The emphasis on security engagement between Israel and Arab countries today demonstrates a marked contrast from the post-Gulf War peace process. During this time, multilateral forums were organized to begin the process of regional integration that would come with the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israeli and Arab technocrats and government officials would come together with their counterparts for discussions of areas of common concern, including scientific issues. The issues that are the focus of these organizations are to varying degrees “common goods,” meaning that they are shared issues that require all parties to act or risk exacerbation that harms all. Concurrently, Israeli and Arab government officials met publicly, demonstrating optimism that the peace process would achieve its ultimate goal.
In the new era of Israeli-Arab engagement, which began with the United States’ efforts to peacefully engage with Iran during the Obama administration, scientific cooperation continues, but the aforementioned security engagement to counter Iran and its regional proxies has been the primary motivating factor bringing together Israel and “moderate” Sunni Arab countries. These include Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel has diplomatic relations, as well as others with which Israel does not, such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appearing lifeless, the atmosphere of this engagement is much less jovial than the earlier period of Arab-Israeli engagement; Israeli and Arab government officials are meeting, but popular support for the Palestinian cause keeps these meetings behind closed doors.
In this piece, the differences between these two periods through examination of the engagement between Israel and Arab countries within two scientific organizations, as well as their concurrent engagement outside of these organizations’ meetings, will be analyzed in this piece. In the earlier era, a positive outlook towards peaceful regional cooperation created a more open atmosphere for these relationships to develop. These relationships must now be developed covertly due to the status of the peace process, but both sides understand the necessity of contact due to their shared threat perceptions.
Peace Process Positivity: The Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources and Middle East Desalination Research Center
Among Israel and the members of the League of Arab States (LAS), water scarcity is a critical issue; as of 2016, only the Comoros, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa, exceeded 25% of the global average for renewable freshwater resources per capita. In the American-led post-Persian Gulf War peace process, the issue was prioritized in regional integration. Delegations representing Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation came together for their first meeting in Madrid in November 1991. Observers representing every LAS member except Iraq also attended. The initial meeting was considered confrontational, but marked an important first step towards normalization. The January 1992 follow-up meeting in Moscow was attended by delegations representing Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia, and featured the establishment of five multilateral working groups on issues of mutual concern, including water.
The United States was the preeminent world power at this time, following its successful leadership of a 34-country coalition in defeating Iraq—and the Soviet Union having collapsed. It would chair the Working Group on Water Resources (WGWR) with the European Union and Japan as deputy chairs. WGWR’s initial goals were “enhancement of water data availability; water management practices, including conservation; enhancement of water supply; and concepts of regional water management and cooperation.” The first WGWR meeting took place in April 1992, with the U.S. Department of State leading with technical advice from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, setting a precedent for delegations to include policy and technical experts in WGWR’s future deliberations. An example of successful collaboration between Israel and Arab countries within the WGWR was the creation of a regional water databank led by Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian experts.
Israel and Qatar had already begun to develop their bilateral relationship before the latter joined MEDRC’s Executive Committee in 2007, with a similar trajectory to the Israeli-Omani relationship. Immediately following his April 1996 visit to Muscat, Peres and the business delegation accompanying him went to Doha to sign a trade agreement. Qatar also pulled back from its relationship with Israel following Netanyahu’s 1996 electoral victory, but they still went ahead with opening reciprocal trade offices that year. The trade offices were closed in October 2000, though the Israeli outpost in Doha would secretly remain open to maintain a line of communication between Israel and Qatar.
In the cases of both Oman and Qatar, cooperation on water resources and desalination are integral components of their respective pursuits of relations with Israel. However, disruptions in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Israeli military campaigns targeting Hezbollah and Hamas would harm these burgeoning relationships. Regular interactions at MEDRC Executive Council meetings in Muscat continue to provide pretext for Omani and Qatari officials’ discussions with Israeli counterparts that go beyond water issues.
Shared Threat Perception: International Renewable Energy Agency
Even with so many participants, the main focus of press coverage of the January 2016 IRENA Assembly meeting was Israel’s participation and its possible regional implications. The clarification regarding the nature of Israel’s mission to IRENA was meant to assuage doubts regarding the UAE’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, but cannot dispel the notion of Israeli-Emirati collaboration taking place while both consider Iran an existential threat. As evidenced by Al Mabhouh’s assassination, this relationship—like the aforementioned Israeli relationships with Oman and Qatar—is fragile and can be upset by certain actions.
Israel’s engagement with Oman and Qatar through the WGWR and MEDRC took place during a time when such engagement seemed integral to progress towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and eventual regional integration. It continues today through regular interaction in MEDRC, but has taken on similar characteristics to Israel’s engagement with the UAE. With no progress in the peace process and high levels of support for the Palestinian cause, Omani and Qatari officials continue to interact with Israeli officials—but must do so covertly. The UAE has similar restrictions in its engagement—even during the early, more optimistic period of the peace process. But engagement with Israel is necessary for the UAE in its primary goal: countering Iran. IRENA provides a plausible way for Emirati and Israeli officials to continue their meetings on this issue without bringing on popular opposition.