Kuwait refuses to budge as other Gulf nations abandon the Palestinian cause

Giorgio Cafiero

The most prominent Gulf nations are normalising ties with Israel without gaining any concessions from the Israelis. Why has Kuwait not followed its closest allies?

The Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East (the Warsaw Conference), held on February 14, made the Middle East’s existing geopolitical realities increasingly apparent.

One result of the summit is that in the aftermath of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent trips to Oman and Chad, the Gulf monarchies have given Israel even more confidence in its ability to score diplomatic and political points in the Arab/Muslim world without making concessions to the Palestinians.

By relying on anti-Iranian rallying cries, officials in Tel Aviv seem confident that they can advance toward a cost-free normalisation of relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. The Warsaw Conference served to embolden Israel in this respect with naturally dangerous implications for the Palestinians. For years there has been a widespread understanding that most GCC rulers see Iran’s conduct as far more destabilising and threatening to their monarchies’ security than any act of aggression that Israel wages against the Palestinians, Syria, or Lebanon. Yet when discussing this issue in Warsaw, Arab Gulf leaders spoke with greater honesty and openness than before, agreeing that “Israel had a right to defend itself against Iranian aggression.”

Bahrain’s chief diplomat went as far as saying that Iran represents more of a “toxic challenge” to the Middle East than Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The veneer of all six GCC states standing in support of Palestinian rights came to an end in the Polish capital. Consequently, diverse Palestinian factions have strongly condemned the Arab Gulf leaders who shared the stage with Netanyahu in Poland and demonstrated their total indifference to the Palestinians’ plight.

Jamal Muheissen, a senior Fatah official, blasted the Warsaw Conference by asserting that US officials “are trying to subjugate the Palestinians and exert political and financial pressure on the Palestinian leadership to force it to accept Trump’s plan to eliminate the Palestinian cause.”

Yahya Musa, a Gaza-based Hamas leader, stated that all Arab officials who attended the summit were “traitors” and that “everything which comes to us from the US aims to liquidate the Palestinian cause, stirs clashes in the region and serves the Zionist and American agendas.”

Kuwait, however, is one member of the GCC that refuses to support a thaw in relations with Israel until a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is reached.

Three days after the conference in Poland, the Speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly Marzouq al Ghanim restated Kuwait’s “principled and firm position” in opposition to normalising ties with Israel, emphasising that Kuwait was one of few Arab states that have not given in to the pressure of warming up to Tel Aviv.

In response to a photo from Warsaw that included a Kuwaiti diplomat with other Arab and Israeli officials, Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al Jarallah stressed that the group picture signified no change in Kuwait’s position on Israel, declaring that observers have been “mistaken to think that normalization [of relations with Israel] can be reduced to a group picture.”

Throughout the past two years, numerous statements and diplomatic manoeuvers against Israel have underscored Kuwait’s independent foreign policy and refusal to join the GCC trend of moving closer to Israel.

When siding with Lebanon at the UN Security Council late last year, Kuwait affirmed that Israel’s Operation Northern Shield was more threatening to the region than Hezbollah. Given Hezbollah-linked groups’ history of waging violence and plotting subterfuge in Kuwait, this position was quite significant and in complete contrast to Bahrain’s government which sided with Tel Aviv against the dominant Shia force in Lebanon backed by Tehran. When Kuwait was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, its leadership expressed interest in possibly opening a Kuwaiti embassy in Palestine while also supporting the formation of an international protection force along the Gaza-Israel border to protect Palestinians in the besieged enclave. Anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian rhetoric from Kuwaiti lawmakers has also further contrasted the Gulf country from its fellow GCC states which have grown increasingly open about their tacit alliances with Tel Aviv.

For its part, Qatar has also remained “pro-Palestinian” in its foreign policy in terms of its economic assistance to Gaza and strong diplomatic support for a two-state solution albeit without challenging Israel as Kuwait has throughout 2018/2019.

Shortly after the summit in Poland, Qatar’s Prime Minister declared at the Munich Security Conference that without resolving the Palestinian issue “there will always be a problem” between Doha and Tel Aviv.

As Kuwait continues to stand out in the GCC with its position on Israel, the Gulf country is making its displeasure with the Trump administration’s Middle East foreign policy increasingly clear.

In addition to disagreeing with the White House on critical dimensions of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, including the decision made in May 2018 to pull the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iranian nuclear deal), the conflict(s) between Israel and Palestinians/Lebanon further highlight the growing distance between Kuwait and the US administrations’ positions on regional crises.

Put simply, while Washington strongly urges the Gulf monarchies to align with a far-right government in Israel that opposes Palestinian statehood and the right of return while also denying the mere fact that there is an Israeli occupation of Palestine, Kuwait refuses to join this bandwagon.

Much like Jordan, Kuwait sees Tehran’s regional conduct as destabilising, yet has no interest in inflating the Iranian threat. Notwithstanding Kuwait’s legitimate concerns about Iranian-sponsored non-state actors in the northern Gulf, in 1990 the emirate learned its lessons about the consequences of failing to balance its larger neighbours against each other in a shrewd manner which influences Kuwaiti officials in their efforts to avoid excessively antagonising the Islamic Republic.

Furthermore, for all of Kuwait’s concerns about Iranian meddling in other Arab states as well as in Kuwait, the Al Sabah rulers do not see the threat of Tehran’s foreign policy as a sound justification for normalising ties with Israel.