Israeli-Arab relations thaw as fears of Iran nuclear threat grow
Sunday 25th February, 2007 ((Op-ed) The Weekend Economist)
The common belief around the world (with some exceptions), is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of instability in the wider Middle East.
Others go so far as to say the existence of the state of Israel is the cause of all that’s wrong in the region. Indeed, Israel is used as a tool to strengthen government support in most, if not all Arab and even non-Arab Muslim countries on a daily basis.
By depicting Israel as an incessant aggressor with aims of expanding from the Nile to the Euphrates and exterminating anyone that stands in its way (most notably the brave Palestinians), governments are able to draw attention away from internal societal ills and retain power. Today, however, the cracks in this flawed policy are beginning to show, as influential figures in the Middle East are openly speaking of a more serious threat; the Iranian threat.
Shiite Iran is increasingly becoming a rather aching sore in the behind of a number of predominantly Sunni nations. As duly noted by Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, “What really concerns pro-U.S. Arab states is that Iran is setting the political agenda in the region.” A rising Iran is not in the interest of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This has even led to public gestures and overtures by Arab states to Israel; the sworn enemy of the Iranian regime.
Senior Egyptian journalist Youssef Ibrahim, who served for 24 years as a senior reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and has interviewed almost every Arab leader, recently wrote in a letter that “the Arab world can continue to stand by the Palestinians ‘until it is blue in the face,’ but most ‘clever’ Arabs have abandoned the notion of the Palestinian conflict and the eternal struggle against Israel. In other words, the notion that Israel is here to stay is slowly gaining a foothold in the upper intellectual levels of Arab society. At even higher levels – at the end of a Spanish-Arab conference in Madrid – the Foreign Ministers of seven Arab countries (Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia) issued a joint statement expressing their desire to “advance together toward recognition and normalization of relations with Israel.”
The fear of a powerful and nuclear Iran has even set the stage for a possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Jordan’s King Abdullah II followed Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s lead a few months ago in saying that in light of current events, Jordan would be looking to develop a nuclear program “for peaceful purposes.” Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, as well as Gulf States such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman have also expressed a sudden interest in nuclear technology. In the almost 60 years that Israel has been enemy number one in the Middle East – and quite possibly already in possession of nuclear weapons – there was never such widespread talk of nuclear proliferation. This inadvertently shows the true colors of Arab leader’s opinions, who apparently have always known that Israel is not a real threat to them.
Other signs that Arab nations view Israel more favorably than Iran include an incident in January this year, when Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s departing ambassador to the United States, attended a Washington reception sponsored by American Jewish organizations. The appearance of a Saudi diplomat at such an event is a first in Saudi history. Besides Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have also quietly stepped up contacts with Israel and pro-Israel Jewish groups in the USA. For example, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres met the Emir of Qatar in Doha after taking part in a debate organized by the BBC in the Qatari capital.
Despite the recent signals, however, there is still a very long way to go. For one, only three of 21 Arab nations recognize Israel: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania. Furthermore, a very real hatred for the state of Israel exists in the region, thanks to decades of indoctrination. Israel remains a unifying factor for the diverse religious factions in the Middle East. Although some Sunni leaders have equated Shiites with the lowest form of being, both sects would agree that the true enemy is Medinat Yisra’el. The Eilat bombings prove this as well, for just one day after the bombing, Hamas and Fatah managed to achieve what they hadn’t been able to during the relative lull with the Israelis; namely implement a cease-fire.
Despite the difficulty in fostering healthy relationships between all countries of the Middle East, one thing has become clear: the fear of Iran at the top level of Arab politics is much more real than all the chewed up rhetoric about the ‘Zionist entity.’