The unlikely Mideast alliance

Iranian leaders are clearly worried about the emerging Saudi-Israeli alliance

The unlikely Mideast alliance that threatens Iran

Israeli-Sunni alliance

Jan 25 (Reuters) – Shortly after Iranian protesters took to the streets on Dec. 28, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page wishing “the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom.” In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, state-run media hailed the protesting Iranians with such joyful hysteria that Saudis could be forgiven for believing that the regime in Tehran was on the verge of collapse.

Jewish Israel and Sunni Saudi Arabia have no formal diplomatic ties and decades of enmity behind them. However, their mutual pleasure over the grassroots demonstrations in Iran is the latest manifestation of a growing convergence of political interests, between the two Middle Eastern countries against their shared regional nemesis: Iran.

If the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement continues, their collaboration could lead to improved Israeli relations with other Arab states, removing Iran’s security buffer and possibly making Tehran more vulnerable to direct Israeli military action.

The first signs of the thaw between Saudi Arabia and Israel appeared in 2015, when both nations opposed the nuclear deal struck between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1. According to the terms of the deal, Tehran would cut back its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions. To compensate for its nuclear concessions and concerned that Washington might not honor its commitment to the agreement, Iran followed its signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by intensifying the consolidation of its regional power base.

To that end, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, doubled down on their support for like-minded and mostly Shi’ite paramilitary groups across the Middle East. In Syria, Iranian intervention in favor of Bashar al-Assad, coupled with a relentless Russian air campaign against the rebels, finally turned the tide of civil war and kept Assad in power. Tehran also took the opportunity to help oust extremist anti-Shi’ite groups like Islamic State (IS) from Syria. Iranian leaders insisted their intent was to “nip terrorism in the bud,” but their tacit goal was also — and more importantly — to maintain land access and supply lines to their main proxy, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as part of the Islamic Republic’s commitment to the “axis of resistance” and its “strategic depth” policy in the region.

The recapture of Aleppo by Syrian government forces in December 2016 relieved Iranian-backed militia forces stationed in northwestern Syria of a formidable battlefield challenge, enabling them to concentrate their manpower and firepower on the southwestern and eastern fronts. This sounded alarm bells for the Israeli government, which feared entrenchment of Iran’s military foothold in its immediate neighborhood.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, has spoken figuratively of a “resistance highway” that starts in Tehran and continues through Mosul, Damascus and Beirut to the Mediterranean. Similarly, with the expulsion of IS from Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zor, IRGC-affiliated media outlets such as Mashregh News and Javan Online have promoted the establishment of a land “corridor,” linking Iran to the Mediterranean and potentially useful for military as well as trade purposes.

Israel has responded to this perceived threat militarily and politically. On the military front, it has embarked on a sustained campaign of targeted airstrikes against arms convoys believed to be delivering “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah as well as a reported Iranian military base in Syria. On the political front, Israel has sought to build an anti-Iran “coalition” with the Arab Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia.

In an unprecedented Nov. 16 interview with Elaph, the popular independent Arabic news site, Israel’s army chief of staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot offered to cooperate with Saudi Arabia against Tehran, which he labeled the “biggest threat” in the Middle East. “We are ready to exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran,” he said, adding that “in this matter there is complete agreement between us and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Less than two months later, in a Dec. 28 BBC interview, Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett echoed Eizenkot, explaining that Israel hoped to form “coalitions” with “moderate” Arabs, in order to “contain” Iran.

Riyadh, too, has been cautiously building closer ties with Tel Aviv. In the summer of 2016, one year after Iran’s nuclear deal, a Saudi delegation headed by retired general Anwar Eshki met with Israeli foreign ministry officials and Knesset members in an unusual visit to Jerusalem. During the meeting, Eshki tried to persuade the Israelis to accept the Arab Peace Initiative, arguing that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would foil Iran’s attempts to exploit the Palestinian cause and delegitimize its support for anti-Israeli groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. Israel made no commitments, but welcomed the improvement of ties with Arab states.

The growth of Iranian power and influence in the region, however, is not the only driver of Saudi-Israeli entente. The Trump administration’s determination to counter the Islamic Republic, along with Washington’s close relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel, have facilitated bilateral efforts to form such an alliance.

In November 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman summoned Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh and presented him with the blueprint for a U.S.-devised peace plan that favored Israelis. The powerful prince then demanded that Abbas either accept the scheme or resign. Tellingly, the Palestinian leader’s urgent trip to Riyadh came less than two weeks after Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and advisor on the Middle East, visited the Saudi capital to discuss the plan with bin Salman.

As delegates gathered at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos this week, there were no official Saudi-Israel meetings reflected on the public program. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top Saudi officials, including Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, are at the summit and have already made it clear, in formal panel discussions and conversations with reporters, that their governments view countering the threat from Iran as a primary foreign policy goal. Davos is famous for its backroom meetings as well as the inevitable spontaneous encounters that occur when attendees are crowded into an Alpine conference center; it’s not unreasonable to assume that these discussions could solidify relationships out of the public eye.

Iranian leaders are clearly worried about the emerging Saudi-Israeli alliance, which is likely to bring Riyadh’s Sunni allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, into its fold as well. In a recent address to the Iranian parliament, President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran would not resume its ties with Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh ended its friendship with Israel. The new realpolitik of the Middle East means that Tehran may face even greater strategic challenges in the future.
Maysam Behravesh is a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Source: By Maysam Behravesh, January 25, 2018
© Copyright 2018 Thomson Reuters. All Rights Reserved.

‘Octopus Doctrine’: Israeli Minister Wants Iran to ‘Pay a Price’

The Israeli government has been making a mistake by targeting the tentacles instead of the octopus.

Iran interventionsIsraeli security cabinet minister Naftali Bennett has called for a new strategy toward Tehran, saying, “Our message to Iran: the era of your immunity while you send others and use your national resources to hurt Israel is over.” Bennet, who has been serving as Education Minister since 2015, said that Israel should treat attacks from Lebanon-based Shiite movement Hezbollah, which helps the Syrian government fight terrorists, as if they were carried out by Iran.

Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv, the minister said, “We will also not sit idly and watch the accumulation of accurate missiles in Lebanon. Between 2006 and 2012, Hezbollah made a massive leap in the quantities of its rockets, and now has over 130,000. We will not allow it to make a qualitative leap. This strategy means Iran, the Quds Force and the host countries will pay a price.”

When presenting the so-called ‘Octopus Doctrine,’ he voiced his belief that the Israeli government has been making a mistake by what he described as targeting the “tentacles” instead of the “octopus.”

Bennet has also called for considering attacks, for which Hezbollah is responsible, a declaration of war by Lebanon. “[Syrian President Bashar] Assad will bear responsibility for actions taking place in and from his territory,” he added.

“I believe adopting the Octopus Doctrine, the core of which is acting against the Quds Forces and Iran, while weakening Iran’s hold on Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, has the highest chances of preventing war, or shortening it if it breaks out,” Bennett concluded.

Tel Aviv considers Iran to be the “main threat” to Israel regardless of the 2015 nuclear deal as the Mossad chief stated in 2017, while Tehran doesn’t recognize the Jewish state and regards it as an “enemy.”

The Israeli leadership has repeatedly said that it “won’t allow” Iran to have a military presence in Syria and suggested that the Islamic Republic had a base in the country.

Tehran has repeatedly denied reports of having a base in Syria as well as conducting military operations there, however, stressed its cooperation with the country’s leadership in the fight against various terrorist groups, including Daesh, and acts as one of the guarantors of the ceasefire in the Arab Republic jointly with Russia and Turkey.

While Syria and Israel, which have never signed a peace treaty, have repeatedly exchanged multiple tit-for-tat attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with the country’s defense minister stated that Tel Aviv is free to act in Syria for the sake of its security.

Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency
Source: Sputnik News Service, January 31, 2018
© 2018. Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

How significant are Israel’s relations with the Arab world?

Israel has found in the past that its apparently warm relations can quickly turn sour.

On December 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited three countries in the Middle East. He traveled to Syria, where he announced the drawdown of troops. Then it was on to Egypt to discuss resuming flights and a nuclear deal. Finally, he went to Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was seen as a symbolic victory” tour.

That Israel was not included on the tour could be seen as unremarkable, but it also symbolizes the Janus-faced aspect of Israel’s integration and isolation in the region. While Israel is more integrated than at any time in history – as its views on the Iranian threat dovetail closely with the Gulf – at the same time it is still excluded from meetings with regional leaders.

Israeli diplomacy and its attempt to find allies, or even normalize relations in the region, have gone through several phases. In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the country was able to reach beyond the hostile Arab states to build relations with Iran. Jerusalem also developed relations with many African states, after a wave of independence swept the continent in 1960. There were setbacks as a result of the 1973 war, but there were also major breakthroughs with the peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. In the 1990s, Israel made inroads into Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar, only to see most of these diplomatic or trade missions fold up in 2000, as a result of the Second Intifada.

Now many commentators see a new round of Israel’s growing relations with the Arab world. This starts in the Gulf with the United Arab Emirates. Sigurd Neubauer, a Washington- based analyst, wrote in November 2017 that Israel-UAE relations have been fostered on several levels, including the UAE reaching out to pro-Israel voices in the US. With Israel and GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] members viewing Iran as an increasingly serious threat, Tel Aviv and the UAE in particular, began deepening cooperation in the security sphere during 2006.”

Samuel Ramani, who researches international relations at St. Anthony’s College at the University of Oxford, says Israel and the Gulf have greatly expanded their defense and intelligence cooperation.” This includes small-scale provisions of military technology,” he wrote on the Huffington Post. He argued that even though there won’t be an exchange of diplomats, the Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are less concerned with the issue of Palestine and more with Iran.

ISRAEL’S RELATIONS with Saudi Arabia appear to be especially warm. In the last month, Intelligence Affairs Minister Israel Katz gave an interview to the Saudi newspaper Elaph, in which he described Israel’s common interests in opposing an Iranian presence in Lebanon. He also extended an invitation to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to come to Israel. According to some reports, this last part didn’t make it into the published interview.

Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot interviewed with the same newspaper and discussed the possibility of exchanging experience” and intelligence information.”

A report by Al Jazeera in November described the inclusion of Israel as a potential partner” with the Saudis as a new phase in the Middle East. It quoted Khalil Shaheen, an analyst in Ramallah, as claiming the decline in US power in the Middle East has resulted in Israel filling in the gaps that US foreign policy would have previously filled.” This is especially relevant to the Iranian threat. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi felt the US had abandoned them in negotiating the Iran deal in 2015. Israel then became a possible partner. This dovetails with technology cooperation and other pragmatic, or cynical, common interests. In addition, Saudi Arabia has sought to play a deeper role in the peace process since its 2002 proposal that foresaw normalization – if to meet that goal, Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Mapping the common enemies Israel shares with Riyadh and the UAE is easy. Both fear Islamist extremism and regional chaos. Both oppose Iran, its proxies and Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are all close to Washington as a common ally. The recent Organization of Islamic Cooperation emergency summit in Istanbul illustrated how Saudi Arabia has sought a different path in the Middle East, in contrast to previous ones. While Erdogan led the way in inviting King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Istanbul – along with almost two dozen other Muslim heads of state – the leaders of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt did not attend.

However, at the same time Israel has made friends and influenced people in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, it also has significant issues in Jordan and Turkey. After an Israeli security guard was involved in an altercation and shot two people in Jordan in July, the Israeli ambassador was withdrawn. Reports indicated one of them had attacked him. Israel’s ambassador to Egypt has kept a low profile.

He briefly returned to Cairo in August, after an eight-month absence. A new Israeli ambassador arrived in Turkey in December 2016, the first since the MV Mavi Marmara raid in 2010. However, Erdogan threatened to cut ties with Israel over Jerusalem’s support of the independence referendum in the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, and also over the US Embassy move in December.

THE ISSUE Israel faces in the region now is more complex than lacking robust relations with the countries with which it nominally has relations: Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Iran has successfully maintained allies and brought its proxies to power in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. That the Shi’ite militia leader Qais Khazali came to the Lebanese border with Israel from Iraq in early December, reveals the feeling of strength held by Iran’s allies. Iran also got a warm welcome in Istanbul and President Hassan Rouhani met with Erdogan after the OIC summit.

In addition, Rouhani has met several times with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At Sochi in November, Putin, Erdogan and Assad held high level discussions about the region and Syria. Erdogan has met the Russian leader at least seven times in 2017. There is no parallel for Israel in these meetings.

An Israeli diplomat once described Israel’s relations with a Muslim country as important because they sit in rooms we can’t sit in.” This is generally how Israel talks up its relations. Questions about the lack of a public presence for Israel – or that most regional leaders won’t be seen with Israeli politicians or meet with them publicly, let alone host them on a state visit – are put down to the fact that state visits don’t matter, secret intelligence ties do. The lack of public greetings goes far beyond politicians alone. In the realm of sport and culture, Israel is banned in the region. Israeli athletes can’t even play under their own colors or hear their own anthem in places like the UAE. Most recently, Israeli chess players were banned from Saudi Arabia. In 2013 in Morocco, protests greeted the showing of a local movie about the Jewish community in Morocco, not even about Israel.

Israel has found in the past that its apparently warm relations can quickly turn sour. Peace with Jordan was followed by the Island of Peace massacre in 1997. The Jordanian soldier who killed seven Israeli children was welcomed as a hero after he left prison in March this year. Similarly, Israel found itself targeted and its embassy attacked in Egypt during mass protests in the Arab Spring of 2011. Are Israel’s relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi deep, or are they based on a single or few officials at the top? If Israel’s relations are based primarily on the Iranian threat and the vacuum of US power in the region, then a change in the position of Iran could cause those relations to change. Iran has successfully gained closer ties with Qatar and Turkey in the last year. This has encouraged Riyadh in its views of Israel. Riyadh has sought to play a role in the peace process with the new US administration. But frustration there or a deal to end the Qatar crisis might bring with it a deal to cool relations with Israel. Israel’s growing ties in the region are real, but each knot is not necessarily secure.

Source: by Seth J. Frantzman, Jpost.com, December 25, 2017
© 2017, Jpost.com (The Jerusalem Post online edition), All rights Reserved – Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc.

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