Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Arab world today is how relatively uncontroversial Israel has become. This is a dramatic shift from decades during which hostility to Israel served as perhaps the most important unifier of often fractious Arab governments, write Shai Feldman and Tamara Cofman Wittes. This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Arab world today is how relatively uncontroversial Israel has become. During 11 days of travel through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, we heard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mentioned only once. This is a dramatic shift from decades during which hostility to Israel served as perhaps the most important unifier of often fractious Arab governments.
But if the change is real, it’s also very easily misunderstood. At a conference held at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies last year, an Arab colleague was asked, “When will Arab states finally accept Israel?” His concise, and accurate, response: “When they realize that they are better off with Israel there than had Israel not been there.”
Israeli government officials and many analysts have been eager to suggest that “better off” pertains primarily to security. Shared threats from Iran and Islamist extremism, they claim, are serving as pillars of a new security agenda that unifies Israel and key Arab states. Israel, through this lens, is part of Arab governments’ solution to pushing back their adversaries and re-establishing a more comfortable regional order.
In reality, however, Arab states have far more expansive reasons for concluding they are better off with Israel in the region.
In particular, two developments over the past decade have been key. First, a regional energy revolution transformed Israel not only into an energy independent state but into an energy exporter. The recent 10-year, $15 billion agreement signed between Israeli and Egyptian companies for the sale of natural gas is a game-changer in Arab-Israeli politics. This agreement will allow Egypt to profit from liquefying and re-exporting the purchased gas to Europe and Africa, boosting its prospects as a regional energy hub and creating economic interdependence between two former enemies.
No less significant are new opportunities for economic interdependence between Israel and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council rooted in Israel’s technological prowess and innovation economy. Gulf states reportedly already enjoy support from Israel in defending against terrorist threats through advanced surveillance technology and intelligence sharing. Just imagine the potential for civilian tech cooperation as Gulf states move to diversify their economies away from their complete dependence on oil and gas revenues to more service-based, technology-based, and knowledge-based economies.
The growing advantages to Arab states of cooperation with Israel are further boosted by a parallel decline in Arab governments’ interest in the Palestinian issue. While these governments remain formally commitment to the Palestinian cause, they also show growing signs of fatigue regarding all matters Palestinian. At least in part, this results from the fact that more than seven decades of Arab support of the Palestinians has yielded very few gains. But weighing even more heavily, perhaps, is Arab governments’ impatience with ineffective and divided Palestinian leadership and continued efforts by various governments, including Arabs and Iran, to use conflictual Palestinian factions as tools in their wider struggle for regional dominance. Layer on top the looming struggle over who might replace the aging Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and many Arab governments are far more concerned about their narrow interests in who wins these battles than they are in advancing Palestinian claims against Israel.
The cumulative effect of these factors is a dramatic change in the attitude of many Sunni Arab governments: from almost uniform hostility to Israel to increasingly viewing themselves as better off with Israel’s presence in the region. Some Israelis, including in the current government, believe this gives the country a freer hand in managing its conflict with the Palestinians, including even unilateral steps to resolve issues in Israel’s favor.
Yet whatever the opportunities, this new environment also presents Israel with formidable constraints, challenges, and dilemmas. The first limitation is that although Arab regimes have become more focused on their internal challenges and more cynical about the Palestinian leadership, this is far less the case with Arab publics. These publics continue to care about the Palestinians, of whose plight they are reminded by the regional media on a weekly if not daily basis. And while Arab regimes still severely constrain free expression and control dissent, the Spring in 2011 taught all of them the risks of ignoring public opinion.
The best example of this within the GCC is Kuwait, where many Palestinians lived in earlier decades and which still hosts the Arab League commission charged with implementing the Arab economic boycott of Israel. Kuwait’s Palestinian residents were expelled en masse after PLO leader Yasser Arafat supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the country, but their cause still has a deep hold on the Kuwaiti public (and formal Kuwait-PLO relations were repaired in 2004). Kuwait’s parliament is a vehicle for these sentiments, as are the country’s Islamist movements and political figures. Given this context, it is not surprising that Kuwaiti policy continues to be loyal to the Palestinian cause in many ways, such as denying entry to visitors whose passports tie them to Israel and announcing intentions to open an embassy in the Palestinian territories this year.
This remains the case with Saudi Arabia as well, despite signs in recent years that the kingdom’s leaders appreciate Israel’s role in helping balance Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Public opinion and religious resonance are key reasons why Saudi policy continues to condition any significant improvement in diplomatic or overt economic relations with Israel on the latter taking steps to end its conflict with the Palestinians. Specifically, Saudi Arabia continues to insist that, at the very least, Israel accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiations to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Under the current Israeli government, this remains a bridge too far.
The muted Arab government reaction to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is indeed a marker of what has changed—and what hasn’t. In absorbing that step, Arab governments have likewise had to reaffirm their Arab and Muslim solidarity with the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem. Israel achieved a symbolic victory, but it may face a more united Arab front if it follows up with new unilateral steps that impede Palestinian aspirations. If Israel’s government wants to cultivate Arab state goodwill, it will have to be sensitive to the concerns of Arab governments who face contrary public opinion.
The new regional environment also presents Israel with new dilemmas it did not face when Sunni Arab states were uniformly hostile. The most vexing concerns whether Israel can tolerate the transfer of sophisticated Western arms and technology transfers to Arab governments. Traditionally, Israel has used its considerable political influence to prevent the United States, Europe, and even Russia from selling Arab militaries advanced technology that might erode the country’s vaunted “qualitative military edge.” It has also expressed unequivocal opposition to any possible transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to Arab states.
But what to do now that the eager seekers of such weapons and technology are Israel’s newfound “friends”? Can Israel afford the risk that in the future these states—which would then be much better equipped—might return to open confrontation? Israel already faced this dilemma regarding a pending sale of advanced German submarines to Egypt—and the disagreements among Israeli military and civilian leaders over this question have now resurfaced amid allegations of corruption and a criminal investigation surrounding Israeli relationships with the German submarine producer. Saudi Arabia’s recent quest for nuclear technology presents an even more vexing issue, since both states oppose Iranian nuclear capability—but to say the least, Israel is not comfortable with the idea of the Saudis acquiring such capabilities either.
It’s clear that today’s chaotic Middle East has created some strange bedfellows. For Israelis who have been isolated in their region for some 70 years, the possibilities are exhilarating. But the new horizons must not blind Israeli leaders or the Israeli public to tough choices they will have to make in dealing with their Arab frenemies in the months and years to come. Sometimes, it’s easier to have an implacable foe.