international analysis and commentary

Israel and the Sunni axis: a win-win alliance

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Over the last few months of 2019, Israeli diplomats have been invited to many different summits held in Europe and Africa, as well as Middle Eastern capitals that were previously long banned to Israeli officials. In January 2019, this intense diplomatic activity started off at the Sahel G5 meeting, where Prime Minister (and serving Defence Minister) Netanyahu committed Israel’s military resources to combat Islamist terror and help build a wall in Chad to run along the country’s border with Libya, joining forces with US and French troops already deployed in the region. On February 14th, the rush continued with Netanyahu’s attendance at the US-sponsored Warsaw summit designed to address Iranian “destabilizing policies”, conveyed in the heart of Europe despite the absence of the EU Higher Representative and that of European major heads of State.

On June 25, Israel is, despite neither having been officially invited nor having diplomatic ties with Bahrain, to observe through its six approved journalists the Bahrain “Economic Workshop” convened by the US in Manama to host the “Peace to Prosperity” pan-Arab conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What all these events hold in common and showcase are the closer ties forged between Israel and the Arab States, which no longer object to its diplomatic existence and to share a strategic focus set out by the Trump Administration likely to stay in place as long as the Presidential term of office.

 

Convenience before conflicts

This major shift came about over the last decade and was built gradually offstage. It was triggered by the slow erosion of the Palestinian question’s status among Arab leaders, and particularly those of the Gulf States, after the demise of the Second Intifada (2005). This received a major boost since the 34-day Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006, which was branded as “a perilous adventure” by the Saudis. A year later, US officials trying to broker a new peace deal secretly acknowledged that “Palestine didn’t count as much anymore” on the Arab agenda. In the same year, the Hamas-Fatah rift, which eventually erupted into a civil war between the two factions, pushed Arab Sunni countries to grow further away from the Palestinian cause.

Ian Black, Middle East reporter for The Guardian, reports that since 2009 some loose intelligence coordination between Saudi Arabia and Israel started to take shape: Wikileaks sources revealed that, before carrying out air strikes on Sudan in anti-Iranian and anti-Palestinian operations, Israel pre-empted Saudi authorities. In 2013, an Arab League summit amended the text of the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative, which so far remains the only agreed pan-Arab peace proposal, to allow for “land swaps” between Israel and Palestine in a future peace agreement. This is tacitly accepting that at least some Israeli settlements would eventually stay.

Ivanka Trump attended the dedication ceremony of the new US embassy in Jerusalem last May

 

In 2017, a Bahrain delegation visited Jerusalem regardless of the recent and controversial US embassy relocation to Jerusalem. In October 2018, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev travelled to the UAE to attend a judo competition where the victory of an Israeli athlete was welcomed by the performance of the Israeli national anthem (“Hatiqwa”). The same month, the Israeli Prime Minister paid a visit to Oman after 22 years of dormant ties. In January 2019, Egyptian President Al-Sisi publicly acknowledged on TV (CBS interview, January 7, 2019) a “tight security cooperation” with Israel: The latter concerns the Egyptian-army anti-jihadi group operations carried out in Sinai under the supervision of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) with Israel’s consent,  but also the Mossad-Hamas secret talks regularly hosted in Cairo. Whether broadcasted or not, and signalled to Arab public opinion, Arab-Israeli contacts are gaining ground in the region. It seems that a diplomatic taboo has fallen and that Israeli officials will increasingly take part in Arab regional events.

Despite the bombastic declarations of the three successive Mecca summits recently hosted by Saudi Arabia (May 30th – June 2nd), the 22-member Arab League’s summit, the 57-member Islamic Conference meeting and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, officially reiterating pan-Arab, pan-Muslim and pan-Gulf firm and everlasting commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian independent State, the secret alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab States, in fact, makes inroads because it profits all parties. The alliance is built on a common enemy, that is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is also based on many concrete shared interests, such as intelligence and military technology exchanges, mutual back-scratching diplomatic support (like Riyadh’s support for Israel against Hamas in the 2014 war and Israel’s approval of German tank sales to the Saudis), and a common window-of-opportunity: that offered by the US Trump administration.

 

With Trump’s blessing

The latter is not only blessing this coordination and sponsoring further axes of cooperation, but it is also providing concrete incentives to do so. It boosts its military backing by sending  its 5th Fleet, B-52 bombers and a Patriot antimissile battery back to the region as potential anti-Iran counter-measures. It also projects to dispatch 120,000 troops into the Gulf in case of turmoil and it generously finances with military aid to both Egypt, Jordan (the US amended the “Arms Export Control Act” to give Jordan the same treatment it bestows upon NATO members) and the Israeli army. It also regularly supplies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with weapons and hi-tech surveillances systems worth billions of dollars.

Furthermore, the US provides political backing and grants both Israel and Arab Sunni States its diplomatic patronage for carrying out otherwise controversial military and political actions, such as the recognition of Jerusalem and the recent annexation of the Golan Heights, support to the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen-war, and de facto oblivion for the Kashoggi killing. The 25 June Bahrain economic summit looks like a confirmation of this win-win alliance, with the US administration enticing most of the Arab States to attend it in exchange for pledges of aid or diplomatic backing on pressing regional dossiers.

From the Israeli point of view, cooperation with the Arab States has never been so smooth, almost to the point of normalization, though still a covert one. Itay Brun, a retired Brigadier General and INSS Deputy Director, explained that the current achievements had been carefully planned ahead by a cautious Israeli leadership. Since the 2011 Arab Springs, while still confronted with major regional instability, the Israeli authorities did not panic in front of the collapse of the previous regional order and adopted a “wait and see” approach. The old Arab autocracies and their sovereignty crumbled and Israel had to accept the new porosity of nation-state borders, tolerating on their territory foreign elements carving out de facto “frontier- or autonomous-zones” (such as the Bedouin presence in the Sinai peninsula, Hezbollah’s, Iran’s and Russia’s pockets and bases in Syria, the Iranian infiltrations in Iraq, and so on). Israel neither rushed to recognize Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood presidency in Egypt, nor openly rejoiced about the Syrian upheaval, as the former US presidency did. Instead, it kept a low profile, a sort of Turkish-style “zero-problems with neighbors” policy, seeing the silver lining and identifying new opportunities opened by the regional political reshuffling. The hunch paid off as, in fact, since 2013, Israel understood how to enjoy a much larger room for manoeuvring than it had ever experienced before and took an active stance on all its national security-sensitive dossiers. Eight years down the line, Israel and Iran have emerged as the two new major regional players striving to define a new balance of power.

 

Israel’s new strategy and the power vacuum

This new strategy has been based on three hinges: 1) the political-economic dimension, that meant reaching out to Arab Sunni States by any means and on any given occasion (through the achievement of economic deals, secret talks, public meetings, sport competitions) while taking advantage of any political “gift” bestowed by the Trump administration; 2) the diplomatic-military dimension, that required steadfastness in building a staunch anti-Iranian bloc to rip up the JCPOA and renegotiate a new deal while carrying out targeted military actions to defuse security threats in Syria; and 3) the strategic dimension, that should result in shelving the political aspects of the Palestinian issue and postponing any two-state solution to a later date.

Consequently, Israel took advantage of the new regional power vacuum to act on all the three fronts. On the political-economic side, it profited from the relative quiet on the Red Sea front to further enhance its economic cooperation with Egypt, pushing for gas-related deals formalized in January 2019 in the framework of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. It opened its second international airport near the southern Red Sea resort of Eilat and designed a major engineering project aiming at building a 17 km-long pipeline to transport desalinated water from a plant in Aqaba to the Dead Sea in cooperation with Jordan. It welcomed Qatar’s efforts to make contact through American Jews and accepted to play a conciliatory role in the 2017 GCC-Qatar diplomatic rift in exchange for monetary aid to appease the Gaza Strip. It also signed a new agreement with Turkey (June 2016) to boost bilateral trade and energy cooperation, overcoming the Turkish Parliament’s reluctance.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu

 

On the diplomatic side, it supported the propaganda war waged by Saudi Arabia against its rival Iran in any political fora, successfully lobbying for the JCPOA unilateral repeal by the US. It carried out unclaimed air raids on Iranian and Hezbollah facilities inside Syria while reaching out to Russia, the new kingmaker of the region, even brokering a cautious reconciliation between the latter and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Syria. It secretly trained anti-Houthis mercenaries recruited by the UAE for the war in Yemen in a Negev training camp and sold combat drones and Iron Dome-like systems to Saudi Arabia for the same purpose. Israel even seemed to have been able to act as a broker between the US and Russia, calling for a top-level meeting of the respective national security advisors on Iran to take place later in June. Finally, it successfully met its goal to dismiss direct bilateral talks with Palestinians and the peace process altogether.

In some ways, Israel’s regional integration has never looked getting so closer to full de facto -though not diplomatic yet -, acceptance, with the Jewish country overtly breaking to the media the news of its forthcoming attendance of the 2020 World Expo in Dubai and expecting no shocks from the next Bahrain “peace” summit. Indeed, INSS analyst Orit Perlov highlights that Israel has succeeded in reversing a long-standing paradigm of its relations with the surrounding Arab States: If beforehand Arabs were used to saying “Time is on our side”, meaning that the Arab recapture of 1967-occupied lands would eventually take place in due time, now it is Israel’s turn to think that time is favouring it. The possibility that Hezbollah could stage a simultaneous war against Israel on behalf of Iran from the Northern and the Southern front in cooperation with Hamas or the Islamic Jihad from Gaza poses a potential threat, yet one Israel could confidently deal with.

 

Horizon 2020

The major looming threat on the horizon is the 2020 US presidential elections and the possibility of replacing President Trump with a Democratic candidate. Gulf States have already heard about the dramatic change that Democratic leadership could bring to US Middle Eastern policy in a recent Congressional vote blocking arms’ sales transfers to the Saudis and the UAE over their involvement in the Yemen war. In that event, the Israel-Arab State joint hopes could be dashed as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve their national interests under the banner of US official policy would be missed.