How to Reset Arab-Israeli Diplomacy

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

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had laid the groundwork for resuming direct negotiations after an almost three-year stalemate. Prior to Kerry's diplomatic breakthrough, the top U.S. diplomat secured the Arab League's endorsement for peace talks after having held successive marathon talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. As a backdrop of these developments, President Barack Obama met over the past couple of months with the leaders from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey to discuss Syria, Iran and the peace process.

In addition to the Obama administration's demonstrated commitment to relaunch Middle East peace talks, the White House has also ratcheted up unprecedented economic sanctions against Tehran over its controversial nuclear program. Although it is certainly unclear whether the election of Hasan Rowhani as Iran's new president could lead to a diplomatic breakthrough, the prospects of direct talks between Washington and Tehran seem better than they ever were during the previous Iranian administration.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

At the same time, negotiations between the world powers and Iran have until now failed to produce their desired results. Instead of solely focusing on a tactical approach to curb Iran's nuclear ambition and quest for regional hegemony, the White House should seek to advance a strategic dialogue - centering on Iran and on how to  reach a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace treaty - between Israel and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Building on Washington's close ties to its GCC allies, the U.S. sought to break the deadlock of the peace process by convening Israel and the Sunni monarchies through the 1991 multilateral Madrid Conference. The U.S. diplomatic initiative contributed to the official beginning of an understanding between Israel and the GCC that shared strategic interests could accelerate the peace process. Indeed, responding to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the pro-Western Arab monarchies formed the GCC in 1981 as a collective security pact meant to serve as a counterweight against Iran and its regional interference.

As a testimony to Washington and Riyadh's shared strategic interests, Saudi Arabia presented in 2002 an ambitious peace plan: Under the Saudi initiative, all members of the Arab League would recognize Israel, provided that the Jewish state withdrew from all territories occupied since June 1967. The Saudi initiative should be seen as an "invitation to peace," and not a "take it or leave it ultimatum."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

As the Syrian crisis unfolds, it has once again become clear that Israel and the GCC share a similar strategic outlook on a host of threat scenarios presented by Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida.

It should also be noted that the Arab Spring has radically transformed the region's geopolitical landscape, in which the Syrian conflict has turned into a battleground for influence between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and of course between the great powers. As each party seeks to shape the outcome of the Syrian crisis to their advantage, it has also become increasingly clear that the fault lines of this high-stakes battle are not merely between Islamist forces fighting the embattled Alawite regime, but rather a sectarian conflict in which the secular Sunni monarchies are seeking to reclaim the Middle East-North Africa region.

By actively supporting regime change in Damascus, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not only seeking to rollback Iran's strategic interests, but also aiming to ultimately exert influence over the Islamist forces that so far have largely benefited from the regional upheavals.

While Israel and the GCC monarchies are actively committed to fighting regional extremist groups, the countries in question also perceive the Arab Spring as a potential source of "instability." However, despite converging geopolitical interests, the GCC countries are nonetheless unlikely to officially recognize Israel – by establishing diplomatic relations – until a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty has been reached.