Though most Arab states are yet to formally recognise Israel as an independent state, their relations with the Jewish state have considerably improved since the successful conclusion of the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal. The oft-cited maxim that only national interest determines a country’s relations has stood valid again. Bearing in mind the adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Israel has been secretly putting in efforts to reach out to some “marginally moderate” Arab states in a systematic bid to find common grounds in the security arena against emerging Iran. Such a slow but steady improvement in Israel-Arab relations will presumably leave a raft of deleterious impacts on the volatile security of the militancy-hit Middle East and the lingering Palestinian issue.
There are some underlying reasons which have made imperial Israel and some paranoid Arab countries bury the hatchet and cultivate diplomatic relations. Panic-stricken Israel has been feeling quite isolated after the successful Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal and some European countries’ formal recognition of Palestinian statehood. Therefore, the Jewish state is exerting hectic efforts to befriend Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey against an asserting Iran, threatening Hamas and minacious Hezbollah.
Bilateral ties between the militarily powerful Israel and oil-rich Saudi Arabia had remained hostile and unfriendly till 2005. However, both the countries have somehow thawed the relations since then. At present, the major security interests of Saudi Arabia seem to largely converge with those of Israel in the militancy-ravaged region. The oil-rich kingdom painfully feels disgruntled and fearful after the Iran nuclear deal, US’s declining reliance on Saudi oil — after the discovery of shale gas — and utter American failure to overthrow Iran- and Russia-backed Bashar al-Assad, the otherwise beleaguered president of war-battered Syria.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are surreptitiously immersed in normalising security cooperation and coordination so as to counteract Iran’s increasing influence in the region. According to The New York Times, “They cooperate with each other by intelligence exchange, especially about Iran.” Major security officials of both the countries secretly meet to discuss the unfolding security situation of the Middle East. In a meeting at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, Anwar Eshki, a retired major general in Saudi armed forces and Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, discussed “their common interests in opposing Iran.” During the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, Middle East Eye editor David Hearst wrote an article claiming that Saudi Arabia was supportive of Israel’s actions in the conflict, and that officials from Mossad and the Saudi intelligence agencies met regularly.
In the wake of its amicable ties with Saudi Arabia, Israel has changed its policy of opposing the Western arms exports to the kingdom. In 2011, Israel approved of a German sale of 200 Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia. After Egypt agreed to transfer the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in April 2016, the Israeli government did not signal any opposition to the deal and Tzachi Hanegbi, who heads the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, even said: “The deal does not threaten Israel.”
According to a British newspaper, The Sunday Times, both the countries had clandestinely hammered out some malevolent plans to attack Iran in case the Geneva negotiations fail to roll back Iran’s nuclear programme. Intriguingly, the kingdom went an extra mile to offer its important air bases to Israel primarily calculated to target nearby Iran.
Last year, Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal took the unprecedented step of publishing an op-ed in a leading Israeli newspaper calling for lasting peace and serenity between Israel and all GCC member states, as well as resolving the lingering Palestinian issue. His call for relative tranquillity in the Middle East was warmly welcomed by the Israeli government.
Egypt is also frantically pursuing warmer ties with Israel. Bilateral relations have improved since Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi became president in 2014, after flagrantly deposing the country’s first democratically-elected president, Mohammad Morsi, on clumsy grounds. In February this year, el-Sisi sent a new ambassador to Israel, the first since 2012. To great an dismay of Palestine, he has closed Egypt’s border with Gaza and vilified Hamas. Now, Israeli drones are allowed to fire on insurgents in Sinai, where fighters loyal to Islamic State (IS) have tormented the Egyptian army.
Recently, Samey Shoukry has become the first Egyptian foreign minister to visit Israel in nine years. To complete the turnabout, there are now rumours that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will soon visit Mr Sisi in Egypt. Both the countries have committed to cooperate through thick and thin against Hamas, hardcore militants in the Sinai and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel and Turkey, two non-Arab powers in the Middle East, have long been considered natural allies; and for decades, they have worked together to counter the sway of their common enemies in Syria and Iran. In the past, the armed forces of both countries have carried out joint exercises; Israel used Turkey’s territory for surveillance and intelligence operations against Syria and Iran.
Ties frayed in early 2009, following Israel’s armed incursion into Gaza, and were cut off in May 2010 when Israeli naval commandos intercepted a Turkish flotilla that was attempting to sail to Gaza, resulting in the deaths of ten Turkish activists.
To reinvigorate their bilateral relations, both countries have concluded a deal in June. According to the deal, Israel pledged to apologise for raiding the Turkish flotilla, provide compensation for the families of the ten victims of that raid and permit Ankara to supply humanitarian aid and carry out a series of building projects in the besieged Gaza Strip. However, the Turkish materials will be transferred through Israel’s port of Ashdod, where they will undergo inspection first.
For its part, Turkey has unwittingly relinquished its demand for Israel to lift its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, and will not be allowed direct access there. Since Turkey has been a vocal supporter of an independent Palestine, such Turkish change of policy in terms of the naval blockade is a prodigious success for Israel to further isolate and repress the hapless people of Gaza.
The Jewish state has also planned to open an unconventional mission in Abu Dhabi, which will mark Israel’s first diplomatic presence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On January 16, 2010, Israel’s Minister for National Infrastructure, Uzi Landau, attended a renewable energy conference in Abu Dhabi becoming the first Israeli minister to ever visit the UAE.
Despite UAE’s support for Palestinian statehood and refusal to recognise the Jewish state, Israel and the UAE have, in recent years, found themselves aligned on several regional issues. Their common concerns generally stem from expanding Iranian influence in the Arab world and the rise of Sunni fundamentalist groups in the region.
Impacts on the Middle East
The unfolding Israeli ties with some Arab states will leave some obstructive and long-lasting impacts on the simmering Palestinian issue. At present, most of the Arab states are fretful about their own security, so they have put the independence of Palestine on the backburner. Closer security cooperation will immensely help Israel manipulate the apprehensions of its Arab partners to further divert their declining attention and interests toward the long-persecuted Palestinians.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, still makes rounds in Arab capitals — and foreign leaders still profess their support for an independent Palestine. But the Palestinians are conscious of their diminished status. In a recent poll, 78% of those surveyed said their cause was no longer the top Arab priority, and 59% accused Arab states of allying themselves with Israel against Iran. The amount of aid flowing from Arab countries to the PA has also dwindled in recent years. Funds from the West have also declined.
Such a paradigm shift in the Middle East has made it crystal clear that there exist menacing divergences and disunity amongst the Muslim countries of the region. The growing Arab-Israel affinity will open a Pandora’s Box, thus further widening the Shia-Sunni schism and fuelling militancy, civil wars and sectarianism in the region.
Panicked Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be cognizant of the fact that Israel is manifestly an imperialist power hell bent on maximising its grandiose policy of “divide and influence” in the Middle East. The abortive Arab Spring, the simmering civil war in Syria and the ongoing militancy of Daesh have already helped the Jewish state to threateningly expand its imperial tentacles in some parts of the region.
All Middle Eastern countries should recognise the hypocritical and divide and rule policies of the US and Israel. Like France and Germany, both Iran and Saudi Arabia should bridge their differences and forge an alliance with other Muslim states to contain the monster of the Islamic State. Or else, the Middle East will continue to reel from Israel’s imperialistic designs, Shia-Sunni schism, Daesh’s militancy and more imminent civil wars.