White House: Now is the time to work on peace and prosperity in the Middle East

White House: Now is the time to work on peace and prosperity in the Middle East
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Contemporary converging interests of countries in the Middle East are not yet understood. Countering the malign activities of Iran; extremism and terrorism; and challenges with water and transportation all present opportunities to work together for a more stable and prosperous region.

One major obstacle to unlock potential in all of these fields has been a lack of formal and transparent relations between Israel and its neighbors. Unlike many countries around the world, countries in the Middle East are not able to benefit from Israel’s innovation and creativity in many of these areas — water desalination and conservation; technology; its expertise in countering the destabilizing effects of terrorism; and Iranian maleficent military exploits, to name a few.

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The region’s true potential has been constrained by the lack of real and meaningful integration of Israel, despite the fact that they all share so many common interests and face the same threats.

In my 22 months working at the White House, I have been fortunate to have had countless hours of meaningful, honest discussions with leaders, high-level officials and ordinary people in the Middle East. I was pleasantly surprised to hear what they had to say about the substantial and significant work they were doing with Israel and about the progress they were making together.

But until recently, most of this was behind closed doors — and much of it still is.

All of these countries were reluctant to publicly say what many willingly proclaimed privately. This is based on a fear that has origins in a bygone policy from 51 years ago — the Khartoum, or the Three No’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel.

Of note, two of the eight attendees of that Khartoum Arab League Summit (Jordan and Egypt) have since signed peace treaties with Israel and are reaping some economic and security benefits from those treaties. While many more benefits can be gained on the economic front among Israel, Egypt and Jordan, these were important steps in the right direction.

What was behind closed doors is now slowly coming to light. The foreign minister of Oman recently commented at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain that:

Israel is a state that is present in this region. We all understand this, we know this; the world is also aware of this fact. But despite that, Israel is not being treated by the other countries as it is treating the other countries. Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and it should also bear the same obligations as other countries. Why? Those are really facts. [...] We are in a world that is developing, and Israel has capabilities that allow it to benefit and to be beneficial for others, for the suffering of the Palestinians, the suffering of the Arabs and also the suffering of Israelis and Jews all over the world.  

These comments came days after Omani sultan Qaboos bin Said welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Oman on an official visit.

Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Khalifa, has allowed Bahraini ministers and other government representatives to meet with high-level Israelis. On several occasions, the king has publicly opposed anti-Israeli boycotts. Earlier this month, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Khalifa posted a tweet endorsing the Israeli prime minister’s position on Saudi Arabia’s role in the region: “Despite existing disagreement, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu has a clear position with regard to the importance of stability in the region and of the Saudi role in such stability.”

There are now multiple examples of thawing relations between Israel and its neighbors, and officials from Arab countries are not afraid of being seen with Israeli officials. The ambassadors of the United Arab Emirates and Israel were not uncomfortable to be seated at the same table for an event in Washington. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, recently rightly touted Egypt’s leadership as the first Arab country to forge diplomatic relations with Israel, saying: “When Sadat raised his idea of peace, no one thought that this idea would be acceptable to the general opinion.” He said now it is supported by most Egyptians and is “stable and permanent.”

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Another milestone in rapprochement came as an Israeli athlete competed and won in a judo tournament last week in the UAE. The Israeli minister for culture and sports, in Abu Dhabi supporting the Israeli delegation competing for the first time in the Gulf under the Israeli flag, was moved to tears as she sang along with the Israeli national anthem during the medal ceremony.

This is not to say that the Arab countries are not concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — on the contrary, they remain committed to trying to help the Palestinian people. But they are clearly realizing and prioritizing their own national interests. The Trump administration has been working with the region on this focus and approach and is pleased to see that our many friends in the region are beginning to work together to address their common challenges.

A stronger region is an American national interest, and the Trump administration would like our friends to be working together on security and prosperity for the region, including Israel and its neighbors. All of these efforts are not meant to leave the Palestinians behind; on the contrary, they will help pave the path to a possible peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

This is the time to work together for stability and prosperity. There are real threats and real challenges to all the countries of the region. Palestinians are faced with the same threats and can only stand to benefit from these efforts. Working together, Israel and its neighbors can finally strive for the potential they all deserve.

Following the old rules — the Khartoum “Three No’s” and the Palestinian Authority’s and PLO’s anti-normalization policies — hurts everyone. Such old-fashioned policies are now proven to not be helpful, are almost certainly harmful to all and drive peace between Israelis and Palestinians further away. It is time for a change, and it is heartening to see some Arab leaders exercising the boldness needed to achieve it.

Jason D. Greenblatt is an assistant to the president and special representative for International Negotiations. Follow him on Twitter at @jdgreenblatt45.