After decades of armed conflict and entrenched hostility, a group of Arab states has begun collaborating with Israel, including on military issues. Israel announced on June 20 that it and its Arab partners had created the Middle East Air Defense Alliance as a shield against Iranian missiles and drones. The pact likely includes the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Morocco, joined by the United States, with the full membership to be announced during U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East in mid-July. This new security alliance is just the latest step in the normalization of Israel in the Arab world. In March, for the first time, the Israelis hosted a summit with the foreign ministers of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The cooperation among Israel and Arab countries signals a transformation in the region: Every Arab state refused even to recognize the existence of the Jewish state for decades after its founding in 1948. Israel fought wars against multiple Arab armies in 1947-48, 1967, and 1973, as well as wars against Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and nearly all Arab rulers used to single out Israel as the root cause of all their region’s problems. What’s changed?
Steven Cook is a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. As Cook sees it, Arab leaders’ views on their security and on Israel have changed in recent decades, with a consensus emerging among them that Iran represents the greatest threat to their security—after generations of Arabs grew up seeing Israel as the biggest regional danger. The new defense coalition also reveals a changing power balance in the Middle East. After many years when the U.S. took responsibility for the security of Israel and Gulf Arab countries, Cook says, U.S. administrations from Barack Obama’s onward have tried to disentangle Washington from the turbulent region, and the alliance shows local powers responding by taking charge of their defenses. According to Cook, Arab leaders are also motivated by substantial economic and technological opportunities in Israel. But it’s unclear what the new Arab-Israeli cooperation means for Palestinians. Arab countries had long shunned—and gone to war against—Israel over their status, but Arab and Israeli leaders now appear to be losing interest in resolving the conflict.
Michael Bluhm: What’s driving the normalization of Israel in the Arab world?
Steven Cook: It used to be just commercial relations. Now there’s this new defense alliance, and suddenly there’s an Israeli Defense Forces representative in Bahrain, which is only 80 miles from Saudi Arabia. Those are extraordinary developments.
Two things are driving the normalization of Israel and of Israel’s defense capabilities. The first is that Iran remains a destabilizing, revolutionary power in the region that poses threats both to its Arab neighbors in the Gulf and to Israel, though they’re different types of threat.
Like Israel, the Gulf states are concerned about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, but they’re more concerned that Iran continues to arm proxy groups that have destabilized the Arab world, and one of those groups in Yemen now has a toehold in the Arabian Peninsula.
Israel is worried about both threat types. Iran arms and funds Hezbollah, the Shiite group in Lebanon, which is a major challenge to Israeli security. Iran also supports Hamas, the Islamist group that has an arsenal of rockets in Gaza. But the Israelis are more worried about the development of Iranian nuclear weapons.
This security issue—the Iranian challenge to the region—is driving much of the Arab normalization of Israel. It comes from a cynical pragmatism about Iran from all countries involved. That normalization has become much more expansive with the signing of the Abraham Accords in fall 2020—the formal normalization of relations with Israel by the UAE and Bahrain—which are about more than cooperation on security.
Bluhm: And the second thing?
Cook: The second thing is that regional states have long been concerned about America’s withdrawal from the region, even though the United States is involved in the Middle East Air Defense Alliance. For years, leaders in Washington have talked about “a pivot to Asia” or “de-emphasizing” the Middle East.
For example, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on taking office that the U.S. was going to spend less time on the Middle East. The Biden administration now has had to walk some of that rhetoric back, as the U.S. confronts high oil prices and high gas prices—and now the president will be traveling to the region in July.
And it’s not just the Biden administration. Many events since at least 2015 have been driven by the concern that the United States was going to leave the Middle East—and leave it at the mercy of Iranian power. The Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war to back one side was partly a result of the Obama administration speaking openly about a pivot to Asia and the Trump administration not responding when the Iranians successfully targeted an oil-processing facility and oil-storage facility in Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2019. Trump said at the time, Well, they attacked Saudi Arabia, not us—basically throwing out 40 years of declared American policy for providing security to Saudi Arabia.
Many events since at least 2015 have been driven by the concern that the United States was going to leave the Middle East—and leave it at the mercy of Iranian power.
This set of developments convinced these countries that there’s an opportunity in no longer relying on the United States and in putting their own capabilities together—because they shared a strategic consensus on Iran.
Bluhm: For a long time, some of these Arab countries had been working with Israel only discretely. Why are they now willing to publicly?
Cook: It’s a good question. That summit in the Israeli Negev desert was rather extraordinary. They even decided to turn it into an annual meeting.
It’s a very interesting development that Arab countries are willing to come out in the open and formalize things that have been going on for a while now. Israeli officials have long traveled to the United Arab Emirates, for example.
Arab leaders have the perception that America has withdrawn from the region, and they believe as well that the Palestinian leadership—and the Israeli government—are unwilling to find opportunities to settle their conflict. Arab leaders also see in Israel opportunities in economic and scientific fields—and in national security—to help move their economies and their societies forward. They see Israel as an important partner in that regard. A generation of Arab leaders does not see Zionism as the same threat their parents and grandparents saw it as. For this new generation, Iran is the single greatest challenge in the region.
Going public with the relationship is a signal both to the Iranians and to Washington. In Washington, which is Israel’s primary benefactor, it accrues a great benefit for the Arabs. It puts the Iranians on notice: We on this side of the Gulf are not so incompetent. We can challenge you effectively, using our own resources and Israel. There’s something to be said for being public about that.
Another result of this very public normalization has been an encouragement for Egypt to seek ways to upgrade its relations with Israel beyond the perennial issues of Gaza or security in the Sinai Peninsula. An Egyptian trade delegation was in Israel last week, for instance—the first one in more than a decade. You can now fly relatively easily between Cairo and Tel Aviv, which used to be very difficult.
Bluhm: You mention that one of the factors driving this normalization is a shift in Arab countries, in that they now believe that they can no longer depend on the United States for their security. What accounts for that shift?
A generation of Arab leaders does not see Zionism as the same threat their parents and grandparents saw it as. For this new generation, Iran is the single greatest challenge in the region.
Cook: Arab states had serious questions about America’s commitment to their security since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The major Arab countries were deeply ambivalent about that war. When it became clear how botched it was, and how the U.S. essentially helped Iran by turning Iraq—a major Middle Eastern country and a stalwart of the Arab world—into an Iranian vassal state, those questions started mounting: The Obama administration wasn’t willing to intervene against Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war; this also benefited Iran, which is closely allied with Assad. Then in 2015, Obama signed the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, which rolled back or froze nearly all of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions; Gulf Arab states saw this as too friendly toward Iran. Then Washington was ambivalent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention favoring one side in the civil war in Yemen; and Gulf Arab states saw that as a sign of wavering support.
On top of all this, Iran attacked oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019. When President Trump decided not to punish Tehran for that, he undermined the Carter Doctrine, going back to 1980, which commits the United States to using military force to defend its interests in the Gulf. The Biden administration has been working to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from. All those things have raised questions about America’s commitment to the Gulf’s security and stability.
Bluhm: You call the normalization of Israel an extraordinary development. How does this change affect Washington’s position in the region?
Cook: Extraordinary is the perfect word for this development. Its critical elements are things that Middle East analysts believed would never happen. An air-defense alliance including Israel? Even mundane things are extraordinary: I was in the UAE in March, and I boarded a flight in Dubai on the Israeli airline El Al, traversed Saudi airspace, and landed in Tel Aviv. That was not supposed to happen.
But the emergence of this strategic consensus in the region is odd, because the United States has been outside it—and there’s been a fair amount of ambivalence about it in Washington. Republicans have been uniformly supportive of the Abraham Accords and all the things that have come from it, including this burgeoning relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In the US., many Democrats have been very supportive, including the president, vice president, and the secretary of state, but there have been more questions about it among Democratic members of Congress, because the Abraham Accords have basically left the Palestinians behind—the Israelis have been able to normalize relations with major Arab countries without having to do much on the Palestinian front. And all these Arab countries developing relations with Israel have terrible human-rights records.
Extraordinary is the perfect word for this development. Its critical elements are things that Middle East analysts believed would never happen.
That’s why the new strategic consensus in the region isn’t uniformly seen as an overall positive. But in general, there’s a view in Washington that the broadening of what they call “the circle of peace” is a good thing. It seems Biden’s visit to the Middle East in July is partly an effort by Washington to join a strategic consensus that it was outside of for the better part of a decade.
Bluhm: Saudi Arabia is the most powerful Arab country in the Gulf, but it’s been conspicuously absent from the air-defense alliance and the March summit in Israel. And yet Bahrain, a tiny peninsula connected to Saudi Arabia, is normalizing relations with Israel, and Bahrain doesn’t make major foreign-policy decisions without Saudi approval. Why isn’t Saudi Arabia taking a more public, leading role in this normalization—in line with its regional influence?
Cook: We can see Saudi Arabia as a virtual signatory of the Abraham Accords. In a recent article, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was quoted saying that he sees Israel as a potential ally, but some problems with the Palestinian issue need to be solved before a real alliance can move forward. He didn’t say that the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis must be resolved; he said some problems need to be resolved.
I think there’ll be a step-by-step normalization process between the Saudis and Israel. I wonder whether Saudi Arabia will take a step during Biden’s upcoming visit to be more public about it—maybe a revelation that the Saudis are going to take part in the Middle East Air Defense Alliance.
The Saudis would like to normalize relations, but the Palestinian issue remains very important to them, to Saudi society, and to the king, who has been an advocate for the Palestinians since the war in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza and forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes.
Bluhm: During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Joe Biden vowed to make the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a pariah state for its killing of the Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and for the country’s abysmal human-rights record in general. Biden said the Saudi government had “very little social redeeming value.” How are those strains in the Saudi-U.S. relationship affecting developments in the region?
Cook: Before former President George H.W. Bush embarked on his campaign for the White House in 1988, he communicated to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, You’re going to hear a lot of things during this campaign about your country. Just ignore it; that’s campaign rhetoric.
The emergence of this strategic consensus in the region is odd, because the United States has been outside it—and there’s been a fair amount of ambivalence about it in Washington.
When President Biden said he would make Saudi Arabia a pariah and that the government had little redeeming social value, it struck me as typical campaign rhetoric. But when he came into office and said, We’re going to include American values in our foreign policy, I reckoned that didn’t give him the room to maneuver that he might need with the Saudis.
Now the U.S. is dealing with supply-chain issues and massive dislocations from the pandemic that are driving up energy prices, and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove up energy prices even more. Saudi Arabia is the only country that has the capacity to pump enough oil relatively cheaply to make a difference in the global oil market—and relieve some pain for Americans at the pump. And that’s where Saudi Arabia meets Joe Biden’s parochial political interests, as he looks ahead to the midterm elections in November. The price of gas is running between $5 and $7 a gallon for Americans and taking a huge toll on his public approval ratings; that’s what this is about.
Also, the administration assumed it would get back into the Iranian nuclear deal, and that this wouldn’t be as difficult as it’s been—but now it doesn’t look like they’re going to get back in after all, and Saudi Arabia is going to have to play an important role as part of a coalition to deter and contain the Iranians.
Bluhm: Since the founding of Israel in 1948, Arab countries refused to work with the Jewish state because of the issue of Palestinian rights. What does normalization mean for the Palestinians?
Cook: In 2002, the Arab League said that member states would normalize relations with Israel only contingent on a resolution to the Palestinian conflict. And now they’re normalizing without that.
Arab leaders have come to the conclusion that the Palestinian leadership, in the forms of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the people around him, are quite comfortable with the status quo. The Palestinian Authority has become a corrupt vessel—a way to keep people on the Palestinian Authority payroll but not much else.
These leaders don’t want to be held hostage to a corrupt, aging Palestinian leadership in the Occupied West Bank, or to the corrupt and violent leadership of Hamas in Gaza; they have broader interests that they need to serve; and they don’t see an end to the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel.
The tragedy is that the average Palestinian remains stateless and subject to the whims of the Israeli occupation authorities or Hamas. The Arab leaders who are normalizing relations don’t seem terribly moved by this, in part because of their anger at the Palestinian leadership—and in part because their incentives to deal with Israel have become too great.