Jewish News columnist Maajid Nawaz on how shifting priorities in the Middle East have created unlikely allies and new avenues for a Palestinian peace deal

New times mean time for new thinking. It is in this same spirit that  Benjamin Netanyahu followed Theresa May to America.

A key achievement of the Israeli leader’s visit was a symbolic reset of U.S.-Israel ties, an end to the Obama years of barely disguised mutual contempt and a return to the friendship under G.W. Bush.

And for all my reservations around Trump and Netanyahu, these strange times do provide us with an opportunity to push for innovative solutions to the Middle East peace process.

We certainly owe it to stateless Palestinians and war-weary Israelis to try.

The Middle East has changed so much through war in the last eight years since Obama’s presidency that alliances previously thought laughable now seem a necessity.

Russian and Iranian meddling in Syria has been unpopular, as has Iran’s decision to deploy its terrorist Hezbollah militia to Assad’s aid.

The Saudis are not happy, but Israel and Hezbollah happen to be bitter enemies too.

Obama’s sanctions deal with Iran was criticised deeply by the Saudis, as it was by the Israelis.

Iran’s recent missile test may have Israel in its range, but it firmly has Saudi Arabia in its sights over Yemen.  The Saudis and the Israelis are also unified in their desire to prevent a nuclear Iran.


Are you noticing a pattern here yet? For Israel there is an opportunity here.

With the emergence of ISIS, the war in Syria, the sectarian crisis in Iraq, the rise of the Kurds and the civil war in Yemen, a new fault line has emerged demarcating bitter foes locked in a fierce struggle for regional hegemony.

Muslim-majority states have been fighting within and between each other while Israel was neither the cause, nor was she involved.

This is a regional proxy war fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia rallies its gulf Arab allies, its Sunni Muslim regional partners like Turkey and its historic ties to America.

Iran, on the other hand, musters support from the Shia Muslim governments of Iraq and Syria, its proxy militias in the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Yemen- based Houthis, backed up by Putin’s Russia.

Israel, with its existing alliances and animosities, fits squarely in the U.S.-Saudi camp.

Ever since the failed Camp David accords under Bill Clinton, conventional wisdom has been that peace must be sought and secured between Israelis and Palestinians first, before other Arab and Muslim-majority states recognise Israel.


New regional priorities and a lingering Israeli-Palestinian deadlock necessitate creative thinking to break the stalemate.

For Israel, the new road to peace could run through Mecca. This is known as the “outside-in” approach.

Regional peace could achieve local peace.

This year, under their young deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia will undergo some internal economic and social reforms.

As oil prices drop and as alternative energy grows in demand, the Saudis have recognised that their oil days are numbered. They desperately need to open up.

But with his overtures to Iran and a ‘lead from behind’ approach to the Syria crisis, Obama antagonised the Saudis, as well as most regional Sunni Muslim powers.

Enter Trump.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , with US President Donald J. Trump in of the White House (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO via JINIPIX)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , with US President Donald J. Trump in of the White House
(Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO via JINIPIX)

Trump’s energy policies, and his secretary of state pick in oil baron Rex Tillerson, may mean many things to the rest of us, but to the Saudis they are a godsend.

Against every bone in my body that aches over climate change, even I here must concede that an asset for peace is an asset for peace.

A US-Saudi reboot under Trump is eagerly anticipated in Riyadh, and an Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran already informally exists.

This presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for America under Trump to kickstart formal peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, linked to economic cooperation between the three nations, conditional to a permanent peace being negotiated in the West Bank with Palestinians.

The Saudis desperately need regional allies against their main foe Iran.They need economic trade and diversification  and they need military alliances to contain Iran.  Israel’s economic and military assets and interests meet these needs perfectly.

In return, Israel gains legal regional recognition from the custodians of the Prophet’s mosque, and a Sunni Arab consensus over the protection of its West Bank border, policed perhaps by Arab League, Egyptian, Jordanian or UN forces.

This could also release the pressure valve inside Israel. Netanyahu can pull back on settlement expansion and halt the relocation of America’s embassy to Jerusalem, in the name of pursuing universal peace. It serves domestic Arab reform too.

There is not a single crime that Israel stands accused of that an Arab totalitarian despot or absolute monarch has not committed manifold times and on a daily basis.

From torture and occupation, to proxy wars in foreign countries, to treating non-citizens –including Palestinians – as second class, to a lack of democracy, Arab despots top it all.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry meets With newly appointed Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammed in Riyadh

Former Secretary of State John Kerry meets With newly appointed Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammed in Riyadh

Israel has been the perennial “what about” excuse used by Arab despots seeking to silence their domestic opponents as “Zionist collaborators.”

A universal peace between Israel and these Arab regimes would finally do away with this.

A critical mass of Arabs, Muslims and leftists still struggle with Israel’s historic legitimacy, leading us all to constantly overplay our hand in peace negotiations.

Like a broken record, we are guilty of repetitive sloganeering, lazy thinking, emotional decision-making, and a dogmatic approach to what should be the art of politics.

We have allowed our political, religious, and ideological tribalism to shape our emotional response.

Our unwillingness to hear outside our own echo chambers has severely limited our ability to innovate solutions. It is post-truth.

When new thinking on any issue is instantly labeled treacherous, only inward looking violently inbred and dogmatic ideologies such as jihadism can thrive.

All the more reason why creative thinking on this issue among Arabs, Muslims, and the left generally is so important. Peace is more important than our pride.