JERUSALEM—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week urged Arab states that have covert contacts with Israel to come out of the closet and publicly acknowledge their relations with the Jewish state.
Addressing a group of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said that most moderate Arab states now view Israel as an ally, not an enemy, particularly in the struggle against Iran and the Islamic State.
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"Major Arab countries are changing their view of Israel," he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "They don’t see Israel anymore as their enemy, but as an ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam with its two fountainheads", a reference to Iran and ISIS. "There is something that is forging new ties, many of them discreet, some of them open." The time had come, he said, that covert relations become overt. "I think we should expect, and should ask, to see a change."
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, touching on the same theme, said last week in a talk at the Munich Security Conference that the regional upheaval has improved channels of communication between Israel and Sunni nations, although not in public. "I’m speaking about the Gulf states, and North African states too. For them Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are the enemy. Iran is the bad guy for us and for the Sunni regimes. They [Sunni leaders] are not shaking hands [with Israel] in public, but we meet in closed rooms."
His remarks drew a sharp response from a prominent Saudi political figure in the audience, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States and a former Saudi intelligence chief. "Handshakes with the Palestinians have not helped the Palestinians much," he said. He acknowledged the animosity between Sunni states and Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood but, by the same measure Sunni Arab countries are furious with Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, he said. "Why should the Arabs feel friendship to you?"
Yaalon said there was no connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and current problems in the Middle East. "There is a conflict with the Palestinians but what is the linkage of this to Iran, ISIS, the civil war in Syria or the uprising in Tunisia? With the situation in Yemen or Iraq? There is no connection."
The defense minister said that Israel was not ignoring the Palestinian issue. He blamed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the absence of progress on the diplomatic front. The Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he said, and prefer to negotiate about territory since that is an issue on which they would only receive, not make concessions.
When Yaalon stepped down from the podium, he and the Saudi prince shook hands in front of the cameras.
Despite their disagreement, the encounter exemplified a shift in Israel’s standing in the Middle East. In the not distant past, a member of the Saudi royal house would not have engaged in a public dialogue with an Israeli or shake his hand in public. The Palestinian issue is indeed a barrier to normalized relations between Israel and Arab states but over the years a number of Arab countries in different periods have welcomed informal relations with Israel. Demonization of the Jewish state has waned, at least among ruling elites. Israel had official relations with Qatar and Oman for several years until the Palestinian intifada turned public opinion against Israel. A number of Gulf regimes have reportedly encouraged an Israeli diplomatic presence even in the absence of official relations.
The polarization between Sunnis and Shiites in recent years has encouraged Sunni regimes to see in Israel a potential and powerful ally if relations with Iran heat up.
Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, is currently attempting to facilitate a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an attempt to renew peace talks, Israel’s Channel Two reported Monday. The king sent a Moroccan Jewish leader to talk with Netanyahu and Abbas and the initial response from both men was positive, the report said.