By BARBARA OPALL-ROME
JERUSALEM – Could Israel be the great white hope that will galvanize moderate, like-minded Sunni states throughout the Near East and Arabian Gulf against the region’s rising Shia hegemon?
Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed to do battle – alone if he must – against the spinning centrifuges that strengthen the ayatollahs and their radical proxies at the expense of the greater good?
Are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others in the region more likely than ever before to put aside historic animosities and join Egypt and the Hashemite Kingdom in peace with the Jewish state?
According to Netanyahu himself, the answer is affirmative to all of the above.
Since his address to the UN General Assembly early last month, barely a week goes by without the Israeli leader or top lieutenants flagging the “historic significance” of converging interests in containing nuclear-aspiring Iran and its regional proxies.
“The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbors to finally recognize that Israel is not their enemy,” Netanyahu said from the UN podium.
“This affords us the opportunity to overcome historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes.”
Little noticed amid Netanyahu’s highly publicized threats to “stand alone” in self-defense against the Iranian nuclear threat was the implication that Arab states would be grateful in the event of a unilateral Israeli attack.
“Yet in standing alone, Israel will know that we will be defending many, many others,” Netanyahu told the world body Oct. 1.
Inaugurating the Israeli Knesset’s winter session, Netanyahu expanded on the common interests he claims are uniting Israel and moderate Arab states in “their deep desire to shake off the radical power of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaida and their proxies.”
From the Knesset lectern, Netanyahu proclaimed, “Many countries in the region look to us with hope, because they sense the consistency and decisiveness of our positions and our willingness to act to defend ourselves if necessary.”
In his Oct. 14 address, the Israeli premier repeated his belief that “for the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, a growing understanding is taking root in the Arab world, and it is not always said softly.”
According to Netanyahu, the understanding “that Israel is not the enemy of Arabs” has created a “united front on many issues” which might advance “new possibilities in our region” and “help the peace process between us and the Palestinians.”
But given Netanyahu’s own misgivings and pledges within his coalition government to torpedo any type of two-state Palestinian peace deal to emerge from US-brokered talks, prospects of a united front with so-called moderate Sunni states are nil, experts here say.
“He’s trying to create a Sunni-Israeli arc based on fear: Fear of Iran going nuclear and fear of the US disengaging from the region,” said Alon Pincas, a former consul-general to Israel’s diplomatic mission in New York.
“But if he really expected to get the Saudis on board, fear of Iran and loathing of the Obama administration aren’t enough. He’s going to have to deliver an agreement with the Palestinians that satisfies the Saudi peace plan endorsed by the Arab League,” Pincas said.
Speaking Nov. 6 to reporters alongside visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry, Netanyahu insisted he and his government are committed to peace, yet blamed the Palestine Authority for impeding ongoing negotiations.
“I’m concerned about their progress because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away fro the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace,” he said.
Turning to a visibly uncomfortable Kerry, Netanyahu urged the top US diplomat to “help steer them [the Palestine Authority] back to a place where we could achieve the historical peace that we seek and that our people need.”
For his part, Kerry urged “good faith” and a serious effort by both sides to make “real compromises and hard decisions.” Banging his armchair for emphasis, Kerry insisted that a deal could emerge from the intense, US-led shuttle diplomacy.
“This can be achieved,” he insisted. “President Obama sees a road ahead, as do I, and we share a belief in this process or we wouldn’t put this time into it.”
From Ramallah to Riyadh and Beyond
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister and lead negotiator with the Ramallah-based Palestine Authority, agrees with Netanyahu that Israel and “pragmatic” Sunni states of the Arabian Gulf share common interests in countering the radical Shia threat from Iran.
But in order to vector this convergence of interests into meaningful cooperation, Israel must reach an agreement that puts an end to Palestinian claims, Livni insists. Without a peace deal with Ramallah, it is unrealistic to expect normalized ties with Riyadh or others in the region.
“When you hear the Saudis talking about what needs to be done in order to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, it sounds familiar,” Livni told participants at an Oct. 24 annual conference of the Jerusalem Post.
“Arabic sounds very familiar to Hebrew when it comes to Iran.”
She added, “It’s now very clear that the interests of the State of Israel and pragmatics in the region are the same interests of preventing a nuclear weaponized Iran and to achieve a peace agreement that ends the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
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