Changing Israel’s relationship with Arab countries is vital for its regional legitimacy, but it is also in the best interests of the Arab world. Sunni Arab countries want relations with Israel to create a safer region and better tools to deal with the complex reality they face after the “Arab Spring,” in the face of Iranian aggression and American hesitancy.
During a series of lectures and talks in several European countries about the impact of the Abraham Accords on the region, a member of the European Union’s parliament told me, “The truth is that we do not understand what is going on in your Middle East, and more than that, we do not know what has changed there.”
It is appropriate to explain “what is going on here.” with a broad brush and without going into details because a policy based on ignorance is unsuitable for the State of Israel.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel, the founding fathers attempted to form a sort of alliance of peripheral countries. There was hope that it would be possible to bypass the neighboring countries and have a more open dialogue with the non-Arab countries in the farthest circle from Israel—Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia. However, it was impossible to have a dialogue with the countries surrounding Israel, aside from minimal secret contacts.
However, changes have been made in Israel’s interactions with Arab countries. The most significant breakthrough was the March 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, which came after a six-year period of three wars from 1967 to 1973. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is said to have realized that the Arabs could not beat Israel militarily and that it would be better for Egypt to strengthen its ties with the United States. This would also remove the Soviet Union’s influence as part of a bigger plan.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger understood the “magnitude of the moment” and was able to use the outcome of the 1973 war to his advantage, initiating a process that resulted in a peace treaty and improved diplomatic relations.
The Arab world did not follow Egypt, even though it was the largest and most powerful Arab country, with leadership ambitions stemming from its size and sense of self-importance. Another important window was opened more than a dozen years later, with the signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s return to Palestine to continue the struggle against Israel revealed that his original intention was not to reach an agreement with Israel even in exchange for establishing a Palestinian state. Arafat’s top strategic goal was to get a foothold on the ground, not to reach a political agreement.
However, the agreement with Israel broke a taboo that remained in place even after the deal with Egypt. Thus, Jordan’s King Hussein could sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, possibly because he believed Syria was close to signing an agreement and did not want to be the last in line.
These three agreements altered Israel’s position and made it possible for other Muslim nations to have better relations with it, but nearly every one of them did so covertly and “under the table.” The worst derogatory word in the Arab world at the time was “normalization.” Those who signed an agreement with Israel were careful not to expand open relations and cause their people to change their attitude toward Israel. “The Arab Street” maintains a cautious stance toward peace and relations with the “Jewish State.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has viewed changing relations with Arab countries as part of a broader strategic worldview over the last dozen years. This concept was linked to the conflict with Iran and Israel’s desire to leverage its technology, cyber, and energy successes to change its position in the region and the world. Over time, these initiatives have been carried out throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Various leaders and emissaries, primarily from the intelligence community but not exclusively, met with their Arab counterparts during this time. The prime minister invested much time and effort and personally attended many meetings.
The Abraham Accords (March 2020) came about as a result of a long-standing relationship maturing as a result of five factors:
- It will become evident to the Arab countries that Israel is a reality that cannot be changed and is growing stronger. There is no realistic way to destroy Israel, and the Arab states are paying a high price for a dream that has no chance of materializing.
- The “Arab Spring” created a highly explosive and unstable situation in the Middle East. Because of the Arab world’s difficult situation, hopes for internal change have faded; Islamist forces have grown stronger and become a dangerous force internally. The varying rulers are looking for ways to improve the economy and deal with radical Islamic worldviews, primarily promoted by Qatar and Turkey. The Arab rulers hate the first country and despise the second.
- The Palestinian issue much less moves the world; Arab countries’ adherence to the problem has become irrelevant and anachronistic. The Arabs recognized that the Palestinians failed to capitalize on the agreements reached with Israel beginning in 1993 to establish a functioning state, instead becoming a “beggar entity” that begs for more and more money while complaining about and criticizing everyone. Many Arab rulers are tired of the Palestinians. For these countries, Palestinians are a burden rather than a genuine need that must be addressed for political and moral reasons.
- Iran has evolved into a powerful and aggressive force that will not hesitate to harm anyone who refuses to cooperate with it. Arabs understood that Shi’ites, a minority of 15% in the Middle East who have Iran as their leader, are the main threat to the Arab world rather than the Jews. In contrast, the Sunnis lack a shared leadership and a powerful enough force to lead them. In the last 25 years, Iran and its Arab allies have grown more assertive, and Sunni Arabs fear Shi’ite Persians.
Last is the ongoing process of reducing American involvement in the Middle East. This results from dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, decreasing reliance on Middle Eastern energy, and an understanding that the most significant challenge to the United States’ future lies in the East. Moreover, the rise of China forced the United States to redirect its efforts or, in President Obama’s words, “pivot to the East.”
A ruler of an Arab country who feels that the American protection that has shielded him up until now is waning or dwindling as the Iranian threat increases has two choices left:
A. Make a deal with Iran and gradually lose sovereignty, as Lebanon did. This is what the Iranians almost accomplished in Iraq, and it is what Assad is working hard to avoid in Syria.
B. To view Israel as a reliable partner that can help strengthen the economy, supply cutting-edge technology, and deter Iran’s aggression.
Some regional leaders understood the new reality even before former President Donald Trump proposed a change in the long-standing narrative with the presentation of the Abraham Accords. The Trump team came up with a novel and unconventional proposal. Fortunately for the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel had wise and courageous ambassadors in the US who knew how to take the bull by the horns and present an offer with American backing that was hard to refuse. Of course, the Americans also provided incentives to the process.
Because the Trump administration lacked prior experience in Middle Eastern affairs, the negotiating team was able to break free from the long-standing paradigm. The common perception was that the Palestinians held the key to the Middle East’s future and that only an agreement with them would free the Arab countries and allow them to move forward in open relations with Israel.
The American team avoided dealing with the Palestinian issue in favor of changing Israel’s relationship with three Arab countries (the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco), recognizing that the Palestinians are not ready for a solution acceptable to Israel and do not want a serious and direct negotiation with it.
Then it became clear to Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Netanyahu, that his political base disagreed with the alternative, which called for declaring Israeli sovereignty only in the Jordan Valley. Some in the settlement leadership believed it was wrong to accept sovereignty over a portion of the area if the perfect solution – dominion over the entirety of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) without any indication of a future Palestinian state – was not available. Moreover, it was easier for Netanyahu to give up sovereignty to improve Israel’s relations with non-bordering Arab countries.
On the ground, immediately after the signing of the Abraham Accords, relations with these three countries differ from those established with Egypt and Jordan. The first agreement’s practical application was limited and concentrated on various security areas. On the other hand, Morocco, Bahrain, and the UAE have no fear of “normalization” with Israel, which is a burden on the relationship with Jordan and Egypt. These countries determined that these agreements would lead to a broad range of cooperation and unrestricted, public conduct in various fields, including visits by Israeli leaders of all levels to these states without concealment. Regarding parallel visits to Israel, caution still prevails among all Arab countries. This change has made Jordan and, especially, Egypt more willing to work together on civilian issues than they were before.
The transfer of Israel from the Pentagon’s European Command (EUCOM) to the command in charge of the entire Middle East (CENTCOM) is another change that has significantly increased the likelihood of military cooperation with Arab states. The Arabs who may have been hesitant about clear and direct cooperation with the IDF feel more at ease by the sponsorship under the same American command with Arab countries, which makes it possible to cooperate with them under the same American framework. For example, an IDF representative now sits at the 5th Navy’s headquarters in Bahrain. The representative sits in an Arab country that signed the Abraham Accords, so one can only imagine how the presence and connections can affect army relations.
Establishing a regional network of intelligence, radars, and warnings against Iranian missile, drone, and cruise missile attacks is the current culmination of the security process that the Americans are attempting to promote. The IDF will be physically and organizationally integrated with several Arab countries, some of which have signed a political agreement with Israel and some of which have not (Saudi Arabia? Iraq? Kuwait?). This is likely the first regional organization where Israel will hold a position of honor.
It is crucial to stress that, despite the significance of military ties, the Abraham Accords will also be evaluated in the future in light of their economic successes and the evolving Arab attitude toward Israel on a social and cultural level. For this reason, initiatives like the water-for-energy deal where the UAE will assist in constructing a sizable solar farm in Jordan and the clean electricity generated there will be transferred to Israel are crucial. As a complementary part of the project, Israel will build a sizable desalination plant on the Mediterranean Sea and send water to Jordan, which is already largely dependent on Israeli water supplies.
The newly created situation represents a fundamental shift. For the first time, it is clear that the existing Middle Eastern relationship is mutually beneficial. Changing Israel’s relationship with Arab countries is helping to build its regional legitimacy, but it is also in the best interests of the Arab world. Sunni Arab countries want relations with Israel to create a safer region and better tools to deal with the complex reality they face after the “Arab Spring,” in the face of Iranian aggression and American hesitancy.
To better comprehend the new Middle East and its vast implications, it is helpful to internalize the following situation. Lebanon’s economy is collapsing, and it is not functioning, partly due to deep Iranian involvement in the country and the negative role of the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. One of the consequences is a lack of energy and electricity, as this summer, the capital will have fewer hours of electricity per day than the Gaza Strip. After Hezbollah’s attempts to buy oil from Iran failed, an excellent solution is starting to take shape: Israel will sell gas to Egypt, and the gas will flow from Egypt through the so-called “Arab Pipeline” to Jordan and then to Syria. The gas will be transported from Syria to Lebanon and used to power its power plants, providing the people of Lebanon, including Nasrallah, electricity derived from Israeli gas.
Simultaneously with strengthening relations between Israel and the “Sunni status quo states,” a significant relationship developed in Israel’s west with its neighbors on the Mediterranean Sea. The closest non-Arab country to Israel is Cyprus, a European Union member whose northern section was occupied by Turkey in 1974 and with which Israel shares economic waters in the Mediterranean Sea in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Israel has discovered significant amounts of gas on its territory, and one field (Aphrodite) is shared by the two countries, with the majority of it located in Cyprus. Greece, located west of Greek-speaking Cyprus on the Mediterranean coast, has a close relationship with the island. The three countries have an extensive relationship. They assist each other in times of need, such as putting out summer fires and filling gaps during a crisis – for example, Israel flew many generators to Cyprus when their power plant failed. In addition, Israeli businesses have opened offices in nearby Cyprus to ease their commercial life in the European market, and Greece is a popular destination for Israeli tourists.
There was also much tension surrounding the gas discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey, located at the northeastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, signed an agreement with one of the Libyan governments over the distribution of economic waters between them, ignoring the existence of Crete and Cyprus. This could also harm Israel because any connection to Europe, whether by pipeline or cable, crosses their shared territory at the bottom of the sea.
Cyprus and Greece view Turkish behavior, including the expansion of marine research in preparation for alleged gas exploration near the coast of Cyprus, as aggressive and dangerous for their national security. In addition, Cyprus and Greece fear Turkish use of force in the area of the Greek islands that are very close to Turkey in the Aegean Sea.
Finally, some believe that Turkey will be deterred by Israel’s military might now that Israel has closer ties with Greece and Cyprus. Israel has no desire to confront Turkey, but Israel will not allow Ankara to realize its dreams in the Mediterranean Sea and cut Israel and Europe off from each other based on the claim of the EEZ agreement it signed with Libya.
Turkey wants Israel to send its gas to Europe through its territory. This would make Turkey a critical country for Israel’s economy. Cyprus and Greece are concerned that such a move will further strengthen Turkey’s position as the dominant bargaining power in the region and drive a wedge between them and Israel. Israel has plenty of reasons not to make such a mistake, including a reluctance to trust the Erdogan regime and its followers, who share the same worldview as the Muslim Brotherhood. Regardless of the gas pipeline issue, Israel must strengthen rather than sever its ties with Greece and Cyprus.
Following Egypt’s significant gas discoveries, a group of countries was formed around the gas basin in the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, a new connection was formed between Israel and Egypt, not affected by the land border in Sinai but rather by a shared interest in the Mediterranean Sea. This energy group, which also includes Cyprus and Greece, meets occasionally and should be formalized in the future.
This network of connections must be expanded and strengthened in any upcoming situation. Countries with complementary interests, such as the UAE and Jordan, should be included, even if they are not located on the Mediterranean. If Arab countries insist on having Palestinians in this group, there should be no objection.
On the European side, the accession of Italy, which is hesitating due to its long-standing interests in Libya, and possibly other countries could transform the Mediterranean Sea, which is proving to be a large gas reservoir, into a system connecting the Middle East and the group of Abraham Accords countries and the southern states of the European Union, with Israel and Egypt serving as the bridge between the two sides.
The addition of India as a senior trade partner to the Abraham Accords alignment, especially after Saudi Arabia publicly declares joining the alignment, will establish a strong bloc with economic and technological capabilities that will be important to the emerging world order. In a world where tensions between China and the United States overshadow everything else, forming such a bloc that draws its strength from areas not part of this competition is an important phenomenon beyond Israel-Arab relations.
And finally, another phenomenon in the area of electricity supply alters reality and is an example of how Israel’s environment has changed. The laying of an electrical cable between Greece, Crete, Cyprus, and Israel is being pushed and partially funded by the European Union. Another cable has been sent from Cyprus to be connected to the Egyptian electrical system. In practice, an electricity system will be developed to balance these countries and provide an optimal solution for each based on its needs. If green energy sources are connected to this system, as Crete intends to do, if a connection is made between the Egyptian system and the Saudi system, and if Cyprus can build a large power plant on the island so that its gas fields can be developed, then an electrical system will be created that stretches from Europe to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Such a system will allow for better efficiency of the individual electricity systems. Furthermore, it will provide a high level of energy security based on the various and complementary capacities of the different countries, resulting in Cyprus becoming a regional center for electricity production.
Israel can act as a bridge between these two blocs, both physically and conceptually, and play a more significant role in the development of the entire region because it has one foot in the Arab bloc and the other in the eastern Mediterranean.
The answer to the question of whether Israel is equipped to handle the new circumstances as a “regional power” is complex. Still, the unique circumstance calls for a different Israeli way of thinking and a different approach to Israel’s commitment within this framework. As is customary in the Middle East, there will always be elements seeking to undermine the new framework.
Israel must, therefore, carefully plan its actions, prioritize its relations with the Gulf states and carry out significant projects with them. In addition, it should further its ties with Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco and its economic and political relations with Greece and Cyprus while utilizing its connections to Europe.
There is a “new Middle East,” but unlike the Oslo vision, it is genuine, devoid of fantasies that have no basis in reality. It must be protected and nurtured.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.