Earlier this month, the United States reimposed oil and financial sanctions against Iran, ratcheting up pressure on the Islamic Republic to comply with international norms. At the same time, we are witnessing several signs of deepening ties between Israel and Arab states. These developments are related.
Israel, the United States and the Sunni Arab world have a significant common interest — to confront Iran.
On Oct.28, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev visted the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Muslim world’s third largest house of worship. “I am happy that I was privileged to be the first senior official from Israel to sign the mosque’s guest book,” the minister said.
Regev was in the UAE to attend the International Judo Federation’s Grand Slam competition on a trip that turned out to be memorable. Israeli athletes were allowed to compete under the Israeli flag for the first time, a year after the UAE had censored all Jewish symbols at the tournament. Regev was visibly moved when the Israeli team won gold in the competition – a feat which prompted Israel’s national anthem – Hatikvah – to be played.
Regev’s visit was part of a wider campaign to foster ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Just hours after the minister touched down in the UAE, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had returned from a surprise and historic visit to Oman, where he met with Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
Netanyahu’s charm offensive resulted in Oman calling on the Arab Muslim world to recognize Israel as a legitimate state. “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this,” Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s Foreign Minister, told a security forum in Bahrain. “The world is also aware of this and maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as other states] and to also bear the same obligations.”
In the not so distant past, Oman would have been castigated by most of the Sunni Arab states for calling for the recognition of Israel. In the “New Middle East”, however, the foreign ministers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa and Adel al-Jubeir, who also attended the conference, echoed the sultanate’s call for regional rapprochement.
It later emerged that Israel’s Transport Minister, Yisrael Katz, had been invited by Oman to participate in the World Congress of the International Road Transport Union – the first time an Israeli minister has been invited to such an event – to discuss plans for a railway project that would link Israel to the Persian Gulf.
The growing alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab world is driven by two major forces. For one, governments in the region are increasingly pursing strategic military partnerships, as well as lucrative business opportunities with the Jewish state. Israel, in many fields – such as technology, innovation, and healthcare – develops entrepreneurial solutions to grand societal challenges that affect all nations in the region.
But even more so, for the Sunni Arab world the cost-benefit analysis of boycotting Israel has dramatically changed since the windfall of cash from the nuclear deal with Iran unleashed the Islamic Republic’s hegemonic ambitions on the region, which include attacks by Iran-funded Houthi rebels on nuclear power plants, civilian airports and oil tankers.
In a groundbreaking interview with the Atlantic in March, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman first recognized Israel’s right to exist and extolled the prospect of future diplomatic relations between the two countries. “The Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland…I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land,” bin Salman said.
There is more. At the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, in an amicable meeting with Netanyahu, emphasized the new realities in the Middle East, in which all the peoples of the region enjoy stability, security and prosperity. Netanyahu had earlier said in his address to the UNGA that Israel and the Arab world had been brought “closer together than ever before, in an intimacy and friendship that I’ve not seen in my lifetime and would have been unimaginable a few years ago.”
Although Israel has long maintained diplomatic relations with various states in the Arab world, the increased pace of high-level meetings and convergence between Israeli and Arab officials reflects a growing willingness among Sunni Muslim states to publicize their ties with Israel, reflective of the tectonic shifts that are taking place in the Middle East. What we are witnessing is nothing short of a historic rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world.
Joshua S. Block is CEO and President of The Israel Project. Follow him on Twitter @JoshBlockDC.