Israel, Iran: Now is the time to test if détente can be reached

Gabriel Mitchell February 2021

The last few months have witnessed a dramatic shift in the geopolitical balance of the Middle East. Normalization between Israel and multiple Arab states has altered the heart of the historic regional power competition. Much of this change is being driven by is a desire by the relevant countries to unite against Iran. More specifically, the new détente is aimed at presenting a united front to the Biden administration, which is currently formulating its policy for how best to contain the Islamic Republic’s disruptive regional activities and most of all its nuclear ambitions.

The normalization processes are deeply significant to the balance between Israel and Iran. It may take a generation for anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric in the Arab and Islamic worlds to disappear, however the myth of the monolithic Arab/Islamic voice has been forever shattered. While future disputes on regional issues – including engagement with the Palestinians – might arise, the Abraham Accords acknowledge that Israel is here to stay.
And as counterintuitive – or even heretical – as it might sound, this is the very moment when Israel and Iran could arrive at a cessation of hostilities. Why?
For one thing, the Iranian government’s opposition to Israel’s existence has never been more challenged by the Iranian public than it is today. In Iran, the ruling Islamist regime opposes recognizing Israel, while the Iranian public has no deep history of antisemitism (certainly no deeper than what is present elsewhere in Europe or the Middle East). In fact, Jews resided in Iran for some 2,700 years and were always considered an integral component of that country’s social mosaic.
Iranian officials maintain that their grievances are against Israel and Zionism, and that they harbor no malice toward Jews in Iran or elsewhere. That argument, of course, is a smokescreen. Antisemitism was a core ideological pillar of both Iranian clerics and the hard Left in the 1970s, and the regime’s consistent Holocaust-denial reveals its true intentions. In recent years, there have also been reported efforts to deface Jewish holy sites, including the burial place of the biblical Esther and Mordechai.
Iran’s hostility toward Israel in 1979 can be explained within a specific historical context, but its continued commitment to an anti-Israel agenda is both costly and unconvincing. Since the revolution, nearly half of the 22 Arab states have either formally or informally recognized Israel. This includes some of the region’s most influential actors, such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Even Israel’s “sworn enemies” legitimize negotiating with the Jewish state: In 2008, Syria held negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights, and over the past few years the Lebanese government – effectively with Hezbollah’s blessing – engaged in on-again, off-again negotiations with Israel over their disputed maritime boundary.
ISRAEL’S ACCEPTANCE in the region has taken decades. But as the Abraham Accords demonstrated, the trend of dialogue and negotiation with Israel is likely here to stay.
Iran is essentially alone in its rejection of Israel. Every other meaningful international actor, including longtime Iran supporters Russia and China, both recognize and engage in commercial and political dialogue with Israel. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might support Hamas and downgrade diplomatic ties with Israel, but despite a great show of turbulence in Israel-Turkey relations over the last decade, even he is unwilling to sever the final cords. So long as Iran pursues this course of action, the international community will always see it as the aggressor.
Iranians understand the link between their government’s foreign policy choices and its impact on their daily lives. Anti-regime protesters who challenge their government’s foreign exploits in Syria and question the financial support of Hezbollah and Hamas are making this abundantly clear. So long as Iran maintains its current positions – including its position toward Israel – the country will remain isolated internationally and limited commercially. In turn, the Iranian people are made to suffer as their economy suffers and opportunities shrink.
As the scale and frequency of these protests continue to grow, it is increasingly difficult for the regime to stay its course. Many officials in Tehran, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, readily admit that the country’s foreign policy is detested by its people. No one should anticipate a sudden U-turn – the Islamic Republic’s inner circle is too intransigent to allow this to happen (and certainly not while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is alive) – but it is important to acknowledge and take advantage of the current public frustration.
The majority of Israelis might see the Iranian regime as a regional threat, but they harbor no ill-will toward the Iranian people. As demonstrated by the popularity of the Israeli TV series Tehran, there is an appetite for understanding more about the intricacies of Iranian society and culture. Despite the show’s violent backdrop, there was a deliberate effort to humanize Iranian characters and expose an Israeli audience to a place that just a few decades ago was welcoming to them. In addition, the 2012 social media campaign and anti-war message of “Israel Loves Iran” and “Iran Loves Israel” garnered the support of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and demonstrated how they rejected their government’s worldview.
Normalization taught us that what was previously impossible is indeed achievable given the right combination of factors. And now, during this transitional period in which Israeli and Arab interests are aligned and the US seeks a lasting solution to the region’s myriad conflicts, it is time to test whether the final river can be crossed, whether a détente can be reached between Israel and Iran.
THIS MEANS that Israel should expand its public diplomacy campaign targeting the Iranian public. In recent years, Israel has ramped up its messaging to the Iranian people. This strategy has made an impact. Gone are the days when officials in Tehran could simply brush off the “Zionist entity” without calling the country by its name. The Iranian public no longer buys into the narrative of Israel propagated by the Ayatollah Khamenei and his cohorts. For years, Iranian tourists intermingled with Israelis in Istanbul, Baku and Tbilisi; now they will see each other in Dubai and Manama.
The Israeli government should also work constructively with the Biden administration in order to develop a joint strategy that addresses Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions. There are reports that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen has met with the administration’s officials to present the Israeli position. At the same time, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s address on January 27 implied that Israel is prepared to go it alone, without US support. Developing a strong working relationship with the new administration will be crucial if Israel hopes to reach a comprehensive solution to these issues.
But Israelis shouldn’t leave everything in the hands of their government. Rather, they should take advantage of the openings presented by the current moment and reach out in their own, personal way and demonstrate to the Iranians that there is a partner waiting for them on the other side. Such small gestures might seem meaningless, but given this unique moment, they can also be deeply impactful and turn back the tide of hate and misunderstanding in the region.
It would be foolhardy to suggest that this time next year Israeli and Iranian officials will be meeting on the White House lawn in order to sign a peace accord. Israel and Iran share significant grievances with one another that would likely require years to untangle and resolve. As demonstrated by the events of the past few months, normalization requires the right combination of interests, efforts and timing. But both normalization and the arrival of the Biden administration have presented a window of opportunity to change the existing discourse, and that opportunity must be seized with both hands by those parties in Jerusalem and Tehran who seek a better, safer future for their people and the region. Why not seize it now?

**The article was published on Jpost, 4 February 2021

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