Israel’s budding ties with the Arab world need to remain clandestine to respect the Arab public’s “sensitivities,” Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold said Wednesday.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “pretty close to the bottom” of the agendas of both Israelis and the Arab world, Gold said, reiterating that — according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “strategy” — an Israeli rapprochement with Sunni Arab states will take place before a peace agreement with the Palestinians can be reached.
Speaking at the annual Herzliya Conference, the country’s top diplomat said that every Israeli would love to see Israeli reporters “walking in an Arab capital, where Israelis never ventured before.”
“It’s a great picture, it’s a great story,” he added, recalling the excitement of seeing Israeli journalist first report from Cairo and Amman, after Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994 respectively.
“It is very gratifying to get that kind of coverage. But we have to be very careful with our Arab neighbors. They have sensitivities. They have populations which may not always look favorably upon that coverage,” added Gold, who has conducted a number of meetings with officials from Arab states with which Israel has no formal relations.
“And so rather than run to tell your friends where you’ve been and put it in the newspaper, we have to be extremely cautious and build these relationships piece by piece, and not necessarily put it out in public,” he said.
Critics often admonish the government for the frozen peace process, Gold noted, saying that this was not necessarily the case in reality.
“Under the ice there is a lot of hot water moving,” he said. “And we hope that we will be able to use the new relations in the Arab world, combined with our new relations in Asia and Africa, to build a better situation for our relations between us and our Palestinian neighbors.”
This is Netanyahu’s approach, and is one which he tries to implement, Gold said. “That is the strategy. Twenty, thirty years ago everyone said, solve the Palestinian issue and you’ll have peace with the Arab world. An increasingly we are becoming convinced: it’s the exact opposite. It’s a different order we have to create. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Gold said that while he could not promise that this approach would yield immediate results, Israel would make every effort to seize the opportunity.
“I can guarantee when we see a great strategic moment emerging, when the planets are lined up in a way they have never been before since the modern Middle East emerged after World War II, we will exploit every effort, we will turn over every rock, to make sure that we bring a safer Middle East to the State of Israel,” he said.
Gold recounted a recent encounter with a senior diplomat from an unnamed Arab country, in which the two men compared notes. To his surprise, Gold found that they had “identical” worries and concerns. The urgent establishment of a Palestinian state did not feature prominently on the men’s list of talking points, Gold recalled.
“I am not trying to play football with the Palestinian issue but in fact on both papers the Palestinian issue was not the number one issue. It was pretty close to the bottom,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and find ways of getting a breakthrough with our Palestinian neighbors. We work on that. But we have to realize that that isn’t any longer the currency on which you build ties in much of the Sunni Arab world,” Gold added, “although the Palestinian issue is important in public opinion.”