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In Sign of Changing Region, Gulf States Float Major Upgrade in Ties with Israel

Arab Gulf states have offered to improve ties with Israel if it intensifies efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The potential steps could include allowing Israeli planes to fly over their territory, establishing direct telecommunication access to Israel, easing some limits on trade, and issuing visas to Israeli sports teams and trade delegations.

In exchange, the Gulf states would ask Israel to make another overture aimed at restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. Previously, Gulf states have conditioned improved ties on Israel inking a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Their position was outlined in an unpublished discussion paper circulating among several Gulf states.

“We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity,” one senior Arab official involved in the talks told the Journal.

Ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies began warming in 2011, after fallout from the so-called Arab Spring helped Iran and ISIS spread their influence in the region, according to officials involved in the talks.

Israel and the Gulf states have since shared intelligence more frequently, especially about Iranian arms smuggling to its regional proxies.

In one case related by American officials, Israel tracked an Iranian ship heading towards Yemen with arms for Houthi rebels, which are fighting against the country’s Saudi-backed government. Israel alerted the United States, which intercepted the ship.

Israel has similarly provided Egypt with aerial and human intelligence to support its fight against ISIS in the Sinai. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sent Egypt billions in aid to fight the terror group.

Two Israeli companies have also recently sold their systems to the UAE. Verint Systems, which is based in New York but is mostly run out of Israel, signed a $100 million contract in 2014 to monitor all the traffic on the nation’s two state-owned telecoms networks. Likewise, Israel-based NSO Group Technologies has sold the UAE surveillance software.

The Arab nations understand that a peace deal “is unlikely to be reached between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future,” according to the Journal, but they want to see Israel intensify efforts to pursue a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians before they improve ties.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported in February on the growing but generally secret commercial ties between Israel and the Gulf states. According to the report, while the Arab boycott of Israel is still officially on the books, “the volume and range of Israeli activity in at least six Gulf countries is getting hard to hide.”

In October 2016, prominent Saudi commentator Salman al-Ansari called for a “collaborative alliance” between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would be rooted in open commercial ties and cement their positions as “twin pillars of stability” in the Middle East.

Minister Ayoob Kara, Israel’s point-man for engagement with the Arab world, said in a profile published last August in Tablet Magazine, “our relations with our neighbors are the best they’ve ever been.”

[Photo: Council on Foreign Relations / YouTube ]