Israel’s shifting priorities towards the Arab world

Friday 01/04/2016

Arabs paid little attention to com­ments Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made to CNN in January but they could prove important.

“We used to think that if we solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict it would solve the larger Israeli-Arab conflict,” Netanyahu said. “The more I look at it, the more I think it may be the other way around — that by nurturing these relationships that are taking place now with the Arab world, that could actually help us resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we’re actually working towards that end.”

Indeed, despite the Palestinian- Israeli peace process being in a stalemate and conditions in the Palestinian territories deteriorat­ing, Israeli and world media are almost daily reporting direct contacts or meetings between Israelis and Arab personalities or organisations. Israel can commu­nicate today with “almost every Arab state”, as long as it then does not make it to the front page of the daily newspapers, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold said in January

What is important in this com­munication, Gold said while ad­dressing the Institute of Security Studies’ (INSS) annual conference in Tel Aviv, “is the feeling that per­haps — with a lot of work — we can create a consensus on the compo­nents needed for regional stability and a regional order”.

His comments reflect Netan­yahu’s main government policy line that sees common interests between Israel and what it calls the “moderate Sunni” axis, which includes — according to Israel’s definition — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

So far, Arab states with no dip­lomatic ties with Israel have not demonstrated any change in their public positions regarding the Jew­ish state.

But did the ongoing big changes in the region — especially after the “Arab spring”, the disintegration of some Arab states, Iran’s and other foreign powers’ expanding influence in Middle Eastern affairs and the growing danger of the extremist Sunni and Shia Islamist groups — push some Arab states to change their policies and look for “forbidden alliances” to protect themselves? Has normalisation between Israel and some Arab states become possible, even before a settlement to the Palestinian- Israeli conflict?

Arab officials remain silent about this sensitive issue, while political parties and popular movements continue to consider any sort of normalisation with Israel as “trea­son”. On the other hand, Israeli and Western media highlight any Arab-Israeli contact and argue in favour of Israel’s rapprochement with “moderate” Arab states.

In that context, former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni was the most enthusiastic, hailing the Arab League’s decision to blacklist Hezbollah as a “terror group” and calling for an alliance between the Jewish state and moderate Arab states. Livni, as reported by Israel’s Maariv daily in March, also urged distinctions not be made between Shia and Sunni terrorism, referring to Hezbollah and the Islamic State (ISIS).

During the same month, Haaretz commentator Amos Harel wrote about how Middle East chaos has sharpened the divide between rival regional alliances, even if some of those alliances remain under the table. “Israel, Egypt, Jordan and, to some extent, the Palestinian Authority have a common interest in countering not only the Islamic State but also Hamas,” he said. “Indeed, Egypt is even more hostile to Hamas’s leadership in Gaza than Israel is.”

Although Egypt is busy with its own security and economic problems, its ties with Israel made headlines in recent weeks, when Parliament member Tawfik Okasha, who is also a TV presenter, was hit by a shoe thrown by a colleague days after he hosted Israeli Ambas­sador Haim Koren for dinner.

Although Israel says its security cooperation with Egypt against Is­lamist militants in Sinai and Egypt’s imports of Israeli gas, though too little and fumbling, show warmer ties between the two states, Egyp­tian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is aware that the Palestinian cause is still on the minds of his people.

Sisi, who previously revealed exchanging phone calls with Netan­yahu, hinted that Egyptian-Israeli ties would improve if Israel took a political step forward concerning the Palestinians — and here he was not referring to a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli problem.

According to the Israelis, Sisi is aware that Egypt and Israel have many dangers in common, includ­ing Iran’s influence in the region, ISIS and Hamas. He also needs Is­rael’s help to convince US President Barack Obama’s administration that Egypt is on its side in the war against terrorism and to encourage it to be more generous in providing military aid to Cairo.

Sisi, worried by the recent rap­prochement between Israel and Turkey, does not want Ankara to have a bigger say in Palestinian affairs.

Seeing the Saudis suffering attrition in the Yemen war, Israel of­fered to share its “combat exper­tise” and train Saudi commanders on tactics to fend off cross-border attacks, detect potential ambushes and lower threats of anti-tank rock­ets. Israel says that such military cooperation could lay the founda­tion for working together in other fields such as foiling Iran’s illicit arms shipments across the Red Sea and coordinating intelligence efforts against Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force. Strategically, Israel would certainly be happy to know about Saudi plans concerning Syria.

Probably what Amir Bohbot, a security analyst with Israel’s news portal Walla, wrote recently about the growing frustration of the Arab Sunni states with the United States for treating Iran as a key regional player, summarises it all: “As Irani­an-Saudi ties get more tense, Israel gets closer to Saudi Arabia. After all sanctions under the nuclear deal are lifted, this rapprochement may develop into true partnership.”