The impact of UAE-Israeli normalisation could extend far beyond the Palestinian issue to touch all the region’s crises, recasting regional power balances, writes Khaled Hanafi Ali.
By Khaled Hanafi Ali
19/08/2020 – The repercussions of the announced UAE-Israeli peace agreement will ricochet throughout all the current crises in the Middle East, not least the Libyan conflict. The impacts, moreover, could be quite pronounced given the possibility that normalisation could lead to explicit forms of coordination in the handling of crises in which it has been previously difficult to untangle the threads of influence, whether from Turkey, Iran or other parties.
Despite the many reports on an Israeli role in the Libyan crisis, their substance remains uncorroborated, officially refuted and sometimes attributable to the disputants’ mutual smear campaigns. However, an attempt to identify the areas of convergence between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi on the Libyan crisis and its geopolitical significance in the MENA region could help form a picture of the potential effects of that historic agreement, the mere timing of which has implications that extend well beyond UAE-Israeli bilateral relations and the Palestinian cause to the whole intricate web of regional power balances.
MINIMISING TURKISH INFLUENCE: As we know, Abu Dhabi supports the Cyrenaica-based Libyan National Army (LNA) coalitions that have encountered major setbacks following Turkish military intervention in the battle of Tripoli. It was the heavy weaponry and mercenaries that Turkey transferred to Libya that shifted the military balances on the ground in favour of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
To Tel Aviv, Turkish expansion into Libya presents a threat in the framework of that crisis’s relationship with the conflict over energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish-Libyan axis could obstruct the Israeli project to deliver natural gas to Europe via Cyprus and Greece by means of the EastMed pipeline, the accord for which was signed by the leaders of Greece, Cyprus and Israel in January 2020. That project conflicts with areas covered by the agreement signed between Ankara and the GNA in November 2019 which basically aimed to obstruct any energy projects in the region that exclude Turkey.
Still, Israel has maintained a certain distance in its opposition to Turkish behaviour. The two countries have close economic relations as well as overlapping security concerns in Syria despite flareups of tensions between them such as that which occurred when Israeli forces killed Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Israel did not add its name to the statement signed by France, Egypt, the UAE and Greece in May 2020, protesting Turkish provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean. But it did declare its full support for Greece on 12 August 2020 in response to drilling activities that Turkey had apparently launched in response to an Egyptian-Greek maritime border agreement signed on 6 August. It would appear, therefore, that Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi agree on the need to curtail Turkish expansionism from Libya to the Eastern Mediterranean, even if the two broach the matter from different premises.
CONFRONTING ISLAMIST MILITANTS: Israel and the UAE may also converge on the fight against Islamist radicals in Libya. The UAE is deeply concerned by the infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamists into the GNA, because of the threat they pose to the UAE’s allies in eastern Libya and to regional allies such as Egypt which has had to tighten the defences of its western border due to the heightened possibilities of terrorist infiltration from Libya. Israel, for its part, has been wary of all manifestations of the Islamist ascendancy in the region since 2011. This concern has extended to the growth of radical Islamism in Libya because of how it interweaves with Hamas in Gaza and how it feeds anti-Israeli sentiment in general and in North Africa in particular. Israel would have taken stock of the fact that the first reaction to the UAE-Israeli agreement came from Mohamed Al-Emari, a member of the GNA Presidency Council who condemned it as “an unsurprising betrayal from the UAE.” The Tunisian Ennahda movement called it a “flagrant attack” on Palestinian rights. The Turkish reaction was predictable given how Ankara has cast itself as a champion of Arab and Islamic causes espoused by its Islamist allies in the region, even though Turkey recognised Israel decades ago and sustained close and strategic relations with Tel Aviv long before the UAE.
FIGHTING IRANIAN INFILTRATION: While Abu Dhabi has been more open to Iran during the past two years, to which testify new channels of cooperation, this has not diminished its opposition to Iranian penetration elsewhere in the region, including Libya. This conforms with Israel’s regional policy aims, as both Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi regard Tehran as the main threat to the region.
True, the Iranian role in Libya appears limited. However, growing Turkish-Russian influence there could tempt Tehran to insert itself for pragmatic reasons, especially in view of its relations with Russia and Turkey in Syria and, perhaps, as a means to counter US sanctions. In addition, Libya is connected to Sub-Saharan areas such as Niger and Chad where Iran also seeks to expand its influence, whether for uranium, money laundering or other purposes.
In mid-June 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif voiced his support for the Turkish-backed GNA in Tripoli and during a subsequent visit to Moscow he voiced his support for Russian-Turkish efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis. According to some reports, Iranian freighters delivered arms to the GNA in 2018 and 2019. The most recent sighting of an Iranian ship was in Misrata in April 2019. On the other hand, other reports accuse the LNA of receiving military support from the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Damascus, which is backed by Iran.
In May 2020, Israel’s UN representative officially accused Iran of violating the arms embargo to Libya. He said that Iranian made Dehlaviyeh anti-tank missiles had come into the LNA’s possession. Iran denied this and the accusation of violating the arms embargo. Some analysts have argued that it does not stand to reason for Iran to support LNA Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who is backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. However, complex, multifaceted crises such as the Libyan conflict may sometimes compel outside stakeholders to take contradictory stances to advance their particular interests.
EXPANDING INFLUENCE INTO AFRICA: Israeli-UAE convergence in Libya could extend to coordination in the Sahel region where both countries have growing influence. The UAE is a major funder of the G5 Sahel members and it has important development and investment programmes in the region. Israel, for its part, revived diplomatic relations with Chad in January 2019 and has since strengthened military/security relations with N’Djamena in the framework of the drive it set in motion to expand its influence in Central and West Africa when Netanyahu attended the ECOWAS Summit in Liberia in 2017.
Now that UAE-Israeli normalisation has become official, this development could stimulate some other G5 Sahel nations, such as Niger and Mali, to follow Chad’s suit. One also imagines that Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv will work more closely together to counter Turkish economic and military pressure on Chad, perhaps taking advantage of the LNA’s current control of southern Libya towards this end. On the other hand, it appears that Israel is also eying Sudan as a possible avenue towards tightening relations with Chad and with the Sahel region as a whole. The fall of the Omar Al-Bashir regime in Khartoum and the consequent rise of Saudi-UAE influence in Sudan at the expense of Turkish-Qatari access had made this avenue available as never before. It is noteworthy that Netanyahu met with Lieutenant General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, during his visit to Uganda in February 2020.
The lines of convergence in Libya between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv may affect regional and international interplays in ways that increase the pressures on Ankara and its Islamist allies and counter Ankara’s attempts to obstruct energy projects in the Eastern Mediterranean. Still, there may be limits on how far such coordination could go. For example, Tel Aviv, which holds other types of leverage, could try to work out an accommodation with Turkey of some sort. Simultaneously, some stakeholders in the Libyan crisis might fear the propaganda value of rapprochement with Israel in the hands of their adversaries. Libyan statements cited in the Israeli press about possible cooperation between Cyrenaica and Tel Aviv were vehemently denied by authorities in eastern Libya precisely because they could be exploited by the GNA, as was the case when, in June 2020, the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon cited the deputy prime minister of the government in eastern Libya, Abdel-Salam Al–Badri, as calling for Israeli support, or when, in December 2019, the Foreign Minister of the eastern government Abdel- Hadi Al-Haweij, said that the government hoped to establish friendly relations with Israel.
The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly