by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
Peace in the Middle East is more than just a dream. For multiple Arab nations and Israel, it’s already something of a reality—or at least close enough for now. That’s the opinion of Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a Middle East expert who told The Mideast Update that secretive relations between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—from secret intelligence sharing to quiet economic ties—are about as good as it’s going to get at this time. Dr. Spyer said there is a question of whether transitioning from this cold, covert peace to formal relations and “taking the risk of ‘spoiling everything,’ so to speak, by trying to put too much weight on these relations is necessarily worth it.”
That’s not to say that things can’t improve. In fact, Dr. Spyer, Director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the IDC Herzliya in Israel, believes that it’s possible that the Saudis and UAE could get “incrementally” closer to Israel in exchange for concessions to the Palestinians, even those short of a full peace deal. But could it work the other way around? Could the Saudis and others in the Arab world achieve peace with Israel and then bring the Palestinians along? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to think so, and Dr. Spyer believes United States President Donald Trump does too. Dr. Spyer himself isn’t convinced, but it’s not the Arabs who are the problem.
Way back in 2000, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan wanted then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to accept the Camp David peace proposal with Israel, according to Dr. Spyer. The Americans did too. Arafat did not, and so they didn’t. It’s that “intransigence” regarding final peace with Israel that has, in many ways, defined the Palestinian movement for decades, and Dr. Spyer doesn’t believe it’s stopping any time soon. The Americans and the Europeans help finance the Palestinian government in Judea and Samaria—also known as the West Bank—and train their security forces. But that’s not enough to drive the Palestinians to an honest negotiation with Israel.
Neither, then, will Saudi influence. Dr. Spyer acknowledged that the Saudis hold some authority as the guardians of Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest sites in Islam, but the Saudi leadership isn’t particularly respected in the Arab street and so they need to be “careful” about moralizing. He said it’s “very hard” to imagine the Palestinian street being swayed by the Saudis. “The Saudis can say what they want, but this isn’t Saudi Arabia,” he noted.
Could a leadership change shift positions in the West Bank? After all, Mahmoud Abbas—the leader of the Fatah political movement that holds power—is in his eighties. Dr. Spyer noted that some in the Arab world may try to back a handpicked replacement leader, and Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan currently is based in the UAE. Still, Dr. Spyer doesn’t believe it’s as simple as influencing the next leader and sees a “major” peace breakthrough with Israel as “very unlikely” in the near future: “My own sense is that al-Fatah is pretty much entrenched in positions which are way beyond anything that any Israeli government could remotely begin to agree towards.” Quiet and incremental progress is possible, but not much more. And that’s with the “moderates.”
The Hamas government in Gaza refuses to recognize Israel and has fought multiple wars with the Jewish state. To make matters worse, Dr. Spyer sees indications they are moving closer to hard-line Iran. So don’t expect a Hamas peace with Israel. Instead, Dr. Spyer believes it’s possible to isolate or “squeeze” Hamas. “They are squeezable; they are containable,” he said.
Some of that was happening earlier this year. A long-time home to the Hamas leadership—Qatar—was blacklisted by the Saudis and other Arab nations over their ties to terror groups, according to Asharq Al-Awsat. While he sounded unsure of whether pressuring Qatar helps or just drives Hamas to Iran, Dr. Spyer believes that pressure on Hamas allies is “one way” to isolate Hamas. As a government, he views Hamas as less interested in an insurgent war with Israel like the Second Intifada. At this point, Dr. Spyer believes that quiet with Israel is good enough.
So for now, Israel and the Saudis and UAE are in an in-between state that’s neither war nor peace. But as long as they share a common enemy in Iran—something Dr. Spyer doesn’t see going away—they have good reason to keep the peace and perhaps even to make it more open. Combine that with the actual peace deals between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, and the region looks quiet enough outside of Iran and its allies.
That’s not the grand plan of Middle East peace, but it’s still something to be excited about. Just listen to Netanyahu: “Many Arab countries no longer see Israel as their enemy. They see Israel as their ally, I would even say, their indispensable ally in the fight against terrorism and in seizing the future of technology and innovation,” said the Israeli leader in comments published by his office earlier this year. “And this change in the Arab world is new. And I believe it’s the best hope for peace, not only between Israel and the countries in the region, but ultimately between Israel and the Palestinians. This is what changes minds and hearts.”
Will it someday do just that? It might. But only if the Palestinians want it.
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