Since the early days of the Arab-Israeli conflict, relations between Israel and the Arab world have been tightly linked to relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Over the years, a strategic equation emerged between Israel and the Arab world that posits there will be no progress in normalization between the two sides without direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians toward a political settlement. Another element of the formula was the threat that any serious crisis between Israel and the Palestinians would automatically impinge on Israel’s relations with the Arabs and even cause severe deterioration between the two sides.
That old strategic equation began to erode in the late 70s, after Egypt prioritized its own national interests by pursuing a peace agreement with Israel, despite the absence of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. This pattern of Arab behavior has accelerated and expanded in recent years. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s precedent became the formal and informal policy of a large group of Arab leaders.
The roots of this dramatic change can be found in certain strategic developments underway in the Middle East over the past decade: the increasing threat of Iran in the region considered by the Sunni Arab world as the main threat, leading them to go so far as to see Israel as a potential strategic ally; the Islamic challenge from within Arab states that compelled them to focus on their own internal problems and seek Israeli assistance in order to defeat them; the rise of new young Arab leaders who feel less commitment to the Palestinian issue; growing Arab disappointment in the positions and the policy of the Palestinians and their leaders; and President Trump’s Middle East policy, which is based on an effort to strengthen relations between Israel and the Sunni Arab world.
The change in relations between Israel and the Arab world finds its expression in several arenas: formal visits of senior Israeli officials in Arab states (such as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in November 2018), and informal meetings between high ranking officials; growing cooperation between Israel and Arab states (particularly Egypt and the Gulf states); and expanding economic activity between Israeli and Arab business leaders and companies. All these developments are taking place not only in the absence of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but at a time of deep crisis between the two sides and in the shadow of possible escalation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Despite these changes, some obvious caveats must be mentioned. The first consideration is that these changes are limited to the leaders and the political elite in the Arab world, while ordinary citizens and public opinion influencers still demonstrate deep hostility toward Israel and oppose any expression of normalization. Second, the changes depend mainly on current conditions. Any change in them will affect relations between Israel and the Arabs, for example reduction in the threat of Iran or ISIS, internal changes inside Arab states, a possible change of the American Administration and even the rise of a new Palestinian leader after Abu Mazen who will be more compatible with the Arab world and the international community.
Israel therefore still has an opportunity to expand its relations with the Arab world in several areas, particularly the strategic and economic ones. At the same time, it’s evident that it’s not possible to dispense entirely with old equation, and that Israel will be unable to achieve full normalization with the Arabs without any progress in the Palestinian sphere. In order to reap the greatest benefit from the current window of opportunity now open in the Middle East, Israel should consider steps such as these:
Create a framework for direct negotiations with the Palestinians. Even without achieving agreement in the near term, this could assist efforts to stabilize the Palestinian arena and also ease Arab leaders’ attempts to develop relations with Israel;
Expand cooperation with Arab states in order to stabilize the situation in the Gaza Strip;
Avoid any change in the status quo around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that could inflame the atmosphere among Muslims and Arabs;
Develop channels of engagement with the Arab public in order to change their traditional, popular image of Israel.
These steps can help make it possible for Israel to turn the dramatic earthquakes that have shaken the Middle East over the past decade into a shared, golden opportunity for all the peoples in the region.
Yoav (Poly) Mordechai is CEO of the Novard Group and a Lieutenant-General (Ret.). Former Commander of COGAT.
Michael Milshtein is Head of Palestinian Studies Forum in the Moshe Dayan Center for middle Eastern and African Studies. A colonel (ret.)., Milshtein served as a Senior advisor for Palestinian Affairs in COGAT.