One hundred years ago, Minister Arthur James Balfour, on behalf of the British Government, expressed support for the foundation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Balfour letter, better known as the Balfour declaration, was an important milestone in the emergence of the state of Israel. A little over thirty years after the Balfour declaration, in 1948, Israeli independence was declared. Next year, the Jewish State will celebrate its seventieth anniversary.
But after seventy years, Israel is still not living in peace. At the northern border, terrorist organization Hezbollah has been preparing a new war for quite some time, while in the south, the country is still frequently besieged by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Terrorist attacks continue to be carried out within Israel’s national borders, too. Nevertheless, existential wars belong to the past. In 1948, 1967 and 1973, Israel was literally on the verge of being swept off the map.
Israel established peace with its neighboring countries Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), and today the relations with both countries are at a high point. Israel’s cooperation with Egypt in particular is better than ever, following a short break in 2011 when the Muslim Brotherhood was briefly in power.
Israel’s military is stronger than ever before. No country in the Middle East can compete with Israel at sea, on land or in the air. Today, the country has nearly 9 million inhabitants, whose life expectancy is among the highest in the world. Israel’s economy flourishes: its gross domestic product (GDP) is similar to that of western European countries. In spite of the absence of natural resources, the country has also managed turn itself into a leader of technological developments such as solar energy, water purification and computer technology. Knowledge other countries are eagerly waiting to put into practice.
This uniquely strong position, in a hostile region, has not been attained easily. Yet in 2017, no country in the region can get around the fact that the emergence of the Jewish state is irreversible. In the current chaos of the Middle East, peace-partners Jordan and Egypt benefit from a powerful and stable Israel. Economic co-operation with Israel has led to a strong growth of the Jordanian economy. In addition, the countries work together in the area of water conservation to quench the region’s growing thirst. Egypt benefits from good relations with Israel as well, for instance in the fight against terrorists in the Sinai.
The benefits of cooperation with Israel have not stayed unnoticed by other Sunni countries. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are exploring the options behind the scenes to develop relations with Israel. For example, the new Saudi crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, busy reforming his country, paid an unofficial visit to the Jewish state in September to talk about regional peace.
The common threat posed by the Shiite state of Iran plays a major role in these developing ties and is a unifying factor. Iran is supporting Hezbollah, which threatens Israel’s north, but also the Huthi rebels in Yemen, who carry out attacks in the border area with Saudi Arabia. The old contradictions between Arab countries and Israel seem to slowly make place for more pragmatic attitudes.
Israel currently has the historic opportunity to, after Egypt and Jordan, make peace with Saudi Arabia and its allies. A possible obstacle is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But the new relations with the Sunni neighbors also offer opportunities to revive peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The Sunni neighbors could act as a negotiator and a guardian of a possible peace agreement in this situation. A new top-down approach, as opposed to the US-led bottom-up approach (in 1995 and 2000), but failed.
It is not unlikely that, in the future, Israel will be able to live in peace with its neighbors. We need only look at our own European history. The past 150 years were characterized by many bloody wars. Yet today, there is a stable peace between former European archenemies. Peace agreements are often not derived from ideological but from strategic and pragmatic motives.
One hundred years after the Balfour declaration, it is also clear to Arab countries that the creation of Israel is irreversible. In the chaos of the present Middle East, where Iran pursues regional hegemony, there is now an opportunity for a strategic coalition between Israel and Sunni countries.