Israel and the new Middle East club
Something curious is happening. I first noticed it last September in London at a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu where he made the intriguing point that security cooperation with certain Sunni Arab States was closer than ever. I detected a distinct twinkle in his eye when he said that relations had never been better.
Over the last few months this has become a mantra that I’ve heard surprisingly often, repeated like a soothing yogic chant by senior officials, to protect against the wider regional chaos. Indeed Israel is a founding member of the new Middle East club that is threatened both by Iran and Jihadi terrorism as well as alarmed by the US’s fading role in the region.
At a recent seminar with Israeli security figures this was discussed at great length. There are differing views as to the exact significance of these developments. Is it a short-term period of heightened security cooperation based on common interests or the start of a long-term shift that could change Israel’s strategic alliances in the Middle East forever?
Israel has normalised relations with just two Arab States. Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement in 1979 that signalled the end of the conventional warfare phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict and set out a blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Israel and Egypt suffered a cold peace for many years. But faced with the common threat from ISIS in Sinai and Hamas in Gaza – as well as cooperation between them – the two countries now work very closely together. President Sisi is a modern day miracle to many Israeli Generals having rescued them from the nightmare of a Muslim Brotherhood regime on its doorstep with one foot in Gaza.
Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994 and formalised their existing alliance. Jordan is one of those Middle East states that has defied regional gravity. Against all the odds it has survived and prospered. On more than one occasion Israel played a pivotal role in protecting Jordan from the aggressive intent of neighbouring regimes. For Israel it is the first line of defence against ISIS in Iraq. Further afield there is Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States who have no diplomatic relations with Israel but currently engage in extensive security cooperation.
As Iran intensified its involvement in Syria and Yemen the battle lines have solidified between Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime on one side, and the Saudi-led Sunni alliance on the other. Last year’s P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran deepened the sense of alienation for the Sunni alliance, and this has drawn Israel even closer into the circle of trust – those Arab states who see Iran as the most dangerous country in the region. Israel isn’t involved in Syria, but Hezbollah is its most dangerous military opponent, with the ability to threaten Israeli population centres and civil infrastructure. The recent move by the GCC to outlaw Hezbollah therefore highlighted an intriguing shared strategy.
But that is not all. There are two more areas of common concern. Firstly they are all dealing with the growing threat of Jihadi terrorism as ISIS fertilises radicalisation among young people and acts as a magnet to draw them into its orbit. Finally all these countries are suffering the severe trauma of a US whose role in the region has changed substantially. President Obama’s decision not to bomb Assad in August 2013 was perceived as the moment that their strongest and most important ally could no longer be relied on. President Obama’s statements in his Atlantic interview last month about the Saudi regime and Prime Minister Netanyahu only served to highlight this perception. The need to build a new alliance seemed more important than ever.
So what does all this mean? There are some on the Israeli right who claim that this shows that the Palestinian issue has dropped right off everyone’s list of urgent priorities. That Israel can intensify these relationships and even reach peace agreements in the future while maintaining the status quo with the Palestinians. That is nothing but a fantasy. None of these relationships can progress towards open normalised relations without significant movement towards a proper deal with the Palestinians.
It was intriguing that the French Foreign Minister cited the Arab Peace Initiative as part of the potential basis for discussions at their planned International Peace Conference. Koby Huberman of the Israel Peace Initiative has been discussing these issues with representatives from Arab States for many years. His view is that we need to leverage the Arab Peace Initiative and reach a two-state solution within the context of a regional agreement and create a regional security alliance to confront common threats. He also believes that Arab leaders can help the Palestinians agree on concessions that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Our fixation with bilateral negotiations as the preferred fora vis-à-vis the Palestinians masks the attraction of bringing the Arab States into the negotiations. Concessions to the Palestinians in one room is one thing, but if its clear that that concession will unlock a major breakthrough with a key Arab State in another room then that changes the dynamic considerably.
We are very far away from these scenarios playing out but one thing is clear — the web of alliances in the region has changed significantly. Iran’s bid for hegemony, the threat from Jihadi terrorism and the US stepping back have pulled Israel and the Sunni States into an unexpected group hug. Israel is no longer an ostracised spectator, it’s a real player and that means what lies ahead are hard choices but also very significant opportunities.