Israel and the Gulf nations will establish diplomatic relations in 2019

This is our greatest opportunity to end the 100-year-old Israeli-Arab conflict.

Rabbi Schneier with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Schneier with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The trickle has turned into a flood. Today, as long-standing barriers to a full breakthrough of mutual recognition are collapsing with astonishing speed, Israel stands on the threshold of an accomplishment few expected to witness in our lifetime – the imminent establishment of diplomatic relations with many of the nations of the Arabian Gulf. I believe that Bahrain – whose King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, I have visited countless times since my first groundbreaking meeting at his palace in the capital city of Manama in 2011 – will be the first to open diplomatic relations with Israel by the end of 2019, to be quickly followed by other key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In fact, Bahrain had already signaled the direction it was moving in with evident Saudi support last May when Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa made a statement defending the right of Israel to defend itself from Iranian missiles fired in its direction from Syria, tweeting, “Like all other countries, Israel has the right to defend itself against the Iranian aggression.”
Consider what has happened in recent weeks that shows the strengthening ties between Israel and a host of Gulf states. At the end of October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid an official state visit to Oman, where he met with Sultan Qaboos Bin Said. It was the first visit to Oman by an Israeli prime minister since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin went there in 1992, at the height of the Oslo peace process. The national anthem Hatikvah was played at the Judo games in the UAE and Culture Minister Miri Regev was present at the games, Oman made a statement about how it is time to accept Israel, Israel Communications Minister Ayoub Kara spoke at a conference in Dubai, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz attended a conference in Oman, and the Israeli Economic Minister has been invited to attend the Start-up Nations Ministerial conference.
To measure just how quickly the momentum has swung toward recognition of Israel by the Gulf States, consider that only last March, when I predicted in an op-ed that Bahrain, and perhaps other Gulf states, would establish diplomatic relations with Israel “within a few years,” my prediction was greeted with widespread skepticism in both Jerusalem and Washington. Many experts argued that while Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other members of the GCC like Oman, Qatar and Kuwait were likely to strengthen covert military ties with Israel in the face of the threat by Iran, none of the Gulf countries would be willing to formally recognize Israel in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. It is wrong to assume that the Gulf leaders don’t care about the Palestinian cause because they do. Israel must continue to engage with the Palestinians in arriving at a resolution to this ongoing conflict.
I even hedged my own brash bet a bit, predicting that the Gulf states would only be able to recognize Israel after the GCC resolved its bitter internal feud between Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain on one side, and Qatar supported by Kuwait and Oman on the other – a dispute which had led the Saudis to impose a full-scale and, in my opinion, counterproductive economic embargo on Qatar.
One might ask what has changed since last spring to transform the situation so dramatically in Israel’s favor? Clearly, the Iranian threat has intensified, as that country consolidated its position in Iraq and Syria. Iran also has deepened its involvement with its proxies on the Israel border – Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon – and through its support of the Houthis in Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s southern flank as well.
Beyond geopolitical common interest, there is so much more Israel and the GCC can accomplish together. Think of the transformative possibilities of an Israel-Gulf alliance – bringing fruitful collaboration between the countries with the world’s greatest reserves of oil and Israel, with its unsurpassed acumen in the fields of hi-tech and water management. Think of the possibilities for affecting healing and reconciliation between Muslims and Jews around the world, if the King of Saudi Arabia, the keeper of Islam’s two holiest shrines, makes peace with the Prime Minister of Israel.
Eight years ago, when I made my first visit to King Hamad at his palace in Manama, such millenarian possibilities seemed far away. Today, portents for mutual recognition of Israel and the GCC states are brighter than ever before; yet we need to keep our eyes on the prize and finish the job. Just weeks short of exactly 100 years since January 3, 1919, when Chaim Weizmann, the prime leader of World Zionism signed an agreement with King Faisal of the short-lived Kingdom of Hejaz (later Iraq) promising Jewish-Arab collaboration in the development of Palestine, this is our greatest opportunity to end the 100-year-old Israeli-Arab conflict and bring the gift of peace to the long-suffering sons and daughters of Isaac and Ishmael. This time let’s make sure we get it right!
Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and co-author with Imam Shamsi Ali of ‘Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims’