Recent developments in the Middle East are once again leading us to reexamine the ostensible alliances the State of Israel has made with moderate Sunni Arab states in the region in an effort to advance common interests and to strengthen its military might in the face of threats posed by radical Islamist entities.
What are the main obstacles that must be overcome in order for Israel to achieve an alliance, and how stable can such a pact actually be? Many critics claim that it’s not actually possible to establish an alliance with Muslim countries for the purpose of fighting against other Muslim countries.
The first modern expression of the extreme hatred between the Shi’ite and Sunni communities in the Middle East was the Iran- Iraq war of the 1980s. This centuries- old hatred reared its ugly head again in recent years with the rise of ISIS and its conquest of large sections of Iraq and Syria.
A number of wars over territory have erupted over the years as a result of this conflict. Iraq, which is mainly made up of Shi’ite Muslims, has made numerous attempts to wrest control of Sunni Persian Gulf states. And Iran, which is also mainly Shi’ite, has also made efforts to expand into Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria.
Another ongoing regional power conflict is between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Turkey, in which both nations are vying for control over leadership of the Muslim world in the Middle East and the ultimate desire to create a Muslim caliphate there.
Over the years, many unexpected political, military and economic connections have been formed between the various countries.
For example, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt and then subsequently with Jordan.
Israel has also formed extensive unofficial commercial ties with a number of Sunni Gulf states, which are still in effect today.
All of this is apparently leading Saudi Arabia to change its political positions, recognize Israel, and push other countries to settle regional conflicts and recognize the Jewish state.
Recent events have only served to exacerbate the rifts forming among the various Muslim factions.
Sunni ISIS conquered huge areas of land with the support of Turkey in its early years. Shi’ite Iran and its Lebanon proxy Hezbollah are fighting against ISIS and supporting Sunni Syria. Iran also operates Shi’ite militias in Yemen, which prompted Saudi Arabia to bolster Sunni militias in its southern neighbor.
Moderate Sunni countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, are leading boycotts of Iran and Qatar, which supports radical Islamist terrorism. Within this whirlwind of conflict sits Israel, without a doubt a key player in the region.
Although Israel has the strongest military in the region, it is still an outsider in the Muslim Middle East as the Jewish state. On the one hand, Israel has common interests with many of the moderate Sunni countries in the region, such as a desire to eradicate radical Islamist terrorism, to advance the region’s economy, to improve the welfare of residents, and to prevent the outbreak of war, which would have a deleterious effect on all of the aforementioned goals.
As a result, Israel has begun forging interesting ties with some of these countries based on common economic interests, which could lead to a political calming and growth of these Arab countries’ economies.
Hence, the importance of Israel’s reconciliation with Turkey, despite the extremist proclamations that continue to spew forth from its leader’s mouth. There have also been secret ties with the Saudi royal family, and the strong relationship with the Egyptian government has been a significant factor in mediating between Israel and both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas for years.
The excellent relationship Israel has had with Jordan regarding security issues has also been a very important factor leading to regional stability.
Israel has not yet exploited all the potential opportunities for creating alliances that have come its way. A pact could have led to a critical blow for Hamas in the Gaza Strip and to its disappearance from the political arena, or to political agreements, but nothing has happened so far.
Moreover, an alliance could have had considerable positive ramifications for Israel’s economy. Such an alliance, however, also has drawbacks, mainly because most Middle Eastern countries lack governmental stability. Heads of state are constantly being ousted, sometimes even by non-government bodies.
Ruling leaders often change their positions according to the political climate of the moment and their current military needs. For example, the Egyptian-Saudi alliance fell apart following the outbreak of fighting in Syria. The Jordanians have refrained from taking sides for fear of suffering harm from a neighboring country.
None of the governments in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen is capable of making any decisions at the current time. As a result, pacts that were forged in the past are no longer valid today.
Moreover, any alliances that included Israel are even shakier.
Today’s ally could turn into an enemy tomorrow and vice versa.
In the recent past, the US has exercised great influence in the region, but since the Obama administration came to power, Russia’s influence has been growing. Sunni Arab countries are now looking toward the Kremlin with high hopes.
The obvious conclusion is that Israel must continue to initiate contact, engage in alliances, and pioneer new economic and military agreements with moderate Sunni countries throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Any country that is willing to interact with Israel based on shared interests should be engaged.
Let us not forget, however, that when the radical Sunni Islamists have finished gobbling up all the Arab countries in the region, they will then realize that there is still a little Jewish country stuck right in the middle whose fate it will have to decide. Would it be better to swallow it up or vomit it out to sea? Only a fool would venture to offer a prophecy.
The writer is a former deputy head of the Israel Security Agency.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.