Defense cooperation between Israel, Gulf states possible - officials

Foes-turned-friends stand to gain from mutual assistance.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE, in Washington, in September. (photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE, in Washington, in September.
(photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
Israel is open to cooperating militarily with Arab states who till recently were official adversaries of the Jewish state, a top Israeli security official said Tuesday.
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“Of course, there are a lot of advantages,” said Moshe Patel, who heads the nation’s Missile Defense Organization, when asked about possible missile technology exchanges between Israel and its newly found allies in the Gulf. “That information can be shared.”
Patel’s remarks were made on the backdrop of Jerusalem’s latest successful military exercise, which saw multilayered testing of the entire Israeli missile defense arsenal.
The extensive land and sea-based drill, conducted with the presence of representatives from both Israeli and American missile agencies, simultaneously tested the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow systems, proving the arrays’ adaptability and interchangeability.
While Patel acknowledged that overtures have been made from Gulf states on the issue of missile defense cooperation, he noted the subject would have to be reviewed and approved by governments in Jerusalem and Washington and that no tangible advancements should be expected in the immediate future.
“Access to Israeli technology and innovation, including in the defense realm, is a key interest of Arab Gulf states and a key driver for this summer’s normalization deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain,” Hugh Lovatt, Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line.
“Gulf Arab states have grown increasingly concerned by Iran’s missile and drone capabilities, and their transfer to regional armed groups. Repeated missile attacks against Saudi locations by Houthi rebels, and the September 2019 attack against Aramco blamed on Iran and its proxies, combined with the lack of any significant US response, has driven home these vulnerabilities and concerns in Arab Gulf states.”
Last week, Morocco became the fourth Arab state in as many months to agree to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, joining the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. The so-called Abraham Accords have drawn new fault lines in the Middle East, with all sides promising to form close trade, economic and diplomatic ties.
“It’s very clear that the common interest these countries have is the Iranian threat, and that’s certainly grounds for cooperation. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was already cooperation even earlier. It’s only natural,” Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line.
“If things develop in a positive direction, there is no reason why … [military] personnel or actual launchers couldn’t be [stationed] in Arab countries,” he said.
Last month, following the US presidential elections, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew secretly to the Saudi port city of Neom to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two reportedly discussed regional matters ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s entrance to the White House.
For the past two years, Riyadh has been faced with repeated attacks by Iran and its proxies, with the Yemen-based Shi’ite Houthi movement targeting oil tankers docked in Saudi Arabia with explosive devices. In 2019, an Aramco oil facility was hit by a drone attack largely attributed to Tehran.  
“The US would be interested in building a more theater-wide capability,” says Dr. Joshua Krasna of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, who notes Washington has for decades cooperated with both Israel and Gulf nations on missile defense issues.
“Also, all these countries are quite concerned about the long-term willingness of the US to stay heavily engaged in the region and are beginning to think of creating an alternative security architecture which will be based mostly on regional capability,” Krasna, who served as a strategic analyst for the Israeli government and worked in several of its embassies, told The Media Line.
As for what Israel stands to gain from such collaboration, Krasna noted that beyond the enticing opportunity to weaken Iran’s threat to the Middle East, “there is a lot of money on [the Gulf] side. That could be very attractive to Israeli industries.”
But sharing military secrets and technologies with nations who till recently were considered hostile to Israel and refused to recognize its right to exist doesn’t come without risks, experts say.
“Israel is keen to protect its qualitative military edge against regional neighbors – even those it has signed peace agreements with,” Lovatt explains. “Any sale of technology by Israel (and the US) would have to be weighed against this consideration.”
“However, the sale of defensive anti-missile technology would likely be considered permissible. Israeli will also likely calculate that its own interests are served by enhancing the capacity of Gulf states to better defend themselves against missile attacks by Iran and its proxies.”
Added Krasna: “Of course there is a risk. The UAE in particular has a large Iranian presence. Dubai is a major trade partner of Iran’s and in the past has been accused of helping it circumvent sanctions. There is a good chance it would be easier for hostile elements to get their hands on sensitive [material].”
Israel has in the past managed to overcome such difficulties by selling its military products in a slightly reduced or modified capacity, with minor alterations ensuring no military edge is compromised.
Last month, the US Senate voted down a proposal opposing the sale of advanced weapons and F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, clearing the way for the $23 billion arms deal to be completed. The transaction was reportedly approved by Netanyahu in August without the knowledge of his defense ministry of military officials, in return for the UAE’s agreement to recognize Israel.
“You wouldn’t want to do [these deals] just for the politics, you’d want to attain a real advantage,” Teitelbaum noted.
“It’s not just the technology. If Israel can now use bases in the UAE instead of having to refuel in midair [for a potential strike in Iran], that’s also part of the military edge. There are a lot of considerations in this equation.”
For now, whether the missile defense cooperation discussed by Patel this week can substantially change the Middle East outlook remains to be seen.
“The acquisition of anti-missile technology represents more of a tactical change which does not dramatically affect Iran’s regional policy and posture,” Lovatt tempered. “That said, of course Iran sees the broader regional re-alignment which has brought Israel and Gulf states closer together as representing a challenge.”
“However at the same time, it has continued to engage quietly with Gulf states … on limited issues. Under a Biden Administration, it will no doubt hope there will be openings to renew political dialogue and de-escalation with these states, and presumably move them away from more hard-line Israeli positions.