Israel is well-positioned in the new Middle East - analysis

This week Israel announced a huge success in defense exports - in 2022 those exports were more than $12 billion.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 13, 2023 (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 13, 2023
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)

The Middle East is changing: A new diplomatic era emerged in the region that is leading to a reduction of conflict in Yemen, Syria, Libya, as well as other places. Countries that were once rivals or adversaries are now holding talks or reconciling, and Israel has been a part of this shift, particularly through the Abraham Accords. Yet some of the changes in the region – such as China’s growing influence, Syria’s return to the Arab League, and Iran-Saudi ties – could present challenges for Israel, depending on how those initiatives develop.

Israel is well positioned in the region today. Just this week, Israel announced a massive success in defense exports – a record $12.5 billion, with  Abraham Accords countries accounting for nearly a quarter of those deals. This increase is significant and in a relatively short amount of time. Israel also holds important strategic ties with Azerbaijan and India, and is tightening its close partnerships with Cyprus and Greece.

Defense deals are only a fraction of the larger picture, though. This means that the fuller story of Israel’s position in the region is its connections to countries that link central Europe with the region, to India and to the Pacific.

Diplomatic ties are important. It would be preferable if Israel could normalize ties, for example, with Saudi Arabia. Though there are hurdles there, the overall picture is that Israel’s current relationships have solid enough foundations to be built on.

This means that Israel can and should manage and improve the ties it has with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, India, Azerbaijan, and others in this the current framework. Israel’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, has made a number of trips, ones that cap several years of successful diplomacy since 2020.

Israel’s challenges come in several forms. The Russia-Ukraine war has led to a major effort at rearmament, with the common understanding that conventional war is no longer a thing of the past. The US-led “global war on terrorism” is hardly over.

 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 6, 2023 (credit: VIA REUTERS)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 6, 2023 (credit: VIA REUTERS)

While it is true that there are still ISIS threats in Iraq and Syria, the recent dispatch of US F-22s and B-1 Lancer bombers to the region is not about fighting ISIS. Rather, it is about deterring, sending a message to Russia, Iran, and the region at large.

Whereas the focus has shifted to Ukraine, in the Middle East, there is constant competition for any vacuum that may exist; China’s outreach to the Gulf and to Iran is part of that attempt. Additionally, the Arab League’s outreach to Syria is reflective of an attitude that the West may be less relevant here than it was and the region needs to repair its own relationships internally.

This is also what makes Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's travels to Latin America, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to France this week interesting. Iran is looking to challenge the US closer to home and show it can get around sanctions, while Saudi Arabia wants to carve out a new era in its diplomacy and influence. France is also seeking new inroads in Lebanon and in talks with Tehran.

Israel could be concerned that any shift in Syria’s position could lead to more Iranian entrenchment there and lead to tensions. Iran has held meetings with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah this week and talked up threats to Israel, while also unveiling a hypersonic missile. Messaging from Tehran is more about boosting the ego of its proxies than any actual game-changing actions in Syria.

This means is that, while developments are less than ideal – such as the chance that the Arab League could critique Israel’s Syria policy, or China’s hosting of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, along with the lack of normalization with Saudi Arabia – there are a lot of winds blowing in the right direction.

The incredible technology that underpins Israel’s success in the defense sector shows how important it is to have a strong local defense industry and partner with international defense giants. Close ties with the US and the West are at high levels of partnership as well, with US support for the Abraham Accords only increasing.

This is a huge shift from the days when some in the West suggested using the lack of recognition of Israel as a kind of stick to pressure Israel into a deal with Abbas.

So what comes next? Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan is set for another five years in office. Perhaps these years will have less tension than the very problematic decade of 2010-2020. China’s increased role in the Gulf and with Iran, as well as its outreach to the Palestinians, is an important development, as is the Syrian re-integration into the Arab League. Questions still stand about US policy in Syria and also the potential for destabilization, if there is any major US shift in policy in eastern Syria.

Perhaps a new Middle East order is emerging: ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran; China’s role, the reintegration of Syria; the Abraham Accords – these are all examples of major shifts in the region that trend toward diplomacy and stronger state-to-state ties. This is in stark contrast to the breakdown of states that took place in 2003 and 2015.Israel’s powerful economy and defense exports are important cards to play in an era of strong states. These cards helped Israel weather the era of chaos that was unleashed by terrorist groups in the previous decade. Reducing the role of terrorist armies, such as Hezbollah or Hamas, and Iranian-backed militias is important to fully bring stability to the region. That remains a challenge.