Missed Connections — The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Helps Keep Israel Estranged from Potential Sunni Arab Allies

Logan Bayroff
on February 17, 2016

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Two speeches by Israeli leaders over the weekend helped illuminate the strategic benefits of better cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Unfortunately, the government’s refusal to pursue a two-state solution prevents them from fully seizing the opportunity.

Addressing a gathering of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu said:

“Major Arab countries are changing their view of Israel….they don’t see Israel anymore as their enemy, but they see Israel as their ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam with its two fountainheads….Now, this is something that is forging new ties, many of them discreet, some of them open. And I think there too we can expect and should expect and should ask to see a change.”

These comments echo a common refrain from the Prime Minister — that Israel actually has important shared interests with many of the Arab states in the Arabian Gulf and North Africa, and that the countries agree and should cooperate, both militarily and diplomatically, in their opposition to the ambitions of Iran and of ISIS. On these points, he is undoubtedly correct. But in that case, why does Israel not have stronger ties with states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Why do these states refuse recognize Israel diplomatically, and strongly criticize it in international fora?

The answer came over the weekend from a leading Saudi official, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal. Faisal was in attendance at the Munich Security Conference, where he heard a speech by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon echoed the Prime Minister’s comments, touting common interests with the Gulf States — and lamenting that they don’t cooperate with Israel more:

“I speak about the Gulf states and North African states too. Unfortunately they are not here to listen. For them, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are the enemy…. Iran is the bad guy for us and for the Sunni regimes. They are not shaking hands [with Israelis] in public, but we meet in closed rooms.”

Incredibly, Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reports, Faisal raised his hand and responded. According to Ravid, Faisal agreed that Israel and the Sunni Arab states have much in common when it comes to Iran and sunni extremism – but he then stressed Sunni Arab outrage over the occupation and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Why should the Arabs feel friendship to you when you do that [to the Palestinians]?”

Faisal’s comments drive home a fundamental strategic truth for Israel. As long as no progress is made towards a two-state solution, and as long as the Israeli government treats the ongoing occupation of millions of Palestinians as a minor problem that can be minimized or ignored, Israel will remain estranged from almost every potential ally in the region.

Netanyahu added in his comments in Jerusalem that “I think that the encouragement of Arab states, leading Arab states, for a more realistic position on the part of the Palestinian Authority might contribute to a stabilizing situation and even advancing to a better future.”

The Prime Minister is right that the Sunni Arab states could play a major role in helping to encourage the Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution, and in giving them the support necessary to make a future Palestinian state viable. Indeed, their proposal to normalize ties with Israel and help create a viable Palestinian state has been on the table since 2002, under the Arab Peace Initiative.

But what the Sunni Arab states cannot and will not ask the Palestinians to do is to drop their national aspirations for a state of their own, or to accept permanent occupation. Israeli leaders who ignore this fundamental reality will continue to miss out on potential alliances that could greatly enhance Israel’s security and strategic position in the region.

Logan Bayroff is a Senior Communications Associate at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @Bayroff