The head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, let slip last month that the Sunni Arab states in the region are “Israel’s allies.” This bit of news came after he also revealed in June that Israel and Saudi Arabia have held secret talks in recent months. While similar nuggets of hope have not been heard on the Arab side, these comments should not be ignored.
Informal ties between Israel and the Gulf kingdoms are not new. Both sides often share intelligence on mutual security interests. But new dynamics in the Middle East suggest the possibility of a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli ties. It could not come too soon.
For now, any peace feelers are based on what Israel and Saudi Arabia jointly oppose, not what they might gain in benefits from friendly relations. And that list only gets longer.
For starters, they do not like the Iran nuclear deal based on their concern that it might embolden Iran and its militant proxies in the Middle East, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to rebels in Yemen. But they also worry about a collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and the rise of Islamic State and other jihadi groups. And preventing Hamas in Gaza from starting another war with Israel is also in their interest.
In addition, negotiations to set up a Palestinian state now appear dormant after a recent American attempt to revive them. And both Israel and Saudi Arabia worry the United States seeks to diminish its presence in the region if the Iran deal succeeds. In the resulting power vacuum, Israel and Saudi Arabia might need each other.
What would it take to start this ball rolling? For one, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be more supportive of the Arab Peace Initiative, a package of proposals offered in 2002 soon after the 9/11 attacks. That plan offered Arab recognition of Israel if it gave up all land taken in the 1967 war and agreed to a “just solution” for Palestinians. Israel was mute about the offer at the time even through Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf had stuck their necks out.
Israel already enjoys good relations with Arab neighbors Egypt and Jordan as well as Morocco. And with development of its offshore natural gas resources, it can become an energy partner in the region.
Even though the Arab Spring of 2011 has largely failed, it may have left behind some appreciation for Israel’s democracy on the Arab street. A recent survey by the Institute for Policy and Strategy found only 18 percent of Saudis see Israel as the greatest threat. More than half saw Iran as the main nemesis followed by Islamic State. The most startling find: 24 percent of Saudis would support an alliance with Israel in a struggle with Iran.
Peace has to start somewhere even if it begins with the old notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Just look at how Mr. Dore’s thinking has changed. Just 12 years ago he wrote a book titled “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism.” Now he refers to that desert kingdom as an ally.