Iran Threat Pushing Arabs Closer to Normalization With Israel

Mutual fear of Iran has pushed aside the idea that Israel must leave the territories for normalization.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert's article in the Washington Post this month in which he assails U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign against the settlements made a lot of noise in Israel. Few noticed that the paper also published a piece by the crown prince of Bahrain.

In his op-ed, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa notes that peace is not a lightbulb easily switched on, but admits that the Arabs have made public-relations blunders. "An Israeli might be forgiven for thinking that every Muslim voice is raised in hatred," he writes, "because that is usually the only one he hears. Just as an Arab might be forgiven for thinking every Israeli wants the destruction of every Palestinian." Khalifa urges the Arabs to communicate directly with the Israelis and tell them their story.

If Olmert's defense of the settlements was grist for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mill, the Bahraini prince's call for normalization made Obama's weekend. The start of normalization between the nations is a key item on the president's agenda. It's the undertone intended to ease the creation of a blueprint for a final-status agreement.

Having learned the lesson of Annapolis, Washington has concluded that a senior American presence in the negotiating room is needed for talks to succeed. In the first stage, this presence will be a quiet observer, but if the gap between the sides turns out to be too big, the observer will become an active mediator. If all goes according to plan, by the end of the year the international Quartet of Mideast mediators will come out with a detailed road map for regional peace.

In his latest visits to the region, U.S. envoy George Mitchell became even more sure that the mistake of conducting negotiations while disregarding the situation on the ground must not be repeated. He has convinced his superiors to postpone the discussions on a settlement until things are calm and the political process has been protected, as far as possible, from surprises like attacks on Jews or settlements on Palestinian land.

It is Israel that has insisted that the road map's first stage - before solutions are discussed - must be the neutralization of these problems. Ariel Sharon was interested in security problems, while the Palestinians talked about the settlements. Israel cited the Palestinians' difficulty in dismantling "terrorist capabilities and infrastructure," in the language of the road map, as an excuse to put off freezing settlements and evacuating outposts. This chapter ended when Gen. Keith Dayton, responsible for training the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, began to praise the Palestinians at every turn for their efforts to impose order in every city and on every street the Israeli army restored to their control.

At the same time, semi-official envoys such as Thomas Pickering are trying to allay Hamas' fears. (Pickering's latest meeting with Mahmoud al-Zahar, under Swiss auspices, was not his first with the group's leaders in the recent past.) The quiet on the Gaza front - even though Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are ignoring Obama's demand to ease the siege - is not due to the summer heat.

Obama and his staff reject the criticism that they are excessively preoccupied with the settlements and are diverting attention from the key problems of borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. In Washington's view, an Israeli suspension of unilateral acts and Arab moves toward normalization are essential stages in the political process. Obama believes that a visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli journalist will have a greater influence on Israeli public opinion than a visit to Israel by an American president.

But Arab princes are also subject to public opinion. In a meeting about six months ago in Oxford, with the participation of Israelis and Arabs, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was intelligence minister and his country's ambassador to the United States, asked how an Arab ruler would appear in the eyes of his public if he invited an Israeli leader to visit his country and the next day Al Jazeera reported the establishment of a new Israeli settlement. It goes without saying that from their point of view, as from the American point of view, there is no difference between the expansion of an illegal outpost in the West Bank and the construction of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem.

In fact, creating facts near the holy places is more serious. The Arab leaders' original interpretation of their initiative was that normalization would wait for Israel's withdrawal from the territories. Things changed after the priorities changed: The common Iranian threat pushed aside the common Israeli enemy.

Last month, in an article in The Wall Street Journal, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised Israelis to begin normalization measures along with the peace process. The article by the crown prince of Bahrain in The Washington Post is also the product of Obama's effort to enlist the moderate Arab states in a government-bypassing PR campaign to reach Israeli public opinion.

Like Obama, they did not believe that an Israeli leader who likens Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler would declare war on the great American patron. Like Obama, they did not take into account that Israeli leaders' fear of the settlers is greater than all threats.