The geopolitical balances of the world are changing and so does the geopolitical balance of the Middle East region. One of the key indicators of this change is the rising profile of Israel as an active and influential actor in regional and international diplomacy, after decades of suffering contempt and marginalization by its own neighbors in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, mainly for reasons related to the deadlocked Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Over the past four months, the Israeli officials have been all over the news, for reasons that have nothing to do with their historical conflict with the Palestinians. Rather, they are roaming the world looking for peace.
On the international level, Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, was the first foreign leader to visit Ukraine, after the Russian invasion, in February, to announce the Israeli initiative to mediate for peace between Russia and Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, made a breakthrough visit to Ankara, and met with Turkish President, Erdogan, to put an end to a decade of a diplomatic impasse, and discuss ways of cooperation on pumping natural gas from Israel into Europe.
On the regional level, the Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, and the alternate Prime Minister, Yaer Lapid, are making an astonishing effort to cement and elevate political and economic ties with their immediate neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, as well as with the Abraham Accords countries in the Gulf and North Africa.
The concurrent regional and global threats around and within the Middle East have been pitilessly pressuring the countries of the region, for several years. Going through the chaotic security aftermath of the Arab Spring, the socio-economic tortures of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the hasty withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in 2021, created a sense of urgency among the countries of the region that the time has come for the Middle East to be commanded by its own leaders, not by whoever rules from the White House.
That itching desire, which is clearly inspiring most of the regional policies, these days, is expanding the Arab sphere of influence to include Israel. Disappointed by the flawed Middle East policy of the United States Administration of President Biden, Israel, too, has started to consider balancing its historical dependency on the United States with a healthy security and economic codependency with its Arab neighbors. The historical Negev Summit, in March, is one peak point of this crucial shift.
For a long time, the Israel-Palestinian conflict used to be labeled as an “Arab-Israel” conflict. In 2006, when the war erupted between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is sponsored by Iran, the Arab media showed an exaggerated bias to Hezbollah against Israel. Many of them went as far as portraying Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, as a “super hero” of Muslims and Arabs. Fast forward ten years later, in 2016, the Arab League joined the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany in designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
For obvious reasons, the Middle East has changed a lot since the eruption of the Arab Spring revolutions, in 2010/2011. The crucial change in Arab countries’ positions on Israel is not a sudden shift, but it has been brewing for at least ten years. One reason is the fact that the Arab Spring revolutions threw out the long-established dictators, who used to magnify the Israel-Palestinian conflict to distract their citizens from protesting the failure and corruption of their regimes. Egypt is one of the most apparent examples on this shift in government and public attitudes towards Israel after the fall of Mubarak.
After twenty years of war and four decades of cold peace, the landmark transformation in Egypt-Israel affairs was polarized in the period between the revolution on Mubarak, in January 2011, and overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood regime in June 2013. While Hamas was leaking weapons and food to affiliate terrorist organizations in Sinai (e.g., Beit al-Maqdes which became later “ISIS-Sinai”), Israel cooperated with Egypt on amending the 1979 peace treaty to allow military equipment and personnel to enter the military prohibited “Zone C” in northern Sinai to fight against terrorists leaking from Gaza. By 2015, the news about military cooperation between Egypt and Israel, in North Sinai, was making headlines. Then, fortunately, in 2018, the natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean provided a non-security common project for the two countries to cooperate on and further enhance their relationship.
On the public level, a survey by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, conducted in November 2020, showed that 25% of the Egyptian public supported normalizing ties with Israel. At that time, the ink of signing the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was still wet.
Singing the Abraham Accords between Israel and three of the Arab countries, during the past two years, was an important step in the right direction, but was not enough. However, the flawed Middle East policy of the current U.S. Administration is, apparently, creating a momentum that is encouraging Israel to proactively expanding its confidence in its Arab neighbors and thus seeking to become an integral part of the powerful regional coalitions that are currently being formed.
Giving Iran Something to Fear
On March 27-28, in Sde Boker, in the Negev desert, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Yaer Lapid, hosted his counterparts from Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, and the UAE, in a historic two-day summit to discuss the future of the Middle East in light of the escalating regional and global threats. Of course, the threat of Iran, and its widely spread militia and proxies, was on the top list of the security threats that the summit discussed. At the conclusion of the Negev Summit, the Israeli Foreign Minister boldly noted that this summit is giving Iran something to fear. “The shared capabilities we are building intimidate and deter our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies;” Lapid emphasized.
Indeed, the unprecedented showcasing of solidarity between Arabs and Israelis, a few kilometers away from the grave of David Ben Gurion, the founding father of Israel, is something that should prevent the Iranian officials from sleeping at night. That is mainly because the summit has undermined the ideological rhetoric of “eliminating Israel,” which Iran and its sponsored militia and proxies, as well as all the terrorist organizations in the region, have been using as a winning card to gain public sympathy and give legitimacy to their inexcusable military and militia interventions, and also for justifying the ongoing process of nuclear proliferation.
The U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, who also joined the summit, carried an assuring message from the White House, confirming that the United States will always work with its regional partners to push away the security threats created by Iran. “Deal or no deal, we will continue to work together and with other partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region,” Blinken said in conclusion of his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister before the summit started.
However, the actions of the U.S. Administration, on the ground, give a different message, especially in relation to Biden’s insistence on appeasing Iran to sign the nuclear deal, and taking radical steps like removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), despite Israel’s pleas, and before that removing the Iran-sponsored Houthi militia in Yemen from the FTO list, despite Arab Gulf countries’ appeals.
Since the Islamic Revolution took over Iran, Israel has remained the foremost target of the Iranian hostility and military attacks. Sadly, this used to be widely tolerated by most Arab countries due to their sympathy with the Palestinians. However, in the past decade, Iran posed a serious threat to the national security of most Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf and the Levant regions. Since 2015, the Houthi militia in Yemen has been showering Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Iran-made missiles and drone attacks that targeted civilians as well as critical economic facilities.
In Lebanon and Syria, the Iran-sponsored proxy, Hezbollah, is literally running political affairs and coordinating with other militia to block any opportunity for improving the political sphere. In Iraq, the Iran-sponsored proxies are dictating political decision-making in parliament. Two years ago, these militia assassinated, with cold blood, some of the famous young Iraqi activists, who dared to publicly oppose Iran’s intervention in their domestic politics. Last year, the same Iran-sponsored militia attempted to assassinate the Iraqi Prime Minister, using Iran-made drones, in protest of the election results.
How Durable is the Arab-Israel Peace?
No doubt, we are living a historic moment in the Middle East region. The scene of Arab and Israeli leaders holding hands, in Israel, at the conclusion of the Negev Summit, is definitely momentous. If nothing else, it shows that the Middle East is going through a phase of political maturity, wherein the leaders of the region can effectively cooperate on realistic and pragmatic terms. It, also, indicates the beginning of a new phase of less Middle East dependency on the United States, which will have further implications on the international scene, in the near future.
However, the euphoria created by human love replacing decades of political animosity should not blind us from the fact that the core of the disagreement that kept Arabs and Israelis in conflict for decades is still open. That is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As long as this conflict continues to exist, any efforts for long-term peace between Arabs and Israelis will remain fragile.
It is not enough for the regional leaders to push the Israel-Palestinian conflict to the back burner, while handling more pressing issues like the Iranian threat or the rapidly changing security structure of the region. At any moment, the Israel-Palestinian conflict can pop up to the front, once again, causing severe damage to the hard-won regional peace. Sheikh Jarrah protests that quickly developed into a war in Gaza, last year, is one apparent example.
Therefore, there has to be a way to use the current momentum of Arab-Israel solidarity to reach a workable solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The positive attitude of the current Israeli government of Prime Minister Bennett, compared to Netanyahu’s government, on the issue of resolving this historical conflict is promising. At the conclusion of Negev Summit, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Lapid, said that Palestinians are welcome to join future regional summits of that kind. “We are today opening a door before all the peoples of the region, including the Palestinians, and offering them to replace the way of terror and destruction with a shared future of progress and success," Lapid said.
In parallel, to guarantee the sustainable growth of the peace trend in the region, efforts should be exerted on a level deeper than the surface of state-to-state relations. Reaching the core of people-to people relations between the Arabs and the Israelis remains a big challenge, despite the Abraham Accords and the dazzling series of governmental activities reflecting official acceptance of Israel.