Friday, September 9, 2016

Why Israel and the Arab nations are slowly drawing closer together

Dore Gold and Anwar Eshki shaking hands at a Council on Foreign Relations event

At the same time, one rivalry is softening. The Arab-Israeli conflict, which has raged since 1948, shows signs of a modest, but significant, thaw. To be sure, Israel remains isolated. Only 3 of 21 members of the Arab League recognise the Jewish state.

Many Arab states fund, shelter and celebrate Hamas, whose charter promises the obliteration of “the warmongering Jews”. And Israel still bristles when the US and Europe sell sophisticated arms to the Gulf. But under the surface, plates are shifting.

Last month, a retired Saudi general met Israel’s most senior diplomat, Dore Gold, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, their second meeting in a year. Last summer, Israel’s former ambassador to Washingtonboasted of his meetings with Arab counterparts, praising them as “exceptional people”.

And in January, Israel’s energy minister quietly visited the United Arab Emirates, after announcing the opening of an Israeli office in Abu Dhabi. 

 Hamas fighters attend the funeral of two comrades who died in a border tunnel collapse

Meanwhile, spooks from each side have plotted in secret. The relationship is that of a mistress to a married man: one party eager for public acknowledgment, in hope of legitimising her questionable social status, the other desperate to keep it in the shadows for fear of the domestic consequences.

Most Arab states risk popular fury if they were to normalise relations with Israel in the absence of a just settlement to the Palestinian issue.

There is no question about what has prompted this rapprochement. Over the past decade, Iran’s proxies and allies have grown more active and powerful. For instance, the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah, fostered by Iran in the 1980s, points its vast missile stockpile across the border to Israel – but also fights against Gulf-backed forces in Syria and Yemen.

Meanwhile, the US and Europe have chosen to avoid a major confrontation with Iran. They struck a nuclear deal with Tehran last year, and even welcomed Iran’s President Rouhani to Paris and Rome. Naturally, the Arabs and the Israelis have acted on the dictum that the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

“The Gulf Arabs believe… that they can count on Israel against Iran,” as one senior Israeli official told US diplomats in a leaked cable from 2010. “They believe Israel can work magic.”


This is a fragile process that could evaporate in the heat of another Palestinian uprising; but if it survives, there are upsides for the West. We’ve long urged Arab states to tone down their hostility to Israel.

While the Netanyahu government will not move on the peace process, a less hawkish successor may be more inclined to do so if relations with Arabs are on an even keel. Moreover, we have demanded that Arab allies take on more responsibility for their security rather than calling on us to intervene. Why should we complain if they seek others’ help in doing so?

There are two points for Boris Johnson and the next US secretary of state to grasp. Our partnerships with Israel and the Gulf states will remain crucial to fighting terrorism and remaining in a position to intervene in the Middle East when our interests demand it.

Iran is not a realistic substitute: its regime remains divided between the pragmatic leadership and hardliners who seek to sabotage it. Iranian forces continue to support the Syrian regime in its brutal war. British and Arab spies swap intelligence daily; Tehran would not dream of doing so.

And yet, we should reject the view that being good allies to the Gulf and Israel means distancing ourselves from Iran. The nuclear deal emboldened Iran, but also averted a war that would have been ruinous to us, Israel and Arabs alike.

Post-Brexit Britain cannot let France, Italy and others dominate Europe’s economic relations with an emerging Iran; and we should not fear upgrading our diplomatic relationship with Iran to ambassadorial level. 

Arab-Israeli contacts are a symptom of a region in extraordinary flux. Our diplomacy must be nimble enough to adapt.

  • 2002

    Secret nuclear plants found


    Iran is found to have built a secret uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a plutonium facility at Arak. America and its allies accuse Iran of covertly seeking the means to make nuclear weapons.

  • 2003

    Nuclear talks begin


    Talks begin between Iran and three European powers – Britain, France and Germany. Although various minor agreements are reached, the confrontation is not resolved.

  • 2009

    Second plant found


    Iran is found to have built a second secret enrichment plant at Fordow.

  • 2013

    Secret US/Iran talks begin


    Secret talks between America and Iran begin. Representatives of the two countries hold a series of meetings in Oman and Geneva. This paves the way for public meetings between John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister.

  • 2013

    Interim agreement


    Mr Kerry and Mr Zarif reach an interim agreement – called the “Joint Plan of Action” – placing constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme in return for a limited easing of sanctions. They promise to reach a final deal by June 2014.

  • 2014

    Failure to reach agreement


    Multiple rounds of talks between Mr Kerry and Mr Zarif fail to conclude a final agreement.

  • April 2015

    Parameters of deal agreed


    Iran and America agree the parameters of a comprehensive deal after 10 days of talks in Lausanne, Switzerland.

  • June 2015

    Talks begin in Vienna


    Mr Kerry and Mr Zarif meet again in Vienna at the beginning of the current round of talks.

  • July 2015

    Iran and America reach final agreement


    Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it is designed to scale back Tehran's nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.

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