by Prof. Eyal Zisser
Between Iran's hegemonic ambitions and the threat posed by Islamic State, the future of the entire region is at stake, and this reality lends the role Israel can play even greater importance
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, backed by Saudi Arabia, has been working tirelessly over the past few weeks to promote a diplomatic move that would pave the road to dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with the aim of ensuring political tensions in the Palestinian Authority do not escalate, and facilitate continued security collaboration between Israel and the PA.
This Egyptian-Saudi move does not have one set goal when it comes to the Palestinian Authority, seeking instead to put in place the foundation for a framework of regional cooperation with Israel opposite the challenges the nations of the Middle East face.
This Egyptian and Saudi activity reflects the strategic change the Middle East has undergone in recent years. In the past, regional leaders would point the finger at Israel as the reason for any internal crisis in their countries, and at times even pursue escalation on their borders with it, so to distract local public opinion from the troubles at home. Regional leaders still look at Israel, but they no longer see it as a scapegoat that can be used to appease grumbling at home. Now they see it as a potential partner, an ally which may prove helpful in meeting the considerable challenges they face.
Egypt is facing a growing threat of radical Islamic terrorism in the form of Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State group's Sinai Peninsula-based proxy. The long list of terrorist attacks striking at major Egyptian cities is proof this threat is slowly edging closer to Cairo, all while the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Hamas, continues to undermine el-Sissi's efforts to ensure domestic stability and prosperity.
Furthermore, this already complex situation is clouded by the cold shoulder the Americans are showing el-Sissi in his hour of need.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, is in Iran's crosshairs. Riyadh and Tehran are no longer engaged in a battle by proxy, and are now on a direct collision course. The two have severed their diplomatic ties and are now knee-deep in Yemen's troubles, where the regime is trying to fend off the Houthi rebels. The Iranians now have a solid foothold in Yemen, Saudi Arabia's backyard, and they are heavily involved in the wars raging in Iraq and Syria.
Riyadh also has to contend with Islamic State, and the jihadi group is sparing no effort to destabilize the kingdom's regime.
Between Iran's hegemonic ambitions and the threat posed by Islamic State, the future of the entire region is at stake, and this reality lends the role Israel can play even greater importance. This is why Egypt and Saudi Arabia's efforts no longer seek simply to defuse escalations that could breed war, nor are they geared solely toward promoting the Palestinian issue. This time, real and comprehensive regional cooperation is the ultimate goal, one that could bolster stability and security in the Middle East.
Jordan and Turkey have come to realize the same: Jordan now relies on Israel for its supply of drinking water and natural gas, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- facing the growing threat of Islamic State and potential Iranian-Russian moves in Syria that would undermine his own efforts in the war-torn country -- is actively pursuing warmer ties with Israel.
Neither Egypt nor the Saudis have a magic solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or for the Hamas-Fatah strife. Still, as this issue represents the lowest common denominator around which Arab public opinion can unite, marking any achievement in this arena is important.
For Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey, however, the long-term goal seeks to stretch farther than ever before, and it may even exceed Israel's own expectations, despite the fact that the Palestinian issue will continue to prevent the secret ties pursued over shared interests from becoming a full-fledged alliance.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
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