Israel and Arab Countries

Written by Rubab Nawaz and Kanza Tahir 5:30 pm Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

Iran: A Common Enemy of Israel and the Arab Countries

The relations of the Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Oman, with Israel have always been based upon what they perceive as a threat and what benefits them. The authors, Rubab Nawaz and Kanza Tahir, explain that initially, these Arab states viewed Israel as the enemy but now, they’ve started to align themselves with it to counter the threat of a Shi’ite and nuclear Iran. This threat has been securitized to gain legitimacy from the masses. For the sake of this Arab-Israel alliance, the Gulf states seem to have sidelined the issue of Palestine.
About the Author(s)
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Rubab Nawaz is a final year bachelor's student currently studying at National Defense University (NDU), Pakistan in the Department of International Relations.

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Kanza Tahir is a final year bachelor's student currently studying at National Defense University (NDU), Pakistan in the Department of International Relations.

Abstract

The revelatory cordialness of Israel and the Arab countries features the emergence of a new regional order. This coziness in relations is not a downright episode but a sequel of a slow interactive process corroborated by internal and external factors. We have applied the constructivist paradigm to analyze this unforeseen emerging situation.

The Arab-Israeli alliance is resulting due to cultural factors, ideological transformation, and the regional and international structure. The primary hinge of this alliance is the evident material and ideological threat emanating from Iran. This Arab-Israeli union, evident from recent cultural and diplomatic exchanges, will change regional security dynamics. Also, it will affect the interests and behavior of other states, including powerful ones, towards the region.

This paper would help the scholars of international relations identify the role of identity in transforming the foreign policy of Arab states vis-à-vis Israel. It also contends that Palestine would not have a determining, but maybe an influential role, in the Arab-Israel relations that are based on material interests and preserving ideological dominance in the region.

Keywords: Middle East, Arab, Israel, Social Constructivism, Politics, Identity. 

Introduction 

Middle Eastern politics has been in the spotlight since the mid-twentieth century. The formation of the state of Israel led to sixty years of confrontation and wars in the region with the Arab states. The reason lies in the determining role of identity in the Arab states’ foreign policies. The collective Arab identity emerged when Saudi Arabia founded the Arab League in 1945, comprising 22 Arab states where their interests were to be ensured.

However, the conception of what constitutes “Arab” is changing as identities are malleable. Initially, “Muslim-Arab,” which saw “Jewish-Israel” as the other, is now being converted into “Sunni-Arab” due to changing threat perceptions. The concept of “other” changed due to internal reasons based on inter-ethnic and intra-religious differences.

The structural changes and regional events have prompted a change in threat perception, which is now perceived collectively as emanating from Iran. Iran has emerged as a regional influencer involved in regional proxies and has a revolutionary ideology. It is perceived as a regional rival for not only Israel but also Muslim states.

The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states view it as an ideological rival. Israel views it as an “existential threat” due to its nuclear program and active involvement in its border areas such as Syria and Palestine. It is changing the whole dynamics of regional politics. The insecurities caused to cherished values in the Arab states and Israel from a “common threat” have led to their converging interests, ultimately shaping their foreign policies.

The backchannel relations between Israel and other Gulf Arab states have grown in the shadows for many years. This interaction and socialization have opened further areas of cooperation such as the economy, technology, sports, and the military. The discourses have started changing in favor of Israel from its “non-existence” to talks about “coexistence” by academicians, politicians, and popular media alike. Israel is no longer a “taboo,” but public perception is also changing.

The only factor that can affect this emerging alliance is the Palestinian conflict. Although Israel is not reserved about the relationship, for understandable reasons related to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the Gulf states have preferred to keep their rapprochement with Israel under wraps.

However, it has been evident by several factors that Palestine is no more a determining factor but an influencing factor that can either reinforce itself or disappear in the shadow of significant gains obtained from the alliance. The Arab-Israeli rivalry, earlier, and Arab-Persian rivalry now, have hindered the region from social and political development. However, it is crystal clear that globalization has impacted the area as interconnected non-political interests have made Arab-Israeli socialization continuous and converging. 

Theoretical Framework

Social constructivism is a trending holistic approach in international relations that focuses on agents and structures, their mutual construction, and social interaction considering both material and ideational factors. It is a paradigm that has brought both ontological and epistemological positions to the study of world politics.

Ontologically, it argues that social reality cannot be generalized and is constructed.1 Epistemologically, it considers both the explanatory aspect of positivism and interpretive elements of post-positivism. It considers the role of culture, norms, and values in shaping identity, which in turn shapes the actions of agents.

It has highlighted that identity and interests change over time due to the emergence of new norms resulting from socialization. Constructivists view world politics as an interplay of ideational and material power, the role of identity, and intersubjectivity. This view is well related to our research problem because it concentrates on the regional politics of the Middle East.

The increasing positive interaction between two historically rival identities, i.e. “Arab” and “Israeli,” is due to their mutual construction of Iran as “the other.” The Arab states, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, eye Iran as their cultural and ideological rival, and Israel views it as its potential nuclear rival. This changing identity is reshaping the foreign policies of the GCC states and will determine their actions.

Constructivism takes into account the role of structure as well, which influences the behavior of states. In our area of study, the approach helps us understand how the unipolar world helped Israel and the Arab states to come closer to each other. It also assists us in comprehending the reason behind their perception of the world as anarchic and how this perception affects their actions.

In this regard, the use of discursive language by elites of both sides is apparent to get the legitimacy of people. By arguing that security is what states make of it, we will explain our stance that this alliance is coming into being due to emerging common interests rather than their mutual fondness. For Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, security is equivalent to the protection of regional leadership and the dominance of their ideology in the Middle East. For Israel, it is the absence of a nuclear threat emanating from Iran.

Methodology

This paper will be based on a neo-positivist methodology. Such pragmatic methodology utilizes both qualitative and quantitative methods for the justification of arguments. We will give a causal explanation based on facts and figures from historical and recent data and put forward the ideological and cultural understanding of the emerging Arab-Israeli alliance.

World politics is not a simple arena where only one factor contributes to the outcome. It is a complex, dynamic, interdependent system where multiple factors are at play simultaneously. These factors cannot be quantified due to the presence of cognitive elements. Moreover, the role of discourse, though it comes within critical constructivism, is also highlighted as it plays a crucial role in legitimacy induction and reshaping identities.

Constructivism is committed to explaining the Arab-Israeli alliance through both methods; that’s why it is referred to as the “middle ground” approach.2 It can help explain this emerging trend as a causal impact of the unipolar structure that emerged in the 1990s. The U.S. was the sole superpower that enabled both sides, i.e., Israel and the Arab states, to interact and enter the peace process. Also, the uncertain regional structure is pushing Israel to align against the potential nuclear threat of Iran.

The explanation will not be limited to it as constructivism considers the role of culture and identity in shaping states’ foreign policy. In the case of Arab states, it was the collective “Arab-Muslim” identity that felt threatened by “foreign-Zionist” Israel. Now, it is reshaped on the cultural and ethnoreligious basis as a collective “Sunni-Arab” identity against Iran’s “Persian-Shia” identity. Therefore, we deduct that social constructivism is well suitable for and applicable to the given case study.

Historical Background

The rivalry between the Arab countries and Israel goes back to the 1940s when Israel came into being. Its formation was seen as a “threat” to Muslim identity and Pan-Arabism, so none of the Arab countries recognized Israel. The collective “Arab-Muslim” identity was based on common religion, history, culture, and collective meanings of shared values. Therefore, their insecurity against Israel was collective; so, they collectively waged war on it.

For Arab countries, Israel was the “other” that would weaken their cultural strength and regional unity as the sole “Muslim region.” The hostility was also due to the religious significance of the territory controlled by Israel. Jerusalem is an important religious place for Abrahamic religions, including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

However, the situation changed when in 1979, Egypt became the first Arab nation to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with Israel by signing the Camp David Accords. It was considered “wrong” and “inappropriate” within the Arab world. The role of Egypt as an “Arab-Muslim” did not allow it to recognize “Jewish” Israel. So, the recognition of Israel was taboo, which led states to condemn Egypt.

The concept of “taboo” in social constructivism was given by Nina Tannenwald. According to it, actions against the existing norms which she called “taboo” led to the emergence of new norms. Later, due to emerging common interests, other Arab countries recognized Israel as well.

Role of Structure

Constructivism supports structuralism, i.e. it agrees with the causal impact of structure on states’ behavior. Both international and regional structures have contributed to the current changing scenario of Middle Eastern politics. In the 1990s, the external order was “Pan-American.” The emergence of the United States as the sole superpower of the world changed the region’s dynamics. It further enhanced the Middle Eastern peace process because good Arab-Israeli relations favored the US’ interests.

A nuclear Iran would threaten the US’ interests in the region, and a potential threat of nuclear proliferation has forced the US to promote the GCC states and Israel’s cooperation. In 2008, Barack Obama stated, “If we’ve gotten an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal…, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.”3

The US arranged meetings and conferences between the Arab countries and Israel. This process of interaction between both sides changed the views about each other. It was the start of the socialization process between both sides, which was at the diplomatic level. Moreover, the emerging ideological and material threat of aggressive Iran enhanced the common grounds that are discussed in a later section.

Views on Israeli identity started to change. Israel was no longer seen as a monolithic “Jewish” state but as an economic, technological, and military hub from which the Arab countries could benefit and overcome their internal differences. By 1995, five Arab countries—Oman, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Qatar—established diplomatic relations with Israel.

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Wendt’s idea of anarchy explains the conception of the regional structure by Arab countries and Israel. They see it as “insecure” and uncertain. It has affected their foreign policy and behavior. Since the initiation of Iran’s nuclear program, both sides see the world as “anarchic.” This “mutual understanding” against the “common threat” has taken over their mutual differences and is, now, helping them shape cooperative foreign policies towards each other.

The ideological bipolarity between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been referred to as the “Cold War of the Middle East,” but it is imbalanced. The Arab countries alone have been unable to tackle the Iranian influence since the last decade. They are militarily and technologically weaker than Iran. Israel is a better “balancer” in this case as it has nuclear and technological supremacy. Seeing the mutual animosity against Iran, they are becoming friends.

The regional structure of the Middle East can be seen as bipolar where on one side there is potential “nuclear” and “Persian” Iran, and on the other side, there are “nuclear” Israel and “Arab” countries. This emerging bipolarity is one of the reasons for the Arab-Israeli alliance.

Identity and Foreign Policy

Israel remained an ally of Iran both before and after the 1970s. In 2003, both states cooperated with the United States against Iraq, a common threat as the emerging regional power. The elimination of Iraq brought the two against each other because there was no common enemy anymore. The influence of Iran became dominant in the region. Moreover, Khomeini’s fundamentalist government turned against Israel expressing its intentions to de-legitimize Israel—the little Satan’s existence.4

Such words and Iran’s nuclear program and its support to proxies in the areas surrounding Israel, i.e. Syria, Lebanon, and PLO, have raised the alarm in Israeli policymakers. The thought of having a nuclear Iran with expanded influence in the region would only make Israel’s existence difficult. So, Israel has used the language of “existential threat” about Iran’s nuclear program.5

The culture and ideology shape the identity of states. The “Persian” identity of Iran is old and well absorbed in its political ideology. Initially, the Arab identity was based on collective “Muslim” identity, which was conceptualized against Israel as “the other.” During that time, cooperation existed between the Arab states and Iran.

The cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was based on shared interests as Muslim states. However, the “cultural” rift remained throughout the history of their relationship, which hindered their cooperation. Iran has a 6000 years old “Persian” culture firmly ingrained in its identity and perception of the world.6 It was historically a power; this desire to get power has re-emerged since the inception of Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership.

Under his tenure, Iran’s interests have expanded across the region by supporting proxies, but the country has vowed to expand its “Shi’ite” ideology. KSA has a comparatively recent culture as it got independence in 1919. Its cultural identity is that of “Arab,” but sectarian “Sunni” identity also evolved in the late twentieth century.

In the 1980s, the siege of Ka’aba by Juheiman bin Muhammad al Utaiba led to strict religious policies and the emergence of fundamental views of the political elite around sectarian lines.7 It has taken the role of the leader of the Muslim “Ummah” due to guardianship of the two Muslim holy pilgrimage sites.

Iran’s recent increased role and influence in the Middle East has made KSA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) feel “threatened” against the spread of “Shi’ite” ideology, which would ultimately increase Iran’s maneuvering in the region. It is unacceptable by the Arab countries who don’t want to be led by a “non-Arab” country such as Iran, Turkey, etc.

The Arab countries also see nuclear Iran as a threat. When Iran announced its atomic program, six Arab states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the UAE, Algeria, and Tunisia—threatened to pursue a nuclear program. Ironically, there was relatively passivity when Israel followed the atomic program, pointing towards a tacit approval of its action. This behavior shows that they see “nuclear Iran” as a graver threat than a “Jewish Israel.”

In the 1990s, the “Arab” identity shifted from the “collective” Pan-Arab conception and shattering along the religious sectarian lines. The different stances on the Gulf War uncovered the inter-Arab fragmentation in the form of divergent ethnoreligious communities.

Cultural and religious ideological differences shaped the new Arab identity. These differences emerged after the realization of shared grievances and suffering of people when the people of their sectarian communities were killed in proxy wars being conducted in Syria, Yemen, etc.

The collective “Sunni-Arab” identity emerged against the “Persian-Shi’ite” identity and reshaped the conception of “other” in which Iran now fits. Religious communities take a political role when they want to be influential and dominate as the national ideology. In the case of the Arab countries and Iran, the sectarian religious communities have become influential in shaping states’ identities to exert their respective influence in the region.

The alternative views emerged in the Arab world on the matter of establishing social relations with Israel. Academicians and scholars emanated different discourses. On one side, some fundamentalists were against such interaction. On the other hand, some liberal scholars viewed the changing relations with Israel as an opportunity to liberalize “Arab” ideology and the political and economic system.

The internal and external factors demanded change in foreign policy, which is now becoming apparent after a decade of secret interaction between Israel and the Arab countries. The perception at the public level is also changed from what it was in the second half of the twentieth century. There has emerged a collective emotional sense of belonging among people who have witnessed the death of the people of their sectarian groups in proxy wars (in Syria and Yemen).

The sectarian religious communities are, therefore, maneuvering people’s values. It has helped in reshaping a state’s identity on a sectarian basis during the last three decades. Now, both sectarian communities of Iran and the GCC states want to dominate the region, ideologically. It shows that interests are developed endogenously and are not given as articulated by rationalists.

The sense of belonging to sectarian communities has become intense over past years in both Iran and the GCC states. The reason can be technological interconnectivity which has linked like-minded people emotionally beyond their territorial boundaries. Therefore, people’s perception of the enemy has changed from Israel to Iran, which is a more significant source of insecurity.

Their “otherness” is getting more linked to “Shiite Iran,” whose ideology is more of a threat than that of “Jewish Israel.” A recent poll conducted by the IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy found that only 18 percent of Saudis view Israel as their principal enemy; 22 percent said that distinction belongs to ISIS, whereas a whopping 53 percent fingered Iran.

Mutual Interests

The convergence of interests has brought the decades-old enemies together. According to constructivists, these interests are shaped by the identity of actors. We can notice how significantly the identity of Israel has changed from that of an enemy to a close ally of the GCC states. Thus, the interests of actors have also changed.

According to constructivists, identities guide actors and the interests and goals they pursue. In the case of the Arab-Israel alliance, it is noticeable that both sides have mutual interests due to their shared perceptions regarding Iranian designs. These interests are not only material but also could be achieved through friendly and cooperative relations.

This emerging alliance internalizes collective meanings that are reflected through common norms like economic freedom, political cooperation, inter-cultural and inter-religious harmony, and coexistence. The major driving interest of both the Arab countries and Israel is the threat of Iran which is involved in proxy wars (Hezbollah, Houthi’s, Zainabiyon Brigade & popular mobilization forces, etc.) throughout the Middle East.

This whole phenomenon is driven by a shared perception of Iran as an enemy. Saudi Arabia cut off its diplomatic ties with Iran after the protestors attacked the Saudi embassy in Iran in 2016. Similarly, the animosity between Israel and Iran is years old. GCC states are also wary of the alliance between Turkey and Qatar. This alliance emerges out of ideological affinity between the two countries for Muslim brotherhood as an alternative for GCC.

Similarly, the pressure from the USA paved way for accepting Israel’s friendship as the only viable option. The initial changing mood of the Trump administration made it clear that it was determined to withdraw from the Middle East if the Arab countries were unwilling to change their regional foreign policy status quo. In this scenario, the alternative for GCC states is either to self-arm themselves or to side with the US to counter regional strategic threats. It provides them a political reason to open up to the U.S. ally, Israel.

Beyond political reasons, many Gulf States have improved their relations with Israel because of its technological advancement. Israel has developed technologies ranging from cybersecurity to desert agriculture, and these Arab countries do not want to miss out on Israeli technological innovation. On the other hand, Israel is consolidating support and power by developing diplomatic relations with key Arab countries of the region. These mutual interests have led to cooperation between the two allies in various dimensions.

The Role of Discourse

Language plays a crucial role in giving meaning to the actions of actors. It is the expression of thought used by the actors to construct meanings of various phenomena occurring in the international arena. In the case of the Arab-Israel alliance, we see how the statements of leaders, government officials, military personnel in interviews, tweets, official reports are playing a pivotal role in forging a positive image of Israel.

In this way, on one hand, deconstruction of its conception of a threat to peace and security of the Middle Eastern region is being carried out. On the other hand, Iran is being re-securitized. This change in the attitude of the GCC states towards Israel is due to shared interests and to counter the Iranian threat.

Additionally, the UAE has expressed its concerns regarding Turkey and the Libyan crises to Greece. Thus, this change in atmosphere from animosity to fraternity can be attributed to the shared interests of the Gulf states and Israel. The image of Israel transformed from an aggressor and security threat to the region to a reliable trade and security partner.

This gesture was reciprocated by the former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his tweet, saying that he welcomes closer relations between Israel and the Arab world. He also added that the time for normalization of relations had come. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) said that Israeli also has a right to land, and the GCC states had a lot of shared interests with Israel.8 The Bahraini prime minister also stated that “Israel exists, and we know it.”

Moreover, recently the king of Oman has also been an active advocate of open relations between Islam and Judaism. According to the Media platform Haaretz, there are daily talks between Saudi and Israeli officials in the joint war room, where Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States cooperate.

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Some journalists in Saudi Arabia announced in August 2016 that Saudi Arabia had begun to change its stance against Israel and had begun to condemn anti-Semitism in Arab countries. Some Israeli media have described it as a country’s apparent media strategy to form a favorable public image and strengthen relations between the two nations. This narrative is also spread through television programs being aired in these countries.

Two television series that were aired in the Holy month of Ramadan during the lockdown have been accused of changing the views of the Arab world on Israel. Similarly, the MBC network—a Dubai-based Saudi-owned network—has been criticized for promoting the normalization of relations with Israel despite its years-long occupation of Palestine and other Arab territories and gross human rights violations of Palestinians under its military control.

Facing this criticism, the Saudi government reiterated that it fully supported the Palestinian cause. To quote an example, series like “Ume Haron” shows how Muslims and Jews lived in religious harmony. It also highlights the history of the region.

Another such show was “Makhraj 7,” in which one of the characters says, “Israel is not our real enemy, but our real enemy is the one for whom we enter wars, cut our oil supplies, yet they show no gratitude and take every opportunity to attack Saudi Arabia.”9 This statement indirectly points to Palestine as not being grateful for the Saudi efforts towards its cause and accusing them of attacking KSA despite its extensive efforts.

A Jewish professor said that such T.V. productions could lead to cordial business and political relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In this way, the Arab world is trying to promote a soft image of Israel by praising it at the expense of the Palestinians. It depicts willingness to normalize the ties which were once considered taboo.

It highlights the crucial role of the language of highly influential people and the role of media in shaping people’s views. The elites on both sides are using discursive language to legitimize people about their foreign policy and actions. According to a constructivist analyst, Reus-Smit, legitimization is a discursive process.

Also, this alliance brings to light how threats are constructed and actors are securitized, as in the case of Iran. In this case, Iran is being securitized as a threat to the peace of the region, as another Hitler with expansionist designs. Israel is being de-securitized as a friend and ally who wants to cooperate with Arab countries and collectively counter the threat posed by Iran. It also leads us to conclude that everything is constructed, and nothing is an absolute fact.

Arab-Israeli Socialization

Things have changed drastically, and a new era of Arab-Israeli cooperation has begun. The backdoor relations between the Arab kingdoms and Israel have come to the forefront and are not secret anymore. The interaction between Israel and the Gulf states and its prospects have become too large to hide.

Under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, the GCC states entered the peace process in 2006, where their interaction implied that the discourse of Israel’s “non-existence” had changed to “coexistence.” The Gulf countries have started to feel less threatened by Israel. This unprecedented reconciliation after the decades-long hostility is mainly driven by the mutual hatred towards Iran and several other overlapping strategic developments that have been already discussed in detail above.

However, news reports have surfaced, indicating comprehensive political and intelligence coordination between countries behind the scenes searching for common aims against Iran’s regional opponent. This cooperative socialization is diverse and extends to political, diplomatic, economic, and technological domains.

The socialization of Arab states varied. The two immediate neighbors of Israel—Egypt, and Jordan—have long made peace with Israel by signing a peace treaty in 1979 and 1994, respectively.10 The external factor (US hegemony) compelled their close relations. Therefore, Jordan and Egyptian peace deals with Israel are often referred to as “Cold Peace.”

Egyptian and Israeli intelligence cooperate actively, and Egyptian forces actively cooperate with Israel to enforce restrictions on movements in and out of the Gaza Strip. However, the normalization of relations started under the Trump administration has eased the opening of Arab countries about their views and policy orientation vis-à-vis Israel.

Israeli sports and culture minister, Miri Regev, visited Abu Dhabi, where Israel’s top judo team participated. Israeli national anthem was also played in the stadium.11 The sports and culture minister also visited Shaykh Zayed Mosque in UAE alongside the UAE officials. These visits further boosted the relations between the Gulf states and Israel. Israel took part in the joint military exercises conducted by the UAE forces in the US and Greece.

Moreover, the UAE military personnel reportedly visited an Israeli airbase to review the operations of US-made F-35 fighter jets. Finally, in a two-decade breakthrough, UAE was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel on September 3, 2020. The peace deal was called as “Abraham Accords.”12 Following the agreement, the USA announced to sell F-35 jets to UAE, to which Israel showed its willingness as well. 

Bahrain enjoys close ties with Israel as the two countries find themselves in the same boat regarding multiple regional issues, especially the Iranian threat in the Gulf region. Both states established diplomatic relations in September 2020 under Trump’s broader Middle Eastern policy called Abraham Accords.13 It was the second state to establish relations with Israel in a month and the fourth one overall.

Similarly, a conference was held in mid-February in 2019 in Warsaw, where the Israeli prime minister under the auspices of Mike Pence, the U.S. vice president, met with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman.14 The critical agenda of this conference was containing Iran.

Israel also intends to revive the Hejaz railway track, connecting the Gulf with Israel. It would be a step towards more significant trade and cooperation among Israel and the Gulf states. It could play a key role in pulling the Arab countries closer to Israel.

Israel diplomatically supported Saudi Arabia when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was blamed for the murder of a Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Israel was the first to stand in support of Saudi Arabia and claimed that Saudi Arabia was critical to the stability of the Middle East. Thus, it should not be isolated even for this gruesome murder.

KSA has also purchased more than $250 million worth of spy equipment from Israel. In addition, it is also considering buying an Israeli Iron Dome defense system to shield itself against Houthi rebel missile attacks.15 Additionally, Israel also sold drones to Saudi Arabia to be used in Yemen.

In January 2020, Morocco’s military signed a deal with Israel worth $48 million for three Israeli drones.16 In December 2020, Morocco became the latest country to sign a diplomatic peace deal with Israel.17 Sudan has also signed a pact towards a peace deal with Israel; the latter has yet to establish diplomatic ties.18

Israel has maintained cordial ties with Oman since 1994. In 2018, the Israeli prime minister also held talks with the sultan of Oman in Muscat in the Bait al-Baraka Palace. In June 2021, the foreign ministers of Oman and Israel exchanged a phone call. It was the first interaction between both states after the new Israeli government took hold.19

All this political, diplomatic, military, and economic socialization between the two shows that the Arab world has indirectly recognized Israel as a partner with which it has manifold shared interests. Cooperation could lead to the achievement of those interests and the strengthening of relations between the allies.

Palestine – A Determining Factor or an Asterisk

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of all conflicts in the region. Since Israel’s independence in 1948, and even before that, competing claims of Arabs and Jews over the same territory had been a conflict constantly present in the Middle Eastern region. The Gulf States had always been a party to this regional conflict. They diplomatically supported the Palestinian cause but not militarily.

Most Arab people and governments want to see a Palestine state in the east, with Jerusalem crowned as its capital. The Arab League and the Arab government reaffirmed this position and documented it in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Yet, solving the Arab-Israeli conflict is no more a strategic priority for most Arab states, especially Gulf states.  

This conflict plays a central role in the strategic competition between the two regional Muslim powers, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The rise of Arab nationalism and the intensification of the sectarian (Shia-Sunni) divide, as reflected in the fierce power competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has made this a worse matter.

Both support different proxies in the region. Their discursive mutual alienation has played a vital role in shaping the perception of the Arab population. Therefore, over two decades, we see immense pacification of people-to-people trust between Israelis and Arabs.

The implicit acknowledgment of changing identity of Israel is evident from the consent of people for establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. Palestinian self-determination, meanwhile, has lost strategic significance in the context of greater power rivalry within the region driven by ideological reasons.

There are multiple reasons for that. First, all GCC states are aware that the Palestinian issue is a matter of national identity for Israel, on which, it would not compromise. Israel feels threatened over the two-state system because it has an insecurity that the Palestinians would take the territory back, which is the only place for “Jewish” people. As Israel is a state established on religious grounds, if it negotiates on the holy city of Jerusalem (which is not possible), that will undermine its sole reason for existence. Therefore, there is no chance that it would risk that; it wants to retain its identity.

Another reason is that they have grown weary of the conflict and frustrated with the decades-old and deep divisions within Palestine. Given the internal division into various factions and the hostilities among themselves, the countries lack strategic clarity, and the GCC states have become less enthusiastic about committing financial and political capital to resolve this conflict. Thus, most Arab countries have implicitly accepted the claim of Israel that no Palestinian partner is to negotiate with.

Netanyahu, the ex-prime minister of Israel, stated in a meeting with Israeli diplomats that Palestinians no more need peace to forge diplomatic ties with the Arab world. Netanyahu said that the Arabs are finding ties to the powerful. He favors a one-state solution for Palestine. In 2017, he announced the annexation plans of Palestine, which the Trump administration supported.

However, pressure from the international community put those plans to a halt. In May 2021, Israel and Palestine were involved in a violent conflict. The international community witnessed many human rights atrocities against the Gazan people by Israel. There was a state of emergency in Gaza, with all media coverage disconnected from the Gaza region. It led to more than 60 Palestinian deaths.

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Following this violent incident, Prime Minister Netanyahu faced extreme criticism from the international community, including the United Nations. He was ousted by the people of Israel and was replaced by Neftali Bennett. The incident occurred in the post-Abraham deal scenario, and the states like UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, etc., had a more silent role in condemning Israeli activities in Palestine.

It seems like the Gulf states have sidelined the issue of Palestine for a greater gain of achieving its pressing interests. Recent developments in the relations between Arab countries and Israel seem to point towards the fact that their perception regarding the resolution of the Palestinian conflict, which was a cause of hostility between Israel and the Gulf states in the past, has changed.

Thus, the GCC states seem to be stepping aside from their years’ old position on Palestine as the resolution of this issue seems very distant. They may facilitate the peaceful resolution of the conflict. However, since establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, states like UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, etc., did not take any substantive steps to resolve the issue. This fading support has further legitimized Israel as a potential ally.

Analysis

The above-conducted research has highlighted those Arab countries trying to retain their religious identity through an exclusive foreign policy by keeping Israel away. They have been re-evaluating their approach. The interlinked global economy has forced them to enter indirect interaction with Israel.

The exchange in non-political areas under the hegemony of the USA has reduced the differences and helped them find the common goals, which are now geographical, economic, and strategic. For instance, the membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has enabled the GCC states to enter cooperation. The reason for this alliance is identity transformation, as asserted earlier.

The study found that identity is shaped endogenously, and in Arab states, globalization has favored them. Globalization has brought technological interconnectedness as well. It has enabled people to link themselves with various communities beyond borders through technology (internet). The emotional association brought by collective sharing of grievances and thinking has led people to identify with these communities. It has a weakening effect on the people’s affiliation to their national states.

In Arab states, governments have tried to get a hold of people by transforming their identities. Religious sectarian communities have turned political, and they have influenced the governments. That’s how Arab states’ identities have been reshaped. The identities are constructed along sectarian lines.

It has alienized Iran in two ways. On one hand, its commitment to spreading Shi’ite ideology has threatened other sects’ security. On the other hand, the Iranian nuclear program has increased its threat perceptions among other Arab states. Regarding security dynamics, Iran’s attainment of a nuclear weapon can accelerate the alliance formation or even trigger nuclear proliferation, which would be alarming for global security.

One factor which can negatively impact or hinder the official formation of the alliance is Israel’s annexation plan of Palestine. The coalition can be quick if the plan is given up, but even if it proceeds, the outcome is uncertain. States can either mend their ties with Iran sidelining sectarian differences for the sake of Palestinian Muslims’ cause. However, it is an idealistic scenario.

The material interests lie with Israel, along with upholding the ideological ones. So, in the case of annexation, the conciliation process may be halted for the time being. Still, it is less likely to be abandoned altogether if Iran’s nuclear program remains intact. It is evident from the recent May conflict between Israel and Palestine. 20 This incident came in the aftermath of establishing formal diplomatic ties between Israel and three Arab countries – UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain.

Some analysts argue that the May episode would create difficulties for the remaining Arab countries to rush the diplomatic ties with Israel. However, the change of government has reopened prospects for the normalization of relations. The phone call between Israel and Oman is one example of such an effort.

A prominent and determining role of the U.S. as a facilitator further acts as an accelerator to foster “warm peace” in the Middle East. The states that have normalized their relations with Israel are all U.S. allies. In return, they gained material benefits for peace deals and assurances of a strong strategic position against “revisionist” Iran.

The USA has agreed to sell F-35 jets to the UAE after the peace deal. Moreover, UAE is also technologically and economically cooperating with the USA and Israel to develop itself as a major technological power. It has started a civil nuclear program and a space mission to Mars.

Similarly, Morocco has gained U.S. support in the contested region of Western Sahara in return for the deal. Sudan has received a waiver from the UN sanctions as its name from the list of states sponsoring terrorism has been removed. Bahrain is already a U.S. ally, and it can provide a better position to Israel to keep surveillance on Iran. These are just the immediate benefits states got from the deals.

The long-term benefits are spread across the material-ideological matrix. If the alliance is formed, this would further re-shift the interests of the states because their identities of “friend” or “enemy” would transform. Counter alliances such as Iran-Turkey-Qatar, and maybe Pakistan, can be formed. It would influence the Middle East and its surrounding regions and attract global powers differently, thus affecting international politics.

Conclusion

Leaders of the Arab world, who once called Israel names like “cancerous tumor in the region” and “Zionist enemy,” are now forging cooperative relations due to emerging common interests. As identities dictate interests, we have tried to analyze why, when, and how Arab countries’ identity has transformed and how this construction of the new “other” aligns with Israel’s threat perception.

The two historical rivals are becoming close due to a “common enemy,” Iran. After the Gulf War, the “collective Arab” identity was shattered along inter-ethnic and sectarian differences. The new identity is based on a cultural and ideational basis where “Sunni-Arab” sees “Shiite-Persia” as its rival. For Israel, the threat from Iran is more of survival due to its material capability and a huge influence on the region’s people.

The Arab world has witnessed Israel’s rise as a technological and military power, so it wants to keep itself safe from Iran, whom it considers “worse than Hitler.” To strengthen this alliance, discourses have been propagated so that people’s legitimization can be obtained, and “peaceful, cooperative coexistence” can be ensured as soon as possible.

The security dynamics of the region will trigger a reaction in surrounding regions as well. While on one hand, this alliance would help create norms of inter-cultural and inter-religious harmony, on the other hand, it could create new security dilemmas and alliance configurations.


Endnotes

  1. Michael Barnett, “Social Constructivism,” in Globalization of World Politics (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2014), 155-169.
  2. Martin Griffiths, Steven C. Roach and M. Scott Solomon, “Constructivism,” in Fifty Key Thinkers in I.R. (USA and Canada: Routledge, 2009), 123-151.
  3. “Meet the Press Transcript for July 27, 2008,” NBC News, 2008. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna25872804#.WIYgKlyeWMp
  4. Eran Etzion, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Situation Assessment for 2008-2009,” Strategic Assessment 12, no. 1 (2009): 53
  5. Kaye D. Dalia, Alireza Nader and Parisa Roshan, Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2011).
  6. Dilip Hiro, Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy (United Kingdom: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd, 2018).
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Saudi Crown Prince Says Israelis Have Right To Their Own Land,” Reuters,  April 13, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-prince-israel/saudi-crown-prince-says-israelis-have-right-to-their-own-land-idUSKCN1H91SQ
  9. AFP, “Saudi Ramzan T.V. dramas invite Scrutiny of Israel Ties,” Dawn, May 21, 2020, https://www.dawn.com/news/1558719
  10. Jeremy Bowen, “Five Reasons Why Israel’s Peace Deals with the UAE and Bahrain Matter,” BBC News, September 15, 2020.  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-54151712
  11. “In first, ‘Hatikva’ anthem Played at UAE Contest as Israeli Judoka Wins Gold,” The Times of Israel, October 28, 2018. https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-first-hatikva-anthem-played-at-uae-contest-after-israeli-judoka-wins-gold/
  12. Mahnoor Nafees, “Israel and Trump: The Weakening Peace Prospects for Palestine,” Paradigm Shift, https://www.paradigmshift.com.pk/israel-and-trump/
  13. Ibid.
  14. “U.S. Meeting on Middle East Brings Together Israel, Gulf Arab States,” Reuters, February 13, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-summit-idUSKCN1Q22E2
  15. Arie Egozi, “Saudi Arabia Considering Israel-Made Missile Defense System,” Breaking Defense, September 14, 2021. https://breakingdefense.com/2021/09/saudi-arabia-considering-israeli-made-missile-defense-systems/
  16. “Israel-Morocco Agreement Follows a History of Clandestine Cooperation,” TRT World, December 11, 2020. https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/israel-morocco-agreement-follows-a-history-of-clandestine-cooperation-42268
  17. “Morocco Latest Country to Normalize Ties with Israel in US-Brokered Deal,” BBC News, December 10, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55266089
  18. “Sudan Signs Pact with U.S. on normalizing Ties with Israel,” DW, 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/sudan-signs-pact-with-us-on-normalizing-ties-with-israel/a-56148309
  19. “Oman Contacts with Israel highlight Normalization Prospects,” The Arab Weekly, June 26, 2021. https://thearabweekly.com/oman-contacts-israel-highlight-normalisation-prospects
  20. Aimen Ayaz, “The Sheikh Jarrah Evictions & the Occupation of the Holy Land,” Paradigm Shift, https://www.paradigmshift.com.pk/sheikh-jarrah-evictions/

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