Tel Aviv, Israel – When representatives of more than 30 countries gathered in Cairo on Sunday to discuss rebuilding in Gaza, there was one notable omission: Israel.
The government here normally bristles at being left out of international gatherings, and there will be no reconstruction without Israeli assent, since it is one of two countries enforcing a blockade of the strip.
Yet the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, asked Israel to stay away from the conference. Some of the largest donations are expected to come from Gulf countries, which do not have formal relations with Israel; Sisi feared they might be unwilling to sit next to Israeli delegates.
In recent weeks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, often jokingly dismissed as “Mr Status Quo,” has been talking excitedly about changes, initiatives, even “new diplomatic horizons.”
Seven years after he dismissed the Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel normal relations with Arab states in exchange for withdrawing to its pre-1967 borders, he is suddenly eager to embrace it – to a point, at least. His address to the United Nations last month was full of hopeful talk about strengthening Israel’s regional ties.
“To achieve that peace, we must look not only to Jerusalem and Ramallah, but also to Cairo, to Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere,” he said. “I believe peace can be realised with the active involvement of Arab countries, those that are willing to provide political, material and other indispensable support.”
Netanyahu repeated himself two days later, in a White House meeting with US President Barack Obama: “Something is changing in the Middle East,” he said.
In essence, he wants to detach the two halves of the Arab Peace Initiative, establishing better relations now while postponing Palestinian statehood – a piecemeal approach to peace.
The hope, according to aides and analysts, is that growing chaos in the region makes Israel an attractive strategic ally. But Israel’s forced absence highlights the limits of his plan: Closer ties to Arab states are likely to be kept quiet, below the horizon, while there is no promise of progress on the Palestinian issue.
Netanyahu is thrilled, because he's always said, 'there are a lot of bad guys in this region'. And now everyone is saying the same thing … the Palestinian state just isn't a priority any more.
“It’s a vicious circle: In order to get something, you need to give something,” said Elie Podeh, a professor of Middle East studies at Hebrew University. “The view from the region is, ‘We started the Arab Peace Initiative. Now you have to do something original.’ And Netanyahu isn’t offering anything.”
The countries in question, Israel’s potential new “allies”, are Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states – minus Qatar, seen as a pariah in Jerusalem because of its support for Hamas.
All of them share a few key concerns with Israel. They are frightened by the rise of political Islam across the region, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to rebel groups in Syria. They are also keen to weaken Iran: Saudi Arabia, in particular, has fought a series of proxy wars against Tehran, hoping to position itself as the regional hegemon.
Israel does not have overt diplomatic relations with the Gulf, though it did operate a trade office in Doha until 2009, when the Qatari government shuttered it during the first Israeli war with Hamas.
But its long-standing and discreet contacts with the Gulf are among the worst kept secrets in diplomacy here. The Bahraini king told the US ambassador to Manama in 2005 that his country “already has contacts with Israel at the intelligence/security level”, according to a secret cable published by WikiLeaks. Another cable described the “good personal relations” between then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nayhan, her Emirati counterpart.
Indeed, there may be another undeclared Israeli mission somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula: Last year’s state budget accidentally revealed that the foreign ministry opened a diplomatic office in an unnamed Gulf country sometime between 2010 and 2012.
Egypt and Jordan, of course, both have peace treaties and full diplomatic relations with Israel. Both are “cold peaces”, though, and Egyptian officials are keen to downplay the relationship. “Chances for a better relationship with Israel are almost nonexistent,” said Sameh Saif al-Yazal, a retired general with close ties to the security establishment.
Behind the scenes, though, Israeli and Egyptian officials both acknowledge that security ties are flourishing. The army-backed government is almost as hostile to Hamas as Israel; both sides talked regularly during this summer’s war in Gaza, and the Wall Street Journal reported in August that Israeli officials even “took Sisi’s temperature” each day to make sure he was comfortable with the level of casualties.
Yet for all of these common interests, Netanyahu has been purposely vague about what exactly lies over his new “diplomatic horizon”. It is hard to imagine the Israeli flag flying at an embassy in Riyadh, or an Emirati leader visiting the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly had dinner last month in New York with envoys from several Gulf nations. All of them rushed to deny the event ever took place.
Instead, Netanyahu’s proposal is reminiscent of the old “peripheral alliance”, when the nascent state of Israel quietly aligned itself with Iran and Turkey to fight Nasserism.
This time the enemies are political Islam – Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood – and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Israeli intelligence officials have already met in Jordan with their Gulf counterparts to discuss the latter. There will be more intelligence sharing and military cooperation, but no overt relations, and nothing to revive the moribund peace process.
“Netanyahu is thrilled, because he’s always said: ‘There are a lot of bad guys in this region,'” said Orit Perlov, an analyst and former Israeli diplomatic adviser. “And now everyone is saying the same thing … the Palestinian state just isn’t a priority any more.”
Indeed, unnamed military and government sources explicitly told veteran journalist Ron Ben-Yishai that they have no interest in reaching a deal right now, according to a long analysis in this weekend’s Yediot Aharonot.
“It is doubtful whether the moderate Arab states need a ‘Palestinian incentive’ to fight the jihadist Islam that endangers their regimes,” he wrote. “So instead of trying to pursue a two-state solution … Israel needs to strive for ‘conflict management’.”
Part of “managing” the conflict is obstructing the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s plan to press Israel at the United Nations. Channel 10 reported last week that US Secretary of State John Kerry wants to revive talks under the auspices of several Arab states. His plan calls for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to postpone a planned Security Council resolution that would set a deadline for ending the conflict.
“Netanyahu will go on insisting that the timing is bad, because of the changes in the Middle East and the rise of [ISIL],” Podeh said. “In his view, the Arab Peace Initiative has never been relevant … he’s always looking for excuses not to accept it.”