Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In November 1996, Dore Gold, the current director-general of the Foreign Ministry, authored a research memorandum published by the Washington Institute, entitled “Israel and the Gulf: New Security Frameworks for the Middle East.” In this paper, Gold concluded that the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent peace process in the 1990s had fundamentally changed the relationship between the Levant and the Persian Gulf. In contrast to the past when the two regions were separated, Dore believed that contemporary events had brought the two regions closer, leading to the possibility of establishing a Middle East security system involving Israel, Jordan, Turkey and post-Saddam Iraq. Netanyahu, soon after being elected prime minister for the first time in June 1996, was also quoted in favor of establishing a regional security system.
Though the grouping advocated by Gold seems ludicrous in retrospect, there was certain logic to this idea, which was first proposed by Shimon Peres in his 1993 book The New Middle East. At that time, however, Egypt preferred a regional system based on Arab identity rather than a Middle Eastern security arrangement that was perceived as an Israeli instrument to attain regional hegemony.
Moreover, with the aim of blocking Israeli aspirations in the region, Egypt also led the Arab initiative to disarm Israel of its nuclear capability.
Twenty years later, the developments in the Middle East in the post-Arab Spring period, particularly the Syrian civil war and the threat of jihadist organizations such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, created a new environment conducive to regional cooperation. In contrast to the 1990s, the Arab world is now unable to disengage itself from the Middle East and is forced to respond to existential threats coming from the region, such as Iran, and from within the Arab system, such as Islamic terrorism and Shi’ism. In such a climate, Israel can assume an active role in regional security.
The changing environment has also altered Egypt’s position, which is no longer averse to Israeli participation in regional security. In his recent speech at the UN General Assembly and in interviews to the American media, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi called on the states in the Middle East, including Israel, to combat the threat of Islamic terrorism. He also called for expanding peace with Israel to other Arab states. Sisi publicly acknowledged what has been known for a while – that Israel and the “moderate” Arab countries share common interests in the Middle East, including opposition to Islamic terrorism, Iran and Shi’ite influence. Although the new reality has created a unique opportunity to construct a regional security system, such scenario comes with a price: resolving the Palestinian problem.
“Empowering the Palestinian people,” said Sisi, “to exercise their right to self-determination and to an independent state within the border of June 4, 1967, with east Jerusalem as its capital, will eliminate one of the most important factors contributing to the region’s instability and one of the most dangerous pretexts used to justify extremism and terrorism.” In Sisi’s opinion, the resolution of the Palestinian problem “would change the face of the region.”
The Egyptian president made it clear that the Middle East menu has no “free meals” for Israel.
On a sober analysis of the Middle Eastern scene, Israel currently faces a unique opportunity to become more integrated – and recognized – as a Middle Eastern actor. The elimination of the so-called “Northern Front” as a result of domestic instability in Iraq and devastating civil war in Syria, coupled with traditional Arab antagonism toward Turkey and Iran, has left Israel as a bulwark against radical Islamic – and other – forces. This possible sphere of regional cooperation includes not only Egypt and Jordan – the two states that have already signed peace treaties with Israel – but also Saudi Arabia and certain Gulf countries that consider Iran and Shi’ism to be more threatening than the Jewish state.
Until now, such shared interests have been expressed mainly behind the scenes, as the Arab countries cannot openly demonstrate solidarity with a state occupying the Palestinian territories.
I believe that history will show that Israel made a great mistake by failing to exploit the weakness in the Arab world to resolve the Palestinian conflict in a manner that would guarantee its interests and finally acknowledge its place in the region.
The author teaches at the department of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is a board member of Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.