The improving relations between Israel and many Sunni Arab states—including those like Saudi Arabia with which it does not have formal diplomatic ties—are hardly a secret. But these countries remain reluctant to acknowledge the relations publicly and have shown little interest in actual normalization. While explaining the reluctance, Moshe Yaalon and Leehe Friedman contend that Arab countries would serve both their own interests and those of the Palestinians by dropping their insistence on a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a prerequisite to normal diplomatic relations with Jerusalem. (Free registration required.)
[T]he pragmatic Arab regimes are wary of being seen publicly as overly keen on normalization before the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been resolved. Their citizens would widely and strongly oppose such a move and perceive it as an abandonment and betrayal of their Palestinian brethren. Even Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic relations with Israel and have cooperated quietly but extensively over security and intelligence matters, are careful not to appear too openly conciliatory toward Israel. . . .
What’s more, Iran, in its quest for hegemony in the Middle East, would surely use any sign of rapprochement with Israel to inflame the Palestinian conflict further. . . . The Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, cannot allow themselves to give Iran or Turkey, [which has aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhood and against the moderate Arab states], any openings to amass political capital in the region. . . .
So far, [however,] conditioning normalization on resolving the conflict has not brought its settlement any closer, and instead has obstructed other moves that would benefit the entire region. . . . The time has come to recognize that treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an obstacle toward normalization is [an] illusion. . . . Today, normalization with Israel in itself serves authentic interests in the pragmatic Arab world. Leaders of these countries understand this, and it has led to closer ties behind the scenes. However, in order to maximize the security, economic, and cultural benefits for all parties, closer ties must become public.
The pragmatic Arab camp will benefit from a loyal ally that can provide significant help in the campaign against regional threats, and add to their international prestige, while Israel will finally gain broad recognition and legitimacy as an integral and constructive part of the Middle East. . . . [G]radual rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world could [even] help Israel and the Palestinians to build mutual trust and find an area of common interests that might lead to a renewal of frank, serious, and more effective negotiations. . . .
This scenario may seem optimistic but it need not remain a pipe dream. . . . The Arab regimes must embark on a long, slow process to end the demonization of Israel and to prepare hearts and minds for closer relations.