Common enemies and shared interests have aligned the Saudis, the Egyptians, and other Arabs with the Jewish state. That's the good news.
“The status quo is unsustainable,” President Obama said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon after taking office in 2009. “The status quo is unsustainable,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told AIPAC in March 2010. “The status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon averred in 2013. This year, Secretary of State John Kerry, with his customary light touch, informed the Munich Security Conference: “Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100-percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable.”
What is usually meant by this assertion is something quite specific: that in the “occupied territories” of Gaza and the West Bank, a Palestinian state must very soon be erected—or else. “It is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side-by-side in their own states in peace and security,” Obama added in that 2009 statement. He has repeated the line endlessly, and so has every world leader except for Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei (who has a rather different objective in mind).
But 66 years after the founding of the state of Israel, and 47 years after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza, the status quo has once again confirmed its (relative) merits, while a history of repeated efforts to upend it precipitously has once again exposed an often reckless folly. The status quo has outlasted the cold war, the Oslo-fed dreams of a “new Middle East,” and the hopes for an Arab Spring; it has endured decades of war and intifada, and has proved more durable than many of the leaders and regimes who have insisted that it cannot and must not be sustained. Israelis who spent this past summer dodging Hamas rockets and sending their sons to fight in Gaza must wonder, not for the first time, why it is “critical” to implement Obama’s solution to their problems rather than to defeat terrorism and more broadly the ceaseless Arab and Muslim assaults on the Jewish state. Why are these not the status quo that the whole world agrees is unsustainable?
In truth, of course, much has changed in the Middle East and consequently in Israel’s strategic situation—for which some credit can be assigned to the latter’s ability to sustain the status quo. Consider: Israel fought wars against Arab states in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Defeat might have meant extinction; and, especially in 1948 and 1973, defeat seemed entirely plausible. After the Israeli victory in June 1967, the Arab League pledged itself to the “Three No’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. Moreover, this universal and implacable Arab hostility was backed by the Soviet Union, one of the world’s two superpowers.
Today the USSR is gone and Israel has both peace treaties and close and cooperative security arrangements with Egypt and Jordan. It is not an exaggeration to say that Egypt’s military ties are more intimate today with Israel than with the U.S. In 2002, 35 years after the “Three No’s,” there came the Saudi Plan, a proposal by then-Crown Prince (now King) Abdallah offering comprehensive peace and the establishment of normal relations in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967. Of course, the sweeping terms (including, for example, relinquishment of the Old City of Jerusalem) were unacceptable; but here were the Saudis and then the entire Arab League publicly stating that recognition and even normalization were now thinkable, no longer a crime or a heresy.
Today, several of the most important Arab regimes that have long been closest to the United States (Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia), as well as the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, share with Israel a common view of the major dangers facing them. For each, as Jonathan Rynhold of the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University describes it, “the key threats come from Iran and from radical Sunni Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. They seek to maintain and promote a balance of power against these forces.”
This helps to explain regional reactions to the latest Israel-Hamas conflict. Despite their rhetorical invocations of Palestinian suffering, all of these states and the PA were clearly hoping for an Israeli victory and a real setback for Hamas....
.The Saudis were now acting as they had in 2006 when Israel went to war with Hizballah: that is, with public statements of humanitarian concern hiding a private hope that the Iranian proxy would be severely damaged. Of course, Hizballah is Shiite, so no one in 2006 really expected the Saudis and other Sunni Arabs to be shedding anything but crocodile tears. In 2014, by contrast, the instigators, Hamas, were themselves Sunni, yet even so, and notwithstanding the ritual statements of concern—the minimum demanded by considerations of domestic politics—Egyptian and Saudi reaction was cold: let Hamas be beaten down.
Here it is necessary to enter a qualification: this being the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend, especially if he is a Jew. But that there is a realignment of interests and world views is unquestionable. The Saudis under King Abdallah, Egypt under General (now President) Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Jordan under King Abdullah, the PA under President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are essentially status-quo powers fearing and fighting the same enemies—enemies who wish to overturn the regional order and establish either an Iranian hegemony or an Islamist caliphate. All this leaves Israel and many Arab heads of state eyeing each other as potential allies rather than as perpetual foes.
Why not be optimistic, then, about how regional politics will evolve? Might the Saudi Plan of 2002 offer a pathway to reconciliation sooner rather than later? Is Israel perhaps on the verge of an era of peace, with true reconciliation now closer than ever? Is now the right time for the United States to propose an updated version of the “peace process”?
The answer is no—and not only because, in the Middle East, it is always inadvisable to discount the virtues of the status quo compared with what may be coming next. There are at least five additional factors to consider. The most tractable of them, at least in the medium term, may be the new face of American policy. The most unyielding are the rise of Iran, the growth of Sunni extremism, the very old problems of Palestinian politics, and the persisting hatreds of “the Arab street.”
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