Re-posted in part from The Washington Post.

Quietly since 2002, several Sunni Arab rulers have shifted away from their long-standing hostility toward Israel to focus on the threat posed by Iran.

They have acted in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative, also known as the Saudi peace plan, which called on the Arab League to terminate belligerency with Israel. It also envisioned a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel in exchange for Israel withdrawing to the June 4, 1967 lines and agreeing to “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem” that accorded with “UN General Assembly Resolution 194 while rejecting all forms of patriation.”

Israel refused to accept the resettlement of millions of Palestinians and their descendants, which has obscured how this public gesture represented a radical departure from the infamous “three no’s” that once guided Arab foreign policy: No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel and no recognition of Israel.

To be sure, while Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab rulers publicly reject peace with Israel until the Palestinian issue is resolved, changing Middle Eastern dynamics have created new priorities for Gulf Arab rulers and opened up new opportunities for regional alliances.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Gamal Abdel Nasser guided Arab opinion and policy. In the decades that followed, other Arab leaders attempted — but ultimately failed — to replicate Nasser’s success, including Hafez al-Assad, Moammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. These leaders lacked Nasser’s charisma and popular legitimacy, and their brutality and intervention in other Arab countries obstructed Arab unity.

If there was one issue that publicly unified the Arab world during this period, it was support for the Palestinians and hatred toward Israel. And yet, Arab rulers freely cast the Palestinians aside when it suited their needs. In 1970, King Hussein expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization from Jordan after it attempted to overthrow his kingdom. Lebanon expelled the PLO during the Lebanese Civil War in 1982. And in the 1990s, Kuwait and Libya expelled thousands of Palestinians.

During the rule of the Shah between 1953 and 1979, Iran was not a major competitor for Islamic influence or regional leadership on the Palestinian issue. The Shah was much more concerned with building a massive military and intelligence service to suppress any dissent within his country. He was also a reliable ally of the West. As such, in 1950 Iran recognized Israel and supplied it with oil and intelligence.

Today, however, regional power dynamics have shifted in ways that have reshaped priorities with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. …

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Michael Sharnoff, Ph.D.


Dr. Michael Sharnoff is the Director of Regional Studies at DMGS, where he is an Associate Professor of Middle East Studies. He is the author of Nasser’s Peace: Egypt’s Response to the 1967 War with Israel (2017).

Dr. Sharnoff has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has lived in three major world capitals. He has congressional experience on Capitol Hill; worked at influential policy centers in Washington; and publishes frequently on the Middle East. His articles have appeared in major publications including The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Al Arabiya, Palestine-Israel Journal and Your Middle East. He completed a Ph.D. in Middle East Studies from King’s College, London, and his research interests include the Arab-Israeli conflict, Political Islam and contemporary Middle Eastern history.