Can Israel and Arab states trust each other? - opinion

It will not be easy, but it can be done.

The flags of the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain flutter along a road in Netanya, Israel September 14, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
The flags of the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain flutter along a road in Netanya, Israel September 14, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
One of Donald Trump’s last decisions as president was to transfer Israel from the US European command to the US Middle East command. As much as Israel sees itself as part of Europe, obviously Israel is located in another region. Israel has to be more integrated in the Middle East. Israel can’t avoid the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this long struggle has changed. Israel and Arab states have common interests, including security ones, mostly handling Iran.
Iran wishes to destroy Israel and to control Arab states. Iran already has a strong grip in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Other Arab states don’t want to be under Iranian influence. Gulf Arab states in particular fear Iran due its proximity to them. Iran does not have a formidable conventional military that can just cross the Persian Gulf, and take over Arab states there. However, Iran is strong enough to intimidate its Arab neighbors. Gulf Arab states, and mostly the UAE, have invested in their armed forces, but they still need a powerful ally.
The United States has bases in Gulf Arab states and other interests in the region, such as oil, of course, that might give Arab states a sufficient guarantee. However, those Arab states have their doubts about if and how much the United States will protect them. They might suspect the Biden administration will try to reach a deal with Iran at the expense of the Arabs. The United States also expressed its desire to reduce its presence in the Middle East and particularly to do whatever is required to avoid getting involved in another war there. Iran might also wait until the United States is busy with a major crisis in another region such as with China, and then Iran will initiate a huge provocation and even an attack on an Arab state. There are therefore all kinds of scenarios in which the Arabs have reason to believe the United States might not help them much.
Sunni-led Arab states, despite their concerns, still rely on the United States, a global power, but Arabs seek to develop their ties with a regional power too. Iraq used to be one. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), most Arab states supported Iraq, to shield them from Iran. Later on, Iraq became a threat to other Arab states. Although there is a new regime in Iraq, that country is almost a failed state. Iraq, therefore, can’t serve any more as the protector of Arab states against Iran (furthermore, Iraq in recent years is under strong Iranian influence).  
Another Arab state that used to be seen as the leader of the Arab world, Egypt, is struggling with huge economic problems, and insurgents in Sinai. Actually there is not any Arab state that is strong enough to lead the Arab camp against Iran. Saudi Arabia has increased its involvement in Arab affairs, but the kingdom does not have the military capability to handle Iran without significant help from others.  
Arab states can look for non-Arab regional powers to assist them but Turkey is considered by many Arabs to be like Iran, aiming to dominate the region. It leaves the Arabs with Israel. Obviously Arab states will be reluctant to rely on Israel, but Arabs can cooperate with Israel according to their needs, as they do with others, such as the United States.
Israel and Arabs, such as Gulf Arab states, will continue with their military cooperation, such as sharing intelligence. Israel also sold the US military the Iron Dome that will be deployed in the Gulf. Maybe later on Israel can sell air defense systems directly to Arab states, to protect them from Iranian missiles. Saudi Arabia has been absorbing missile attacks from pro-Iranian proxies, the Houthis in Yemen. Furthermore, if Israel bombs Iran’s nuclear sites, then Iran might hit Gulf Arab states, accusing them for helping Israel, if it is true or not.
THE US military and the IDF trained together many times, such as in the “Juniper Cobra” drills. Israel also participated with the UAE in US exercises. Joint exercises between the IDF and Arab militaries, with or even without the US military, could happen. It might be one of the foundations of an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran.
An official Arab -Israeli joint operation seems unlikely, at least now. Yet, it did happen in the past, and it was done quite openly, when in 1982 the IDF cooperated with Lebanese Christians against the PLO. Of course, that war has been for Israel a grim memory, including its disappointment from its Arab allies in fighting the PLO. This is a certain irony that following the Oslo Accords, and mostly in the last decade, there has been close and effective security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian security forces, i.e., the PLO. Iran and Israel were kind of allies until 1979, and since then they have been enemies. Former enemies therefore could become allies and vice-versa.
Israel is very sensitive about absorbing casualties. Israel will be very careful in putting its troops in harm’s way, certainly if it means fighting for another country, let alone an Arab one. It will be done only if it serves a vital Israeli interest.
In the last decades, Israel has been relying on air power to reduce the risks to its troops. The IAF is capable of reaching remote targets, such as in the Gulf, unlike the ground units. Israel might also send Special Forces by sea or air against Iran. They will be the boots on the ground.  
If Iran tries to produce a nuclear weapon, and the United States will not stop Iran, then Israel might attack Iran. The latter might retaliate against Israel and also hit Arab states and US forces in the region too, blaming them for assisting Israel. Therefore, Israel, Arab states and the United States have to coordinate in advance how they will both defend themselves and return a favor. However, each one of them might respond in their own way, without coordinating it much, or at all, with others. It depends how much each one is willing to confront Iran and how painful the Iranian attack will be against their people or troops.
All in all, Arab states might not rely on the United States solely so they will need Israel to assist them against Iran. An Israeli-Arab alliance against Iran will not be easy to build, but it can be done.
The writer has been dealing and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He worked for the Defense Ministry as a researcher. He has a PhD and published six books in the US and UK. His latest book is Containment in the Middle East, (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).