Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman last month was an important milestone in the development of relations between Israel and the Persian Gulf states. Less than two weeks later, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz also made a visit to the country.
Meanwhile, Culture Minister Miri Regev visited the United Arab Emirates, where she was invited by local authorities to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in an official capacity. Economy Minister Eli Cohen is set to arrive in Bahrain in the coming days, at the invitation of kingdom officials.
While ties between Israel and the Gulf states have had their ups and downs, they are not new. Alongside diplomatic relations, very strong economic ties have also developed, and, to an even greater extent, security ties, which focus mainly on covert, coordinated efforts for contending with the Iranian threat. But now, the decision by these states—both as individual countries, as well as on a regional level—to make these Israel ties public, and even show them off as a source of strength and security instead of a source of shame, is particularly noteworthy.
Ties with Israel are deemed important due to the understanding that Israel has become a major player in the region and could prove to be an important strategic partner on a number of issues, from contending with Iran and improving ties with the United States to developing the economy and improving security in the region.
This was given expression just last week, when a piece in London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat maintained that no one in the Gulf would soon forget how Israel joined Saudi Arabia in its efforts to patch things up between Riyadh and Washington.
Interestingly, the series of high-profile visits were not met with significant opposition in the Gulf or across the Arab world, indicating that the issue of diplomatic relations with Israel is no longer of major concern in Arab society and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a hindrance to the development of ties between Israel and the Arab states. While the issue is of certain emotional importance to Arab public opinion, in particular in countries that neighbor Israel, it seems that the Arab regimes decided long ago not to let the Palestinians dictate their agenda.
Moreover, some Arab states are for the first time trying to take the lead in the effort to promote an Israeli-Palestinian settlement instead of being dragged into supporting the positions presented by the Palestinians.
The much-publicized visits we have seen in recent weeks are just the tip of the iceberg. Ties between Israel and the Arab world are expanding and branching out beyond the Gulf states; every Arab country in its own way at its own rate—from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Morocco and Tunisia, the latter two countries visited daily by Israeli tourists. Even Sudan will soon follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and allow planes departing for Africa from Israel to use its airspace. The dam has burst.
The relationship between Israel and the Arab world is still fragile, and it is convenient for the Arabs to rally around the Palestinian issue. But there is no doubt that Israel and the Arab world have crossed the Rubicon on the path to establishing a stable—and even close and unconditional—relationship with Israel.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.