Israel’s Arab Allies Signal Business as Usual, Despite Far Right’s Rise
TEL AVIV — When Benjamin Netanyahu won a general election last month, analysts wondered how three Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel in 2020 — Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — might react.
Mr. Netanyahu forged the deals himself when last in office, but his new far-right allies have a history of anti-Arab statements that some thought might prove too objectionable for leaders in the three Arab states.
Ahead of the election, the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met privately with Mr. Netanyahu and expressed discomfort at his alliance with the far right, according to two people briefed on the conversation who requested anonymity to speak more freely.
But since the election, that unease has quickly morphed into a more pragmatic approach: Business as usual, at least for now.
In recent weeks, both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates invited Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s most extreme allies, to their national day celebrations in Tel Aviv. All lawmakers, from the left and right, were sent invitations to both events, but Mr. Ben-Gvir’s inclusion — and an especially warm embrace by the Emirati ambassador — raised eyebrows and made headlines in Israel.
While other countries, notably the United States, have avoided Mr. Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted in Israel of anti-Arab incitement, the Bahraini and Emirati missions have not.
“Any change of government will not affect Bahrain’s approach to developing positive relations with Israel,” Khaled Al Jalahma, the Bahraini ambassador to Israel, said in a text message on Thursday night. “Bahrain’s stance on the change of administration in Israel is the same as it would be with any other country.”
But, Mr. Al Jalahma added, “As with any government, we will voice concern if policies enacted are of a nature that could strain relations.”
That stance reflects the extent to which the Abraham Accords, as the 2020 deals were called, redrew the contours of Middle Eastern geopolitics. For decades, all but two Arab governments refused to formalize their relationships with Israel until there was a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Open ties with Israel, let alone its most extreme politicians, were out of the question.
The signing of the accords underscored how solidarity with the Palestinians had been eclipsed, for certain Arab leaders, by national self-interest. Shared fears of a nuclear Iran, coupled with enthusiasm for better economic, technological and military ties with Israel, prompted the accords’ signatories to prioritize relations with Israel above the immediate creation of a Palestinian state.
What to Know About Israel’s Latest Election
The country held its fifth election in less than four years on Nov. 1.
- Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader, is set to return to power with a new, far-right coalition that will once again make him prime minister. But several issues, including his cabinet choices, have complicated the forming of a government.
- The Far Right’s Rise: To win the election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity.
- What’s Next for the Left?: After a near wipeout, the leaders of Israel’s left-leaning parties say they need to change — but disagree on how.
- Worries Among Palestinians: To some Palestinians, the rise of Israel’s far right can scarcely make things worse. But many fear a surge of violence.
Two years later, those fears and hopes have also now helped nudge the signatories into accepting Mr. Netanyahu’s chosen partners, even as some of Israel’s longtime supporters, like the United States, adopt a more cautious approach, analysts said.
“This is what Israel is — and countries like the U.A.E. have decided to deal with whoever the Israelis elect,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist. “There is no going back on this treaty, the Abraham Accords, and we are stuck with someone like him,” Professor Abdulla added, referring to Mr. Ben-Gvir.
Mr. Ben-Gvir’s acceptance has drawn particular attention because of his history of anti-Arab extremism. While he says he has recently moderated his views, until 2020 Mr. Ben-Gvir displayed in his home a portrait of a Jewish gunman who in 1994 shot dead 29 Palestinians inside a mosque.
In Mr. Netanyahu’s likely new government, Mr. Ben-Gvir is set to become minister for national security, a role that oversees the police. Before the alliance formally enters office, it is attempting to pass a law that would give Mr. Ben-Gvir greater power over police activity.
That has raised fears that his tenure could provoke even more confrontations with Palestinians, particularly in sensitive places like the Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as Temple Mount, where Israeli police frequently clash with Palestinians at a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
Despite these concerns, the Emirati ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Al Khaja, greeted Mr. Ben-Gvir warmly at a gala organized by Ambassador Al Khaja in Tel Aviv this month — tightly clasping his hand in front of several photographers.
The United Arab Emirates’ foreign ministry declined to comment but Mr. Ben-Gvir’s office used the encounter as evidence of his increasing acceptance.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain “recognize Ben-Gvir for what he is, which is a law-and-order party leader, and not a racist leader, as is much suggested in Western media,” said Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for Mr. Ben-Gvir.
Mr. Al Khaja later paid a visit to Bezalel Smotrich, another far-right leader with a history of anti-Arab comments. Both Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir were then invited to Bahrain’s national day ceremony in Tel Aviv on Thursday night but, like many coalition lawmakers, did not attend because of political commitments in Jerusalem.
At the event, the Bahraini ambassador, Mr. Al Jalahma, said in a speech that the Palestinian cause remained important to Bahrain. But the overall tone of the evening, in which Mr. Netanyahu appeared via video link, was that business continued as normal. This month, Bahrain also welcomed Isaac Herzog, Israel’s centrist president, in the first visit to the country by an Israeli head of state.
The Moroccan government has avoided the Israeli far right, but it has signaled through other means that its relationship with Israel continues as normal.
This week, Morocco sent a senior military officer to participate alongside Israeli, Bahraini and Emirati counterparts at a meeting in the United Arab Emirates about cybersecurity.
Last week, Morocco hosted a conference for education officials and academics from Israel and seven Arab countries, including citizens of two countries, Oman and Sudan, that do not yet have full diplomatic relations with Israel. Participants discussed how to improve collaboration between their education systems, including an exchange system for Israeli and Arab university students.
Several Israeli, Emirati and Bahraini participants watched games from the World Cup together, including Morocco’s surprise victory against Spain.
That sort of interaction highlights the complexity of Israel’s place in the Arab world: Even as certain Arab leaders deepen their relationships with Israel, polling shows that this process remains unpopular among ordinary Arabs.
During the World Cup in Qatar, many Arab attendees — and some players, including the Moroccan team — have stressed their support for the Palestinians and refused to speak with Israeli journalists covering the tournament.
“What’s happening at the top has nothing to do with what’s happening among people,” said Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at the Center for Gulf Studies at Exeter University in Britain.
The Moroccan foreign ministry declined to comment for this article. But analysts say that key Arab leaders are happy to ignore the protests of their citizens and the Palestinians because their countries greatly benefit from military and economic partnership with Israel.
Israel is working together with the Abraham Accords countries and the United States to protect against Iranian missiles and unmanned drones.
The Israeli Defense Ministry has signed public agreements with its Bahraini and Moroccan counterparts, making it easier for the three countries to coordinate and share military equipment, and quietly supplied an air defense system to the United Arab Emirates, satellite photos published in October suggested.
Trade is also flourishing. This month, Israel and the United Arab Emirates made the final touches to a deal that will cover 96 percent of bilateral trade — the most detailed trade agreement between Israel and an Arab country.
“This was always a pragmatic arrangement which they see as being in their long-term strategic interests,” said Dr. Fakhro. “It doesn’t change just because Ben-Gvir is now around. They won’t trade those interests for the Palestinian issue.”
Saudi Arabia has frequently said it will not seal full ties with Israel before the establishment of a Palestinian state. Analysts also believe it will not follow the United Arab Emirates in normalizing with Israel unless it receives more support from the United States, including the supply of more sophisticated arms or support for a nuclear program.
But Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly promised since his election victory in November that he will try to normalize relations with Riyadh.
“We can have a new peace initiative that will form a quantum leap” Mr. Netanyahu said Thursday on Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned television network.
“Of course, I’m referring to what could be a truly remarkable, historic peace with Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem and Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.