Hard Questions, Tough Answers (July 9, 2019) - Israel and the New Arab Center


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. What do you mean by Arab “center”?

A. Over the centuries, Arab political, religious and artistic culture has been more developed in some countries and cities than in others. This was true even during Ottoman and European colonial times (roughly, for some 400 years until after WWII), when there were essentially no independent Arab countries.

When Israel won its independence in 1948, it confronted an Arab world dominated by Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and to a lesser extent Beirut. Most other Arab capitals--Khartoum, Sanaa, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Algiers--were either backwaters or were still under British or French colonial rule.

This reality has changed dynamically in recent years. Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad have been wracked by revolution, civil war, and poverty. Baghdad has come under the sway of, first, the US and then Tehran. Cairo witnessed a popular revolution, a military revolution, Muslim Brotherhood rule and now secular dictatorial rule. The brutal regime in Damascus held against revolutionary forces, but only with the help of Iran and Russia, which today dominate it. Beirut has fallen increasingly under the domination of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims with their Iranian backers.

Today it is reasonable to argue that the Arab center has moved to the Persian Gulf countries: Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and to a lesser extent Qatar and Kuwait. True, just about everything there is imported. Art museums arrive from France, universities from the United States, technology from the West and Israel. So this is not native culture as it was in Damascus and Cairo. But smart rulers in most of the Gulf countries have managed this transition cleverly, attracting masses of international travelers by exploiting geography to turn city states like Abu Dhabi and Dubai into transportation hubs and even vacation centers. Behind it all lie oil and gas and the income they produce, which is not likely to decline any time soon.

Q. So there’s a new Arab center. How does this affect Israel?

A. There is good news and bad news here for Israel.

Q. Well, start with the good.

A. The Gulf states and emirates care far less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than do (and did, starting from 1948) Israel’s Arab neighbors of the old center. The Gulf is geographically distant from Israel-Palestine. And the Gulf peoples’ Bedouin cultural origins, being nomadic, often dictate a less orthodox attitude to what Palestinians would describe as the loss of Islamic lands to the Zionist invader. (“We can’t understand why you Israelis and Palestinians argue over ‘holy’ bits of land”, a Qatari government minister once told me.) The Gulf states are also far more concerned about the Iranian threat than are Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut--all of which to some extent are already obliged, happily or not, to recognize Iranian hegemony.

Accordingly, the new Arab center unabashedly buys Israeli technology. It barely bothers to conceal strategic and intelligence ties with Israel. Here and there it engages in mutual high-level visits (Israel and Oman, for example) and joint military maneuvers (Israel and the United Arab Emirates). It even hosts regional sports and business events that include Israel. The foreign minister of Bahrain, almost certainly with Saudi consent, publicly encourages the rest of the Arab world to follow suit.

Q. But aren’t these same Gulf Arab countries projecting power elsewhere in the Middle East in ways that are problematic for Israel?

A. The Arab center has always projected power. Egypt’s Nasser did this in his day (1950s and 1960s) by inciting against Arab monarchies and rallying the region against Israel. The Baath regimes in Syria and Iraq tried to export an Arab version of national socialism and preached the destruction of Zionism.

The virtues or drawbacks of today’s reality depend on your point of view. Since the 2011 Arab revolutions, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been meddling--militarily and with huge bribes--in virtually all the destabilized Arab states. Their enemy is militant Islam, both Sunni (ISIS, Muslim Brotherhood) and Shiite (Iran and its proxies), with its aversion to monarchy. But their enemy is also democracy and human rights. They seek to foster stability by backing anti-Islamist and anti-democracy military rule.

In Egypt, the Saudis and UAE encouraged then-General Sissi to remove the Muslim Brotherhood and install a brutal dictatorship. In Libya, the UAE has intervened in a regional-tribal civil war on the side of a dictatorial military figure, General Khalifa Haftar. His Libyan National Army is currently expending UAE-provided weaponry in besieging Tripoli, the capital, where it recently bombed and killed dozens of African asylum-seekers.

In Sudan, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi just helped foment a military coup that deposed a ruler who was getting too close to Iran; by the by, they backed the new rulers in brutally suppressing calls for democracy. (Don’t get your hopes up based on a recent truce between the Sudanese generals and civilian protest leaders; the joint ruling council projected for three years will be scrapped by the generals, with Gulf backing, the moment the rest of the world isn’t looking.) In Yemen, the two Gulf powers intervened against the Iran-backed, quasi-Shiite Houthis. In Syria, for a while they contributed militarily to the battle against ISIS.

What is “good” here for Israel is the anti-Islamist element. Sunni and Shiite Islamists are today the only Middle East actors that still preach Israel’s destruction, so blows struck against them work in Israel’s favor.

But is Gulf Arab support (along with that of Washington under President Trump) for military dictators in Cairo, Khartoum, Benghazi and even Algiers really good for Israel? True, democratization processes in Arab countries have in the past brought to power Islamists who oppose Israel. Moreover, dictators like Sissi cooperate strategically with Israel even as they suppress Islamists (but also enlightened democracy-seekers and human-rights activists) at home. And, being dependent on the Gulf Arabs for financial support, Sissi does the bidding of the Saudis and Emirates in backing their military candidates for rule in Khartoum and Tripoli.

This works for Israel in the short term. No one need blame Israel for the absence of democracy and human rights in the Arab world. But in the long term? Just in the years since 2011 we have witnessed the mayhem caused by popular revulsion with brutal dictators in Cairo, Damascus, Tripoli and Sanaa.

Q. And what’s bad in the short term for Israel?

A. First, and worst, the Netanyahu government appears to be so enthralled by its new friends in the Gulf that it is neglecting its immediate neighbors, Palestine and Jordan. The unspoken assumption appears to be that if Israel has close security ties in distant Abu Dhabi, it has less need of nearby Amman and even Ramallah--particularly when Abu Dhabi signals that it doesn’t care about the Palestinians. Accordingly, there is no attempt by Netanyahu to reconvene peace negotiations with the PLO. And Jordan, with its treaty-bound responsibility for the non-Jewish holy places in Jerusalem, is repeatedly slighted and minimized by Israel. Yet these are our closest neighbors! This is not a wise approach.

Then too, there are problematic aspects to Israel’s relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is a loose cannon with a penchant for getting into deep trouble, e.g., the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and the endless and bloody conflict in Yemen. It would be a huge mistake for Israel to depend on him and his paper-tiger military in a security relationship.

The UAE, in contrast, has been far cleverer at power projection and sound decision-making. It is getting out of Yemen, where it recognizes a lost cause, in favor of mustering forces at home against a possible threat from Iran. Still, recently established UAE naval bases in Djibouti, Somalia and Yemeni Socotra are sitting on a vital Israeli trade route to the Far East.

Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia has any real commitment to Israel. Nor, in a pinch, would they contribute substantively in a war against Iran. At this point in time it is even doubtful they would offer Israel’s Air Force landing and refueling rights in an Israel-Iran shooting war. And bear in mind, a large portion of the armed forces of the demographically-challenged Emirates are mercenaries from places like Colombia and Sudan--hardly reassuring to Abu Dhabi’s friends and neighbors.

Q. If the new Arab center countries can’t really help Israel against Iran, perhaps they can help in dealing with the Iranian-dominated area to Israel’s north. . .

A. Quite the contrary. One of the truly negative features of the Arab center’s move to the wealthy Gulf monarchies is the virtually unchallenged emergence of an Iran-dominated “Shiite crescent” to Israel’s north, stretching a thousand miles from Beirut via Damascus and Baghdad to Tehran. Russia too is in Syria, but Moscow as an ally of Iran is prepared to tolerate but not support Israeli opposition to Iranian influence. Turkey to Syria’s north has its own political and demographic interest in maintaining military influence there, but certainly not in coordination with Israel, with which Ankara’s strategic relationship has sharply deteriorated.

Note, in this context, that when we expand our perception of the Middle East beyond Israel and the Arabs to include Iran and Turkey, it is non-Arab Jerusalem, Tehran and Ankara and not the Arabs that remain the strongest regional powers. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Arab center was in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, these three non-Arab powers made common cause (generally clandestinely) against Nasser’s and the Baath party’s expansive Arab nationalism. Now Iran vows regularly to destroy Israel and Turkey’s President Erdogan makes no effort to hide his hostility.

Q. Bottom line?

A. On balance, Israel benefits from its close and increasingly overt strategic relationship with the Gulf Arabs. But Saudi Arabia is a paper tiger run by a truly unreliable ruler, MbS. The UAE is strategically much wiser but, in this case too, its attitude toward Israel has never been tested. Here, by the by, we recall that even the Israel-Iran-Turkey “Trident” alliance of the 1960s and 1970s never really served Israel at a time of emergency such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Ankara and Tehran, too, were highly conditional allies.

Further, to the extent that Israel’s involvement with its Gulf “allies” comes at the expense of Jordan and the Palestinians (it does not have to, but this is the reality forged by Netanyahu), this is a plainly negative development. It has existential implications for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Finally, even in an era when the Arab center has moved, generally to Israel’s satisfaction, to the Gulf, Israel faces Iran alone across its northern border. The fact that the Israeli, American and Russian national security advisers recently met in Jerusalem to discuss this does not appear to have changed much. The Gulfies won’t help. The Russians have their own interests in remaining close with Damascus and Tehran. And President Trump appears to be in it primarily for the showy occasions, whether in Riyadh (his first Middle East trip, in 2017), in Bahrain (Jared Kushner’s recent power point about economic peace), or in Jerusalem (moving the US embassy).