There’s a new flavor of the month in Middle East geopolitics: a defense alliance between Israel and the Gulf states. Of sorts.
It supplants the "Sunni-Israeli axis" that actually never existed and was supposed to counter the Iranian menace in the region. It also comes as prospects for a new nuclear deal with Iran seem tenuous and America’s priorities have shifted dramatically but predictably elsewhere: in the long term to China and the rest of East Asia, and currently to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Hypothetically, such an alliance would be comprised of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, and perhaps later Jordan. It would involve intelligence sharing, anti-aircraft and anti-drone capabilities, advanced radar deployment and both offensive and defensive cyberwarfare technology.
Would it be a real, binding alliance or just a temporary confluence of interests and threats? How would it be structured? What exactly would it serve and what about the potential pitfalls?
When considering the pros and cons of a possible Saudi trip by Joe Biden, the administration envisioned a possible tangible benefit: an incremental but nonetheless public improvement of Israeli-Saudi relations. In fact, this would provide the impetus for improving strained U.S.-Saudi relations.
Ostensibly, the trip is about getting the Saudis to increase their oil output and partially compensate Western European countries for the sanctioned Russian oil and gas imports on which they heavily depend. Conceivably this would gradually bring down oil prices and especially the politically damaging dimension: soaring prices (nearing $5 a gallon) at U.S. gas stations.
The premise is somewhat dubious from the outset, since the Saudis can't produce more than an extra 500,000 to 600,000 barrels a day and the impact on gas prices and U.S. inflation would be minimal, certainly in the short term. Second, critics have urged the administration to weigh the costs and benefits of essentially letting Crown Prince Mohammed off the hook after Biden vowed to make him a pariah for authorizing the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- Before his visit, Biden should make MBS pay upfront
- Bennett says Israel has 'shifted gear' on Iran
- Israel's Saber-rattling on Iran Lacks One Critical Element
But the administration privately argues that the trip could get Israeli-Saudi relations out of the geopolitical closet. Israel has forged diplomatic relations with the UAE (Prime Minister Naftali Bennett just visited Abu Dhabi Thursday), Bahrain and Oman, and has a positive dialogue with Qatar.
Riyadh, with which Israel cooperates discreetly on certain security matters, would complete the geopolitical map countering Iran. The United States has an interest, albeit not a primary one, in such an informal alliance for three reasons.
First, it lets Washington continue its gradual disengagement without being accused of deserting allies by parties in the region suffering an acute fear of abandonment. The United States would remain in the Persian Gulf via the Fifth Fleet, cultivate defense cooperation in such an alliance, and maintain close ties with Israel, the UAE and in due time Saudi Arabia. But it would continue to reallocate resources and diplomatic attention to Asia.
This would also alleviate fears in the fledgling and renewed alliances in the Indo-Pacific that America doesn't leave regions behind. It would arguably make it easier for the United States to vindicate its withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq. Those were endlessly long, costly and ineffective wars, not a turning of one's back on an entire region.
Second, the Americans – and a growing number of Israelis who are willing to admit this – believe that the main threats posed by Iran are its nonnuclear activities. The nuclear issue naturally produces the most doomsday scenarios, but the other aspects of Iran’s behavior are far more dangerous: the destabilization efforts across the region from Lebanon to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Gaza; the arming, funding and deploying of terrorist proxies and pro-Iranian militias throughout the region; the advancement in long-range missile technology; the enmity with the Sunni Arab world; the principle of exporting the Islamic Revolution; and the naval tours de force in the Gulf.
An Israeli-Gulf alliance would probably fail to deter Iran but might limit the damage. The United States fears that a single actor, whether Israel or Saudi Arabia, might confront Iran under certain circumstances and drag the United States into a conflict it doesn't want. An alliance, even a loose one, would be a force multiplier that inhibits, not encourages, massive military responses by one country.
Third, an alliance under the auspices of the United States would do a better job curbing China's economic penetration into the region. If the alliance will depend on American arms, technology and intelligence, Washington feels it can more easily convince the Gulf states to forgo Chinese help in building ports, cellular networks and cyberwar capabilities – and later, diplomatic power in the region.
Talk of an alliance may be exciting for Israel and other countries involved, but imaginations seem to be working overtime. Curb your enthusiasm.
There are serious doubts whether all this would be feasible as an alliance; there wouldn't be a NATO of the Middle East despite the flowery language of some advocates. There wouldn't be a NATO-style Article 5 on collective security, nor should there be.
The Gulf states need to maintain reasonable relations with Iran and, as is the case in the Middle East, they're not immune to domestic upheaval and regime-threatening developments. An aggressive Israel would find the Gulf very hesitant to launch a preemptive strike and eager not to be perceived as guilty by association if Israel launched one alone.
Lastly, an alliance that's too blunt in its anti-Iran mission statement may not be acceptable to the United States, so Israel and the Gulf states might downgrade it from an "alliance" to "ad hoc cooperation."
While Israel believes that such a quasi-alliance is a geopolitical imperative and an effective maximization of opportunities, the downside comes from a different place.
Israel would be dangerously deluding itself in thinking that a significant improvement in relations with the Gulf states, even including an informal but robust defense alliance, is a game changer in the region. The geopolitical benefits are big, but none substantially affect the Palestinian issue. The reality of an equal number of Jews and Arabs (around 7 million each) between the river and the sea is a much greater challenge than Iran.
When the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted that they were proof that the Palestinian conflict was never the central issue in the Middle East, and that not every normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world had to be paid for with Palestinian political currency. Netanyahu merely repeated the long-standing right-wing approach: reluctance to deal with a solution to the Palestinian issue and opposition to the two-state model.
But he also callously exposed Israel’s predicament: If the Arab world is now indifferent to the Palestinian cause, if the United States is gradually disengaged, if the world's attention has shifted away after decades of endless concern, who's left with the perpetually percolating Palestinian issue? Israel. What's tragic for the Palestinians becomes a monumental political, diplomatic and security problem for Israel.
Furthermore, if the Palestinians no longer believe in a negotiated settlement, if they despair about continued “Israeli occupations” and are bitter about the lack of Arab support and international assistance while seeing no silver lining, this will accelerate a demand for a binational state, 7 million people on each side.
So, what should Israel do, and how would an alliance with the UAE or even the Saudis help? It wouldn't. Paradoxically, the Israelis are absolving the Arab world of the Palestinian problem it significantly helped create.