Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Waraw Conference on February 14, 2019.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
A common belief for the last 26 years – since the signing of the Oslo Accords – was that normalization with the Arab world would only be possible once the State of Israel struck a final peace deal with the Palestinians. What happened last Thursday in Warsaw cannot yet be called “normalization,” but it is closer than Israel has ever been before.
The American-hosted Middle East summit in Poland was aimed first and foremost at countering Iran’s efforts to spread its hegemony and undermine moderate regimes throughout the Middle East. The contrast of seeing leaders of Sunni and European states gathering in Warsaw while Iranian, Turkish and Russian leaders gathered in Sochi could not have been starker.
There is a real battle being waged today in the Middle East between the forces of darkness – led by Iran and its proxies, like Hezbollah – and the Western world, led by Israel and the United States.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s participation in the summit was nothing short of historic. Israeli and Arab leaders have previously participated in similar international forums, but when the Israeli leader would enter the room or take to the podium to speak, traditionally the Arabs would walk out. Not this time.
On Thursday, Netanyahu sat next to Yemen Foreign Minister Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi. When it was Netanyahu’s turn to speak and his microphone didn’t work, Mekhlafi offered his.
It might not be peace, but considering that Israel and Yemen do not have formal diplomatic relations, it was a moment to remember. As US envoy Jason Greenblatt tweeted, “Step by step.”
Netanyahu said the meeting was an historic breakthrough with regard to Israeli-Arab ties, and that the taboo against Israelis meeting with Arab leaders had been broken.
“I didn’t say we could make peace” without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Netanyahu, “but we can advance normalization.”
US officials also hailed the moment. “Clearly Iran’s aggression in the region has brought Israel & the Arab world closer together,” Greenblatt tweeted from the conference. “We must continue this important conversation.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also recognized the significance. At the opening session on Thursday morning, Pompeo mentioned how the night before, “Arab and Israeli leaders were in the same room, sharing a meal.”
The reason for this change in Arab sentiment toward Israel is based on three interests and realizations.
The first is an understanding that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is not currently possible. Whether it is the fault of the Israelis or the intransigence of the Palestinians, everyone understands that a breakthrough will not happen soon.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to engage with the Americans since the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem last year says it all.
The second reason for the change in sentiment toward Israel is the Arab world’s interest in stopping Iran and its advance on the region.
The Sunni states throughout the Gulf, as well as Jordan and Egypt, recognize that they need to work with Israel to be able to effectively stop the Iranians. Israel’s intelligence, advanced weaponry and ongoing covert war with the Iranians in Syria shows the Arabs that Israel is their most reliable ally when it comes to this war.
The third interest is an understanding that for the Arab world to progress and modernize, it would do well to cooperate with Israel – aka Start-Up Nation – known for its superior technology, be it drip irrigation, waste management or cyberdefense software systems. Every country in the region wants to benefit from the amazing technology emerging from the world’s Jewish state.
To Netanyahu’s credit and to Israel’s benefit, the Israeli leader has spent the last few years skillfully managing a delicate balancing act between advancing Israel’s ties with the moderate Sunni-Arab world, and at the same time showing the world that he is not the obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
What happened in Warsaw is proof of how that can work.
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