without Peace in the Middle East
By Aaron David
Miller and Hillel Zand
November 1, 2018
Flanked by his wife, his national-security adviser, and the
head of the Mossad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise
visit last week to Oman and met with its leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
Beyond the headline is a stunningly paradoxical trend line:
The most significant period of Israeli-Arab de facto cooperation since the last
real peace process, in the 1990s, is now taking place without one. Netanyahu and
his right-wing government are reversing the notion that only peace with the
Palestinians can ensure Israel’s acceptance into an angry and hostile Arab
world. The Arab street may still oppose Israel, but Arab leaders clearly
Netanyahu isn’t the first Israeli prime minister to meet
Qaboos at home. Yitzhak Rabin had that honor in 1994. And while the current
spate of Israeli-Arab activity is nowhere near the salad days of the 1990s in
the wake of the Oslo Accords, the extent of Israeli contacts both above and
below the table are impressive, especially because it’s the hard-line
Netanyahu running the show and not the moderate Rabin.
Netanyahu has long boasted of secret Israeli relations and
cooperation with Gulf states, telling the Knesset as recently as last week how
“Israel and other Arab countries are closer than they ever were before.” And
while he tends to exaggerate, consider the following.
On Sunday, Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev—one of
the Netanyahu cabinet’s most vocal critics of the Palestinians—became the
first senior Israeli official to visit Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand
Mosque. The same day, after years of being forbidden to display national symbols
at Gulf sporting events, the Israeli
national anthem played when the Israeli judo team won a gold medal at
the International Judo Federation’s Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi. Next week,
Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz will visit Oman and
Communications Minister Ayoob Kara will visit Abu Dhabi. An Israeli gymnastics
team is also currently competing in Qatar.
These moments of soft diplomacy appear to be bearing fruit
for Israel’s foreign-policy agenda. After Netanyahu’s visit, Oman’s
foreign minister stated, “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all
understand this. The world is also aware of this fact.” Bahrain’s foreign
minister expressed support for Oman’s role in trying to catalyze
Israeli-Palestinian peace, and his Saudi Arabian counterpart declared that the
peace process was key to normalizing relations.
The biggest prize for Israel is, indeed, a relationship
with Saudi Arabia — a goal that has been pushed and encouraged by Donald
Trump’s administration, particularly the president’s son-in-law, Jared
Kushner, who’s established a close tie with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,
widely known as MbS. Hurdles include King Salman’s desire to ensure that his
impulsive son doesn’t give too much to the Israelis too soon and MbS’s
alleged involvement in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which
might lead him to cut a lower profile internationally. But there are signs that
the Saudis are giving up their old hard-line opposition to Israel. When Trump
moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia
had a decidedly low-key reaction; Saudi Arabia opened its air space to Air
India’s commercial flights to Israel; an unofficial Saudi delegation visited
Israel to push the Arab Peace Initiative; and it’s been reported that
the Israelis are selling the Saudis millions in surveillance equipment, and even
assisting MbS with his security.
Something is clearly happening.
The Arab world’s new openness to Israel is driven in part
by increasing impatience and annoyance with the Palestinians. The record of
Arab-state betrayal and conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organization is
well known. Indeed, with the exception of Egypt, every Arab state that shares
common borders with Israel has fought bloody battles with the Palestinian
national movement. Today the Saudis and Egyptians are frustrated with a weak
Mahmoud Abbas and worried about Hamas. The silence of the Arab world in the face
of recent Israeli-Hamas confrontations in Gaza, including the last major
conflict, in 2014, which claimed more than 2,000 Palestinian lives, was
Add to this the Arab states’ fear of Iran and Sunni
jihadists, and a desire to please the Trump administration—and suddenly it’s
obvious that Israel and its neighbors are bound by common interests.
Tensions, of course, remain. Last week, Jordan’s King
Abdullah—under domestic pressure as a result of Netanyahu’s policies toward
the Palestinians—announced that he would terminate two land leases with Israel
agreed to in their 1994 peace treaty. But even this problem may in the end be
worked out in subsequent negotiations.
The upshot of all of this isn’t that the Arab world is
moving at breakneck speed to desert the Palestinians, or to fully normalize ties
with Israel. But Netanyahu appears to be dealing with an Arab world ready to
engage incrementally with Israel despite that fact that a peace deal
is not forthcoming. In a volatile and combustible Middle East, the prime
minister should enjoy his thaw while it lasts.