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.

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