Few would argue against the assertion that former US President Donald Trump was a friend to Israel and its government. Throughout his years in office, Trump gave Israel a series of diplomatic boons and provided support in the international arena in both words and actions. Similarly, Trump was loyal to Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf.
A crucial dimension of this was the former president’s friendship and encouragement of the Israel-Sunni alliance that has developed in recent years. Most notably, the former American administration pushed the existing covert relations between Israel and its Gulf allies into the open, leading to normalisation and sweeping agreements between the UAE and Bahrain, and Israel. Trump worked to strengthen this alliance util his last days in office, transferring Israel to the Department of Defense’s Central Command, thereby putting it under the same policy roof as its newfound Gulf allies.
But there is a new sheriff in town, and he seems no friend to this alliance. Despite the hubbub surrounding President Joe Biden’s belated call to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the administration’s policy towards Israel currently appears to be in keeping with traditional American support for the Jewish state, including respecting the Trump administration’s more significant steps, such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
The Sunni regimes, however, appear to be a different story. Saudi-American relations are being “recalibrated“, arms sales to the country are being reconsidered, and the Khashoggi affair – treated with disinterest by Trump – is now receiving delayed treatment which is harming the US relationship with the oil-rich country. The UAE is experiencing a similar downgrade in treatment, as the Biden administration seeks to halt the Emiratis’ much-coveted F-35 deal. Concurrently, another member of the alliance, Egypt, is sweating as the Americans make clear their emphasis on scrutinising Cairo’s human rights record.
While the US draws away from its Sunni partners, it is signaling its willingness to change the nature of its relationship with the Israel-Sunni alliance’s arch-nemesis, Iran. If not for Iranian obstinacy, one can imagine that the Biden administration would have wished for at least an initiation of the return to the JCPOA by now, along with the lifting of crippling sanctions on Iran.
It may be suggested that without US patronage, the Israel-Sunni alliance – an inconceivable notion not long ago – will wither and die. It may yet take this course. However, events of a decade ago may in fact push it in the opposite direction.
The Obama administration’s 2011 discarding of long-time American ally Hosni Mubarak was a wake-up call for many of the region’s autocratic regimes – not least of which, the Saudis. Unconditional US support, they realised, cannot be relied upon. And while Trump did somewhat alleviate these concerns, this lesson was not forgotten.
Israel is a different story. Israel and the Sunni alliance share clear interests and enemies. All wish broadly to preserve the region’s status quo. All feel threatened by Muslim Brotherhood Islamism. Israel and the Gulf countries all see Iran as the largest threat in the region. Also, Israel has a thirst for regional acceptance, which the Gulf countries can satisfy at no expense to themselves. Lastly and importantly, Israel has shown repeatedly that it cares little for the humanitarian track record of its allies. Compared with western states, the country has neither the size and might nor the network of regional alliances to allow it to scrutinise potential allies. That suits the Gulf countries just fine; a strong, stable country with a broadly mutual risk profile is exactly the type of partner needed. Israel could never replace the US completely, but it can serve as a supportive element in a regional alliance bound together by its unity of interests. Indeed, in recent weeks reports have emerged of a “NATO-like” defensive alliance being discussed between Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.
As Biden continues to signal to the Arab regimes that continued, unquestioning US support cannot be relied upon, the need for another source of security will grow stronger – and a regional alliance with Israel could supply just that. Trump’s encouragement may have facilitated the first round of relations normalisation, but Biden’s discouragement may yet enable the second.