There has been increasing talk of US-sponsored Arab-Israeli security cooperation in advance of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region in mid-July.
Once again, we are hearing speculation regarding the creation of an “Arab NATO” that would include Israel.
The Arab parties, according to this speculation, would consist of the countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel and others that “do not have treaties yet”. The latter are believed to include Saudi Arabia.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz lent credence to such talk recently when he spoke of the creation of a US-led Middle East Air Defence Alliance (MEAD) that would help defend its members from hostile missiles and drones. However, the Arab countries denied that they would be part of any such alliance for or against another state in the region, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Reports of a meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh between Saudi and Israeli military officials fired renewed speculation, and all eyes turned to Cairo with questions regarding its role in this process. Although Cairo has issued no formal statement, an informed source said that Egypt merely hosted the meeting but did not take part in it. The source did not disclose any further details on the substance and results of the meeting.
At the same time, Cairo does not seem to be interested in joining an anti-Iranian alliance, according to observers. Iran has shown no hostility towards Egypt, and Egypt does not view Iran as a hostile state, they say. While Cairo has reservations regarding Iran’s interventionist policies in the region, Iran is not the only non-Arab regional power to exhibit such behaviour.
According to another Egyptian source, Saudi Arabia would not engage in a so-called “Abraham Accord” peace process with Israel without some guarantees of significant gains for the Palestinian cause.
Cooperative military arrangements with Israel cannot be ruled out, but at the moment they are primarily motivated by the US’ repositioning itself in the region following its military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of its combat mission in Iraq. As such, they would also be informed by Washington’s realisation that emergent powers such as Russia and China might challenge US interests in the region.
This could serve Arab interests, but many Arab countries believe it is important to balance this with their relations with other world powers. They should not have to sacrifice longstanding relations and the interests they have developed with these powers in order to preserve their strategic relations with the US.
For its part, Washington is keen to assimilate Israel militarily into the region, now that Israel has been absorbed into US Central Command and is no longer the responsibility of US European Command. This means that if the Arab countries engage in military exercises alongside Israel, they will be doing so under the CENTCOM umbrella as opposed to in the framework of joint Arab-Israeli exercises.
Developments regarding the Iranian nuclear programme should also be taken into consideration. Israel has been targeting this programme with increasing frequency at a time when the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has expressed renewed optimism about an eventual return to the nuclear accord. There are indications that Qatar may host a fresh round of negotiations towards this end.
Relations between the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in particular and Iran have also experienced relative calm in recent months. So far, Baghdad has hosted five rounds of reconciliation talks, and although these have yielded no concrete outputs as yet, the existence of the dialogue mechanism is an indication of a significant change in this relationship.
Important to consider in this regard is the fact that the Iranian-backed Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement in Yemen has ceased its missile attacks against Saudi Arabia in the framework of the truce that began in early April. This lends added value to the Iraqi-sponsored Iranian-Saudi dialogue mechanism, all the more so now that the US and UN are eager to promote a more durable ceasefire agreement in Yemen and initiate a new peace process.
It appears that talks are accelerating towards this end in Oman, and Egypt may play an increasing role in these peacemaking efforts that were likely a main point on the agenda of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Muscat this week. This is consistent with Egypt’s ongoing drive to help douse the many fires in the Middle East and to promote reconciliations and peace processes whenever the opportunities present themselves.
The Arab countries insist that they are not party to the confrontation between Israel and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme. Some Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have also initiated nuclear programmes of their own for peaceful purposes. They believe that the Iranian-Israeli antagonism is as much about Iran’s drive to become a nuclear power as it is about the two countries’ geopolitical rivalry.
Israel believes that Iran is encircling it from Syria and Lebanon and wants to counter this via a front in the Gulf region, but the Gulf countries do not want to lend themselves to such a strategy. They believe it would court a needless threat in the event of an escalation between Iran and Israel, a conflict to which the Arab countries are not party.
Evidently, there are opposing views inside Israel on the question of Iran. According to an article in the Israel Hayom newspaper this week, the Israeli army supports a return to the nuclear accord while the security agency Mossad is opposed. This divergence could signify an inclination not to escalate tensions further after Mossad’s recent strikes against the Iranian nuclear programme and its personnel.
If Israel is integrated into regional security arrangements, which is a distinct possibility in the light of the peace accords and recent security-related developments, this would still be governed by the CENTCOM framework and the mutual interests it would serve. These interests would not include a military confrontation against Iran, and it is most unlikely that the Arabs would approve arrangements that would make it possible for Israel to attack Iran from Arab territory.
As for the notion of an “Arab NATO”, this will probably remain an idea that the US will bring with it on visits to the region, though it will not be translated into the form some have imagined.
Military and security arrangements with Israel will remain minimal, and it will take a long time before Israel can be more fully incorporated into some kind of regional security order. Even then, the Arabs would not fight alongside Israel against Iran.
In fact, Arabs appear to be taking another, less adversarial tack towards Iran, which is the policy of containment. Of course, Tehran will have to reciprocate by making concrete changes in its regional behaviour, especially that which jeopardises Arab interests and national security concerns.
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.