The recent meeting of Arab and Israeli leaders in Israel in the southern Negev Desert is a remarkable event, not just because it signifies how Arab states and Israel are increasingly normalising their ties but also because this summit could be the first serious step towards establishing a joint security mechanism against common threats i.e., Iran. Most importantly, the fact that this event has been held at a time when the US is fast moving towards a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme shows how the Arab-Israel unity is not aligned with the US. Even though the US Secretary of State was present at the summit, the US ability to steer things in ways to keep the Middle East in line with its policies has drastically shrunk over the past few years.
Other related recent events also show this. For instance, almost all of the countries – in particular, Israel and the UAE – present at the summit have refused recent US efforts to enlist their support against Russia to purportedly ‘isolate’ Moscow globally. The fact that the same states are now taking steps to form a joint security mechanism against Iran at a time when the US is seeking to normalise ties with Tehran only signifies the myriad ways the Middle East is weaning away from Washington.
As Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid confirmed after the summit, the delegates have agreed to develop a “permanent forum” as a step towards “building a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence co-operation. This new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies.”
Notwithstanding Blinken’s presence at the summit and the US ‘support’ for greater Arab-Israel unity, tensions between Washington and Jerusalem are far from hidden. In fact, Blinken himself made them palpable as he appeared to shift the US policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict. For instance, while the Trump administration – which enjoyed deep friendly ties with the then Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and helped Tel Aviv gain absolute control of Jerusalem against the wishes of the Palestinian population – Blinken’s remarks that the Abraham Accords were not a substitute for the Palestinian issue show how Israel – which does not recognise any ‘Palestinian issue’ as such – have different positions.
A direct reason for Washington’s caution vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue comes against the backdrop of Israeli resistance against US efforts to make Jerusalem condemn or oppose Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine.
The anti-US disposition of this new alliance is also evident from the possibility of Saudi Arabia – whose ties with the US have never been so bad as today – joining the alliance in near future. Its possibility was recently revealed by Saudia’s Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who said that Israel could be a “potential ally”, adding that “We don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together.”
While MBS was also keen to stress the imperative of resolving the Palestine conflict, it remains that Riyadh is in desperate need of an ally that can help it win the war in Yemen. The US has stopped providing any help, and the Houthis have stepped up their attacks on the Kingdom.
On March 25, a series of attacks in Jeddah destroyed parts of an oil facility that has also come under attack previously. Apart from Jeddah, Houthis were also successful in targeting Riyadh, the Kingdom’s capital. Therefore, Israel could be an option for Riyadh to buttress its defences. As it stands, Israel is keen to do that.
For instance, following attacks on the UAE in January 2022, Israel was quick to offer – which the UAE possibly accepted – assistance to Abu Dhabi to bolster its air defence system against such air attacks. The offer was made by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) in a letter, which specifically stressed a joint mechanism of security against what they – Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Jerusalem – call Iran-backed Houthis. “Israel is committed to working closely with you in the ongoing battle against extremist forces in the regions, and we will continue to partner with you to defeat our common enemies,” Bennett wrote in his letter that was released on his Twitter account.
This is already materialising. As some recent reports have confirmed, Israeli security officials are already in talks with their counterparts from the UAE, Bahrain and Saudia to establish a “joint air defence” system. These talks come against the backdrop of an increasing failure of the US air defence system to counter Houthi attacks. This joint defence system is not limited to air defence only. As the latest summit confirmed, it is going to expand to other areas as well.
Israel, too, has its own needs to offer such cooperation and alliances. On the same day the summit happened, an ISIS attack in Israel killed two and injured six others in the city of Hadera, some 31 miles north of Tel Aviv. Following the attack, Morocco’s foreign minister said, making a symbolic statement vis-à-vis the possibility and necessity of a grand regional security structure, on Monday (March 28) that his presence alongside three Arab counterparts at an Israeli-hosted summit was the “best response” to the ISIS attacks.
The statement – which has been widely reported in the mainstream western media – signifies the support Israel has in what was only a few years ago a hostile region. For Jerusalem, this support signifies a possibility of decreasing its dependence on the US for its security. Less dependence on the US also means more room for Jerusalem to design and pursue its foreign policy much more independently than was the case until a few years ago.
It holds true for most Arab states as well, which have, for the most part of their existence, relied on the US/West for security. An alliance with Israel presents a paradigm shift that could alter regional dynamics profoundly for them and to the disadvantage of the US. A process that the Trump administration started is ultimately unfolding in ways that would leave Washington worst off.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs
First published on New Eastern Outlook