With ‘best allies’ like these, who needs enemies?

While Netanyahu fantasizes about a détente with the Arab world, the US and EU are ready to turn up the heat on his new government

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the PM's office in Jerusalem on May 10, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90, Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the PM's office in Jerusalem on May 10, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90, Pool)

Forget the United States of America. Move over, Canada, Australia and Germany. The days when those countries were considered Israel’s closest friends are over. The Jewish state’s new best buddies are Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

At least that’s the impression one could get if one listened carefully to a recent speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Our best allies actually these days are some of our Arab neighbors, because they know we face a common threat,” Netanyahu said Tuesday at a conference in Jerusalem.

The idea he referred to is not new: Israel and the so-called moderate Sunni Arab states have a common foe in Iran, and the enemy of my worst enemy must be my best friend.

In recent days, Netanyahu has repeatedly talked about this convergence of interests, suggesting that it could lead to a regional peace agreement. The Gulf states’ declared unhappiness with the US administration over its rapprochement with Iran further fuels the prime minister’s declared hopes of enhanced cooperation with the Arab world.

“We’ve made peace with two of our Arab neighbors, but there are new forces in the region,” the prime minister told German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Monday. “They are threatening not only us, but also threatening of course our Arab neighbors with whom we’ve made peace. This creates the opportunity to make other alliances with other Arab states.”

Last Thursday, Netanyahu said the mutual interests of Israel and the Arab states “create opportunities for alliances and perhaps even for the advancement of peace.” Since then, he has repeated this idea perhaps a dozen times — perhaps because he believes statements about peace can soften the expected pressure from the US and the European Union to advance the peace process with the Palestinians.

Furthermore, after the breakdown of the last round of US-sponsored peace negotiations last year, Netanyahu no longer believes that bilateral talks can lead to an agreement. He therefore hopes the potential partnership with the Arab states could translate into a regional agreement, modeled on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

But anyone hoping that Netanyahu’s constant talk of a regional agreement means that true rapprochement between Arabs and Israelis, and a subsequent deal with the Palestinians, is in the offing will likely be disappointed.

For one, a look at the new Israeli government’s guidelines quickly reveals that finding a workable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not among its top priorities.

“The Jewish people have the indisputable right to a sovereign state in the Land of Israel, its national and historic homeland,” the guidelines state, echoing the principles of Netanyahu’s last two governments (in 2009 and 2013). “The government will advance the diplomatic process and strive to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbors, while maintaining Israel’s security, historical and national interests.”

What’s striking about these guidelines, which were presented to the Knesset this week, is the absence of any mention of Palestinian statehood or even the two-state solution.

Netanyahu officially agrees, in principle, to the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. But he believes that in the current circumstances, with radical Islamists spreading havoc in Israel’s immediate vicinity, a two-state solution as imagined by the international community is unfeasible if not impossible.

Both the US administration and the EU have explicitly called on Israel’s new government to commit to the goal of Palestinian statehood and take actual steps toward a renewal of the peace process.

“We look to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to demonstrate — through policies and actions — a genuine commitment to a two-state solution,” US President Barack Obama said in an interview Wednesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Federica Mogherini at the Knesset, Jerusalem, on July 16, 2014. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90
Prime Minister Netanyahu with Federica Mogherini in Jerusalem, on July 16, 2014 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy czar, is planning a trip to the region seeking to encourage both sides to restart peace talks. She spoke last week of the need for Israel’s new government to “allow to re-launch the Palestinian/Israeli peace negotiations as soon as possible, with the aim of achieving a comprehensive agreement towards the creation of an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state.”

Washington and Brussels want to see actions, not just words. They consider Netanyahu’s comments about “regional peace” to be mere lip service, designed to placate the world while Israel continues to expand settlements in the West Bank.

The coalition agreements Netanyahu signed with the hawkish Jewish Home party and his appointment of hardliner Tzipi Hotovely as deputy foreign minister do not raise the international community’s confidence in his commitment to a two-state solution.

MK Tzipi Hotovely in the Knesset, March 2011. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
MK Tzipi Hotovely in the Knesset, March 2011 (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

A member of the national-religious community, Hotovely is a staunch advocate of a one-state solution. She has repeatedly called for the annexation of the entire West Bank (offering Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians living there) and, in 2011, invited the extreme Jewish anti-assimilation group Lehava to the Knesset and showered it with plaudits.

Moreover, Jewish Home was given control over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division and the Civil Administration (via deputy defense minister Eli Ben Dahan), which is responsible for the Israeli army’s “implementation of government policy” in the West Bank.

So what of Netanyahu’s dream of an Arab-Israel détente? Maybe there are things only officials in the government’s top echelons know, but experts doubt that an alliance with the Gulf states is in the cards.

“In the current circumstances, that hope [for increased strategic coordination] ignores the fact that while Iran is feared and loathed in many Sunni Arab countries, Israel, though perhaps less feared, is no less loathed — because of Arab solidarity with the Palestinians,” Mark A. Heller, of the Institute for National Security Studies, wrote in a paper published this week.

The potential for expanded ties definitely exists, Heller allowed, but a regional peace agreement is unlikely unless Israel makes tangible moves on the Palestinian front. And if progress proves difficult due to recalcitrance from Ramallah, the Arab leaders would still demand from Jerusalem the acceptance, at least in principle, of the Arab Peace Initiative, and the restraining of settlement expansions.

So far, there are no indications that Israel’s 34th government is seriously considering these options, Heller assessed. The prime minister and his colleagues may argue that “the Palestinian ‘cost’ is not worth the regional ‘benefit,’” he wrote, “but they should at least refrain from indulging in the fantasy that Israeli involvement in a regional response to Israel’s challenges — the Iranian threat, Islamist radicalism, American fecklessness, or anything else — is a substitute for movement on the Palestinian issue rather than a consequence of it.”

In the absence of significant progress on the peace process, Netanyahu’s new “best allies” in the Arab world will continue to show Israel the cold shoulder. Jerusalem’s friends in the US and Europe will not be so kind either.

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