Israel—no longer diplomatically isolated—appears to be assuming a more prominent political and military role in the Middle East. Following Israel’s generous peace terms with its Arab neighbors, states such as Egypt and Jordan decided decades ago to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. More recently, Islamic countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan also decided to normalize ties with Israel. Presently, these strong new ties appear to be leading to cooperation on an ever-deeper strategic level, especially regarding the destabilizing threat to the area posed by an increasingly aggressive and hegemonic Iran.
Currently—excluding its ventures into South America from where it can more easily threaten North America—Iran, sometimes via proxies such as the Houthis, Hamas or Hezbollah, has successfully inserted itself into Yemen in a seeming bid to overthrow and supplant Saudi Arabia, as well as in Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Iran’s increasingly aggressive policies toward these regional states has accelerated the cooperation between primarily Sunni Muslim Arab Gulf states and Israel. The Sunni-Shia theological civil war within Islam still appears to be fueling the destabilization of the Middle East—especially with the recently renewed courtship by the U.S. administration of the Middle East’s greatest disrupter, Iran.
The first time around, during the Obama years, one might understand the fantasy that enriching and empowering Iran might lead it to give up its long-desired nuclear program and expansionist activities, not to mention the extreme abuses of its citizens at home. Now, however, the world has seen that the plan did not work, and that Iran had been cheating all along, anyhow.
What in the world, then, is the U.S. expecting from repeating this disastrous exercise? For both the Israelis and the Gulf’s Arab monarchies, Iran’s Shia regional empire and drive to lead the Muslim world is still justifiably considered an existential threat.
Israel’s rising stature as a military power in the region is clearly a by-product of the new U.S. policy decision to reduce its own military presence in the Mideast. This U.S. decision was taken presumably to confront more significant national security challenges such as China’s rapidly expanding power in Pacific Asia. This U.S. move, however, creates a power vacuum that only Israel is capable of filling. Only Israel appears to have the will and resources to confront the twin challenge to Western civilization presented by a revolutionary Iran and Islamic extremism.
The Israel Air Force bombing of Iran’s growing military assets in western Syria opposite the Jewish state’s Golan Heights area is relentless. Additionally, Israel’s continued targeting of Iran’s ships in regional waters is a boost to Gulf State morale and added proof that the decision of the Arab monarchies’ leadership to reach out to Israel was the right choice. Israel may also be messaging the Biden administration that it will not be restrained by any U.S. sensitivities if the national security interests of the Israeli nation-state are at risk.
Israel’s prestige among its neighbors is buoyed by its reputation for scientific, technological and medical advances as well as its entrepreneurial spirit, which also have attracted the admiration of regional states.
One Israeli opportunity to demonstrate that it remains a “strong horse” may be a future decision to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s air defense against Iranian missile attacks or pro-Iranian Houthi launches of armed drones from Yemen. Such a decision could help protect the oil kingdom’s petroleum industry facilities. Another option that Israel, with its sophisticated, multilevel air defense systems, could implement is helping to draw Jordan into a defense partnership that might strengthen the threatened rule of King Abdullah II in Amman. Israel also might have more flexibility than the U.S. to improve diplomatic relations with either Turkey or Russia, neither of which is presumably eager to see Syria become a permanent vassal state of Iran.
Perhaps the most impressive Israeli performance that may have strengthened the resolve of neighboring states is the continued success of Israel’s intelligence agencies in collecting information on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs. Israel’s multi-dimensional and aggressive defense of regional stability is also likely eventually to draw more regional Islamic states to embrace the Abraham Accords.
Those involved in policy in the U.S. Department of State and intelligence agencies might do well not to doubt Israel’s will to act unilaterally in its own interest—and, ironically, the interests of the United States and the free world—despite pressure from its American ally, which has sometimes been known to recommend sacrificial self-restraint.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.