October 1, 2014
It used to be true of relationships between countries in the Middle East, as Harry Truman once said of politics in Washington, D.C., that if you need a friend get a dog. However, no one can be unaware of the bewildering changes in those relationships that have occurred in the last few years. With the advent of Islamic Sunni militant terrorism, the civil war in Syria, Shia Iran’s rush to achieve nuclear facilities, and the collapse of dysfunctional countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon as states, the tidal wave of change has become a tsunami.
The result is the emergence of new friendly relationships, some existing and forthcoming, including those between Israel and Arab states. Most rulers in the Middle East recognize that the main dangers to their existence are the extreme Islamist terrorist groups and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The emergence of the Islamic State, formerly ISIS or ISIL, and the Caliphate it has created in parts of Iraq and Syria, and its ambitions to spread its ideology of terror, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and the relentless assaults of Hamas on Israel, have led to unexpected and dramatic suggestions of new patterns of relationships.
“Moderate Arab states” may unfortunately be an oxymoron, but the intolerance and lack of human rights in them is qualitatively different from the brutality and violence, the cruel beheading of innocent foreigners, and mass murders typical of the Islamist extremists. Those states are also disapproving of extremist violence. The King of Saudi Arabia in September 2014 made this clear in speaking of the Islamic State as “these terrorists do not know the name of humanity and you have witnessed them severing the heads and giving them to children to walk with in the street.”
Facing the challenge of the extreme Islamists are the Sunni states — Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States — who are aware of the danger of Iran, the groups associated with or stemming from al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hizb’allah. The Sunni states, whatever their lack of human rights, do not have the objective to impose a Caliphate that has the ambition to expand the influence of Islam or impose sharia law on all.
Antagonism towards the State of Israel and any desire to help the Palestinian cause is now of relatively minor significance. Arab states, at varying stages of development and modernity, have appreciated that the Palestinian issue, once supposedly a sacred cause to which they paid lip service, is no longer, if it ever was, central or even important, to their concerns and national interests.
The moderate Arab states cannot approve the intolerance shown by Palestinian groups and their supporters who engage in preventing or disturbing cultural activities by Israelis, shown most recently on September 25, 2014 when they waved Palestinian and Islamic State (ISIS) flags in disrupting a performance by the Israeli actress, Lea Koening, the First Lady of Israeli Theater. Nor can they be happy about the celebration by Fatah of female suicide bombers against Israelis. The Facebook page of Fatah on September 27, 2014 features the eleventh female “martyr,” the 18-year-old Zainab Abu Salem from Nablus who had killed two security policemen and injured 30 civilians.
All this suggests a recasting of relationships, a kind of friendly association, if not alliance between the Arab states and Israel. This appears to have happened on September 29, in New York City at a small private dinner, when Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni met with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the UAE, and Kuwait, and Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud.
The key to a peaceful Middle East to some extent is Egypt but even more it is Saudi Arabia, a state whose family al-Saud has since 1744 been, and still remains as the ruling family, in a symbiotic relationship with the religious leaders of the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam. As a result, the Saudis have funded and given ideological support to Sunni Islamist terrorist groups. In September 2007 Stuart Levey, then- U.S. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence remarked, “If I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia.” No one is likely to forget that 15 of the 19 who hijacked the planes and committed the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001 were Saudi nationals.
But Saudi Arabia is also a state that is aware of its real enemies. The constant foes are the Shiite threat of Iran and the immediate one of the Muslim Brotherhood that it has funded in the past but against which it has been struggling for some time. Saudi Arabia has strongly supported the accession to power as president in Egypt of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Saudis, threatened by the Shia axis of Iran, perhaps Iraq, Syrian Alawites, Hizb’allah, and Shia tribes in Yemen, have recognized the value for themselves of a more friendly association with Israel. They are aware of a country that has successfully fought the Islamic extremists of Hamas, that has common foes in the Islamic state of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood and its associates, that has helped the kingdom of Jordan to survive, and that has technological knowledge and capacities that could be useful.
Believing that peace is in their own best interests, the Saudis have in 2002 and in 2007, on behalf of the Arab League, proposed a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The proposal accepts the existence of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 armistice lines, the solution of the refugee issue, and East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Whatever one thinks of the details of the proposal it is evident that for the Saudis, the existence of Israel is of much less importance than the threat of the Shiite world.
At the UN on September 29, 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate a peace arrangement between Israel and Palestinians. One might now expect an active involvement of Arab countries to this end. It was a hopeful sign that Prince Turki met in Brussels on May 26, 2014 with Amos Yadlin, former Israeli director of military intelligence. The objective is to normalize relations between Israel and all the Arab states and the members of the Organization of Islamic Conference. To this end the prince should fly to Tel Aviv airport and then go, as Anwar Sadat did, to Jerusalem to speak to the Knesset. The result would be friendship, if not alliance, between two states facing a common enemy.