The rulers of the Arab Gulf states are, it seems, increasingly attentive to what Israel has to say about the balance of power in the region. As a rising Shi’a Iran faces off against a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the core shared interest between Israel’s democracy and these conservative theocracies—countering Iran’s bid to become the dominant power and influence in the Islamic world—has rarely been as apparent.
Hence the interview given by a senior IDF officer to a Saudi weekly, Elaph, which laid out how Israel analyzes the present wretched state of the Middle East. In the Israeli view, there are, the officer said, four powers that have coalesced in the region. The first power centers on Iran and its allies and proxies, such as the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria, Shi’a rebels in Yemen and Iraq, and most pertinently for Israel, Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The second power contains what the officer called “moderate” states with whom Israel has “a common language”—Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf countries. The third power, one that is obviously waning, is represented in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, now vanquished in its Egyptian heartland but still reigning in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Finally, the fourth power is another non-state actor, the combined forces of jihadi barbarism like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Israel’s goal in this situation is a modest one. As the IDF officer put it, “There is a danger that the strife will reach us as well if the instability in the region continues for a long time. Therefore, we need to take advantage of the opportunity and work together with the moderate states to renew quiet in the region.”
The key phrase here, it seems to me, is “renew quiet.” Foremost for the Israelis, that means counteracting Iran and especially its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and then minimizing the potential for jihadi terrorists to operate on or near Israeli-controlled territory. A broader strategic vision can also be detected here: ultimately, both Israel and the conservative Arab states share the common interests of neutralizing Iran and eliminating the jihadi groups.
The partnership between Israel and these states is already in operation, at the levels of intelligence sharing and—not for the first time—cautious exploration of trade relations. That there is a strong military dimension as well to all this is entirely conceivable. And for the time being, it seems that neither side wants to expand or contract on their public ties with each other; Israel has long had embassies in Cairo and Amman, but that doesn’t mean there’ll be an Israeli ambassador in Riyadh anytime soon, much less a film festival or trade expo.
There’s another factor that has accelerated the formation of this undeclared, look-the-other-way alliance: the shift in American Middle East policy under President Barack Obama. Some readers will remember that back in 1991, the first Bush administration pointedly left Israel out of the coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, so as not to antagonize the Gulf states. Now, frustration with Obama has compelled these very same states to recognize that they have an existential interest in cooperating with Israel.
You might say that the president deserves credit for bringing about a situation, in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, that has compelled the Gulf states to grasp the reality and permanence of Israel as never before. Still, the visions and prophecies of a Middle Eastern equivalent of the European Union, much indulged during the Oslo Accords years in the late 1990s, are not now in evidence, and that’s welcome. For their own reasons, neither Israel nor the Arab states feel obliged to articulate a sense of what their region should look like in the event that the Iranian threat is overcome.
Indeed, there’s a case that doing so would be counterproductive—it would impose political pressures upon a discreet yet strategically vital relationship that above all requires, in the parlance of the IDF officer, the “moderate” states to remain as moderate states. With the reorientation of American policy towards a rapprochement with Tehran, along with Russia’s active involvement in the Tehran-Damascus axis, Israel is the nearest reliable, not to say formidable, power that these countries can turn to.
In the present Middle Eastern context, then, the realism and discretion that has always underwritten Israeli foreign policy continues to prevail. That realism presumably extends to recognizing that regimes like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might eventually succumb to their internal instabilities, already exacerbated by the further collapse of the price of oil.
When you consider the alternatives, the region’s architecture could be much worse for Israel than it is currently. Long an anomaly as the only open society in the region, the target of Arab military and economic warfare throughout the latter half of the last century, Israel in this century is now a partner in a regional bloc. To be sure, this is a bloc based upon interests, not common values, and is therefore necessarily limited in scope. But in the present storm, and amidst the appalling human suffering generated by the clash of these rival interests in Syria, it’s the closest thing we have to progress.