Demonstrative diplomatic gestures can lead to a paradigm shift in relations among nations. US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing ended more than two decades of estrangement between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
The 1985 Geneva Summit initiated by former president Ronald Reagan with then-general secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev ultimately helped forge a relationship between the two men that was pivotal in ending the Cold War.
And the 1977 visit of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem 40 years ago this week symbolizes the power of a single diplomatic act to end decades of enmity and warfare.
Each of these cases is an example of how a creative and courageous leader can rise above the status quo to cause a sea change to the trajectory of history. Of course, demonstrative gestures alone are not enough. Mao Zedong would never have agreed to sit down with Nixon if he had not been concerned with Soviet hegemony; Gorbachev would have rejected engagement with the US if the Soviet regime had not been destabilized by a failing economy and the demands of keeping up the arms race; and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem came only after Egypt’s repeated failures to destroy Israel on the battlefield.
Today, also, we believe that circumstances in the Middle East have created an opportunity for a bold leader to take the initiative and use a demonstrative diplomatic gesture to change the geopolitical balance of the region.
Perhaps, as Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested in a Facebook post on Saturday, it could be a Sadat-like visit to Jerusalem by an Arab leader. Such as visit by, say, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, would be a breakthrough in relations between Israel and the coalition of Sunni Arab states that have aligned against Iran.
Such a high-profile visit could help bring about a conceptual change in the way the Arab world views Israel. The message would be that religious and ideological differences can be put aside for the sake of pursuing interests that Israel shares with a number of Sunni nations in the region. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have an interest in weakening Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. The Saudis, the Egyptians, Jordan and the Gulf States all are concerned about Iran’s rising influence, whether it be in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Lebanon.
No less significant would be the impact of such a visit on Israelis. Suddenly, the narrative that Israel is isolated and has no options and no partners would be refuted, or at least questioned. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot set the tone for a new narrative when he said in an interview last week with Elaph, a Saudi newspaper, that Israel “is ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to confront Iran. There are many shared interests between us and Saudi Arabia.”
Another option could be a Geneva-like summit that includes Israel, along with Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. Imagine if the summit taking place right now in Cairo, to discuss confronting Iran and Hezbollah, included a representative from Israel. All the nations at the summit know that without Israeli support it will be difficult – if not impossible – to present an effective front against Iran and Hezbollah.
Another possibility would be a high-profile visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to an Arab country. Like Nixon’s visit to China, a visit by Israel’s head of state could be a watershed event that radically changes the region’s geopolitical balance.
Iran’s success in Syria and its increasing influence in Lebanon have created new challenges for Israel. But these developments have also created new opportunities, by throwing Israel into the same anti-Iranian camp with the Saudis and other Sunni states.
Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem 40 years ago taught us that under the right circumstances a single diplomatic gesture can result in a paradigm shift in relations. The Middle East awaits a bold political leader who has the courage and creativity to take advantage of the situation today.