Do Israel and the Gulf states share interests that could lead to closer relations?

No longer is it a secret that Israel and several Gulf states see each other in a new light, and are having quiet conversations.

AN AERIAL VIEW of Dubai from Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN AERIAL VIEW of Dubai from Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reelected nearly three months ago, common wisdom has insisted that the peace process is dead. Not many would argue otherwise.
But consider that Netanyahu has begun talking seriously about resurrecting the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for regional rapprochement.
Further, the incoming Foreign Ministry director, Dore Gold, a longtime close adviser to the prime minister, just had discussions with Saudi counterparts out in the open, sharing a public stage in Washington, repeating the view that the Saudi plan, warts and all, has real merit. In addition, consider the fact that it’s not an accident that under Israeli eyes, Qatari cash is finding its way into the Gaza Strip for humanitarian projects.
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Perhaps we are witnessing the change of “facts on the ground” that many say is a prerequisite for taking another stab, from a different angle, at the intractable problem of Palestinian/ Israeli reconciliation.
On the surface, this certainly does not appear to be a propitious time for a new initiative given the woeful situation throughout the neighborhood – countries collapsing, terrorists wreaking havoc, violent Sunni vs. Shi’ite confrontation, US influence at a low ebb and an American public ready to wash its hands of the region.
But stranger things have happened before in the unpredictable Middle East. Sometimes, the barren landscape reveals an oasis of opportunity.
Even as Iran relentlessly pursues its nuclear ambitions, and non-state actors continue their violent and destructive behavior, distinct geo-political realities are softening the ground for a historically disruptive moment in the region. It’s impossible to predict where events will lead, but along with the myriad bad signs it’s worth noting the positive developments as well. The US should be ready to act in support of new, promising ideas.
Iran’s growing influence in the Arabian Peninsula has ratcheted up the stakes and served to concentrate the minds of many Arab leaders in ways that could produce a once-in-a-generation opportunity. In the Gulf and beyond, there is willingness to think anew about old relationships and assumptions.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu observed recently that Israel is not the only country in the region that feels threatened by Iran, he pointed to the security interests his nation shares with Gulf Arabs.
He went further last week by drawing attention to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, saying: “There are positive aspects and negative aspects to it...But the general idea – to try to reach understandings with leading Arab countries – is a good idea.”
No longer is it a secret that Israel and several Gulf states see each other in a new light, and are having quiet conversations. Today, the discussion is widening from one about defending against the common Iranian enemy to finding other areas of mutual regional interest. It doesn’t take a huge imagination to understand the potentially enormous benefits of a political breakthrough between the “Start-Up Nation” and a group of oil-driven economies in search of investment ideas.
Though Gaza poses the greatest challenge, it also receives inordinate attention because its needs are so great. Hamas’ iron fist, and its continuing misappropriation of reconstruction materials to build more tunnels to attack Israel is a problem that hasn’t gone away. Still, the pace of outside efforts to target funds for rebuilding homes, schools and hospitals has been quickening. Though it is underreported in the West, there appears to be an Arab realization that economic development is the essential path forward.
One of the fruits of renewing the 2002 initiative might be a unified coalition of Gulf nations bringing aboard Egypt and Jordan to breathe life into a Gaza aid plan. Though Iran would attempt to block anything that diminished its Palestinian proxy, it’s unlikely Hamas could survive with only Tehran’s backing. Its incompetence and brutality will not be tolerated endlessly.
Average Gaza citizens are tired of hearing more unreliable promises, and will accept progress regardless of the source. Gulf states have an opportunity to finally make Gaza a priority, while Western investors would feel more confident their efforts would not be squandered if they knew they could work with regional partners.
Though few would venture the opinion openly, some experts believe it is not out of the question that within a decade of starting down the reconstruction road, Gaza could begin to look like a 21st century Singapore in the eastern Mediterranean.
For many years, I have traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, and never before have I felt the same mix of trepidation and the possibility for real change. When I recently visited several Gulf capitals, leaders repeatedly expressed their readiness to work toward a new Middle East. This was not typical Arab hospitality to a foreign guest. Rather, these were conversations initiated by leaders unwilling to stay quiet in the face of what they perceive as dangerous threats to their countries. Motivated by the fluid security landscape, moderate Arabs – yes, they exist – genuinely want to discuss a new vision of the future.
Paired with Netanyahu’s stated willingness to look at regional initiatives more seriously, it’s time we all listened.
The author is the president of the American Jewish Congress and the chairman of the American Council for World Jewry.