Is Israel’s Regional Opportunity Becoming More Concrete?

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

As President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia drew near, the Wall Street Journal reported a new initiative originating from the Gulf states vis-a-vis Israel: Should Israel take steps to promote peace with the Palestinians, including a settlement freeze, the Gulf states will be willing to take some steps towards normalization of relations between the two sides.

This report appears merely two months after the Arab League reaffirmed the Arab Peace Initiative (API) at its annual summit in Amman. Fifteen years have passed since the Arab League offered Israel to establish normal relations in return for a peace deal between Israel and its neighbors. All these years, Israel has refrained from issuing any formal response. Nevertheless, the Arab League continues to reaffirm the API – despite both regional turmoil and stagnation in the peace process – and to emphasize its relevance.

The API is also a regular component in international statements and initiatives regarding the peace process. The API, however, only relates to the benefits Israel will gain once it signs a final status agreement with the Palestinians. It does not deal with the path to peace. As such, it is similar to other end-game peace incentives offered to Israel – the EU’s offer to grant Israel (and the future state of Palestine) a Special Privileged Partnership status after peace is achieved, and the security plan devised by the Obama administration to ensure Israelis that a two-state solution will enhance – not jeopardize – Israel’s security. These incentives can make peace more attractive to Israelis. Through them, the international community offers Israel additional peace dividends that the Palestinians are unable of delivering on their own.

But an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is still in the distant future, and this lessens the perceived relevance of the API. The end-game incentives should be coupled with process oriented ones, and the Gulf states’ offer – assuming such an offer actually exists – is exactly such an incentive. It reflects a shift from the previous Arab thinking that focused on the final status agreement, to thinking also about the path leading to such an agreement. The offer puts forth benefits that Israel can gain merely from moving towards peace, and not only from reaching peace. It also helps in turning the somewhat-vague concept of normal relations between Israel and the Arab world into something more concrete. In Israel, there is no serious debate about the type of relations Israel eventually wants to have with the Arab world. Normalization has not been defined, and this is also the case within the Arab world.

The Gulf states’ offer reportedly includes practical and specific steps, which could introduce Israelis with concrete and immediate dividends as a result of progress towards peace – among them are new business opportunities and shorter flight durations to east Asia. Such an offer can help address Israeli skepticism regarding the ability of Arab countries – in the post-Arab Spring era – to actually implement what they promised to Israel in the API. The offer also reflects a distinction between Arab countries as it is offered only by the Gulf states, and not by the entire Arab world (like the API). It highlights those Arab countries that have the political capabilities to develop ties with Israel and that actually have something concrete to offer Israel. Such countries can also be found in North Africa (i.e. Morocco and Tunisia), and not only in the Gulf.

So, can such a Gulf states offer be a game-changer?

Cooperation between Israel and some Arab countries is already taking place, although in a limited manner, mostly behind the scenes, and with a focus on joint security interests. This has led Israeli ministers to often brag about these relations and exaggerate their scope. The Israeli public, on the other hand, has very little actual knowledge about what is really going on between Israel and its neighbors.

It is worth remembering that Arab willingness to improve ties with Israel in return for significant progress in the Israeli-Palestinian process – and not in return to the actual end of conflict – is not new. Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, a variety of regional doors were opened up for Israel. At the time, some Arab countries even established formal diplomatic missions in Israel. This did not require a peace agreement. Mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO was enough. The next time Israeli and Palestinian leaders reach a breakthrough in the peace process, Israel can expect Arab countries to upgrade their ties with it, even if such an offer is not publicly made in advance.

A public offer can help in empowering pro-peace actors within Israel, and in creating a more favorable domestic atmosphere for a leader interested in promoting peace. Former Secretary of State, John Kerry, tried to generate such an offer, similar in concept to the one reportedly offered by the Gulf states. During the last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he tried to convince Arab countries to operationalize the API: to spell out a gradual and concrete road-map for its implementation, including normalization steps in return for progress towards peace. However, his efforts did not bear fruit. The Arab League was not willing to go there.

Therefore, the key question regarding the Gulf states offer is whether it will become a formal and public diplomatic plan or remain as an unconfirmed media report. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia indicates that the latter may be the case. The offer, as well as the API, was not mentioned even once in public statements made during the visit.

Over the last three years, Prime Minister Netanyahu repeatedly tries to introduce a different sequence than offered in the API. He claims that significant cooperation with the Arab world can be achieved prior to an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough. Arab leaders, however, reject this notion time and again. Kerry also rejected it in his last policy speech on the issue. They all emphasize that progress with the Palestinians is a prerequisite to any serious upgrade in Israel-Arab ties.

The report about the Gulf states’ offer highlights the linkage that exists between the peace process and regional cooperation. It reflects that at least some Arab countries have the will and interest to develop better ties with Israel and the ability to offer Israel specific and attractive tangibles. The offer clearly indicates that Israel must change its policies towards the Palestinian issue and the peace process in order to make the most of the unique regional opportunity placed before it.

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