As one of the most conflict-ridden regions in the world, the Middle East sorely stands out in its lack of any region-wide framework for conducting security dialogue among states in the region. As such, an important route for clarifying states’ threat perceptions and security concerns in a regional format, and building confidence that could possibly engender greater regional cooperation, is missing. The only attempt to set up such a framework was during the Madrid peace process of the early 1990s, in the context of the multilateral working group that dealt with Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS).
Since those talks ended in late 1995, there have been efforts to restart the ACRS talks, to discuss a weapons of mass destruction-free-zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East, as well as to encourage discussion of arms control and regional security in unofficial Track II settings, which since 2010 have been heavily weighted toward the WMDFZ idea. But a major constraint to these efforts over the past 20 years has been the lack of a clear mutual interest among the regional states – coupled with lack of interest on the part of the United States – to conduct this kind of dialogue. Certainly there has been no common interest that was strong enough to overcome the well-known hurdles: the stubborn resistance of many Arab states to sit in common frameworks with Israel; the insistence of Egypt, in particular, to focus on Israel and the nuclear realm, and the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Back in the 1990s, what got the regional players to the table was strong US determination, reinforced through a mix of pressure and inducements offered to the regional states in order to secure their participation.
But things could now be changing – even dramatically. In recent years the Gulf region has become the most promising arena for the cultivation of an interest on the part of pragmatic Arab states – Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular – to cooperate with Israel. The main driving force for this changed attitude is the common fear of a strengthened and emboldened Iran. During the Obama years, the sense of abandonment on the part of the US administration, in favor of Iran, further pushed these states toward Israel, and it has resulted in more discussions and cooperation with Israel, and in some instances, in a more open way.
This is an offer and an opportunity that Israel must seize.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that there is a concrete proposal on the table for the Gulf states to move from mainly secret intelligence sharing with Israel to overt steps that would include setting up direct telecommunications links, overflight rights, and the lifting of some restrictions on trade. Further steps, if Israel reciprocates, could include visas for Israeli sports teams and trade delegations. Indeed, the Gulf states are signaling their willingness to begin normalizing relations with Israel, and what they are asking in return is much less than required by the Arab peace initiative: some good faith measures from Israel like ending settlement construction in certain areas of the West Bank, and freer trade into Gaza.
This is an offer and an opportunity that Israel must seize. It has all the elements of a very realistic proposal, including the fact that it seems to have the backing of the Trump administration. The mutual interest to confront the threat from Iran, and the willingness to normalize relations with Israel, are signs that the Gulf states will no longer hold dialogue – and even open cooperation – hostage to Israel securing a peace agreement with the Palestinians. They realize that this is not going to happen in the near future, and can no longer justify blocking every route to mutually beneficial cooperation with Israel for the sake of this elusive goal.
This is good news for the prospect of launching regional security dialogue as well, and means that a true basis for again attempting to restart regional dialogue is emerging – certainly at the Track II level. Israel cannot afford to be the constraint to progress in this regard, or to hold out for a better offer. The government must respond favorably to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states on this proposal, and overcome political constraints for the sake of concrete progress. It’s time for a proactive approach – there can be no excuse for squandering this opportunity to dramatically alter regional realities in the Middle East.
Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is author of ‘Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation’
Shimon Stein serve as Israel’s ambassador to Germany (2001-7), and, in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, as deputy director general for the CIS. He was a member of Israel’s delegation to multilateral negotiations on arms control.