How to Reset Arab-Israeli Diplomacy

The Gulf States could be the key to unlocking Middle East peace.

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Building on Obama's recent achievement of facilitating Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, coupled with his top diplomat's breakthrough on Mideast peace talks, Washington should once again use its leverage to convene a multilateral forum centering on how to advance Israeli-GCC dialogue. Aside from focusing on how to accelerate peace talks, Washington could also facilitate a strategic dialogue that centers on Syria and Iran.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the U.S. Discourage Israel From Attacking Iran?]

However, there are clear pitfalls that could topple our proposed Israel-GCC dialogue. Most notably, while the GCC states continue to perceive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a source for regional instability, exploited by Iran and its proxies, they also remain distrustful of Israel's intentions to reach an understanding with the Palestinians. For that reason, the GCC monarchies want to see progress made and generally believe Israeli concessions towards the Palestinians are necessary for talks to succeed. Israel on the other hand, feels that despite common concern over Iran's nuclear program, and the GCC countries enormous acquisition of U.S. military technology, ultimately the Jewish state is left with the "heavy lifting."

In order to successfully launch a viable strategic dialogue, all parties must carry out confidence-building measures. For Israel, that would likely entail establishing another settlement freeze. In return, Saudi Arabia could grant El Al, Israel's national airline, overflight rights. Further down the line, should peace talks hit a critical momentum, it is also conceivable that the UAE, Qatar and Oman would agree to allow Israel to reopen a trade office in their respective capitals.

Although there is likely to be a considerable distance between Israel and the GCC on how to launch a strategic dialogue, a natural starting point for the White House would be to approach Oman and Qatar.

As a supporter of the Middle East peace process, Oman was the only Arab League member not to boycott Egypt after its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Oman also enjoys close relations with Iran and has repeatedly served as a mediator between Tehran and Washington. As a testimony to its effective policy of neutrality, Oman successfully mediated the release of three U.S. hikers, accused by Tehran of "espionage" in 2011. 

As Iran is growing increasingly isolated, both regionally and internationally, an "Omani channel" to the West can arguably also serve Tehran's interests.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the Obama Administration Do More in Syria?]

At the same time, Oman has since 1996 maintained quiet, but uninterrupted diplomatic relations with Israel by chairing the Middle East Desalination Research Center, a multilateral organization dedicated to facilitate water cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is fair to assume that without MEDRC's contribution, Israeli and Palestinian water cooperation would likely cease to exist, adding to the current volatility in peace talks between the two sides.

In recent years, as Qatar increased its influence across the MENA region, Doha also forged strong ties with Hamas. However, as Qatar and Iran are currently battling one another in Syria, it is conceivable that Tehran could ultimately lose its influence in Gaza to Doha, a move that potentially could help moderate Hamas' stance vis-a-vis Israel. While Qatar may help bring regional Islamist movements, including in Syria, towards the political center, Saudi Arabia is likely to be the only Arab country that can provide the Palestinian leadership with the religious and political legitimacy that it needs to sign an agreement which addresses the core issues, especially when it comes to the status of Jerusalem and its various holy places.

Oman, as the only GCC member to enjoy close relations with Iran, could potentially also leverage its influence to reduce tensions over Tehran's nuclear program.