Israel moves centre-stage in the Middle East

While the new Iran nucear deal was high on the agenda, other issues such as Israeli-Palestinian relations were also addressed in the summit.
While the new Iran nucear deal was high on the agenda, other issues such as Israeli-Palestinian relations were also addressed in the summit.

A straightforward message emerged from last week’s meeting in the Negev desert of the foreign ministers of four Arab countries, Israel and the United States: Israel is key to the security of Gulf autocracies and continued U.S. engagement in the Middle East. By James M. Dorsey

By James M. Dorsey

It may be a message that on the surface holds out the promise of reduced regional tension, the beginning of a re-jigging of the region’s security architecture and the Middle East’s increased ability to fend for itself. A glance under the bonnet suggests there may be somewhat less to the facade the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, Israel, and the United States are erecting.

What emerges from the lifting of the bonnet is that Gulf states, including the UAE, once described as 'Little Sparta' by former U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis because of its military prowess, are unable to defend themselves against external threats, despite being among the world’s foremost buyers of the most sophisticated weaponry. They are also less likely than Israel to keep the United States engaged in the Middle East when Washington sees its critical national security challenges elsewhere.

The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, has yet to launch a successful foreign military venture or successfully impregnate its territory against attacks by foreign adversaries. The UAE partially withdrew from the seven-year-old Yemen war without achieving its military objectives, despite leaving local proxies behind, while Saudi Arabia is looking for a face-saving end to the conflict.

Last Tuesday the Saudi-led coalition declared a one-month ceasefire for the holy month of Ramadan during a summit of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council that groups Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Yemen’s Houthi rebels refused to join the meeting because it was held in Riyadh, the capital of one of the war’s main protagonists.

Meanwhile, the two Gulf states have been unable to protect their infrastructure and oil facilities from missile and drone attacks by the rebels and, potentially, by Iran itself.

The #Negev summit is led by #Israel’s view & fear, that the current momentum of the #ArabIsrael rapprochement is both, an opportunity for a historic do-over in the region, but also fragile enough that it can be lost away in regional turmoil: @KabirTaneja

— ORF (@orfonline) April 3, 2022


First-ever Arab-Israeli summit on Israeli soil

Israel’s importance to the Arab states was highlighted by the fact that the first-ever such gathering – particularly on Israeli soil – was convened by the Jewish state rather than, say, the UAE and held at the home of David Ben Gurion, a founder and the first prime minister of Israel.

The Ukraine crisis has undoubtedly brought the Middle East’s significance back to the fore, whether it relates to the diversification of Europe's oil and gas supply, the Middle East’s impact on security beyond its borders, or stability in an era of defiance and dissent – the spectre of food riots in various Middle Eastern countries is once again on the rise owing to a spike in commodity prices.

By agreeing to attend a gathering in the home kibbutz of Ben Gurion, whom Palestinians hold co-responsible for their plight, Arab foreign ministers were further underlining Israeli power in the region. They also ignored the fact that the series of killings in recent days of Israelis by apparent Palestinian lone wolves suggests the Palestinians are as much part of Israel and the region's security equation as is Iran, the Houthis, or Lebanon's Shia militia-cum-political party, Hezbollah.

The killings occurred on the eve of a month of major religious Muslim, Jewish, and Christian holidays that could trigger emotions at sensitive sacred sites in Jerusalem. Moreover, the Palestinians and others will have noted that at a time when Russia's invasion of Ukraine is dominating headlines, three of the six participants at the summit – Israel, the UAE, and Morocco – currently occupy foreign territory and/or have intervened militarily in conflicts beyond their borders.

Jordan and Sudan emphasise Palestinian solidarity

Rather than joining the gathering, King Abdullah of Jordan, together with Sudan, the two other Arab countries that have recognised Israel, made a point of visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the West Bank – conquered by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war – on the day of the summit.

Mahmoud Abbas meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 28 March 2022 (photo: IMAGO/Zuma Wire)
The 'elephant in the room': while the other signatories to the Abraham Accords congratulated themselves on the "historic" nature of the meeting at Sde Boker, the silence relating to the Middle East conflict was deafening. In a show of solidarity with the Palestinians, King Abdullah of Jordan, together with representatives from Sudan, chose to pay Mahmoud Abbas a visit in Ramallah instead

Israel’s importance is not simply its military and technological prowess and its ability and willingness, in contrast to the United States, to confront Iran in Iran itself, as well as in Syria and cyberspace, but also that it is the only Middle Eastern country that can boast a significant grassroots popular base in the United States.

That gives Israel the kind of sway in Washington that cannot be obtained by spending millions of dollars on the services of public relations and lobbying firms. It also means that amid the suggestion that the United States may be reducing its commitment to the Middle East to better focus on the Indo-Pacific and Europe in the wake of Ukraine, Israel is the one regional state that will retain Washington's full attention.

As a result, Israel is increasingly likely to play a part – and already frequently has – not only in regional security but also in relations between the United States and various Arab states on multiple issues, including arms sales.

"Ben-Gurion would have been proud that, given Arab perceptions that the U.S. is engaged in retrenching in the Middle East, it is Israel being welcomed by key Arab states, expanding its regional profile and at least partly filling that void," said Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst and former U.S. official David Makovsky.

James M. Dorsey

© 2022