By Ben Lynfield
“The Palestinian narrative runs deep in [Arab] cultures.”
Establishing a genuine alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab states requires more than shared concern over Iran, the director of the Center for Israel Studies in Amman told an audience in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
Speaking as part of a panel on regional perspectives on Israel at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, Abdullah Sawalha said: “Making Iran the only component of this alliance is not enough. If the [Iranian] regime collapses, what will happen between Israel and the Sunni states?”
“For an alliance, we have to build a network of mutual interests: energy, water, technology and so on,” he added.
While National Infrastructure, Water and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz recently played up budding ties, Sawalha highlighted the current limits of the relationship with Sunni states.
“This rapprochement is very secret, it’s only behind the scenes,” he said. “The Arab states don’t want to do any kind of normalization in public and Israel respects the will of the Arab states. The biggest losers are the people of the region. Unfortunately, the winners are anti-normalization actors, BDS and enemies of peace.”
The level of interaction is also unhealthy for building firm ties, Sawalha said. “We’ve seen interaction between governments but no civil society engagement or people-to-people connections. Without letting our people know about this partnership, Israel and the Sunni states will lose the support of our people and will not be able to make any progress in breaking the barriers between the nations and narrowing the gaps.”
Sawalha called for an intertwining of economies similar to what France and Germany did in the early 1950s with the French Schuman Plan and the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. “We have to do what the Europeans did in pooling steel and coal production to make war between France and Germany not merely unthinkable but impossible,” he said.
In an illustration of how far INSS’s relations with regional Arabs, Arab citizens of Israel, and Palestinians still have to go, Sawalha was one of only two Arab speakers Tuesday, out of a total of 50 people who made presentations. Ben Azriel, a spokesman for INSS, did not respond to a query about the dearth of Arab participation.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in his remarks on the panel, said there were scant chances of Israel building new open peaceful relations in the Arab world without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I disagree with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu that the Arabs will be the first to make peace. That’s a complete fantasy,” he said.
Friedman, who recently interviewed Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, added: “Saudi Arabia is under enormous strain right now. The internal reforms that Salman has to put in place on multiple fronts are creating enormous stresses and strains within the system… The idea that they would expose themselves to the critics of those reforms, the religious clerics, by getting in bed publicly with the Yehudis [Jews] is a complete fantasy.”
In Friedman’s view, another deterrent to open Saudi ties with Israel is that Iran would exploit this in a regional campaign against Riyadh. “It would be a gift to the Iranians,” he said.
Moreover, Friedman said, the Saudis and others would be deterred from open normalization because of the continued resonance with the Palestinian view of the conflict. “The Palestinian narrative runs deep in these cultures,” he said. “Don’t be fooled by elite encounters with intelligence officials. This narrative runs deep in the Arab street and down to the Arab basement. All that matters in the Middle East is what people declare in their own language in public. And we’re not seeing any of that now – it’s an illusion.”
Friedman added that Israel could still make progress regionally without endorsing the 2002 Arab peace initiative – which calls for a full withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights in exchange for recognition and normalization with Arab League countries – provided it could show the world it is making “creative” efforts to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to the UN, also cast doubt on Saudi readiness to engage in open relations with Israel.
“There is no question that in Saudi Arabia, the priority of building a formal relationship or normal relationship with Israel does not rank high,” said Khalilzad. “What does rank is dealing with Iran and internal developments in Saudi Arabia, namely the success of the reforms, which has huge implications and obstacles. Unless one could demonstrate that moving without [Israel’s] acceptance of the Arab peace initiative would help with these two things, I don’t think they would take the risk.”
But, he added, “I see significant potential for under the table cooperation with reference to Iran.”