It’s time for the Sunni world to come to terms with Israel

If the Arab world could come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state with a Muslim minority in its midst, then it might offer enough cover for the Palestinian Arabs to move forward.

Dome of the rock and Israeli flag (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Dome of the rock and Israeli flag
I recently had the privilege of being the keynote speaker for the Defense Industry Offset Association, an organization of American defense contractors doing business in the Middle East. The members were well informed and receptive to a presentation of a multifaceted Middle East that does not fit into a 140-character tweet.
I discussed “Understanding the Complexities of the Middle East: America’s Challenge for the 21st Century.”
I shared my view that American foreign policy experts still seem to be out of step with the reality of a Middle East where American compromise and outreach are perceived as weakness, and are unilateral. One need look no further for evidence of our diplomatic naiveté than Iran’s masterful manipulation of the American negotiators.
My talk was a journey into the ever-changing Middle East, where today’s accurate analysis may become obsolete before the sun sets.
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I spoke about:
1. The war between the Sunnis and Shi’ites, led respectively by the Saudis and Iran.
2. The security implications for America and her allies if a final deal with Iran leaves it as a nuclear threshold state.
3. The root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
4. The war for Sunni supremacy between Turkey and Qatar on one side, and the more American-oriented Saudis, Egyptians and Gulf States on the other.
I tried to disabuse them of the simplistic analysis of many “mainstream experts” who think Israel is the primary obstacle, and that Israeli acquiescence is all that is needed for regional stability.
Middle East pundit Fareed Zakaria of CNN is a case in point: “First, there is the disappearance of the Arab threat [to Israel]... it’s gone....Of course, there is Iran’s nuclear program, though it has significantly slowed for now... [Israel] has built a wall that reduced terrorist attacks against Israel to virtually zero... [And] with so many stars aligned in Israel’s favor... it is a golden opportunity...staring Netanyahu in the face.”
Where shall I begin? It is certainly true that some Sunni Arab nations are more preoccupied with killing Shi’ites rather than Jews for the time being. But the “golden opportunity” is a two-way street; the Sunni nations must come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state living securely within the greater Arab and Muslim world.
Israel has been willing to meet with the greater Arab world to negotiate a regional agreement, although not the “take it or leave it” Arab Peace Initiative that would leave Israel with indefensible borders, and would leave unresolved the Palestinian right of return. After years of anti-Jewish incitement, the conservative Gulf States are afraid that a public initiative for normalization of relations with Israel could threaten the stability of their regimes.
Last week, Israel Radio reported that Israeli and Gulf State diplomats met in Jordan to discuss common security interests. This is a golden opportunity for US President Barack Obama to facilitate reconciliation between Israel and the Sunni Arabs, and to encourage them to emerge from the shadows and publicly meet with Israeli officials.
Zakaria ignores the fact that up until now the only thing that has united the Shi’ites and Sunnis is their hatred of Israel. Sunni governments need to distance themselves from Sunni non-state radical actors, and reconcile with Israel for their own long-term economic prosperity.
In Iran, while the ayatollah pragmatically has decided to pause some of the nuclear activity, this cannot blind Zakaria to the fact that Iran has hoodwinked the Obama administration into accepting its right for nuclear enrichment, accepting the buried nuclear enrichment facility of Fordow, and convincing the American negotiators to ignore the continued transgressions of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action.
When the president signs a final agreement with Iran this summer, Israel and the Gulf States will have to deal with a “nuclear threshold” Iran that may or may not be rational. Its supreme leader wants to “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground” and “annihilate” Israel. He also wants Mecca and Medina in Shi’ite hands. (Even President Obama last week told The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg that the supreme leader is an anti-Semite.) Zakaria also incorrectly believes that Israel’s security fence, which he inaccurately describes as a wall, is the primary reason why Israel has sustained so few terrorist attacks from the West Bank.
In fact, it is Israel’s physical presence within the West Bank and the human intelligence it gathers because it controls the disputed territory that, according to many Israeli military officials with whom I have spoken, explains the decline in terrorist activity.
Zakaria seems oblivious to the fact that Israel has tried multiple times to return the vast majority of the territory to the Palestinian Arabs at great risk to its own security.
But Zakaria is as silent as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was to an Israeli offer in 2008, or to an American initiative in 2013 to restart talks.
Ironically, the last two people who want Israel to withdraw from the territories are President Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan. Both know that without Israel in the West Bank, Hamas will take over the West Bank, and Jordan will likely fall to a terrorist entity. That does not mean Israel cannot withdraw from some territory, but it does mean that any immediate withdrawal will depend on a strong Israeli presence – not only for the Israel’s sake, but also for the survival of the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.
There truly is a window of opportunity, but it is not up to Israel alone. Somehow, Zakaria and his ideological fellow travelers must abandon their belief that the tiny state of Israel is all-powerful against 400 million Muslim Arabs, whose landmass and population dwarf the minuscule Jewish state. If, however, the Sunni Arabs conclude that acceptance of a Jewish state in their midst will not crumble the edifice of the 1,400-year history of the Islamic religion, they will receive overwhelming reciprocity from Israel, while immediately advancing their economic vitality by integrating with the advanced Israeli economy.
If the Arab world could come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state with a Muslim minority in its midst, then it might offer enough cover for the Palestinian Arabs to move forward, ending incitement, and actually responding to realistic conflict resolutions.
How’s this for the headline of Zakaria’s next article: “Will the Arab World Miss its Golden Opportunity To Make Peace with Israel?”
The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders. He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.