Much has been made, particularly by Israelis, of the expanding horizons for collaboration between the Jewish state and Arab Gulf states. Israeli ministers and business people lose no opportunity to tout Israel’s interest in expanding ties of all sorts in a region viewed as a valuable market for Israeli industry and an intelligence gold mine.
Meetings that once were held in the dark are now on public display. Relations that were once conducted solely by intelligence officials now feature diplomats and the formal establishment of relations with countries such as the U.A.E.
In a notable development, Saudi Arabia won key recognition from Israel—and Egypt and the United States—as a strategic partner in regional security in the Straits of Tiran. Such achievements expose not only the alluring prospects of such a dialogue, but also its enduring, critical limitations.
The nascent coalition linking Israel with the Gulf was born as a coalition of countries that are united by their common failure to dissuade Washington from its path of rapprochement with Iran.
Washington and Tehran just celebrated the one-year anniversary of the J.C.P.O.A., which remains the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. Saudis and Israelis looking to roll it back must contend with the fact that, in an era when the Middle East is shaking under their feet, the Iran deal represents a relative rock of stability and policy achievement unmatched elsewhere in U.S. efforts in the region. Washington’s relations with Tehran may not blossom, but they will be difficult to reverse—a fact that critically weakens the foundations of underlying Israeli-Gulf cooperation and limits the effectiveness of an ‘alliance’ based upon undermining the principal diplomatic and strategic achievement of your indispensable, superpower ally.
It is also true that one need only scratch the surface to reveal vital differences in Israeli and Saudi views on Iran itself. Israeli bluster aside, considered Israeli opinion and policy is far more sanguine about Iran than is the case in Riyadh.
Even at the height of concerns about an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Israel’s security establishment successfully tamed the wilder, undisciplined instincts of many in Israel’s political class. The generals have long understood the vitality of Israel’s strategic superiority and are prepared to accommodate an American-led deal with Tehran in a fashion that contradicts visceral Saudi opposition to the mullahs.
Such differences are apparent in other arenas as well. This is certainly the case concerning Syria, where the prevailing Israeli view is sympathetic to the Assad regime. As a consequence of its understandings with Russia, agreed-upon limits have been set to Iranian and Hezbollah deployments—a display of realpolitik toward the Damascus regime that Riyadh is loathe to adopt.
For Israel, its problems with Iran are of relatively recent vintage. In contrast, it retains a historic and strategic interest in limiting Arab power—an interest that stands in opposition to declared Arab objectives. Israel’s newfound Arab friends must be ready to address the unexpected, destabilizing pressures that will result from an Israel freed from any concern about constraining Arab power—in Palestine and Lebanon in particular.
In Lebanon, Israel and Gulf states have a shared antipathy toward Hezbollah, but there is no interest in Arab support for an Israeli military campaign in Lebanon or more improbably Syria.
Similar considerations illustrate the limits of Arab understanding of an aggressive Israeli policy toward Gaza.
Israel’s response to the Arab Peace Initiative is also an instructive case in point.
Long ignored by Israeli leaders—Ehud Olmert did not even bother to read it—Israel’s strategy is to pocket the historic promise of peace with the Arab and Islamic worlds as simply a basis for further discussion.
More broadly, Israel has turned the historic formula at the heart of A.P.I.—peace with Palestine is a gateway to rapprochement with the Arab world—on its head. “The Arab Peace Initiative,” explained Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal in a public discussion with former National Security director Yaakov Amidror, “is the formula that can bring us together. But the general [Amidror] sees otherwise. He wants us to start cooperating with Israel, and do whatever is done in that journey, and forget about the occupation of Palestine and various other issues that deal with the daily occurrences that are taking place on the ground in Palestine, whether it is expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, whether it is the roadblocks — all the issues that you are all aware of.”
Jordan is another useful example of both the advantages and built-in shortcomings of such an Arab strategy. Egypt and Jordan enjoy relations with Israel based upon signed peace treaties. Yet even this achievement has not been sufficient to shield either country from dramatic challenges posed by Israel.
There has been an indirect Israeli security umbrella over Jordan since Black September 1970. This protection, however, has failed to pay dividends for Jordan on the Palestine front. Indeed, in terms of national security threats, the prospect of a Palestinian retreat to Jordan—pushed by Israeli policy unfettered by Arab or international pressure—is a constant source of concern to Jordanian officials. And among Israelis, there is a long and widely held view that considers a Palestinian takeover of Jordan and the demise of the Hashemites to be an Israeli interest, and only a matter of time.
With Egypt, there are many indications that relations with Israel have never been closer. This honeymoon is fueled, however, by unprecedented national security challenges suffered by Egypt in Sinai. Israel’s unilateral retreat from Gaza in 2005, its serial wars there since, and the attendant effort to force Egypt to assume the burden of Gaza’s welfare, illustrate the limits of their cooperation.
A long, long road has been travelled since the famous ‘three no’s of Khartoum’—no recognition, no negotiations, no peace—in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. The iron wall separating Israel from its Arab neighbors is indeed showing cracks, but the prospects for a turn from confrontation to cooperation is still hampered by real differences of interests and priorities.