Israel and the Arab Gulf States have never been closer together, yet they have never been further apart. On one hand they share vital common interests in combating non-state military actors like Daesh throughout the region and they are concerned about the recent nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1. But, on the other hand, they find themselves in a never-ending dilemma on how to establish relations while there is still the Palestine issue.
The Gulf States’ position is that they cannot establish full diplomatic relations with Israel until they give the Palestinians a sovereign state. If they did normalize with Israel before there is a Palestinian state, then the Gulf States will not have any regional leverage over Israel to commit to a two-state solution. As Raed Jarrar and Alli McCracken write in reference to the “high-profile public meeting” between Prince Turki bin Faisal and Yaakov Amidror in May, “By normalizing relations with Israel without demanding a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia is diminishing its leverage in negotiating a two-state solution.”
An example of the Gulf’s position was in 2009 when Qatar was preparing to establish relations with Israel when it seemed Israel and the Palestinians reached a diplomatic breakthrough. Qatar began increasing communication networks with Israel, but when settlement growth increased in 2010, due to a loose “settlement freeze,” Qatar ended their communication ties.
Israel’s position is that they cannot withdraw from the West Bank until their security is ensured. They see security cooperation with the Gulf States to help combat Daesh and work with Israel to strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s economic and security sector as a means to ensure their security before they can withdraw.
In short, the Gulf States want Israel to give the Palestinians a state before they normalize, so they know Israel won’t keep the West Bank afterwards, but Israel wants the Gulf States to normalize with them first as a means to enhance regional security. The conversation between bin Faisal and Amidror is a perfect example of this seemingly endless cycle, as they often go back and forth between their respective government’s positions.
Now I myself am a supporter for a two-state solution, but if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a withdrawal tomorrow I would be the first one opposed to it. If you look at the history and the current facts on the ground, the time is not ripe for Israel to give up the West Bank.
In 1979, Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt and today it is a lawless territory swarming with militias, including Daesh. Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and then it became a Hamas stronghold. Israel also nearly gave the Golan Heights back to Syria in 2000. Had they, 16 years later, Israel would have had, best-case scenario, Jubhat al-Nusra, if not Daesh, in the strategic Golan. Time and again we have seen non-state military actors penetrating weak territory and the West Bank is no exception. An “independent” Palestine in the West Bank means the Palestinians would be responsible for securing their borders, including on the eastern side with Jordan. In recent months, Daesh seems to be infiltrating into Jordan. Do you really think the PA security forces will be able to fend off Daesh at the eastern side of the border?
Thus, Israel needs to have a military presence in the West Bank within the forseeable future, but that should not come at the expense of cooperating with the Gulf to suppress Daesh. As Mitchell Plitnick says, “‘Normal relations’ also means security cooperation. That means Israel can work openly with Arab states to combat ISIS and other groups in the region that pose security threats.”
Therefore, I propose a third option to break this cycle and that is for Israel to “recognize” Palestine. Today, the Israeli government sees the West Bank as Disputed Territory rather than “Occupied Territory.” The significance of that distinction is that, by “disputed” territory, rather than a “separate” or “occupied” territory, Israel is not necessarily making an official pledge or commitment to two sovereign nations. By changing this policy, Israel will give the Gulf States the political pretext they need to normalize with Israel, while allowing Israel to preserve a necessary military presence in the West Bank for the time being.
This is not an uncommon proposal. Last year, MK Hillik Bar of the Zionist Union proposed that Israel should recognize Palestine as a state at the UN before negotiating on final status solutions and granting the Palestinian sovereignty. In addition, the Israel Policy Forum, an organization promoting a two-state solution, and over 200 retired generals of the IDF recently came up with a Two-State Security plan, which calls for Israel to make a “political declaration” that it is committed to a two-state solution by claiming no sovereignty beyond the security barrier.
In fact, the Two State Security plan goes in hand with possible security cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States. One of the main points of the security plan is that the Jordan Valley should be secured, considering how its terrain allows easy access for militias. Thus, it proposes a joint security task force, cooperation and training between Israel, Jordan and the PA. Israel normalizing with the rich Gulf States could allow them to invest in the program to strengthen the security of the Jordan Valley from militias like Daesh.
Of course, the likely response from Netanyahu “recognizing” Palestine is far right-wing parties, such as Naftali Bennett’s Bait Yehudi, dropping out and causing the government to collapse. However, there is a way Netanyahu can combat such a response and that is through a unity government with leader of the Zionist Union opposition party Isaac Herzog. This may sound unrealistic to many, but it shouldn’t. After all, it’s happened before in Israel’s history.
In 2005, when Ariel Sharon signed to disengage from Gaza, his government collapsed so he formed a new party, Kadima, with the opposition movement to pursue his goal. Additionally, Herzog expressed his willingness to negotiate and join Netanyahu’s coalition in May, before he decided to go with Avigdor Lieberman instead.
In conclusion, Netanyahu should announce, perhaps at the UN General Assembly in September, that Israel “recognizes” Palestine as a state as a pledge that they are committed to a two-state solution. Doing so will allow Israel to preserve a necessary Israeli military presence in the West Bank, while enabling Israel and the Gulf States to coordinate with each other and strengthen regional security.