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Monday, May 18, 2009

Israel and Arab nations in rare agreement

ANALYSIS: Abraham Rabinovich

Article from: The Australian

"FOR the first time in the history of Zionism," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, "there is an alignment of views between the Arab world and Israel."

He was speaking a few hours after returning from talks with Jordan's King Abdullah and three days after meeting Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in Sinai.

Although Netanyahu didn't say what the Arabs and Jews agreed about, it was clear he meant Iran. "There is a strategic threat confronting all of us," he said on Israel television. "This is something new. It creates a challenge but it is also an opportunity for co-operation."

In his talks with the leaders of the two Arab countries which have peace agreements with Israel and his designation of a common interest, Netanyahu was setting himself up for his visit with President Barack Obama on Monday when the parameters of US-Israel relations will be determined by the two new leaders.

While the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran is clearly Israel's major strategic concern, there are some analysts who suspect Netanyahu may also be using Tehran as a bogey man to divert pressures on him by Washington on the Palestinian front.

Netanyahu's optimistic assessment of his talks with Abdullah were out of sync with the undiplomatic tone of the Jordanian foreign ministry statement which said the King had "demanded" of Netanyahu to declare his acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state.

While Israel and the moderate Arab leadership share alarm about the hard-edged regime in Iran, their concern comes from different directions. Israel is concerned about Tehran achieving nuclear capability, and its support of Hamas and Hezbollah. Mubarak, who heads the largest and most prestigious Arab country, knows Tehran is unlikely to threaten another Muslim nation with destruction.

He fears Iran's increasingly bold attempts to achieve hegemony in the Middle East.

Although Mubarak might pray for an Israeli air strike on Iran, he would never say so since, for his people, and the Arab masses in general, the main enemy is Israel. The fact Iran is a Shia Muslim state and Egypt is at the heart of the Sunni world is also a factor.

The same concerns are true for Abdullah. Although he publicly calls for a Palestinian state, his nightmare is finding a radical Hamas-controlled state as his neighbour, with Iran at its back.

With Obama's accession, Israel finds itself for the first time dealing with a president whose strong support cannot be taken for granted. Washington is likewise uncertain about Netanyahu - as witnessed by the secret dispatch two weeks ago of CIA director Leon Panetta to Jerusalem to get Netanyahu's pledge that Israel will not stage a surprise attack against Iran's nuclear installations.

Netanyahu gave that assurance but asked in return for benchmarks to determine whether Washington's diplomatic efforts in Tehran were working.