A plan under discussion among Gulf state leaders would reportedly offer better ties with Israel if the Jewish state were to take substantive action to try to reach peace with the Palestinians.
Among the measures the states want to see are a settlement freeze in “certain areas” of the West Bank and an easing of the security blockade on the Gaza Strip, sources familiar with negotiations about the plan told The Wall Street Journal in a report Monday night. (Israel maintains the blockade to prevent Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules the Strip and seeks to destroy Israel, from importing weaponry.)
In return, Gulf States would lift some trade restrictions, open direct telecommunications links, and allow Israeli aircraft to overfly their countries, the report said.
Other incentives under consideration are the issuing of visas to Israeli sports teams and trade delegations for events in Arab states and opening the region for Israeli trade and business.
According to the report, the idea is “outlined in an unreleased discussion paper shared among several Gulf countries.”
While Arab officials doubt that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is in sight, they are prepared to reward Israel for at least taking steps toward that goal, the report noted.
US President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank in the next 10 days before heading on to Europe. On Monday, Trump met with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan in Washington.
Gulf States are aiming to cooperate with Trump, who has stated his keen interest in reaching a peace agreement, the sources told the Journal. Two countries — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have reportedly already told the US and Israel they are prepared to embrace the plan.
The report said that the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office would not comment on the offer.
The initiative comes against a backdrop of improving relations between Israel and Sunni Gulf states in the past few years, driven by shared concerns about Shiite-ruled Iran and the Islamic State terror group.
The only Arab countries with which Israel Israel currently enjoys diplomatic relations are Egypt and Jordan.
A senior Arab official taking part in the discussions was quoted as saying, “We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity.”
“Much more is going on now than any time in the past,” Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Journal. “It’s almost a revolution in the Middle East.”
Steinitz, who last year made a secret visit to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi to discuss regional issues, said Israeli technology, including for surveillance, is being shared with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Israel has developed cutting-edge technology that allows us to detect terrorist plots in advance,” he said. “This enables us to help moderate Arab governments protect themselves.”
Chagai Tzuriel, director-general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, said that a lot of progress is being made out of the public eye.
“There’s a gap between what’s on the table and what’s under the table,” he said, according to the report. “Everyone understands that when you look at the long run, the deeper relationships are going to be in the civilian area: energy, water, agriculture, medicine, transportation.”
Some Arab leaders are doubtful of Netanyahu’s commitment to the peace process, including in light of his demand, backed up by senior ministers, that the US move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Relocating the embassy, a campaign promise made by Trump, would be seen as a firm US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a position strongly opposed by the Arab world and in particular the Palestinians.
“We don’t mind a good relationship between Israel and the Arab world,” noted Husam Zomlot, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s representative in Washington. “[But] is this the entry to peace? Or is it the blocker?”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that the administration was weighing up the pros and cons of moving the embassy with regards to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Netanyahu responded by declaring that a relocation would have the benefit of “shattering” Palestinian fantasies that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.