Just last month, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that Israelis have the right to their own land.
In the same interview, the heir to Saudi Arabia’s throne said that Israel’s economy, in addition to the shared threat the two countries face in Iran, are bringing the Jewish state and Riyadh closer.
Just a few years ago, these statements would have seemed impossible. But the same ideas were expressed by panelists during a conversation hosted by the Anti-Defamation League at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) on May 3.
The panel, which was hosted in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and NMAJH, discussed the improving relationships between Israel and other countries throughout the Middle East. Joshua Krasna, Robert A. Fox fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, moderated “Israel’s Relationships with Her Neighbors” between Carole Nuriel, director of ADL’s Israel office, and Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York.
“Certainly, right now, at 70 years, Israel’s international position with foreign relations is almost unparalleled,” Krasna said. “There have been very, very few periods in the past when Israel has had the kind of international relations … with its near neighbors, farther neighbors and the entire world that it has right now.”
The paradigm between Israel and its neighbors has clearly shifted. Several decades ago, Israel had antagonistic relationships with all of its immediate neighbors — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Today, Israel has treaties with two — Jordan and Egypt — and the threat it faces from Syria and Lebanon primarily comes from the presence of Iranian-backed forces and Iranian troops.
The panelists discussed reasons for these improving relations, which include political and economic motivations. A big force behind the realignment, they suggested, is the shared concern about Iranian hegemony in the region.
“[Arab countries] said, ‘What [do] we do now?’” Dayan explained. “One option is to learn Chinese. Well, Chinese and Arab culture is too different to make an alliance with China on those issues. Russia was not an option. To learn Russian was not an option because Russia was allied with [Iran]. … I assume they made a decision to learn Hebrew and to find an ally to a common adversary in Israel.”
Economics is another motivation, offered Dayan, noting that Israel’s gross domestic product per capita has grown from $8,000 in 1988, which “put us in a very good place among the third-world nations,” to $40,000 today, on par with Japan. Israel is also a superpower in cybersecurity, anti-terrorism and high-tech, areas that countries around the world want to improve.
“What we did was not intended to cater to the Sunni axis,” Dayan said. “The attraction that the Sunni axis has today toward Israel is the result of the things that Israel is doing independently. … I’m not sure we still grasp completely the magnitude of the revolution that Israel underwent the last 10, 15, 20 years.”
Following the Arab Spring, Arab nations’ priorities and the way the Arab people view themselves shifted, Nuriel said. Now, they are more preoccupied with domestic issues.
Nuriel said the biggest asset Israel brings to the region is its democratic values. She said that people in Arab countries often tell her there is room for discourse in Israeli society.
“On a people-to-people level, there is still room for improvement,” she said. “I may often point out some areas of cooperation. I would say mainly in the academia or areas that are more neutral between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”
One example of this academic cooperation lies in the many Egyptians who learn Hebrew at Egyptian universities, Nuriel said. Though many of them do not necessarily learn Hebrew for good reasons — to work for intelligence apparatuses, for example — it still represents a type of improving relations and learning about the other. There is also an Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.
While relations between the governments of Israel and Arab nations have improved, Nuriel and Dayan both expressed that this has not spread to the rank and file citizenry as much as they would have hoped.
Dayan read out the results of a recent opinion poll conducted by Israel that measured the percentage of people in various Middle Eastern countries that were interested in a relationship with the Jewish state. Sudan with 50 percent, Iraq with 48 percent and Morocco with 43 percent had the highest numbers, while Syria had the lowest, at 18 percent. Dayan noted that Egypt and Jordan were not included in the survey.
Nuriel said that for many Arab nations like Jordan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still represents a barrier to improving relationships. Krasna noted that though the relationships are based more on common interests, it’s not a coincidence that Jordan signed its peace treaty with Israel around the same time as the Oslo Accords.
A little farther away than Israel’s direct neighbors, the improvements in the Jewish state’s relationships with Gulf countries is also notable. For example, Dayan said Air India flights from New Dehli to Tel Aviv can now go through Saudi Arabia airspace, which he called “a first step.”
“Saudi Arabia has so many shared interests with Israel, and Israelis understand that and do not see Saudi Arabia as an enemy,” Nuriel said. “That’s the same about other Gulf countries. That’s wonderful, and I would like to see this direction. Even if it’s not an official relationship, it’s a step toward a better place.”
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