Hailing a shift in regional alliances, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said “dramatically warming” ties between Israel and the Arab world could facilitate a lasting peace agreement with Palestinians.
In a Likud faction meeting held at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Netanyahu said the threat posed by Iran and the Islamic State was remolding Middle East politics, and could have a silver lining for the Jewish state.
“Different countries understand that Israel is not the enemy of the Arab world, rather its partner in the common struggle against radical Islamic elements,” Netanyahu said. “I believe this partnership inherently entails an opportunity to bring our Palestinian neighbors towards a more realistic, responsible agreement with us.”
During the party meeting — held at the center to mark the 24th anniversary of former prime minister Menachem Begin’s death — Netanyahu praised the late Israeli leader as a “trailblazer” for signing the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979.
“This was historic peace agreement that has stood the test of time, and has lasted until today. There have been challenging times, but the agreement has held until now,” he said.
Netanyahu went on to say Israel’s strategic alliances with countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa have increased significantly in recent years.
“Almost every day now there is a visit here by a prime minister, president, foreign minister from one of the 161 countries we have diplomatic relations with,” the prime minister said.
Netanyahu’s remarks come a month after Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced there were open channels between Israel and other Arab states, but the “sensitive” political reality prevented him from shaking hands with Arab officials in public. He later publicly shook the hand of Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud.
Turki is the rare Saudi official who has met openly with a number of Israeli officials in the past.
Israel’s covert ties with Sunni Arab states are such that while they cannot display signs of cordiality in public, “we can meet in closed rooms,” said Ya’alon on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February. “But we do have channels to speak with our Sunni Arab neighboring countries. Not just Jordan and Egypt — Gulf states, North African states.”
“For them, Iran is an enemy,” Ya’alon said, adding that Arab countries were “frustrated and furious at the lack of Western support.”
Though Israel has long said there are secret back-channel talks between Jerusalem and Sunni states, which share common concerns over Iranian hegemony in the region, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states maintain they will only normalize ties with the Jewish state once a peace deal is reached with the Palestinians via a two-state solution.
During Monday’s meeting, Netanyahu also spoke of the urgent need to combat terrorism “within our borders, outside our borders and, when necessary, far outside our borders.” He stressed that legislation advanced by Likud MK David Amsalem earlier on Monday that would see harsher punishments for those who help Palestinians illegally enter Israel was an “important step” towards securing Israel’s borders.
Following a spate of bloody attacks carried out by Palestinians last week — two of which were carried out by Palestinians who entered Israel illegally — Netanyahu ordered a series of new security measures. In addition to cracking down on illegal Palestinian workers inside Israel, he ordered repair work to seal gaps in the security barrier near Jerusalem, and the shutting down of Palestinian media channels that broadcast incitement.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.