Rumors of a dramatic regional initiative with “the Sunni states” have popped up in Israel before. Indeed, rumors of a historic window of opportunity were the basis for the talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog on establishing a national unity government last September.
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This week, however, The Wall Street Journal reported on a document drafted by representatives of the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. According to the document, these countries would agree to take steps toward normalization with Israel if Israel took steps toward the Palestinians like a partial construction freeze in settlements in certain parts of the West Bank and an easing of trade restrictions on Gaza.
It turns out that not only U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson but also the Saudis want to make a deal in the Middle East. This is a proposal for a partial normalization that already appears in the Saudi initiative, and its enticements are directly connected to the commercial sphere.
The Arab states propose steps like establishing direct telecommunications between Israel and certain Arab countries, allowing Israeli airlines to fly through the Gulf states’ airspace and eliminating trade restrictions with Israel. Other steps toward normalization are also being considered like granting visas to Israeli athletes and businessmen seeking to travel to the Gulf. In exchange, the Sunni states demand that Israel take significant steps to advance the peace process with the Palestinians, first and foremost freezing construction outside the settlement blocs.
This initiative fits well with the spirit of peace as a business that has emanated from Washington ever since the businessman Trump was elected president. It’s both desirable and possible to make “the ultimate deal” in the Middle East, Trump says, and everyone could profit.
The deal the Gulf states are proposing could prove to be a trap for Netanyahu. At first glance, it looks like one that’s hard to refuse. At a truly bargain price – Israel doesn’t even have to evacuate settlements but only freeze construction outside the settlement blocs – Israel would achieve commercial normalization with the Gulf states. Obviously, Netanyahu himself would have to pay a high price because announcing a settlement freeze could break up his governing coalition. But business is business: There’s no profit without risk.
Although the language is economic, the initiative might result in a historic breakthrough in the Middle East and provide infrastructure for a regional peace. Therefore Netanyahu would be wise to accept this initiative and announce a construction freeze in the settlements. Israel would show that its sights are set on peace, and even before then, it would be rewarded by what until not long ago it could only dream about: normalization with the Gulf states.