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The other reason Saudi Arabia needs Israel

Hussein Ibish is a scholar of Lebanese origin who is Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a recently-established think-tank financed by the Gulf States. Dr. Ibish is a respected commentator on the Middle East, and when he comments on matters involving the Gulf States, his remarks are considered authoritative, in the exact sense of the term.

When Prime Minister Netanyahu surprisingly indicated that the Saudi initiative of 2002 for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute might serve as a basis for addressing the issue, contrary to long-standing Israeli dismissal of the proposal, his comment was generally seen as mere rhetorical verbiage, despite being endorsed and repeated by other important government figures, such as Finance Minister Kahlon. Even newly-appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a well-known hawk on the matter, agreed publicly with Netanyahu.

Prior to Netanyahu’s remarks, Egyptian President al-Sisi had announced that the time was ripe for a resolution to the dispute and that Egypt was ready to play its part in such an effort. Additionally, various indications coming from the Gulf States themselves, especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrein and Kuwait demonstrated a new opening to the Jewish state, in light of shared interests.

Foremost among such shared interests has to be the multiple threats emanating from Iran, not only or even primarily an eventual nuclear weapon capacity but, more imminently, a multi-pronged campaign to spread its influence throughout the Middle East, especially in the Sh’ia arc extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. There are substantial Sh’ia populations in several of the Gulf States.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to consider that only shared fear of Iran motivates the growing rapprochement between Israel on the one hand and Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States on the other. Certainly, in addition to the Iranian menace, multiple other dangers threaten the traditionalist Sunni powers, mostly from terrorist organizations such as the al-Qaida network, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and especially The Islamic State, the so-called Caliphate.

However, there is another and growing influence that is drawing Israel and its neighbors together as never before. The prolonged decline in the oil price has meant that the Saudis and the other Gulf States must make genuine attempts at diversification of their economies. Egypt and Jordan, which depend heavily on Saudi and Gulf largesse, are also threatened by this development. Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, beyond question the most influential current Saudi official, has just published a long-range plan outlining fundamental reforms in the Saudi economic and social structures. A fundamental part of the Prince’s plan involves the development of the high-tech sector, in which Israel is uniquely placed to cooperate.

As a result, not only in the defense, security and intelligence fields, where there is already widespread if sub-rosa cooperation between Israel and its neighbors, there are multiple opportunities for fruitful collaboration in hi-tech, water management, agriculture and other fields.

It is in this context that Dr. Ibish’s recent paper “Is the Arab Peace Initiative Really in Play?” is significant. He states that “…Israel’s potential interest in the API (Arab Peace Initiative) could stem from its evaluation that the actual price of such acceptance by the Arab side has never been, and may never again be, as low as presently appears.” He goes on: “Israel is no longer perceived as the primary threat or destabilizing force in the region. Indeed, it may now be seen as a potential stabilizing force, and even a possible ally” (emphasis original). He outlines various politically feasible steps Israel might take along the lines of the API and then concludes: “Such a package of inducements might be sufficient to provide the political cover for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to move closer to Israel on several axes.” (emphasis added)

Everyone now realizes (with the possible exception of Europe and the United States) that the Palestinian question is of minimal significance in the current Middle Eastern context. What is needed is a convenient pretext to sideline it and get on with addressing the main political, military and economic issues. Perhaps Netanyahu is in the process of providing such a pretext, or to use Dr. Ibish’s phrase, “political cover”. If so, we can only wish him all success.

This article was originally published by Globes.