Geopolitics

Enemy of My Enemy: Why are so many Arab countries suddenly working so openly with Israel?

The Signal

Why are so many Arab countries suddenly working so openly with Israel? Steven Cook on the persistent threat of Iran, the waning influence of the U.S., and the fate of the Palestinians.
After decades of armed conflict and entrenched hostility, a group of Arab states has begun collaborating with Israel, including on military issues. Israel announced on June 20 that it and its Arab partners had created the Middle East Air Defense Alliance as a shield against Iranian missiles and drones. The pact likely includes the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Morocco, joined by the United States, with the full membership to be announced during U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East in mid-July. This new security alliance is just the latest step in the normalization of Israel in the Arab world. In March, for the first time, the Israelis hosted a summit with the foreign ministers of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The cooperation among Israel and Arab countries signals a transformation in the region: Every Arab state refused even to recognize the existence of the Jewish state for decades after its founding in 1948. Israel fought wars against multiple Arab armies in 1947-48, 1967, and 1973, as well as wars against Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and nearly all Arab rulers used to single out Israel as the root cause of all their region’s problems. What’s changed?
Steven Cook is a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. As Cook sees it, Arab leaders’ views on their security and on Israel have changed in recent decades, with a consensus emerging among them that Iran represents the greatest threat to their security—after generations of Arabs grew up seeing Israel as the biggest regional danger. The new defense coalition also reveals a changing power balance in the Middle East. After many years when the U.S. took responsibility for the security of Israel and Gulf Arab countries, Cook says, U.S. administrations from Barack Obama’s onward have tried to disentangle Washington from the turbulent region, and the alliance shows local powers responding by taking charge of their defenses. According to Cook, Arab leaders are also motivated by substantial economic and technological opportunities in Israel. But it’s unclear what the new Arab-Israeli cooperation means for Palestinians. Arab countries had long shunned—and gone to war against—Israel over their status, but Arab and Israeli leaders now appear to be losing interest in resolving the conflict.
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Michael Bluhm: What’s driving the normalization of Israel in the Arab world?
Steven Cook: It used to be just commercial relations. Now there’s this new defense alliance, and suddenly there’s an Israeli Defense Forces representative in Bahrain, which is only 80 miles from Saudi Arabia. Those are extraordinary developments.
Two things are driving the normalization of Israel and of Israel’s defense capabilities. The first is that Iran remains a destabilizing, revolutionary power in the region that poses threats both to its Arab neighbors in the Gulf and to Israel, though they’re different types of threat.
Like Israel, the Gulf states are concerned about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, but they’re more concerned that Iran continues to arm proxy groups that have destabilized the Arab world, and one of those groups in Yemen now has a toehold in the Arabian Peninsula.
Israel is worried about both threat types. Iran arms and funds Hezbollah, the Shiite group in Lebanon, which is a major challenge to Israeli security. Iran also supports Hamas, the Islamist group that has an arsenal of rockets in Gaza. But the Israelis are more worried about the development of Iranian nuclear weapons.
This security issue—the Iranian challenge to the region—is driving much of the Arab normalization of Israel. It comes from a cynical pragmatism about Iran from all countries involved. That normalization has become much more expansive with the signing of the Abraham Accords in fall 2020—the formal normalization of relations with Israel by the UAE and Bahrain—which are about more than cooperation on security.
Bluhm: And the second thing?
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Cook: The second thing is that regional states have long been concerned about America’s withdrawal from the region, even though the United States is involved in the Middle East Air Defense Alliance. For years, leaders in Washington have talked about “a pivot to Asia” or “de-emphasizing” the Middle East.
For example, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on taking office that the U.S. was going to spend less time on the Middle East. The Biden administration now has had to walk some of that rhetoric back, as the U.S. confronts high oil prices and high gas prices—and now the president will be traveling to the region in July.
And it’s not just the Biden administration. Many events since at least 2015 have been driven by the concern that the United States was going to leave the Middle East—and leave it at the mercy of Iranian power. The Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war to back one side was partly a result of the Obama administration speaking openly about a pivot to Asia and the Trump administration not responding when the Iranians successfully targeted an oil-processing facility and oil-storage facility in Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2019. Trump said at the time, Well, they attacked Saudi Arabia, not us—basically throwing out 40 years of declared American policy for providing security to Saudi Arabia.
This set of developments convinced these countries that there’s an opportunity in no longer relying on the United States and in putting their own capabilities together—because they shared a strategic consensus on Iran.
Dave Herring
Dave Herring
More from Steven Cook at The Signal:
Arab leaders have the perception that America has withdrawn from the region, and they believe as well that the Palestinian leadership—and the Israeli government—are unwilling to find opportunities to settle their conflict. Arab leaders also see in Israel opportunities in economic and scientific fields—and in national security—to help move their economies and their societies forward. They see Israel as an important partner in that regard. A generation of Arab leaders does not see Zionism as the same threat their parents and grandparents saw it as. For this new generation, Iran is the single greatest challenge in the region.”
Arab states had serious questions about America’s commitment to their security since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The major Arab countries were deeply ambivalent about that war. When it became clear how botched it was, and how the U.S. essentially helped Iran by turning Iraq—a major Middle Eastern country and a stalwart of the Arab world—into an Iranian vassal state, those questions started mounting: The Obama administration wasn’t willing to intervene against Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war; this also benefited Iran, which is closely allied with Assad. Then in 2015, Obama signed the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, which rolled back or froze nearly all of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions; Gulf Arab states saw this as too friendly toward Iran. Then Washington was ambivalent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention favoring one side in the civil war in Yemen; and Gulf Arab states saw that as a sign of wavering support. On top of all this, Iran attacked oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019. When President Trump decided not to punish Tehran for that, he undermined the Carter Doctrine, going back to 1980, which commits the United States to using military force to defend its interests in the Gulf.”
In 2002, the Arab League said that member states would normalize relations with Israel only contingent on a resolution to the Palestinian conflict. And now they’re normalizing without that. Arab leaders have come to the conclusion that the Palestinian leadership, in the forms of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the people around him, are quite comfortable with the status quo. The Palestinian Authority has become a corrupt vessel—a way to keep people on the Palestinian Authority payroll but not much else. These leaders don’t want to be held hostage to a corrupt, aging Palestinian leadership in the Occupied West Bank, or to the corrupt and violent leadership of Hamas in Gaza; they have broader interests that they need to serve; and they don’t see an end to the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel.”

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