Why Israel's Quiet Relations With Moderate Sunni Arab States Are Coming Into the Open

The Israeli-Sunni entente has elicited bored and even sour responses from Western liberals, because Iran is the flavor of the year, and they don’t want to hear from anyone raining on that parade – or the assumptions behind it.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Iran President Hassan Rohani (L) shakes hands with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, Italy, January 25, 2016.
Iran President Hassan Rohani (L) shakes hands with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, Italy, January 25, 2016.Credit: Reuters
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

Both the Foreign Ministry head Dore Gold and his boss Binyamin Netanyahu recently raised the curtain on Israel's under-the-table relationship with the moderate Sunni Arab states.

Gold claimed that Israel maintained contact with almost all of the Arab States. Netanyahu told EU "foreign minister" Federica Mogherini that Israel would be appreciative if the EU displayed to Israel the same understanding evinced by the Sunni Arab states.

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria, Netanyahu expressed optimism that improved relations with moderate Sunni states could exert a salutary effect on Israel's relations with the Palestinians, contrary to the conventional wisdom that things worked the other way around (that a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict formed a prerequisite for improved relations with the Arab world).

Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, speaking before the Institute of National Security Studies said that in a Hobson's choice between ISIS or Iran in Syria he would prefer the former, a position that matches the Sunni order of priorities.

These declarations have not provoked angry denials from the Arab states, even when the Iranians have pounced on them in an attempt to discredit their regional rivals.

The improving relations should be considered big and welcome news. The Reagan administration once attempted to patch together an alliance between Israel and the Saudis based on their mutual suspicion of the Soviet Union. The demarche by Secretary of State Alexander Hague was considered delusional and went nowhere then, but a similar process is occurring today due to the threat posed by Iran.

This however is precisely the reason why the Israeli-Sunni entente has elicited bored and even sour responses from Western liberals. Iran is the flavor of the year and with Hassan Rohani touring Europe and doling out 18 billion dollars' worth of contracts in Italy (adequate recompense for Italy's draping immodest museum statues) and proceeding to Paris to buy 114 Airbus jets, it will remain a popular big spender.

More importantly, as liberal pundit Bill Scher wrote, American liberals consider Obama’s "successful negotiations with Iran the biggest validation of their belief in the power of diplomacy and multilateralism since the Camp David Accords". Since both Israel and Saudi Arabia have chosen to rain on this victory parade so much the worse for them.

A more lengthy analysis by Max Fisher (ex-Washington Post and now with the uber-liberal Vox) describes the debate over Iran as symptomatic of more deep-seated divisions between pragmatists vs hegemonists, diplomatists vs. militarists and Middle East reformists and Middle East status quo-ists.

No prizes for guessing which side of the Iran debate the good guys are on. Fisher's resentment against Israel is clear. Bill Clinton (as opposed to the ‘militarist’ Jimmy Carter!) is described as a diplomatist because he "famously intervened in Israeli politics to promote candidates who'd be more sympathetic to American goals." By Fisher's definition the CIA by arranging the 1953 coup against Iran's Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (for liberals, the closest thing to original sin in U.S.-Iranian relations) could also be classified as a diplomatist.

Fisher is most revealing when pillorying the status quo advocates. "This often comes down in part to Israel. America's closest ally in the region is well-served by the status quo, in which the Middle East is dominated by secular dictators whose countries once waged war on Israel but have mostly come to make peace with it."

Imagine that. Israel would actually prefer regimes willing to make peace with it rather than annihilate it. But wait. Isn't the good doctor Bashar Assad, whose regime Iran sustains, also a secular dictator, unless Fisher still subscribes to Hillary Clinton's unfortunate description of Assad as a reformer? How would Fisher classify neo-conservatives, who are hostile to the Iran deal but back democracy and reform and are staunchly pro-Israel?

Fisher exhibits a clear preference for Iran over Saudi Arabia. "The reformists tend to be skeptical of America's most powerful Mideast ally, Saudi Arabia, and to suspect that Iran is going to rise in power whether we like or not, so it's better to shape that rise as best we can.” And how will Fisher and company shape this rise? "Diplomats [the good guys] see a country with complex and noisy internal politics that could be on the verge of a major shift."

The idea that the U.S. could shape complex and noisy Iranian politics without unforeseen and frequently undesirable consequences is fanciful. If the plan was that a nuclear deal could tilt Iranian politics in favor of the good cop-pragmatic camp before the Majlis elections, it hasn't quite worked out. You cannot win an election if your candidates have been disqualified wholesale from running.

This skepticism about Iran's "peaceful rising" does not emanate from an American hegemonist approach (presumably shared by Israel and the Saudis) that sees "an Iran that has always been, and always will be, an imminent threat to America's hegemony." Iran and the U.S. enjoyed good relations under the Shah even when the Iranian ruler triggered the oil price rises following the Yom Kippur War. Israel and the Sunni Arabs had good-correct relations and it was Anwar Sadat who gave the Shah asylum following the Islamic Revolution.

Good relations could have resumed, had the reformist Green Revolution succeeded in 2009 rather than being crushed by electoral fraud and Basij thugs. Until things improve in Iran it is good that Israel and the Sunnis are capable of recognizing the common threat.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.



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