By Salman Rafi Sheikh
Apparently, it is the persistent ISIS threat that is driving Israel and Egypt closer in the great Sinai desert, leading the former to use its air force in support of the former against the extremist elements. We have seen in last one decade or so that the global ‘war on terror’ has brought forth many fresh alliances and broken a few of them as well. But Israel’s increasing engagement with the Arab countries isn’t simply a result of co-operation against terrorism—which doesn’t exist in the form and manner it has been thought and projected to be—it is rather rooted in their shared enmity of Iran. With the passage of time, and as Iran’s influence, presence and expansion becomes crystal clear, this alliance is coming out of the mysteries of secrecy. It is becoming public, and it is acquiring a strategic character too, which means that the leading ‘Sunni’ Arab countries are no longer aversive to Israel, are ready to compromise on the Palestinian issue to have Israel on their side of war against Iran and may even be willing to establish formal diplomatic relations by recognizing Israel as a nation-state. Interestingly enough, the Arab countries, currently romancing with Israel, have not faced any backlash at home against this relationship, which means that aversion to Iran is a lot more overwhelming and overpowering than aversion to Israel.
Although an overwhelming projection has been that both Israel and Egypt are following a covert counter-terrorism pact, there is always more to it than meets the eye when it comes to the Middle Eastern politics. Israeli officials have disclosed in the past that they have been secretly meeting with officials from the Persian Gulf countries in their bid to establish a grand alliance with them against a common enemy: Iran. Therefore, even if the immediate reason for joint Israel-Egypt operations is the threat of terrorism, there is no gainsaying that the actual objective of this alliance is Iran. These joint operations only serve as the platform where the countries involved can test each other’s reliability and expand their co-operation from. Besides it, by coding their cooperation in anti-terrorism terms, Israel’s Arab allies can easily pacify their public, who are then forced to think that the benefits of cooperation with Israel, an enemy, outweigh the dangers of fighting the ISIS alone, which is a much bigger enemy and has done horrible things in the region. Therefore, by playing on the fear of terror, the covert alliance with Israel is now being converted into an overt relationship, and with few strikes here and there in the Sinai, momentum for bigger strikes is being developed. And, with deliberately leaked news of this co-operation, the public mind-set is being prepared for the eventual transformation of the Arab people’s perception of Israel as an inherent enemy.
Military co-operation, therefore, notwithstanding, Egypt has also become the place where both Saudi and Israeli officials have started to meet very often. While the reports said that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss things of expanding economic interests, it has also been reported that the both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are preparing the ground, and impressing upon the Palestinian authorities, for an eventual acceptance of the ‘deal of the century’ and the US’ peace plan, which is yet to be officially revealed. In this context, regional newspapers are carrying reports, citing un-named officials, on how a number of Arab countries are impressing upon Mahmoud Abbas to accept the deal. What these stories reveal is that a pro-Israel lobby, with its presence in highest echelons of politics, does exist in the Middle East and that the mind-set for accepting the deal is being developed.
Saudi Arabia is spearheading the process. In January, Mahmoud Abbas was in Riyadh, where he met with the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, and was informed of the ‘utmost necessity’ of accepting the ‘deal of the century’, forcing him to return home in a state of shock. Before that, in December 2017, Saudi Arabia already had officially stated that they had their own plan to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, a plan the central part of which is obviously making the Palestinians accept the ‘deal of the century.’
The plan, although not yet revealed, seems to be to first resolve the Palestine issue and then clear the roadmap for a greater alliance against Iran. But all this might not be just as smooth a going as it seemingly looks.
The Saudi-led group of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Jordan) is, therefore, also active on silencing the potential ‘spoilers of the deal’, such as Turkey, which has been the most forceful campaigner of the rights of the Palestinians. A policy disagreement does exit, evident from the UAE Foreign Minister’s recent statement, targeting Turkey for its ‘malicious’ campaigns in the region, asking it to ‘respect’ the sovereignty of the Arab states—something, the minster added, was essential for Ankara to return to a ‘normal state of stability.’
‘Silencing the spoilers’ is necessary because without first leaping forward on Israel-Palestine issue, the Arab countries might not be able to convince their public about the necessity of establishing formal relations with Israel. This was recently confirmed by an Israeli military official, Brig. Gen. Udi Dekel who said that “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as important for them (the Arab states) as it was before, but they (the Arab states) are afraid of making official relations with Israel without any major movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
In this context, the not-so-secret talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia and military cooperation between Israel and Egypt have all cleared the emphatic pursuit of de-mystifying the Arab-Israel ties, indicating how differently they, the Arab states, see the Palestinian issue, and how they are now prioritizing their relations with Israel over Palestine against the changing regional dynamics wherein Turley, Iran and Qatar have found new grounds of cooperation, giving the Saudis reasons to become public with Israel.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.