On Sunday, Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev—one of the Netanyahu cabinet’s most vocal critics of the Palestinians—became the first senior Israeli official to visit Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The same day, after years of being forbidden to display national symbols at Gulf sporting events, the Israeli national anthem played when the Israeli judo team won a gold medal at the International Judo Federation’s Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi. Next week, Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz will visit Oman and Communications Minister Ayoob Kara will visit Abu Dhabi. An Israeli gymnastics team is also currently competing in Qatar.
These moments of soft diplomacy appear to be bearing fruit for Israel’s foreign-policy agenda. After Netanyahu’s visit, Oman’s foreign minister stated, “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. The world is also aware of this fact.” Bahrain’s foreign minister expressed support for Oman’s role in trying to catalyze Israeli-Palestinian peace, and his Saudi Arabian counterpart declared that the peace process was key to normalizing relations.
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The biggest prize for Israel is, indeed, a relationship with Saudi Arabia — a goal that has been pushed and encouraged by Donald Trump’s administration, particularly the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who’s established a close tie with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MbS. Hurdles include King Salman’s desire to ensure that his impulsive son doesn’t give too much to the Israelis too soon and MbS’s alleged involvement in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which might lead him to cut a lower profile internationally. But there are signs that the Saudis are giving up their old hard-line opposition to Israel. When Trump moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia had a decidedly low-key reaction; Saudi Arabia opened its air space to Air India’s commercial flights to Israel; an unofficial Saudi delegation visited Israel to push the Arab Peace Initiative; and it’s been reported that the Israelis are selling the Saudis millions in surveillance equipment, and even assisting MbS with his security.
Something is clearly happening.
The Arab world’s new openness to Israel is driven in part by increasing impatience and annoyance with the Palestinians. The record of Arab-state betrayal and conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organization is well known. Indeed, with the exception of Egypt, every Arab state that shares common borders with Israel has fought bloody battles with the Palestinian national movement. Today the Saudis and Egyptians are frustrated with a weak Mahmoud Abbas and worried about Hamas. The silence of the Arab world in the face of recent Israeli-Hamas confrontations in Gaza, including the last major conflict, in 2014, which claimed more than 2,000 Palestinian lives, was deafening.