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After a century of failed attempts at Arab-Israeli peace, the Obama Administration may have accidentally just produced the key breakthrough to success. Whether you like the Iran deal or not, it realigns the Middle East in a manner that potentially serves its people better. Consider the following possibility: Feeling unprotected, the leading nations of the Sunni Arab world — Saudi Arabia and Egypt — approach the region’s foremost military power, Israel, with the goal of forming a security pact. Unprecedented? Yes. But rightly or wrongly, America’s regional allies feel betrayed by the Obama Administration. The Iran deal empowers a rising regional hegemon backing violent forces hostile to these allies’ vital interests — from the Assad regime in Syria, to Shiite militias in Iraq, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. To paraphrase Bandar bin Sultan quoting Henry Kissinger, the feeling is that America’s friends should fear America more than her enemies should.
This renders some of the historic enmities in the region unaffordable, most importantly, the Arab world’s traditional hostility for Israel. Egyptian, and even Saudi, leaders have recently spoken of Israel in terms almost resembling praise. State-controlled Egyptian media, traditionally venomously hostile to Israel (and to Jews), has lately adopted a more conciliatory tone.
A potential pact might look something like this:
Israel’s initial contribution:
- Israel recognizes and facilitates the establishment of a Palestinian State, governed by the Palestinian Authority. The state’s boundaries are based on the 1999 Camp David map, a formula which has never changed meaningfully. Recognition in the West Bank would take place immediately and in Gaza within one year.
- Israel facilitates accelerated growth in the Palestinian economy through free-trade agreements and investment funds modeled after several that already exist.
Palestine’s initial contribution:
- Palestine recognizes Israel and recognizes this agreement as a final peace agreement. State-controlled media and education systems cease anti-Israel propaganda, freely airing disagreements, but in a spirit of reconciliation and mutual understanding.
Egypt’s initial contribution:
- Egypt’s state-controlled media and education system cease anti-Israel indoctrination, and take the lead in setting a tone conducive to peace throughout the Sunni Arab world.
- Egypt commits a peacekeeping force to Gaza, coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The goal of this force is to deliver Gaza to PA control within one year. Israel lacks the regional legitimacy and the political will to do this. Egypt, in coordination with surrounding Arab states and the PA itself has the legitimacy. Some will argue against Egyptian meddling in Palestinian affairs. Indeed, the Egyptians will face resistance. But there are no perfect solutions in the Middle East. Palestinians in Gaza have no mechanism for ending Hamas rule and reuniting with their West Bank counterparts. Reunion will have to be externally imposed before the two drift apart irreversibly. Remember that Egypt was the sovereign in Gaza between Israeli independence in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967 and has remained actively engaged with the Gazan economy. Egypt has remained committed to Palestinian statehood and is seen by many, even in Gaza, as an honest broker.
Saudi Arabia’s initial contribution:
- The monarchy recognizes Israel, not only formally, as in previous Middle East peace agreements, but actively, wielding state-controlled media and education systems to end anti-Israel vitriol, and promote real understanding of its next-door neighbor, backed by cultural exchange and economic ties.
- Saudi Arabia backs and finances the Egyptian Peace Keeping Force in Gaza.
- Saudi Arabia provides financial assistance to the Palestinian economy to accelerate its growth.
Aside from security cooperation, which would yield vital benefits such as curtailing al-Qaeda, ISIS and Hamas paramilitary activity in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, securing the Kingdom of Jordan’s Northern and Eastern deserts from incursion from elements in Iraq and Syria, and weakening, if not severing Iran’s Syrian link to Hezbollah in Lebanon — providing that country a chance to finally throw off its Syrian/Iranian yoke. This alliance could form a platform to fulfill even grander ambitions.
Millions of jobs must be created in the Arab world, a region that, other than oil and gas, has seen no real GDP growth in a generation. Economic development opportunities unlocked by peace arise from:
- Massive Tourism Potential: This is the seat of the three great monotheistic religions, packed densely with history, underdeveloped nature reserves and coastlines that rival any on earth.
- Water Projects: Already charted on paper for the region and already occurring on the ground in Israel, these projects enable tremendous surges in agricultural production as global food demand rises, with the ironic additional benefit of clean hydroelectric energy production emerging in the heart of the global fossil-fuel industry.
- Solar Energy: Vast expanses of empty desert, with almost no rain, are fertile ground for a global solar mega-project, with energy generation concentrated in the empty desert, and transmission run over land across a newly stabilized Eastern-Mediterranean Basin, to Europe.
These are only examples. The most exciting prospects may be impossible to predict. The vast natural and human resources of the Arab world, newly linked with the densest hub of technology entrepreneurship outside of Silicon Valley, at the geographic nexus of the world’s three most-populated continents, combine to form a powerful platform for innovation in economic development. If successful, the example of growth and prosperity could serve as an aspirational model for the rest of the broken Middle East, offering a blueprint to millions today condemned to hopelessness.
Cynics will instinctively dismiss this vision as delusional. “This is not how the Middle East works.” “The Saudis have never gone out on a limb.” “Conservatives in the Arab world will never stand for it.” These points are true, but a fundamental assumption underlying all of them has suddenly changed. King Salman, Abdel Fatah a Sisi, Mahmoud Abbas and Bibi Netanyahu bear the responsibility of leadership, which should be less concerned with the way things work today than with the way they could work tomorrow. These leaders stand before the most profound challenge of their careers: To seize this historic opportunity to deliver a better future to their people.