By Gary Grappo*
The Arab Peace Initiative, presented in 2002 by then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, promised Arab recognition of and normalization of relations with Israel once the Jewish state accepted a just and comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including recognition of the 1967 borders for an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.38
With prospects for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the traditional way (i.e., direct talks be- tween the two sides) currently negligible, a new approach toward fulfilling King Abdullah’s ambitious initiative is necessary. The Arab states, most especially Saudi Arabia, can jump start the normalization process by taking one enormously significant step – security cooperation with Israel. Such cooperation would not only address the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel’s shared security concerns in the increasingly unstable Middle East, but also begin creating a climate of mutual trust necessary for an eventual resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Since the creation of Israel in 1948, there has been no more opportune time for Arab-Israeli security cooperation. Across the region, Israel and so-called “moderate” Arab states – the GCC, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan – face the same multiple threats. All cry out for a collective approach.
A Common Foe in Tehran
First among them is Iran’s growing presence and alleged hegemonic ambitions in the Arab world. In addition, the recently concluded P5+1 agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program is unlikely to mollify their fears of the Islamic Republic’s agenda vis-à-vis Israel and the GCC, not only with respect to Iran’s nuclear program but also its support for various groups throughout the region, e.g., Hamas, Hezbollah, and others. Indeed, these were no doubt subjects of conversation when a prominent Israeli and Saudi recently met in Washington.39
The Gulf Arab monarchies and Israel, both of whom work closely with the U.S. on anti-missile defenses, can themselves collaborate to neutralize a potential threat that Iran would pose if Tehran ever were to develop a nuclear weapon, regardless of the July 14 deal signed in Vienna.40
GCC-Israeli security cooperation would also send a powerful message to Iran’s governing mullahs. Imagine Tehran’s reaction once it learns that, after almost seven decades of Arab-Israeli antagonism, the perceived Iranian threat to the region has broken the estrangement. Even if waived off by Iran’s blinkered theocratic leaders, the significance would not be lost on Iran’s increasingly frustrated populace yearning for re-integration into the region and the world, starting with the economically prosperous GCC countries.
Countering Militant Islamism
Many of the moderate Arabs and the Israelis harbor similar views of and antipathy toward the same hard- line jihadist factions, most notably Daesh (“Islamic State”). A collaborative approach drawing on the GCC and Israel’s experience and resources would demonstratively increase their collective ability to counter the agendas of militant Islamist extremists.
Teaming up to defeat Daesh should rank especially high on the list of the GCC and Israel’s security priorities. In view of Daesh’s recent victory in Ramadi (the capital of Iraq’s Sunni-majority Anbar province) and its continued advances in eastern Syria, Palmyra being the most recent, only a comprehensive “all-in” strategy on the part of all Middle Eastern governments has any chance of checking the so-called “caliphate,” especially given Washington’s unwillingness to commit anything more than air support and training of Iraqis and small numbers of Syrian opposition fighters. While it may not be realistic to expect Israel to join any military coalition against Daesh (although that is a possibility in the future) Tel Aviv could either overtly or covertly cooperate with such a pan-Arab force.
The Stakes in Syria
While Israel might once have been willing to accept the ‘devil it knew’ in Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the increasing uncertainty of his position now requires Israel to reach out to Arab states in an effort to counter the gains that Sunni Islamist extremists could achieve in a post-Assad Syria.41 However, if Assad fell to a relatively moderate political order, Hezbollah’s weapons and logistics lifeline from Tehran would suffer a severe blow, which would potentially cripple Israel’s long- time enemy to the north, and ultimately break the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, loathed by leaders of the Gulf Arab kingdoms and the Jewish state.
Security and intelligence cooperation would provide tangible benefits to both sides in their counter-terror- ism efforts. It would ensure a comprehensive, genuinely region-wide approach to combating Daesh and other armed jihadist factions, allowing for important sharing of valuable lessons learned. Each of these steps could provide an enormous opportunity for both security and especially intelligence cooperation. In particular, Israeli-Arab intelligence cooperation – further boosted by help from Washington – would provide all sides with invaluable opportunities for circumscribing Iranian ambitions, reining in the region’s most violent extremists and toppling the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus.
Entering into such landmark cooperation would dramatically improve the political climate between Arabs and Israelis. It would make clear that the Arab world is no longer Israel’s enemy and that their security and that of Israel’s are inextricably linked. For Arabs, it would show that the two sides can pursue mutual interests.
Greater cooperation between the GCC and Israel would set the stage for the first-ever meaningful and constructive dialogue about the Palestinian question. Israel, having chosen to cooperate and to enter into a security dialogue, could consider taking steps necessary for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, e.g., giving the Palestinian Authority greater autonomy in the West Bank, relieving the siege of Gaza, facilitating the long overdue elections in the West Bank and Gaza, and ultimately initiating negotiations over other critically important matters such as refugees and Jerusalem.42
This is an especially relevant concern for Saudi Arabia. Having taken the courageous initiative of planting the Arab Peace Initiative, Riyadh can now deliver the first genuine fruits of the tree King Abdullah planted 13 years ago. Were King Salman to take the equally courageous initiative, i.e., reaching out to Israel – either directly or indirectly – he would not only secure his own country’s interests, but also set the stage for the long-awaited resolution of the region’s most enduring conflict.
Unquestionably, King Salman and the ruling family would face a significant element of political risk by making overtures to Israel. Anti-Israel sentiment is strong among Gulf Arabs, which is a reason why Riyadh makes efforts to hide the kingdom’s tacit alliance with Israel.43 However, Saudi Arabia’s long-term security interests are at stake, the same interests that drove then-Crown Prince Abdullah to reach out to Israel in 2002.
To successfully broker a just and lasting resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states must address Israel’s security concerns. Tel Aviv, especially today, maintains that the steps required for negotiating Palestinian statehood would jeopardize its security. Surprisingly, within the context of Iran’s potential rise as a regional power, the common threat of extremism and the ongoing Syrian crisis, the GCC and Israel have an opportunity to open the door to solving the Palestinian issue while also improving col- lective security interests.
About the author:
*Gary Grappo is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer from the U.S. Department of State, with extensive service in the Middle East, including as U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman and Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
This article was published by Gulf State Analytics in its June GSA Report
38. “The Arab Peace Initiative, 2002.” Al-Bab. Al-Bab, 2002. Web. 28 June 2015. <http://www.al-bab.com/ arab/docs/league/peace02.htm>.
39. Lake, Eli. “Israelis and Saudis Reveal Secret Talks to Thwart Iran.” Bloomberg View. Bloomberg LP, 4 June 2014. Web. 16 July 2015. <http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-06-04/israelis-and-saudis-re- veal-secret-talks-to-thwart-iran>.
40. Slavin, Barbara. “Ex-Obama adviser: Missile defense may avert GCC proliferation.” Al Monitor. Al-Moni- tor, 9 June 2015. Web. 28 June 2015. <http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/06/missile-de- fense-gulf-gcc-nuclear-proliferation-iran.html>.
41. Moore, Evan. “FPI Bulletin: In Syria, Armed Opposition Advances but Assad Endures.” The Foreign Policy Initiative. Foreign Policy Initiative, 15 May 2015. Web. 28 June 2015. <http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/con- tent/fpi-bulletin-syria-armed-opposition-advances-assad-endures>.
42. Grappo, Gary A. “New leadership is sorely needed to make progress for the Palestinians.” GlobalPost. GlobalPost, 1 May 2015. Web. 28 June 2015. <http://www.globalpost.com/article/6534552/2015/04/30/ new-leadership-sorely-needed-make-progress-palestinians>.