf. Meanwhile, Iraq continues its efforts to bridge relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since April 2021, the Iraqis have facilitated five sessions of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with a public meeting expected soon.
In the early 2000s, following the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent growth of Iranian influence in Iraq, Jordanian King Abdullah II raised an alarm for what he termed the “Shi’a crescent” of influence by Iran that needed to be counter-balanced by an Arab alliance. Almost 20 years since he coined the phrase, the perceived threat of Iranian hegemony in the region continues to dominate the political psyche. King Abdullah recently said that he would support the notion of a Middle East alliance, similar to NATO. The perceived Iranian threat seems to be a unifying force for some Arab States that fear growing Iranian influence through proxies and partners in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Israel has already concluded military cooperation deals with Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain (where a military attaché has been deployed).
The Russia-Ukraine war has not only impacted on the exorbitant oil prices but is ushering in global polarity similar to that during the Cold War. Saudi Arabia was cautious in playing its cards and, stopped short of severing ties with Russia under duress from the USA. Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East has strengthened. In 2021, the Saudis signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia. Interestingly though, Iran has now applied for membership of BRICS, suggesting that a dramatic shift in the balance of power in the region might be expected. A key outcome of the GCC+ meeting with Biden was an agreement to incrementally increase oil production to allay fears of a global energy crisis as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. But this development is parallel to a Saudi-Russian deal in terms of which Saudi Arabia will import Russian oil and gas for local consumption while exporting its own oil produced by its Aramco corporation. This confirms that the Saudis will not sever ties with Russia despite considerable pressure from NATO, while also enabling Russia to break the sanctions on it.
Biden’s visit to the region, and the Saudi-Israel rapprochement, has not heralded any prospects for peace. Instead, it has entrenched polarities and ushered in an atmospheric shift toward tensions with Iran that serve to reinforce shadow and proxy wars. In the meanwhile, the Palestinian quest for self-determination, freedom and justice is more difficult than it has ever been, as these deals with the colonial occupier translate into impunity for war crimes and a perpetuation of apartheid.
* Zeenat Adam is the Deputy Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, a former diplomat, independent international relations strategist, political opinion writer and human rights activist
By Ramzy Baroud
There is a reason why Israel insists on linking the series of attacks carried out by Palestinians recently to a specific location – the the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. By doing so, the embattled government of Naftali Bennett can simply order another deadly military operation in Jenin to reassure its citizens that the situation is under control. Indeed, on 9 April, the Israeli army stormed the Jenin refugee camp, killing a Palestinian and wounding ten others. However, Israel’s problem is much bigger than Jenin.
If we examine the events starting with the March 22 stabbing attack in the southern city of Beersheba (Bir Al Saba’) – which resulted in the death of four people – and ending with the killing of three Israelis in Tel Aviv – including two army officers – we easily reach an obvious conclusion: these attacks must have been, to some extent, coordinated.
Spontaneous Palestinian retaliation to the violence of the Israeli occupation rarely follows this pattern in terms of timing or style. All the attacks, with the exception of Beersheba, were carried out using firearms. The shooters, as indicated by the amateur videos of some of the events and statements by Israeli eyewitnesses, were well-trained and acted with great composure. One example was the 27 March Hadera event, carried out by two cousins, Ayman and Ibrahim Ighbariah, from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, a Palestinian town inside Israel. Israeli media reported on the unmistakable skills of the attackers who were armed with weapons that, according to the Israeli news agency, Tazpit Press Service, cost more than $30 000.
Unlike Palestinian attacks carried out during the Second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005) in response to Israeli violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the latest attacks are generally more precisely targeted, seek out police and military personnel, and are clearly aimed at shaking Israel’s false sense of security and undermining the state’s intelligence services. In the Bnei Brak attack, on 29 March, for example, an Israeli woman who was an eyewitness at the scene told reporters, ‘The militant asked us to move away from the place because he did not want to target women or children.’
While Israeli intelligence reports recently warned of a ‘wave of terrorism’ ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, they clearly had little conception of what type of violence to expect, or where and how Palestinians would strike.
Following the Beersheba attack, Israeli officials attributed it to the Islamic State group, which was a convenient claim considering that IS also claimed responsibility for it. That theory was, however, quickly dismissed, as it became obvious that the other Palestinian attackers had political affiliations to other Palestinian groups or, as in the Bnei Brak case, no known affiliation at all.
The confusion and misinformation continued for days. Shortly after the Tel Aviv attack, Israeli media, citing official Israeli sources, mentioned two attackers, alleging that one had been trapped in a nearby building. This proved to be untrue; there was only one attacker, who was later killed, though hours after his attack and in a different city.
A number of Palestinian workers were quickly rounded up in Tel Aviv on suspicion of being the attackers simply because they looked Arab, providing more evidence of the chaotic and confused Israeli approach. Indeed, after each of these Palestinian attacks, total mayhem ensued, with large mobs of armed Israelis taking to the streets looking for anyone with Arab features to apprehend or to beat senseless. Israeli officials – wittingly or unwittingly – contributed to the frenzy, with far-right politicians such as the extremist Itamar Ben Gvir leading hordes of other Jewish Israeli extremists in rampages across occupied Jerusalem.
Instead of urging calm and displaying confidence, Israel’s prime minister on 30 March called on Israeli civilians to arm themselves. ‘Whoever has a gun licence, this is the time to carry it,” he said in a video statement, clearly inciting violence against Palestinians. However, if Israel’s solution to any form of Palestinian resistance is to carry more guns, Palestinians would have been pacified a long time ago.
To placate angry Israelis, the Israeli military raided Jenin city and the Jenin refugee camp on many occasions, each time leaving behind several dead and wounded Palestinians, including many civilians. Among the dead were the child Imad Hashash, 15, killed on 24 August while filming the invasion of the refugee camp with his cellphone. The same scenario had played out on 9 April.
Nevertheless, from the Israeli perspective, this was an exercise in futility; it was, after all, Israeli violence in Jenin throughout the years that had led to the organised armed resistance that continues to emanate from the camp. Palestinians, whether in Jenin or elsewhere, resist and fight back because they are denied basic human rights, have no political horizon, live in extreme poverty, have no true leadership and feel abandoned by the so-called international community.
The Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas seems to be entirely removed from the masses and their experience of occupation and resistance. Abbas’s statements reflect his detachment from the reality of Israeli violence, military occupation and apartheid throughout Palestine. True to form, Abbas quickly condemned the Tel Aviv attack, as he had one with previous ones, referring each time to the need to maintain ‘stability’ and to prevent ‘further deterioration of the situation’, according to the official Wafa news agency. One would be forgiven for asking what stability Abbas was referring to, when Palestinian lives have not been stable for more than seven decades and when Palestinian suffering has been compounded by growing settler violence, illegal settlement expansion, land theft, and, thanks to recent international events, food insecurity as well.
Israeli officials and media are, again, conveniently placing the blame largely on Jenin, a tiny stretch of an overpopulated area. By doing so, Israel wants to give the impression that the new phenomenon of Palestinian retaliatory attacks is confined to a single place, one that is adjacent to the Israeli border and one that can easily be ‘dealt with’.
An Israeli military operation in the camp may serve Bennett’s political agenda, convey a sense of strength, and win back some in his disenchanted political constituency, but it is a temporary fix – if any kind of fix at all. Attacking Jenin now will make no difference in the long run. After all, the camp rose from the ashes of its near-total destruction by the Israeli military in April 2002. And attacking Jerusalem and the Mosque of Al-Aqsa, as Israeli troops did on 15 April, will increase rather than reduce Palestinian resistance.
The renewed Palestinian attacks speak of a much wider geography: Naqab, Umm Al Fahm, the West Bank – with a clear shift towards more actions within Israel. The seeds of this territorial connectivity are linked to the Israeli war of May 2021 and the subsequent Palestinian rebellion, which erupted in every part of Palestine, including Palestinian communities inside Israel.
Israel’s problem is its insistence on providing short-term military solutions to a long-term problem, itself resulting from these very ‘military solutions’. If Israel continues to subjugate the Palestinian people under the current system of military occupation, deepening apartheid and expansive colonisation, Palestinians will surely continue to respond until their oppressive reality is changed. No amount of Israeli violence can alter this truth.
* Dr Ramzy Baroud is a Non-Rsident Senior Research Fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak out.
By Giorgio Cafiero
On 7 November, Haaretz reported that Saddam Haftar, the son of Khalifa Haftar, flew on a private French-made Dassault Falcon jet out of the United Arab Emirates and landed in Israel for a 90-minute visit before flying to Libya. The purpose was for Haftar and his son to pursue ‘military and diplomatic assistance from Israel’, according to the report.
With Libya’s elections scheduled for 24 December, this brief landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was part of Haftar’s electoral campaign. The eastern commander, who led the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) during Libya’s civil war, wants to differentiate himself from other Libyans seeking to become the country’s head of state.
‘It’s a way of distinguishing Haftar from the rest of the candidates and promising something that is supposed to have value in the eyes of the United States, but also in the eyes of other countries that embrace whatever the UAE – the main sponsor of Haftar – has been doing through its activism in the region, which means Egypt, France, Morocco, and you can go down the list,’ said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at Global Initiative, in an interview with The New Arab. ‘It’s a way of Haftar saying “If you support me becoming president, here’s one tangible thing that I can deliver for you and no one else can.”’
The relationship between Haftar and the Israelis is not a new partnership; it dates back to 1987. ‘Contacts between Libyans and Israelis have been underway for some time – probably through the Mossad and other organisations – and it is not surprising that they have intensified lately, given the proximity of the elections in Libya,’ explained Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.
What made Saddam Haftar’s brief visit to Tel Aviv significant was not the substance of the relationship between his father and Israel, but rather the decision to make it known to the whole world rather than concealing it.
Libya’s fractures and divisions
Politically speaking, eastern and western Libya have major differences that are relevant to any discussion of the North African country entering the Abraham Accords, the agreement brokered by the former US president, Donald Trump, between Israel and a number of Arab states. In Libya’s east, political Islam does not exist; n western Libya, political Islam might not necessarily be extremely popular, but it exists. Whereas eastern Libya is somewhat reflective of the UAE and Egypt’s political systems, the west has much more in common with Tunisia and Algeria, where the Palestinian cause is considered ‘sacred’, as Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune put it. Also, the Turkish influence in western Libya matters too, particularly considering Ankara’s efforts to position itself as a defender of the Palestinian struggle.
Within this context, Haftar being the head of state and deciding to bring the country into the Abraham Accords risks reigniting major tensions in Libya. ‘If you broach a topic like normalisation with Israel, you’re going to intensify what differentiates the eastern part of Libya from the western part,’ according to Harchaoui. The implications could be toxic from the standpoint of bringing Libyans together in a post-conflict era. ‘The western part of Libya is the most populous part, containing more than two-thirds of the population,’ said the Europe-based Libya expert. ‘When you look at that part of the population and you say, “I hereby declare normalisation with Israel”, you go [against] all the [UN-led] efforts…to try to avoid a partition of the nation, try to promote unification, reconciliation, and integration.’
US foreign policy implications
Like his predecessor, President Joe Biden and those in his administration believe that adding more Arab countries to the Abraham Accords must be a US foreign policy objective. A bipartisan consensus behind this stance exists among American lawmakers. Hence it is fair to conclude that Haftar promising to bring Libya into the Abraham Accords could help him a fair amount in Washington despite condemnations which the eastern commander has received from certain American officials over the years as well as lawsuits filed against him in US courts.
‘There are many decision-makers [in the USA] who don’t really care about the reality of Libya,’ according to Harchaoui. ‘They say, “If we could have a high-profile leader that embraces Israel, I don’t really care about the details of what happens on the ground. It’s still one step forward.” It’s basically the same reasoning that led Trump to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Like you disregard the consequences of the actual stability on the ground, and you say, “It’s a very nice victory from the point of view of acceptance of Israel, and I don’t care what happens on the ground.” You have a whole faction in Washington, DC that thinks in those terms.’
Indeed, among US officials there has been a total lack of concern for how the Abraham Accords have played out on the ground in the Arab region. In a Machiavellian manner, many policymakers in Washington believe in encouraging more Arab countries to normalise with Israel, regardless of the consequences. The fact that the transactional nature of Morocco entering the Abraham Accords in exchange for US recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara has revived decades-old tensions between Morocco and Algeria doesn’t matter much to Washington. The same can be said about the tensions which the Abraham Accords have heightened in Bahrain between the government and opposition groups, as well as how the Trump administration’s extortion of Sudan severely harmed the country’s fragile democratic transition.
Israel becoming more and more accepted in the Middle East and North Africa’s diplomatic fold is what matters to officials in Washington and Abu Dhabi. ‘You have this complacency that leads the Biden administration to support the UAE worldview,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘The UAE worldview, acceptance of Israel – all of these philosophies require you to ignore what goes on in the real world.’
Israeli stakes in Libya
Libya-Israel ties would not only serve the interests of Haftar. Benefits could go both ways. Israel has many interests in Libya, from the North African country’s ‘highly strategic geographical position to unlimited energy’, explained Dr Fasanotti. ‘In this chess game, we must not forget the consistent presence of Turkey in Tripolitania which, given the tense relations with Israel and other countries over the issue of offshore gas in the eastern Mediterranean, certainly plays a primary strategic role.’
In eastern Libya, which is the part of the country closest to Palestine, there is a security architecture and political order that suits Israeli interests. The absence of any Islamist political opposition or pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas groups in Libya’s east is satisfactory to Tel Aviv. It’s safe to bet that the Israelis would take steps to help this Egypt-like order survive over the years by strongly supporting Haftar if he becomes the next Libyan head of state. When asked if Haftar is the ‘Israeli horse in the [Libyan election] race’, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, replied, ‘Yes, he’s in the race and it’s a track that has been well run.’
By having his son land on Israeli soil, shake hands, and signal a determination to normalise with Israel, Haftar is giving Israel a vested interest in his becoming Libya’s leader. As Marco Carnelos, a former Italian diplomat, noted, considering Haftar’s health issues he may be looking to establish a family dynasty in Libya that could put his son at the helm down the line. Therefore, having Saddam Haftar land in Israel could be about making a powerful statement about how much Haftar would like to invest in a partnership with Israel for the long haul if he is to win the 24 December elections.
At stake for Tel Aviv are also ‘the prestige and this impression of momentum with more Arab centres of power that one by one decide to embrace Israel,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘If Israel could actually maintain that narrative of a persistent momentum in that direction of more acceptability, it’s a form of a win.’
Impact on the Arab region’s geopolitical order
Libya entering the Abraham Accords would further signal success on the part of Emirati activism in Africa following Sudan and Morocco’s normalisation with Israel last year in deals that the UAE helped push through, plus Tunisia’s 25 July 2021 autogolpe which constituted another win for Abu Dhabi. A Haftar-led Libya formalising relations with Tel Aviv would serve the interests of the UAE, USA and, obviously, Israel too. But not all states in the Maghreb would see Libya’s entry into the Abraham Accords as good news.
From the perspective of Algiers, the expansion of Emirati influence in North Africa and the trend to normalise with Israel both threaten Algeria’s national interests. A concern among officialdom in Algiers is that Emirati activism in North Africa, specifically Abu Dhabi’s efforts to bring countries in the Maghreb and Sahel into the Abraham Accords, is leaving Algeria in a weaker and more vulnerable position. For example, after Rabat normalised with Israel in exchange for Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the Algerian Prime Minister said that there was a ‘real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity’.
‘Algeria would see any normalisation of ties with Israel by Haftar as evidence of the general’s designs on its stability and a grave escalation on his part,’ Sami Hamdi, the Managing Director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, told The New Arab. Indeed, there would be a concern that with both Morocco and Libya locked into diplomatic agreements with Israel, such relations with Tel Aviv could be weaponised against Algeria down the line.
* Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
** This article was first published by The New Arab