By Elliot Kaufman
Monday, July 17, 2017
In Oslo, the Tony Award–winning musical set in the early 1990s, a Palestinian negotiator makes a powerful claim to his Israeli counterpart: “Until you make peace with us,” he says, “you’ll never be accepted by your neighbours.” But that’s just not true any more for Israel — with major implications for American foreign policy.
Allying with Israel no longer risks losing the Arabs to the Soviet camp or risks the wrath of OPEC. In fact, U.S. support for Israel no longer alienates Arab governments at all. In a surprising twist of fate, Arab states now tend to view Israel as a crucial partner in their more important standoff against Iran. These nations do not have the luxury of worrying about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict right now. The rise of Iran, its nuclear program, and its proxies are far more pressing.
All of this means that American support for Israel has never been less costly — and has never made more sense — than it does now.
As Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, declared in February, “for the first time in my lifetime, and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but, increasingly, as an ally.” Even the leader of Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon, has noticed that “these days Israel is [no longer] officially considered the Arab League’s enemy.”
When Israel and Hezbollah agree about something, it’s probably true.
Take Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Gulf state. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini used to call Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi leaders a “band of heretics,” and the Wahhabis feel more or less the same about Iran’s Shia majority. Moreover, both nations struggle for power in the region. Especially since the rapid ascent of Mohammed bin Salman, the hawkish new Saudi crown prince, Saudi Arabia has worried about Iran’s efforts to expand its control over Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It worries even more about the Iranian nuclear program.
On all of these issues, Israel is a key ally. It was Israel, after all, that pushed for a better nuclear deal, that delayed Iran’s nuclear program with cyberwarfare and targeted assassinations, that fights Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it is Israel that destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Furthermore, reports have suggested that Israel is providing the Saudis with crucial intelligence on Iran, ISIS, and Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen and Syria.
Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have not yet been normalized, but they are no longer frigid. Last summer, a Saudi general met a former Israeli diplomat at the Council on Foreign Relations. The two shook hands and smiled before flashing cameras. If that had happened just a few years ago, the general could have expected to find himself out of a job or worse.
Another meeting joined Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal with a retired Israeli major general. Remarkably, Prince Faisal spoke of “cooperation between Arab countries and Israel in meeting the threats, wherever they come from — whether it is Iran or any other source.” Ahmed Asiri, the kingdom’s deputy intelligence chief, acknowledged in February that “we have the same enemy, the same threat . . . and we are both close allies of the Americans.” Numerous reports support these statements; senior Israeli and Saudi officials have supposedly been secretly meeting for at least the past six years.
The Saudis still want Israel to make peace with the Palestinians, but protracted negotiations will not get in the way of security cooperation. After all, if you believe that “Iran is on a rampage” in order to “reestablish the Persian Empire,” as the Saudi foreign minister told Politico, you start looking to untraditional allies.
You might even try convincing your people that Israel isn’t so bad. As early as last summer, the tightly controlled Saudi media began criticizing anti-Semitism repeatedly. Saudi TV no longer fixates on “Israeli aggression.” Now the new buzzword is “Persian aggression.” A column in the Saudi daily Al Riyadh argued that there was no reason to “unjustifiably demonise” Israel. These things do not happen by accident in Saudi Arabia. Saudi leadership is preparing their people for better relations with Israel.
Saudi propaganda and the reality of the Middle East — Iran is advancing while Israel is not — have steadily combined to get the message across to regular Saudis. A recent poll found that only 18 percent of Saudis view Israel as their principal enemy, good enough for just third place, while 22 percent pointed to ISIS and 53 percent chose Iran.
The good news for Israel, however, is not limited to Saudi Arabia. Israeli officials have reportedly made multiple secret trips to the United Arab Emirates, where Israel has opened its first diplomatic mission. Almost bizarrely, the UAE’s foreign minister recently went so far as to slam Al Jazeera for its anti-Semitic coverage. Who knew they cared?
Jordan, fearing Iran, ISIS, and the spillover from Syria, has also found reason to turn to Israel. Israeli intelligence now helps keep Jordan safe, and a new agreement ensures that Israeli natural gas keeps it prosperous. Their peace treaty, signed in 1994, goes unchallenged.
Egypt has also made major strides in its relationship with Israel. The Egyptian foreign minister publicly visited Jerusalem last July to speak about peace; his government is now using the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as a basis to engage with Israel, not shun it. Israel and Egypt have reached unprecedented levels of security cooperation. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt seeks to fight political Islam and views Israel as an important ally in its fight against Islamist militants in the Sinai. Bloomberg reported that, astonishingly, Egypt has allowed Israel to conduct drone strikes on Egyptian territory.
Beyond the Middle East, Israel has made significant diplomatic progress beyond the Middle East. Netanyahu has been able break through to India and its prime minister, Narendra Modi. Israel is now India’s third-largest arms supplier, selling $599 billion worth of weapons last year. After signing a $2 billion arms deal in April and meeting in early July, the relationship is only improving. Israel has a lot to offer India, from the high-tech sector to agriculture and aerospace. P. R. Kumaraswamy, who teaches on the Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, told the Financial Times that “Mr Modi is de-hyphenating relations.” He explained that “[India’s] links with Israel are no longer merely an aspect of its policy towards the Palestinians.”
This is what Israel has been waiting for. By dint of its economic innovation, intelligence capabilities, and military prowess, it has made itself too useful for other nations to boycott. In India as in the Middle East, states can no longer justify shunning Israel because of an allegiance to the Palestinian cause. Israel has appealed to their interests, and it has worked.
Israel has even found new friends in Africa, a continent that was once reflexively hostile. The prime minister of Kenya, for example, called Israel a “critical partner, friend, and ally,” according to the Jerusalem Post. More important, president Uhurru Kenyatta asked, “why should we on the African continent say we know better than those in the region?” Kenyatta understands that Israel’s Arab neighbors are moving past their grudges and beginning to view Israel as a useful partner. Therefore, in his view, the costs of Kenya’s engaging with Israel are now low enough to overcome.
Americans can make the same calculation. In the Cold War, American presidents were often desperate to appease the Arabs. Too much support for Israel, they thought, would anger Arab nationalists and lose whole nations to the Soviet sphere of influence. In the Suez Crisis, President Eisenhower even turned on his closest allies, Britain and France — as well as Israel — in an (unsuccessful) effort to win the favor of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. And American presidents were justified in their fears: Recall that OPEC seriously damaged the U.S. economy with an oil embargo in 1973, punishing America for resupplying the Israeli military after three Arab armies had attacked Israel in a bid to annihilate it. For America, principled support of Israel often came with real costs attached.
But there is no longer a USSR, and OPEC’s power has been substantially diminished, in no small part by American energy production, especially via fracking. Standing with Israel no longer jeopardizes relations between America and Arab nations. America no longer has to choose between supporting Israel, an ally that shares our values, and maintaining our support for Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Those nations are now pleased when America backs Israel against Iran, because it means we are backing them, too. In fact, when the U.S. abandons Israel, its ally, the Arabs worry that we could just as easily abandon them.
The U.S.-Israel alliance brings important benefits: Israel helps America fight Islamic terrorism, keeps regional nuclear proliferation at bay, and produces technology with important military and commercial uses in America and around the world. More than that, it is often a vehicle for the promotion of American power and influence in a dangerous region.
No alliance is all benefits; there are always costs. But now, with Israel, they are lower than ever. American support for Israel has never been more of a no-brainer than it is now.