The Driving Force Behind the Changing Role of Israel in the Middle East

The emergence of open and warm relations between Israel and a number of Gulf Arab countries have become a crucial new trend in the Arab world in the twenty-first century. Although the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has historically kept a formal partnership with Israel at bay, the Palestinian national campaign’s weakened power to persuade regional politics has allowed Gulf states more leeway to emphasize their own national interests above “Arab” interests. This has caused the US to persuade Israel and the Gulf countries to pursue peace and stability even in the face of public backlash. This transformation in the region has brought a new and significant role for Israel to play.

The creation of Israel, something that most Arab countries saw as unlawful and encroaching on Palestinian rights, has been one of the most contentious topics in the Arab world. These frustrations sparked major confrontations, including the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, as well as the emergence of a number of non-state players who resorted to violent strikes against Israel. The GCC members have long been an anomaly, officially supporting Egypt in its 1979 peace accord with Israel and visiting prominent Israeli leaders as early as the mid-1990s. Israel’s friendship with the United States of America towers enormously above all other regional connections. Again, for the United States, Israel holds a political and historical influence which it has consistently maintained with monetary assistance, armor supplies, and allegiances to protect it in situations of turmoil. This opened the door for warming diplomatic relations for countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab nations that have depended on the US for defense and petroleum procurement contracts.

The United States’ desire to remain in the Middle East has waned in recent years due to many factors, internal and external. The US is more seen as an armament and technology provider to the region than a protector or a security provider. Israel’s status as an exporter of advanced military equipment to numerous countries coincides with this. Due to arms shipments between the relevant parties, the 2020 Abraham Accords have been called the “Arms Sales Accords”. Israel and other Gulf and Arab countries are to cooperate on their mutual distrust of Iran. Iran has always been a vocal opponent and adversary of Israel, and it has frequently financed anti-Israeli organizations, including the Qassam Brigade (Hamas’ military wing) and Hezbollah. In a deeper sense, the Arab nations have rejected Iran and its propaganda of replicating its internal revolution, which entails the substitution of these reigning dynasties with an Islamic regime. As a result, resisting Iran is now one of the pillars of these partnerships, according to various remarks released following bilateral discussions involving Israel and Arab nations. Several Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State, and Al Qaeda, have spurred the emergence of other non-state entities. Later, these forces began to attack the Arab monarchies as well, prompting Arab countries to unite even more with Israel in its fight against these forces.

The changing climate and its consequences, political breakdowns and financial crashes, and the development of new and readily available weapons systems strike out as necessarily pertinent trans-border phenomena that may affect Israel’s security posture. Either of these tendencies might cause significant harm to Israeli stability. These refer to an area where countries in the region, particularly Israel’s borders, are working hard to keep grip as transnational issues escalate and non-state players gain access to far more dangerous instruments.  Israel has no complete control over many of the events that threaten its core. They demand planning but only entail minor reforms. Given the overwhelming Israeli notions to the contrary, Israel still has significant influence on other concerns. Israel is capable of intervening in these domains, especially in the US-Israel partnership. Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians, which have been virtually neglected by the Trump regime, will be important to the future sustainability of these alliances. This long marriage has significant issues, which are amplified by its Chinese threat. Failure to respond to maintain this connection could jeopardize a key foundation of Israel’s homeland safety as well as pose serious political and ethical concerns should not be mistaken for passivity.

Considering the Arab and Israel’s ambitions for another Trump administration, something many feel facilitated the speed at which the Abraham Accords were concluded  the issue of Iran stands at the center of these strategic moves. Commencing with the assassination of Iran’s legendary commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 and the execution of recognised Iranian nuclear expert Mohsen Fakhrizade in the suburbs of Tehran in November 2020, the synergy of the US and regional allies has been tangible. In 2018, Trump removed the US from the JCPOA, much to the pleasure of Israel and the Arab countries. Meanwhile, the Biden government, which is packed with Obama administration personnel, is anticipated to resume talks with Iran. Beyond regional stability and directly related to the sustainability of the Abraham Accords, this will be the greatest hurdle between the US and the Gulf Region. The coming days, though, will be about more than just these factors; they will also be about how Iran traverses its own politics. The problems facing the Biden presidency are equally significant. Even as the United States grapples with post-pandemic challenges, a challenging global economy, and internal political divisions, Biden is expected to focus primarily on domestic issues and less on bold foreign policy gestures. Amidst the “peace” discourse surrounding the Abraham Accords, some scholars point out that it is important to remember that the beacon of this agreement is deterrence. It is a political as well as a defensive deterrent against Tehran, which, despite its financial difficulties, has made significant progress in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen by employing asymmetrical strategies and the deployment of paramilitaries.

Russia has re-entered the Middle East as a player engaged in diplomatic and military matters. Ever since it entered the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russia has been looking for new ways to expand its military and economic interests in the region. Russia is now a major player in Syria and Libya, a close ally of Iran, a potential partner in Egypt, and a mediator with the Gulf countries (particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia), Israel, and the Palestinians, among several others. Moscow is a player in Yemen, and it has a growing list of North African ambitions. At the moment, Washington is not concerned about Russia’s presence in the Arab world. It does not inherently go against fundamental US goals in the region, but somehow it makes them more difficult to achieve and is harmful to the extent that Russian action is driven by the desire to constrain US dominance and degrade US credibility. Russia is an elevated risk to national security for Israel. The possible restriction on Israel’s flexibility in working in Syria, as well as Russia’s tactical ties and engagement with Iran, have prompted Russia to enforce a range of operational and geopolitical considerations. Israel’s cooperation with Russia allows it to fulfill its goals of weakening Iranian military strength and continuing in Syria while reducing Russian interference in its activities.

In the foreseeable future, the region’s power politics will face significant changes, some of which have already begun. Regarding Israel, the most pressing issues are the U.S. and its broad adherence to Israel’s non-negotiable relationship; its ambition for more regional involvement; and its rising competitiveness with China. If the United States’ disengagement persists, Russia and, specifically, China, appear to be prime prospects to take part in regional geopolitics. China’s new preferences as a major energy importing country from the region will almost certainly influence its options, and thus an increasingly proactive Chinese regional strategy might present Israel with the choice of maneuvering rising US-China rivalries in its vicinity or looking at the possibility of a major power uninterested in its fundamental values.

Is there a transformation in the role of Israel in the region? There is a shift in regional relations caused by a rising Iran, US disengagement, need for regional stability, reduced influence of the Palestinian cause, Chinese economic interests, threat of terrorism, quasi-state actors, and several other socio-political, economic, and sectarian interests. Abraham Accords explains that this is a milestone in this transformation that will have huge effects on the regional dynamics of the Middle East. 

[Photo by  Dr. Zachi Evenor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Fathima Mumthas is a postgraduate in International Relations and Area studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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