10 opportunities for Israel

10) Trump’s economic plan highlights the issue of economic incentives for peace.

By
September 7, 2019 20:26
A haredi man stares at a Likud ad with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump.

A haredi man stares at a Likud ad with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The changes taking place in the Middle East generate new opportunities for Israel in its relationships with the Arab world. Absent progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, these opportunities remain limited in scope but significant in terms of Israel’s efforts to reshape its relations in the region. As of mid-2019, these are the key opportunities for Israel in the Middle East identified by a Mitvim Institute task-team.


1) Qatari engagement with Gaza creates communication and cooperation channels with Israel
Qatar has become an instrumental player in improving conditions for Gaza’s residents and in international efforts (along with Egypt and the UN) to prevent another round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. The Qatari involvement creates a communications and coordination mechanism between the states, with its media coverage having an impact on Israeli public opinion, and generates an opportunity to expand formal and inter-personal ties between the countries to other spheres. In the longer term, Qatar’s 2022 hosting of the football World Cup and its commitment to let Israeli fans attend the games provide an opportunity for civil engagement. Qatar is already gearing up towards that, for example by seeking solutions to the kosher dietary needs of some fans.




2) Warming relations with Bahrain following the economic workshop


The economic workshop convened by the Trump administration in June did not yield progress between Israel and the Palestinians but did provide opportunities for an exchange of positive messages between Israel and various elements in the Gulf. Interviews by Bahrain’s foreign minister to Israeli media conveyed a message of acceptance of Jews and Israel in the Middle East; favorable coverage of Bahrain by Israeli journalists painted the country in a more positive light for Israelis; meetings between businesspeople from Israel and the Arab world all legitimize ties and pave the way for additional interaction. Finally, yet importantly, was the widely covered prayer service at the synagogue in Bahrain that emphasized interfaith moderation.




3) The United Arab Emirates boosts its involvement in the Palestinian issue


The UAE is being perceived increasingly as a more central regional player, especially since the murder of Adnan Khashoggi. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed is seeking to expand the Emirates’ influence and involvement throughout the Middle East and beyond, as reflected in the Palestinian arena, too (for example by organizing and funding Ramadan iftar meals, and supporting Muhammad Dahlan of Khan Yunis), where all Gulf states vie for influence. This Emirati involvement, which Israel views in a positive light, offers an opportunity for interaction between Israeli and UAE officials and coordination of cooperation on the ground.




4) Expo2020 in Dubai as an opportunity for greater exchange 


Israel has received an official invitation to the event, which will allow it to invite other Israelis to visit its pavilion and take part in various related events, providing an opportunity to expand civilian ties between Israel and the Emirates. Already, there is growing openness in the UAE to Israeli civilian initiatives, and the Jewish community there has been granted a new official status that allows it to invite Israelis and Jews from other countries to visit (as is the case in Morocco and Tunisia).




5) Possible easing of Saudi restrictions on visits by Palestinian citizens of Israel


According to media reports, Saudi Arabia has amended its law in a way that could enable Palestinian citizens of Israel to live and work there (in addition to already being allowed to go on pilgrimages to Mecca). A couple of years ago, Gulf states reportedly offered to improve ties with Israel, dependent on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian channel, primarily through enabling Israel’s Arab citizens to live and work in the Gulf. This underscores the importance of increased involvement of Palestinian citizens of Israel in efforts to improve relations between Israel and the Arab world. On another Saudi-related matter, ongoing attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen could provide an opportunity for clandestine Israel-Saudi defense cooperation.




6) Enhancing civilian, cultural and religious cooperation with Morocco


Relations between Israel and Morocco are unusual in light of the unofficial cooperation on civilian issues and the people-to-people exchanges between them – delegations, visits and participation in international events. Ties are also expanding in the field of agriculture (exports of Israeli solutions to Morocco), culture (joint performances at various festivals), and religion (the renewal of Jewish leadership in Morocco and moves to preserve the Jewish heritage there), and there is potential for more. Israeli tourists visit Morocco, mostly in groups, and this field, too, could be expanded to include the ultra-Orthodox community and business and professional visits. On the other hand, Moroccans wishing to visit Israel come up against complex visa procedures that have become even more stringent recently. Israel has to find a way to simplify this process in order to fulfill the potential of the relationship, which should primarily focus on the civil society level with as little government involvement as possible.




7) Possible cooperation with Iraq on Jewish-related issues and anti-Iranian positions


There are calls in Iraq to restore the citizenship of Iraqi Jews, which Israel can assist indirectly, as well as for Iraq to adopt the Tunisian model that allows Israeli passport holders to visit once a year to attend a religious event. In Tunisia (which has appointed a Jewish minister of culture), the event is the annual Lag Ba’omer festival on the island of Djerba (Tunisia even issued a commemorative stamp of this event recently), while in Iraq the focus could be on pilgrimages to the graves of Ezekiel and other prophets on Shavuot. Other opportunities for strengthening civilian ties manifest themselves in social media messages Israel conveys to the people of Iraq, in the affinity of Israelis of Iraqi origin for their country of birth, and the willingness – albeit very limited – of Iraqi entrepreneurs and journalists to visit Israel. In terms of security, cooperation could be explored with certain elements in Iraq who share Israel’s fears of growing Iranian influence in the region (and its activity in Iraq), perhaps via US involvement through the military bases it operates in Iraq.




8) Establishment of regional gas forum provides new joint framework for Israel and its neighbors


In January 2019, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Greece and Italy established the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. This unusual regional framework allows Israel, the Palestinians and Arab and European states to engage in a joint mechanism. The forum and its institutionalization create opportunities to draw in additional participants, from government officials to business and civil society players. It also provides a potential framework for diplomatic discussions in addition to the economic ones, and for strengthening Israeli ties with Jordan, Egypt and the PA. The natural gas findings in the Mediterranean and the desire to fulfill their potential also offer an opportunity for renewed American-mediated talks between Israel and Lebanon on marking their maritime border.




9) Leveraging warming ties with Egypt


Israel and Egypt have enhanced their defense ties (especially vis-à-vis terrorism in Gaza and the Sinai) and economic relations (the agreement to export Israeli gas to Egypt). The warming relationship is also manifested in relations between the two countries’ leaders and the visits of Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz to Cairo. Israel should leverage this rapprochement to promote civilian ties with Egypt, and an opportunity appears to have presented itself in growing Israeli tourism to Sinai and in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s willingness to invest in the rehabilitation of Jewish heritage sites in Egypt.




10) Trump’s economic plan highlights the issue of economic incentives for peace


The economic plan unveiled by the Trump administration sought to present the Palestinians with a vision of prosperity and economic well-being as an incentive for making peace. However, it did so without regard to the nature of the future political arrangement between the sides, generating opposition and accusations of an American attempt “to buy off” the Palestinians. Nonetheless, publication of the plan constitutes an opportunity to advance the idea adopted by the international community (but not promoted) in the years 2016 and 2017 of presenting both Palestinians and Israelis with a package of international incentives for peace, on the clear condition that it would serve to achieve a two-state solution.


The writer is head of Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.



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