JERUSALEM—Last year Oman’s Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi told a gathering of Middle Eastern leaders in Bahrain that it was time to treat Israel like part of the Middle East. His speech came in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Oman.
This year, when Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke after being honored at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he said that unless the U.S. could help solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute Israel would not be fully integrated with its neighbors.
The two statements frame a debate that is fundamental to Israel’s relations with the the Arab and non-Arab Muslim-majority countries in this region.
While several Arab states today either have relations with Israel or see some shared interests with Israel, the powerful non-Arab countries on their periphery, Iran and Turkey, are both deeply opposed to Israel and to Jerusalem’s policies.
This is a major change from decades ago. In Israel’s early years it had closer relations with Tehran and Ankara and its main existential threat came from Cairo and an array of Arab states. The reversal has left Jerusalem, now, with a handful of Arab capitals that share some interests with it, and two very strong regional states that seek to isolate it. The leaders of the Iranian regime say flatly that they want to destroy Israel and will leverage Iran’s role in neighboring states to do so.
How did Israel get here?
Increasingly the Jewish state has appeared to have not only a cold peace with Egypt (since 1979), and a slightly warmer one with Jordan since 1994, but potential cooperation with some Arab states in the Gulf. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this rapprochement central to talking points about his success over the last 10 years as he faced two elections this year and indictments for corruption.
In early December, reports suggested the U.S. and Israel were even pushing a non-aggression agreement with Oman, Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco. Netanyahu met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Portugal, and Pompeo traveled to Morocco on December 6.
But at the same time, Israel’s greatest enemy, Iran, is entrenching itself in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
On November 20, Israel carried out widespread airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, where it has conducted more than 1,000 such airstrikes over the last five years. But Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, is optimistic Iran can confront Israel. He said in September that “this sinister regime [Israel] must be wiped off the map, and this is no longer a dream… but an achievable goal.”
Israel says the IRGC has launched drones and fired rockets toward the Galilee at least five time since February 2018. Iran is also transporting missiles to Iraq, which may be transiting to Syria through a new border crossing.
As Israel faces Iran’s threats, it also confronts Iran’s allies. This includes a war of words with Hezbollah in Lebanon and concerns that the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen could seek to strike at Israel. Israel also has carried out airstrikes in Iraq against Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, according to the Iraqi government and U.S. reports. So far Iran hasn’t found a way to respond, but the general assessment is that it is only a matter of time until it does.
While Iran and its allies are a military threat, Israel also has faced a major diplomatic offensive from Turkey over the last decade. This began in earnest when Turkish-backed peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians broke down during the 2009 war and after Turkey sent a flotilla of hard-line activists toward Gaza in 2010.
In September 2019 at the United Nations, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Israel’s “massacres” in Gaza to “the genocide Nazis committed against Jews.”
Turkey seeks to champion the Palestinian cause, and organized a special session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2017 to oppose President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Turkey also went to the U.N. to oppose the American policy. Turkey and Iran have increased their role in the Palestinian issue at precisely the time the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have decreased their role.
For instance, Iran supports Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, where Israel has fought three wars since withdrawing in 2005's Disengagement. In the last year and a half, more than 2,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel and Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes against Hamas and PIJ.
Israel has slammed Turkey for its invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria and accused it of destabilizing and supporting terror in the region.
So, this is Israel’s position today. While Netanyahu has indicated that Israel maintains covert ties with many regional states and has “widespread relations” with Arab states, Israel’s potential allies are fearful of conflict with Tehran.
Turkey and Iran, two of the Middle East’s strongest militaries and largest economies, oppose Israel, while Israel shares more interests with countries such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. But Israel doesn’t have relations with those countries. Those interests are primarily linked to the Iranian threat, and perhaps some idea that economic relations could benefit them all at a time in the future.
All of this is a far cry from the '50s when Israel had strong relations with Iran and Turkey but was in conflict with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. That era was embodied by Israel’s “periphery” policy. While the Arab League and especially the Arab nationalist states led by Gamal Abdel Nasser opposed Israel, innovative leaders in Jerusalem enjoyed warmer ties with Tehran and Ankara.
In 1979 Iran’s Islamic Revolution brought upheaval throughout the region, and a lot of strategic recalculations. Israel lost Iran but it signed a peace deal with Egypt.
More recently, the rise of Erdogan soured relations with Turkey. The lack of a peace deal with the Palestinians didn’t help. And it is always worth remembering that Turkey has the second biggest army in NATO, after the United States.
Most importantly, Erdogan’s AKP party is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, Turkey’s leaders see themselves as in regional conflict with the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in proxy conflicts from Libya to Egypt and beyond. The Brotherhood even met with Iran's IRGC in 2014 in Turkey to discuss opposing Riyadh together. Israel is part of this because it is fighting Hamas, which Turkey supports, and has decent relations with Egypt’s leadership, which Turkey opposes.
Although Israel appeared to weather the storm of the last few years in the Middle East by choosing a cynical but pragmatic path of no peace negotiations and no new wars, it now faces a real challenge.
The aftermath of the war on ISIS, the winding down of the Syrian conflict, and Iran’s increasing ability to leverage its allies in Iraq and Lebanon leave Israel isolated with only a handful of southern Arab states it can work with. Jordan says its relations with Israel are at an all-time low in 25 years of peace, even if security cooperation continues on several levels, most of them in the shadows.
Israel didn’t play a public role in discussions at the recent Manama dialogue in Bahrain and doesn’t seem to have built on its Oman visit to improve Gulf relations. In fact Oman is seeking to mediate between Iran and the Gulf after a high level visit by Bin Alawi to Tehran, the third this year.
The Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility in September showed that while Gulf countries may oppose Tehran, they don’t want a conflict and will not likely be involved in any future conflict between Israel and Iran. That means their shared interests boil down to quietly supporting Israel’s airstrikes and not pressuring Israel on the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but not doing much else.
The emerging military powers in the region remain Iran and Turkey. Every week Iran announces new military technology, such as air defense and cruise missiles. Turkey’s recent attack on the Kurdish region of eastern Syria enabled it to showcase its drones and military abilities. It is strong-arming NATO and increasing its role in the Mediterranean.
The U.S. strongly backs Israel, but Washington is reducing its presence and influence in the region. Faced with these challenges, Israel has increasingly reached out to Russia to discuss Syria as Moscow is the main backer of the Assad regime. And Russia works closely with Turkey and Iran. This will leave Israel out in the cold in many meetings in the region where Israeli officials are not officially welcome.
Netanyahu put faith in clandestine relations and support, but Israel had covert relations in the '60s and '90s as well. Facing a technologically advanced, aggressive Iran, a hostile, powerful, Turkey, and lukewarm or even cold relations with Arab states represent a danger for Israel in the coming years.
This is a situation that is not all Israel’s fault, but it may have turned away from the peace process hoping that it can get good relations with the Arab states anyway, only to find out that in the end Jordan was right, Israel needs to make progress on the smaller issues closer to home to improve its integration in the region. Without the periphery, the center needs attention.