In recent years, it has become part of conventional wisdom in Israel that there are unprecedented opportunities for regional security cooperation between Israel and the conservative Sunni Arab regimes: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however, these new opportunities have meant different things to different people in Israel. Some see it as providing a greater incentive and opportunity to resolve the conflict; others see it as a tacit acceptance of the status quo. The recent crisis triggered by the killing of two Israeli policemen outside of Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) compound and resulting installation of new Israeli security controls demonstrates both the power and limits of Israel’s evolving ties with the conservative Sunni Arab regimes.
Israel and the Sunni Arab Regimes
Since the 2014 Gaza War (Operation “Protective Edge” in the Israeli lexicon), current and former Israeli politicians and defense officials have repeatedly emphasized the possibility of wide-ranging regional security cooperation with the Sunni Arab regimes. In September 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. General Assembly, “After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that together, we and they face many of the same dangers, and principally, this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world.”
In the three years since, this perception has been turned into an article of faith that is often repeated in policy-making circles. While few challenge the point, as time passed, Israeli officials have disagreed on whether making peace with the Palestinians is in fact a quid pro quo that Sunni Arab regimes expect in return for cooperation. Amos Gilead, who, prior to his recent retirement, spent the last 13 years as head of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Bureau working closely with Egypt and Jordan, declared in March 2017 that there is a lot that could be done with the Saudis and Emiratis, but that “there has to be progress on the Palestinian track.” On the other hand, Gideon Sa‘ar, a senior Likud politician and former senior government minister, has argued that Israel need not “pay a price for this cooperation with fundamental concessions that harm our essential interests on the Israeli-Palestinian front.” He added that cooperation with Arab regimes was “based on overlapping interests on the security level and that the Arab regimes depend on such cooperation no less than Israel does.” Israel Katz, another senior Likud politician and the Minister of both Intelligence and Transportation in the current government, attempts to bridge the gap between these two perspectives. His “three-layered” regional security plan combines full security cooperation with Sunni Arab regimes with active economic cooperation with the Palestinians as an interim step towards peace. According to Katz, Israel’s security cooperation with the Arab regimes would take place alongside progress in the Palestinian sphere, rather than making security cooperation contingent on the success or failure of peacemaking.