Israel is quietly becoming the cool kid on the block in the Middle East, especially among Arabs concerned with Iran's growing influence and the eradication of ISIS.
Though Israel is hardly Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or North Dakota, its natural gas discoveries have made it energy independent, and even an exporter, with partner Egypt. That, plus Israel's incredible tech sector and IPO factory, has changed the calculus in the Arab world, and subsequently lessened public discussion of the "Palestinian issue" as a front-and-center policy.
During 11 days of travel through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, we heard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mentioned only once. This is a dramatic shift from decades during which hostility to Israel served as perhaps the most important unifier of often fractious Arab governments.
Will this mean the Gulf states will soon accept Israel and begin honoring Israeli passports? Not likely. The Palestinians are an oppressed people, and they--when they are allowed by supposedly pro-Palestinian governments to enter the same Arab states that ban Israel--are quick to squarely lay the blame for all their ills on the Jewish state. The governments of such places as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (who have done nothing in 70 years to help the Palestinian people) realize that they can't simply ignore the ongoing invective against Israel among their populations in pursuit of such prosaic goals as money and political gain.
But Israel has done much to help its Arab neighbors, behind the scenes, fight terror, eliminate ISIS, and counter Iran--all shared interests in which the governments of Israel's titular enemies have privately acknowledged.
Enter President Donald Trump, a man who knows how to judge negotiating partners by the cut of their jibs. His friendly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with a $100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia has put the U.S. squarely in both camps and aligned America with the common interests of the newly cool Israelis and the Gulf states.
The muted Arab government reaction to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is indeed a marker of what has changed — and what hasn’t. In absorbing that step, Arab governments have likewise had to reaffirm their Arab and Muslim solidarity with the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem. Israel achieved a symbolic victory, but it may face a more united Arab front if it follows up with new unilateral steps that impede Palestinian aspirations. If Israel’s government wants to cultivate Arab state goodwill, it will have to be sensitive to the concerns of Arab governments who face contrary public opinion.
Now Israel faces a much better equipped slew of frenemies. FP's writers fret that this poses a dilemma for Jerusalem. "Israel already faced this dilemma regarding a pending sale of advanced German submarines to Egypt — and the disagreements among Israeli military and civilian leaders over this question have now resurfaced amid allegations of corruption and a criminal investigation surrounding Israeli relationships with the German submarine producer," they wrote. "Saudi Arabia’s recent quest for nuclear technology presents an even more vexing issue, since both states oppose Iranian nuclear capability — but to say the least, Israel is not comfortable with the idea of the Saudis acquiring such capabilities either."
I don't think this is really a problem for the IDF or for Israel's military planners. The heart of any army is the soldier, and Israel's military is kept at a razor's edge. Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, though on paper boast huge militaries, don't take the same approach as the Israelis. They simply lack the training or the desire to keep the high tech weapons they purchase from the U.S. as an actual fighting advantage. They rely on American contractors to do all the heavy lifting. Israel, assuredly, does not.
Israel knows exactly how long Iran could continue to use American F-14 Tomcats after the U.S. contractors withdrew in 1979. The Mossad knows how deep American strings run in Arab air forces. Where America sells arms, Israel is far more comfortable than those nations buying from Russia.
Iran, on the other hand, does pose a threat, especially in its Revolutionary Guard and proxy Hizbollah. The threat Iran poses to Israel, it also poses to Israel's new cool kid club members (their "Arab frenemies" as FP put it).
The Palestinians are a political threat, as they have always been. But this newfound popularity among its longtime enemies may buy Israel something that it never had: maneuvering room. When the "Palestinian issue" simply fades away into a slogan and a cause for celebrities like Roger Waters, that gives Israel time to wait out the internal strife, corruption and backbiting that poisons the PA-Hamas "unity" government. Eventually, Mahmoud Abbas will die, and with him, the current generation of sycophants and criminals that siphon every dime of aid from the U.N. and the world.
When Arab governments are more interested in cooperating with Israel on things Israel is good at (politics isn't one of them), this gives Israel time, the most valuable resource, to hope for a leader to emerge willing to become a partner in peace. Every so often a man like Anwar Sadat rises. I'm not saying President Trump or King Salman are another Sadat--but Israel's changing status among its neighbors is certainly something worth waiting for.
Unlike the FP writers, I don't think the choices Israel has to make are very tough at all.