(December 8, 2020 / BESA Center)
There is no doubt that the Abraham Accords, the agreements recently signed by Israel and the Gulf principalities of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, represent a historic breakthrough in terms of Israel’s regional status. The leaked meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reinforces that a new alignment is emerging in the Middle East.
The main reason the Gulf states have been willing to normalize relations with Jerusalem (with the blessing of Riyadh) is their common sense of threat emanating from Tehran. This is a textbook case of the Middle Eastern maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” especially when it comes to international alliances.
The new relationships forged by the shared need to combat a common menace entail commitments of strategic significance. These relations take on additional significance as the administration of President Donald Trump, the matchmaker who made this breakthrough happen, draws to a close. In just a month, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the next president of the United States.
The political background to the breakthrough was American pressure on the parties to turn the “mistress relations” that had developed over decades between Israel and the Gulf states into open and legitimate relations. The political needs of Trump, as well as the economic needs of the U.S. arms industry, coincided with the military needs of the Gulf states.
At the same time, events like the Iranian-sponsored direct attacks on Riyadh’s oil facilities as well as the ongoing war in Yemen, in which forces under Tehran’s auspices are fighting Saudi Arabia, were met by a tepid response from Washington. The lack of American interest in these provocations prompted new thinking on the part of the Gulf states, which began to consider that it might be worthwhile to go public with their relations with Israel even though that state has long been an outcast in the Arab and Muslim world. Behind all the genuinely important talk of advanced technology exchanges and economic cooperation, there is value for the Gulf states in publicizing that they have a new ally with nuclear teeth—one that shares their determination to curb Iranian aggression.
This rationale takes on special significance in light of Washington’s slow but consistent withdrawal from the Middle East—a process that has been going on for more than a decade due to American energy independence and growing U.S. fatigue with the region. The fact that both Democratic and Republican administrations have been disengaging from the Middle East suggests that this is a new doctrine that could gather momentum under the incoming Democratic government, which is less likely to show sympathy for the Gulf than was Trump.
The political needs of President Donald Trump and the economic needs of the U.S. arms industry, coincided with the military needs of the Gulf states.
The bloc of conservative countries in the Middle East is apprehensively watching the U.S. withdrawal, which is continuing even as Russia and China deepen their penetration into the region, and Iran and Turkey expand their regional influence. The ideological-religious context for the current regional struggles is the war being waged by Iranian Shi’ite Islam and the militant Sunni Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood (affiliated with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey) against moderate Sunni Islam. In accordance with the well-known rule of international relations that there are no eternal allies but only fixed interests, Israel finds itself allied with Arab countries against its “friends” of the 1950s and 1960s: Iran and Turkey.
From a geopolitical perspective, Israel is expected by its Gulf allies to strengthen deterrence against a potentially nuclear imperialist Iran. If the United States continues to disengage from the region, Israel’s relative weight will increase in the growing regional alliance, and it will have to be prepared to take military action in situations where there is not necessarily an existential threat to Israel. Refusing to do so could create cracks in the anti-Iranian system that could result in desertions in the direction of the Iranian bloc or even in the direction of Ankara and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new alignment in the Middle East confers on Jerusalem not only rewards but also obligations. The Israeli government will have to prepare the Israeli public for a kind of commitment it has not had in the past: to fulfill the traditional American role of regional military involvement as the United States winds down its presence in the region. At the same time, Jerusalem must do its best to slow down Washington’s disengagement from the region because a robust American-Israeli partnership is the basis for the success of the new alignment.
Professor Shmuel Sandler is president of Emunah-Efrat College in Jerusalem and a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
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