Analysis & Opinions - Chicago Sun-Times

Emerging Sunni-Israeli Alliance Holds Hope for Mideast Peace

  • Raja Kamal
| Mar. 29, 2007

For the first time in the Middle East, there is now an organic and parallel common interest between Israel and Sunni Arabs. They now need each other to balance and combat Iran's increased power and clout in the region. Could this shared interest become an opportunity to finally enhance the chances of a lasting peace in the area? Such an opportunity is now here and may be a solution for the political impasse.

Soon after the war of its founding in 1948, Israel had a series of three wars with Sunni Arabs. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan -- all dominantly Sunnis, were prominent players in these conflicts. The last of these was the war of October 1973, better known as the Yom Kippur War. Since then, Israel's two Lebanese wars have been with Hezbollah -- the Shiite Arabs.

In the beginning, Israel sought alliances and connections with non-Arab nations and entities in the Middle East. To counter the region's Sunni Arabs, Israel allied with Turkey (predominantly Sunni non-Arab), Iran (predominantly Shiite non-Arab), and the non-Arab Kurds in the north of Iraq. More than half a century later, the dynamics in the Middle East have changed dramatically. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel. Iran's shah has been replaced by a theocratic regime that has increasingly used the opposition of Israel to strengthen its foundering domestic base. And Saddam Hussein has been toppled, giving rise to Shiite dominance in Iraq that today seems to be in complete harmony with the mullahs of Iran.

Iran's clout in Iraq has dramatically and unintentionally expanded with the changes to the Iraqi government. The removal of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a new dominantly Shiite government have made it possible for Iran to exercise strategic political leverage over Arab countries like Lebanon with sizable Shiite populations. With a nuclear development program capable of producing nuclear weapons, the potential for Iran to further threaten regional stability increases. Israel and the Sunni Arab regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan all view Iran's new role with fear and suspicion. With Iran emerging as the common enemy of Israelis and Sunni Arabs, Israel and Sunni nations will likely look to collaborating with each other. The dynamics are changing quickly.

Saudi Arabia has emerged as the center of diplomatic activities within the Arab Sunnis, and the Israelis seem to be somewhat comfortable with this. The Saudi peace proposal that was flatly declined by Israel in 2002 is now showing signs of life. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minster, recently described the plan as "interesting, and has many sections that I would be willing to accept." Tzipi Livni, Israel's minister of foreign affairs, remarked that "there are positive elements in the Saudi initiative, but some of its clauses are contrary to the principle of two states."

The plan proposes that in return for full peace with the Arabs, Israel will return all occupied land and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel's main objection to the Saudi plan has been this "right of return" component. Later this week, the Arab League will present a somewhat similar proposal with the likelihood of more emphasis on compensation to the Palestinian refugees rather than repatriation.

There is now an opportunity for the Bush administration to support the Saudi effort. It is the starting point for a comprehensive and organic peace in the Middle East. The reputation of President Bush and his administration -- currently linked to the Iraq quagmire -- could be salvaged somewhat if the Saudi initiative takes off.

During the last five years, much has happened in the Middle East. The region is now increasingly chaotic, radical and hopeless. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq have been marginalized and may never regain the power that they had held for centuries. The Shiites of Lebanon have emerged defiant and unified with Iranian help. The balance of power has shifted in favor of Iran and its role as a powerbroker. The Sunni-Israeli alliance is emerging as a natural counterbalance against Iran and its allies in the Middle East.

If the regional reach of Iran is credited with helping depress any chances of peace in the Middle East, its over-reach may ironically be just what was needed to revive it.

Raja Kamal is associate dean for resource development at the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kamal, Raja.“Emerging Sunni-Israeli Alliance Holds Hope for Mideast Peace.” Chicago Sun-Times, March 29, 2007.

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