Israel is Making Arab Friends
By Joshua S. Block
The Wall Street Journal
November 4, 2018
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The Middle East is changing. On Oct. 28 Israel’s culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. She was in the United Arab Emirates for the International Judo Federation’s Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, where Israeli athletes were allowed to compete under their flag for the first time. The Israeli team took the gold, and its national anthem, “Hatikva,” was played in a country that does not formally recognize Israel.
Although Israel and the Arab Gulf states have long had clandestine diplomatic ties, recent public gestures of normalization have taken the relationship to a new level. Hours before Ms. Regev arrived in Abu Dhabi, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from a historic visit to Oman, where he met with Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said al Said.
The same weekend, Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s foreign minister, told a security forum in Bahrain: “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. 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.” He added: “Our priority is to put an end to the conflict and move to a new world.” The foreign ministers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa and Adel al-Jubeir respectively, also called for rapprochement with Israel.
The list goes on. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the Atlantic in March: “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” At the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had an amicable meeting with Mr. Netanyahu. Israel and Egypt have had diplomatic relations since 1979, but it has often been characterized as a “cold peace.” Mr. Netanyahu, in his address to the General Assembly, said that Israel and the Arab world are “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.”
Weeks later, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, shared a table with his Israeli counterpart, Ron Dermer, at a public pro-Israel event. And following Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, it emerged that Transport Minister Yisrael Katz had been invited by the sultanate to participate in the upcoming World Congress of the International Road Transport Union to discuss plans for a railway linking Israel to the Persian Gulf.
The growing alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab world is driven in part by economics. Israel’s entrepreneurship benefits all nations in the region. But an even more pressing concern is the common threat from Iran. Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions are being felt from the battlefields of Syria to the Gulf of Aden. In May, Bahrain went so far as to back Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian aggression.
“We are not saying that the road is now easy and paved with flowers,” Oman’s foreign minister said last week. But the rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world will change the region for the better.
Mr. Block is CEO of the Israel Project.