Israel’s Diplomatic Offensive: Rationale and Regional Implications for the Middle East

Credit: The White House, is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Israel as of late has been on a diplomatic offensive, establishing ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and Bhutan just in the span of a few months. Israel’s speed in establishing diplomatic relations with former adversaries and extra-regional players can only be described as astonishing, compared the bloody and drawn-out process with Jordan and Egypt. This diplomatic fait accompli may be driven by a host of factors. Some of these factors are Israel’s own foreign policy, U.S. arms sales to Arab countries, increasing recognition of Israel as a credible security and development partner, and change in U.S. leadership. 

Reasons behind Israel’s diplomatic offensive

Israel sees itself as surrounded by hostile neighbours hell-bent on its destruction, its security guaranteed only by self-reliance and force projection, and having very limited diplomatic options and allies. As such, survival and deterrence are the two fundamentals of Israeli foreign policy. Further, Israel lacks strategic depth, as it has small territory, small population, and limited resources. It knows it cannot hope to prevail without continued U.S. support. However, the U.S. sale of F-35 jets to the UAE throws into question of U.S. commitment to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge over Arab countries. This situation can force Israel to frame its foreign policy decisions more from a diplomatic than security perspective. 

Moreover, Israel exists in a highly contested diplomatic space. It is diplomatically isolated from the Middle East and has ties with only a handful of Islamic countries. Further, its military actions in its immediate neighbourhood can draw international condemnation. As such, it has very limited means to shift international opinion to its favour. That said, Israel may be following a diplomatic strategy not so dissimilar from that of Taiwan. Both Israel and Taiwan exist in highly contested diplomatic environments. In the case of Taiwan, China has gone great lengths to prevent its recognition as a sovereign state, thereby limiting its diplomatic options. Despite this, Taiwan’s diplomatic strategy involves securing recognition from small impoverished Pacific Island and Latin American countries through development aid, science diplomacy, and economic investment. While these ties are of no strategic value in themselves, their real value lies in influencing international votes and opinions in international forums, such as the UN General Assembly where all states are relatively equal. Israel may be trying to follow Taiwan’s diplomatic strategy, albeit on a smaller scale and in a Middle Eastern context. 

In connection, there is increasing awareness of Israel as a credible security and development partner. Egypt’s leadership recognises the critical role Israel plays in counterterrorism in the Sinai region, although there is still a great deal of hostility between the two countries’ general populations. Israeli drones were also instrumental in the result of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In addition, Israel’s leading position in science and technology, particularly in sustainable agriculture makes it a particularly tempting partner for developing countries. As such, developing countries reluctant to recognise Israel may find themselves divided between ideological and pragmatic reasons in their position towards the latter. Israel can use its security and scientific prowess to win over developing countries through arms sales and development aid, with the goal of gaining diplomatic recognition, and indirectly increasing its influence in international forums and organisations. 

Another possible impetus for Israel’s diplomatic offensive is the recent change in U.S. leadership. Under the Trump administration, Israel enjoyed a particularly favored position. The current administration has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, overturning decades of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Further, the U.S. under Trump has taken an especially tough stance on Iran, which is Israel’s archenemy. The U.S. has pursued a “maximum pressure strategy” on Iran, which Israel supports, in the belief that draconian sanctions will bring about the end of the Islamic Republic and start regime change in Iran. However, under a Biden presidency, the U.S. might re-join negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Israel sees such change in U.S. policy towards Iran to its disadvantage and may be moving swiftly to develop diplomatic and security ties with Arab states that feel threatened by Iran. 

Regional Impact of Israel’s Diplomatic Offensive

The increasing recognition of Israel by Arab countries has several implications in the Middle East. This change in Middle Eastern international relations can have significant impacts on key regional political and security issues. These issues include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regional rivalries, and external powers in the Middle East. 

Arab opinion towards the Israeli-Arab conflict seems to have faded in recent times. The conflict is increasingly viewed as an Israeli-Palestinian issue. Regional challenges, such as the Arab Spring and confrontation with Iran are among many other issues have relegated the Israeli-Arab conflict to the backburner. These developments have greatly diminished Jewish-Arab ethnic and religious rivalries. In place of Jewish-Arab rivalry, Arab countries may instead emphasize Arab-Persian or Arab-Turkish rivalries in their foreign and security policies. Further, Arab countries may see normalisation of ties with Israel to gain U.S. political and economic support. It is known that some Arab regimes have records of widespread human rights violation and political repression. These Arab countries may use normalizing ties with Israel as a tool to improve their image in the eyes of the U.S. and international community. Moreover, Arab countries can include Israel as a key variable in their extended deterrence posture against Iran. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Jordan have opened their airspace to Israeli commercial flights. It is entirely plausible that the opening of Arab airspace to Israeli commercial flights can potentially enable an Israeli air strike against Iran’s military and nuclear facilities.  Thus, it can be observed that for some Arab countries, deterrence against Iran has taken a priority over inciting popular outrage and indignation over Palestine. 

Israel’s diplomatic offensive can also play a role in emerging regional rivalries in the Middle East. At present, there are four emerging power blocs in the region. First is the conservative and anti-Muslim Brotherhood bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Jordan. Second is the Axis of Resistance consisting of Iran, Lebanon, and Yemen. Third are the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, consisting of Turkey and Qatar. Lastly, Israel is the fourth bloc in the Middle East. The second and third blocs can be termed as revisionist powers, seeking a regional order in the Middle East where they have more influence in regional affairs. The first bloc can be described as status quo powers, which want to maintain their place as established powers in the region. To maintain their established position, the first bloc has secretive security ties with the fourth bloc, Israel. As relations between the first bloc and Israel develope, it is expected that these security ties will become more overt, and will exacerbate regional conflicts such as in Yemen, Libya, and Syria. 

External players in the Middle East may also be affected by normalisation of ties with Israel. World powers such as the U.S., China, EU, and Russia are key players in Middle Eastern affairs. Israel has long been designated as the U.S. forward presence in the Middle East. Normalisation of ties with Israel can possibly be the beginning of a U.S. “hub-and-spoke” strategy in the region. Russia has been especially resurgent in the Middle East, as shown with its military intervention in Syria and confrontation with Turkey. Russia may aim to weaken and discredit the U.S. and EU in the region by filling the security vacuum in failed states such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Also, China’s Belt and Road Initiative encompasses several Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, and Turkey. China can potentially draw these countries away from the U.S. using finance, investment, and trade. Normalization of ties with Israel can possibly form the foundation of a security architecture designed to block Russia and China from gaining a foothold in the Middle East. 

While Israel’s recent diplomatic achievements are remarkable and unthinkable a few decades back, the U.S. played a large role in this accomplishment. The Trump administration is in its last days and has been highly discredited by its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a face-saving measure, the Trump Administration might have wished to expedite the normalisation of ties with Israel to count among its achievements. However, Arab-Israeli peace talks has been a longstanding priority of U.S. foreign policy, and the process of normalising ties with Israel may continue under the Biden administration. Further, it is possible that the entire goal of normalisation with Israel is to form a long-term coalition against Iran as part of a maximum pressure strategy, and to keep near-peer US adversaries out of the Middle East.

Gabriel Honrada is an International Relations graduate student at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia on the Russian government scholarship. His research focuses on Indo-Pacific military affairs and Russia in the Indo-Pacific.

Daniyal Ranjbar is an International Relations graduate student at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. His research focuses on international sanctions and problems of sanctions.