Israel and the Arab States

A Historic Opportunity to Normalize Relations?

Israelis carry flags outside Jerusalem's Old City, June 5, 2016. Amir Cohen / Reuters

In recent years, a noticeable shift has taken place between Israel and the Sunni Arab world: the scope of common interests between them has widened, and they have found themselves successfully cooperating on a number of strategically important issues, such as security, energy, and the sharing of natural resources. Although most of these efforts take place behind the scenes, some have happened in the public eye. Only a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for the Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff to give an exclusive interview to Saudi media, as Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot did in November of last year, confirming Israel’s willingness “to exchange information with the moderate Arab nations, including intelligences” and noting that on certain matters, “there is complete agreement between us and Saudi Arabia.”

But to grasp the opportunity that now lies before Israel and the Sunni Arab world, we must first examine their relationship in the broader historical context of Israeli–Arab relations, in the current state of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and in light of the recent political changes within the Middle East as a whole.


Until the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1960s, the Palestinian quest for self-determination was no more than one layer in the broader clash between Israel and the Arab countries. The Sunni Arab world simply refused to accept the establishment of the Jewish state, as exemplified by its marked resistance to the UN’s 1947 plan to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jewish leadership accepted this plan, but the region’s determined opposition confirmed that its interest in preventing the emergence of the Jewish state trumped its commitment to self-determination for the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine. 

Even after Israel announced its statehood in 1948 and defeated the Arab countries in its war of independence, it continued to be seen as a foreign and temporary intruder that had to be ousted. The Palestinian issue was the Arab world’

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