In Mideast torn by extremists, PM reaches out to relative moderates

For first time, Netanyahu names Saudis and Emiratis as possible partners, as he seeks to turn Arab Peace Initiative upside down

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, USA, on September 29, 2014. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, USA, on September 29, 2014. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s combative address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday could be called Bibi’s “Greatest Hits,” one pundit suggested. Except it had a new tune toward the end.

The speech indeed included many arguments and talking points he has used before: the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, Hamas’s cynical use of human shields in Gaza, hypocrisy at the UN Human Rights Council, and so on. The prime minister even recycled some of the same phrases he has used in recent weeks, repeating his analogy of Hamas and Islamic State being “branches of the same poisonous tree,” and saying the Nazis believed in a master race while militant Islamists worship a “master faith.”

But late in his 35-minute speech, he broke rhetorical ground when he reached out to “leading states in the Arab world,” suggesting that increased cooperation — and eventually full recognition and peace — could ultimately lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I believe that with a fresh approach from our neighbors, we can advance peace despite the difficulties we face,” Netanyahu said. Borrowing from an idea advanced recently by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu turned the Arab Peace Initiative upside down. “But the old template for peace,” he continued, “must be updated. It must take into account new realities and new roles and responsibilities for our Arab neighbors.”

Launched by Saudi Arabia in 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative promises Israel full diplomatic relations with all Arab and Muslim states as soon as its conflict with the Palestinians is solved. On Monday, Netanyahu reversed that idea chronology: “Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab World,” he said. “But these days I think it may work the other way around: Namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has repeatedly hinted at a new “diplomatic horizon” with moderate Arab states. The enemy of my enemy could be my friend, and more and more Sunni Arab states are realizing that in opposing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and radical Islam, they have a potential partner in Israel, he has indicated. The fight against Islamic terrorism has led to “new alliances in the Middle East,” Netanyahu said earlier this month at a counterterrorism conference. Arab leaders understand that “Israel is not their enemy but their ally in the fight against this common enemy,” he declared, adding that he believes in “an opportunity for cooperation and perhaps an opportunity for peace.”

On Monday, Netanyahu for the first time mentioned by name those he has in mind: “We must look not only to Jerusalem and Ramallah, but also to Cairo, to Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere,” he said. “I believe peace can be realized with the active involvement of Arab countries, those that are willing to provide political, material and other indispensable support.”

During this section of his address, Netanyahu sounded a bit like Shimon Peres, dreaming of a “new Middle East.” With Iran lusting for nuclear weapons and Islamic State beheading and pillaging its way through Iraq and Syria, he said, this new Middle East certainly presents new dangers, but also new opportunities: “Together we can strengthen regional security. We can advance projects in water, agriculture, in transportation, in health, in energy, in so many fields.”

The challenge, he acknowledged, would be to “transform these common interests to create a productive partnership.”

Only Netanyahu (and a handful other top officials) know the full extent of current covert Israeli-Arab cooperation. Still, that Jerusalem and several Arab countries with which it does not have official diplomatic relations collaborate in several areas is the Middle East’s worst kept secret. The Sunni Arab world was less vocal in condemning Israel over this summer’s Operation Protective Edge than during past such conflicts, ostensibly because such countries realize that they and Israel have a common enemy in Islamic terrorist groups.

But whether Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and other Gulf states are willing to step out of the shadows and officially embrace Israel before the Palestinian problem is solved remains hard to envisage. Academics and policy analysts specializing on the Gulf States so far see no reason to believe that they will abandon their vow never to normalize relations with Israel as long as their Palestinian brethren’s ambitions for statehood are unrealized.

While they long for the warm embrace of the moderate Arab world, Israeli leaders sometimes forget the harsh reality. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, for instance, earlier this month quoted the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, publicly calling for coexistence with Israel and denouncing “hatred for the Jewish state.” The only problem was that no such statement was ever uttered.

Last week, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly met in New York with senior ministers from several Arab countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. The report was probably true, but at least one Arab state — Kuwait — has already denied that the meeting occurred.

With the spectacular failure this year of the US-brokered bilateral peace talks with the Palestinians, and especially after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s “genocide” speech last week, it is understandable that Netanyahu yearns for a “fresh approach from our neighbors.” On Monday at the UN, he spoke of “the partnership between us” as if it were already a reality. But at this point, it might be little more than wishful thinking.

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