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.
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?