When he was prime minister, David Cameron told the Israeli parliament to imagine Israel living alongside a Palestinian state. “Think of the capitals in the Arab World where Israelis could travel, do business and build a future,” he said. Imagine “no more excuses for the 32 countries which refuse to recognise Israel; and for the Arab League, how many of those states yearn today for a different relationship with Israel, which the peace agreement would enable”.
That was in 2014, a time when senior Israeli officials whispered of a “silent alliance” between Israel and Sunni Arab states over coffee in London hotel lobbies. Two years later, that “silent alliance” seems deafening. In January, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni said of Arab states: “We have the same understanding.” In April, the Israel Defence Force’s deputy chief of staff told of “unprecedented” intelligence-sharing.
In May, foreign policy chief Dore Gold spoke of “strategic convergence” after his meeting with a Bahraini counterpart at which, halfway through, both men realised they had the same points listed, all in the same order.
Words follow actions, and 2016 has already been a very good year for Israeli diplomacy.
In the past three months alone, relations with three of Israel’s nearest neighbours have improved considerably.
In May, an architect of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty was appointed the new Jordanian prime minister, in an official role as “head of normalisation with Israel,” after religious Jews’ forays to Al-Aqsa Mosque led to bilateral tensions.
In June, Israel’s long-awaited rapprochement with Turkey was finally agreed, ending a six-year hiatus and re-establishing critical security links between the two former allies.
And in July, Egypt’s foreign minister turned up in Jerusalem, the most senior Egyptian to visit in nine years. He followed a new Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv, installed in February, four years after Cairo’s envoy was withdrawn in 2012, in protest over Israeli action in Gaza.
Yet perhaps the most interesting development was a little-noticed visit by a former Saudi general last month. Only after he left was General Anwar Majed Eshki’s trip publicised. When it was, it was condemned by Iran and Hezbollah for “bypassing” the Palestinians, but Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Israeli minister who met him, said the general’s main aim was in fact to discuss ways to get the peace process back on track.
His idea was to involve Muslim religious leaders. To Melchior’s great surprise, Eshki – who is also an imam – thought other imams were now ready to put their theological anti-Israel dogma to one side in order to back a two-state push.
“Many exciting things [are] happening these days under the radar,” said Melchior in a private briefing afterwards. “It can restore the belief that peace is really an option, is really possible for the two peoples hurting and bleeding here.”
Could this really be the start of something?
Israel would dearly love better relations with the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The closest it has come was in the 1990s, when Israel opened trade missions in the Gulf because there was a viable peace process, but the Second Intifada (2000-05) put an end to that brief détente.
Times change. Gold, a close advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the dual threat of Islamic State and Iran had “created
a lot of mutual interests between Israel and the Arab states”.
Sunni monarchies fear their Shia rival Iran, so they have found common ground with Israel in recent years.
It is not incidental that, with a diminishing nuclear threat (inspectors say Tehran has upheld its part of the bargain), Israel has shifted its rhetoric towards Iranian trouble-making in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. As long as Israel keeps banging the Iranian drum, it seems, it is on the same page as the Sunni Arab states. And because the Arab world’s enemy’s enemy is still its enemy, they’re still friends.
Officially, they are no such thing. Israel is still technically at odds with the Muslim world, since it is not recognised by 18 of the 21 Arab League members, nor by a further 10 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. All this could change, of course, if a peace agreement with the Palestinians were reached.
“Recognition is the biggest carrot Israel could be offered,” says Professor Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House, referring to the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative put forward in 2002 and still on the table, which offers Arab recognition of Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 lines.
“To be recognised is the only way to remove the long-term strategic threat from the Arab bloc, and it also creates many opportunities, but there is a price to pay. The Netanyahu government thinks it can get without giving. Maybe they’ll get trade missions or something, but the Saudis certainly won’t recognise Israel until there is a Palestinian state.”
That’s the traditional view, says BICOM’s Israel-based analyst Richard Pater, but Israel knows that Arab capitals no longer prioritise a peace deal as they once did, and that Arab funding to Gaza and the West Bank has halved in recent years.
“Due to the changing nature of the region, through the new alliances and reliances, Israel’s hand has been further strengthened and the Palestinian issue has mutually been pushed down the order of priorities,” he says.
“But it can’t be ignored. The latest thinking is moving away from a dynamic where Israel only gets rewards after it has signed a final deal with the Palestinians.”
He suggests there could be “gradual steps to normalisation or even a parallel track, which can further entice a sceptical Israeli public to support concessions”. We live in hope.
Meanwhile, the conversations carry on, with diplomatic front doors closed, back doors open, and a reciprocal Israeli visit to Saudi Arabia, Melchior says, likely “much sooner than you think”.