Inside Israel’s ‘reverse periphery’ strategy – analysis

Israel has changed its regional strategy. Its closest friends are now in the Gulf.

 Emirati and Israeli flags fly upon the arrival of Israeli and U.S. delegates at Abu Dhabi International Airport, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates August 31, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Emirati and Israeli flags fly upon the arrival of Israeli and U.S. delegates at Abu Dhabi International Airport, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates August 31, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel has shifted its regional strategy over the last decades from one that relied on periphery states to one relying on closer ties with Arab countries.

This means that Israel’s closest friends are now in the Gulf, and it is warming ties with Egypt and Jordan, with which it has had peace for decades, while Iran and Turkey remain challenges for the Jewish state in the region.

In a new piece, Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University specializing in Gulf politics and security, looks at what can be termed a “reverse periphery” strategy.

The new paper, titled “Israel’s Periphery Doctrines: Then and Now,” was published by the Middle East Policy Council this week.

“In recent years, Israel has sought to prioritize improved relations with the Arab Gulf states and the Maghreb over (or even aside from) the Palestinian channel, viewing the process as working ‘from outside in,’” he writes.

 Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi meets with UAE's top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi meets with UAE's top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

He notes that former prime minister Netanyahu advocated a policy of “military strength, unmatched intelligence capabilities, economic power, technological prowess, and diplomatic heft.” This was supposed to result in countries coming to work with Israel, because he believed that strong nations survive and receive respect.

The interesting aspect of Israel’s strategy here is not that it necessarily came upon this with some kind of Machiavellian or Talleyrand-like brilliance. Israel’s hand was forced into this equation by changing tides in the region.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Israel was isolated and surrounded by hostile Arab states, led by Egypt.

At that time, Israel sought out the periphery, growing relations with Turkey, Iran and other countries in Africa. This periphery strategy was supposed to get Israel friendships beyond the first circle of enemy states. But many third world and nonaligned countries that were close to the Soviets eventually opposed Israel, and it lost friends in Africa.

AFTER THE 1973 war, Israel was able to make peace with Egypt. As the Cold War ended, Israel was also able to come to terms with the Palestinians at Oslo and make peace with Jordan.

The romance of the Oslo era was short-lived, and the possibility of ties with the Gulf, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and other places did not materialize. Instead, the Second Intifada began and then a series of wars, with Hezbollah in 2006 and then numerous times with Hamas.

Meanwhile, Iran’s regime, which had been hostile to Israel since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, became more of a threat. This is the “third circle threat” that Israel speaks about. As that threat grew and the Obama administration sought the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, and as regional chaos grew after the Arab Spring, some states in the Gulf began to see how ties with Israel could be beneficial.

Reports emerged of changing views in Riyadh as well. Meanwhile, Turkey, under the AKP, had become a very hostile regime, launching an IHH-staffed flotilla in 2010 and hosting Hamas.

The fait accompli handed to Israel was that it would work with the Gulf states and the reverse periphery.

“The goal was to show that Israel carries value for other nations – particularly Arab states – that make a covert or even a public relationship worth it, despite the lack of a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The emergence of the Iranian issue for Arab nations only strengthened Israel’s cause,” Guzansky writes.

He notes, “The basis for the current Israeli strategy is the understanding by the involved parties that, despite specific political disagreements, they share certain security and economic interests for which an alliance can provide concrete, mutual benefits, especially countering the growing regional influences of Iran and Turkey.

“In both peripheries, Israel’s diplomatic efforts were largely related to the relative power of Iran and Turkey, countries with which [it] had allied itself in the initial periphery. Their present-day power is the reason Israel is aligned against them in the reverse periphery. As the United States continues to recede from the Middle East, members of the reverse periphery will be further emboldened to work together in managing shared threats.”

Guzansky notes, “The overlapping Israeli and Emirati national security threat perceptions explain why security and intelligence cooperation predates the August 13, 2020, announcement by many years. It also might explain why the Israelis accept Emirati acquisition of the advanced F-35 fighter jet from the Americans – a sophisticated aircraft that is only operated in the region by Israel.

“To be sure, the recent agreements provide a more solid footing for security and intelligence cooperation, but going public with the relationship may lead to the exposure of some elements that would be best kept in the shadows.”

THE EXPERT looks at some of the future scenarios that may unfold. These include improving Israel-Turkey ties.

“Aside from Turkey, sights should also be set on Qatar. The 2021 détente between Qatar and its fellow Arab Gulf states (which was, like the Abraham Accords, facilitated by the United States) can provide a road map for Qatar’s joining the alliance established by the reverse periphery.”

The article continues, “There are already signs of Qatar’s moving to assume such a regional mediation role – one previously held by Oman – between the United States and Iran, as the administration of US President Joe Biden seeks to reenter the Iran nuclear agreement. It should also be noted that Qatar is close to Turkey and may look to assist Turkish reconciliation with the Americans, the Arabs, or the Israelis.”

Other horizons may emerge as well.

“Should America seek to abdicate its role as the primary mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may encourage other actors to join in efforts that can be helpful toward achieving a solution, including Arab Gulf states,” he writes. “Abu Dhabi and Manama can play roles in stabilizing Gaza and reinforcing the West Bank.”

However, there may be files on which Israel and the UAE disagree. For instance, Abu Dhabi is not only reaching out to Turkey but also to Iran, as evidenced by a high-level meeting this week. Might Iran moderate its anti-Israel stance? This is unclear, as nuclear talks have stalled in Vienna.

The UAE wants Syria to return to the Arab fold in the region, while Syrian media have reported airstrikes on sensitive areas like Latakia. It is unclear when these agendas may collide. Israel has one agenda in Syria, while Iran, Russia and the UAE may have others.