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Political Analysis

Patterns of Arab-Israeli Relations

The Abraham Accords signed recently by four Arab states (the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and the Republic of Sudan) attracted commentaries that have argued the region will usher in a new era.[i] Contacts between some Arab and Zionist leaders predates even Arab states’ independence and Israel’s inception.[ii] Scholars and journalists have pointed out furtive cooperation between Israel and some Arab states and groups.

Glenn Perry, a professor of political science, addressed this issue, head-on, in an excellent, and well-documented article titled “Israeli Involvement in Inter-Arab Politics”[iii], published more than a quarter of a century ago. The Arab state system, Perry maintained, instituted three bounds on its members in their foreign policy conduct. First, Arab identity set a sense of solidarity between members of the system. Second, transnational movements in-between states had pervaded sovereign states— and at times undermined it. Third, “Arab actors have been inhibited from calling on the support of outsiders in intra-Arab world conflicts”[iv]; least of all, an alliance with what the Arabs termed the “Zionist entity.”

Despite the Arab state system, which set the parameters of state behavior, Arab regimes have utilized Israel's power to balance against their fellow Arab adversaries.


All the same, Perry argued that despite the Arab state system, which set the parameters of state behavior, Israel has been able to make inroads into the Arab world. Arab regimes have utilized Israel’s power to balance against their fellow Arab adversaries. The Christian right in Lebanon perhaps was the most glaring example of such cooperation. Others, likewise, began clandestine cooperation with Israel. Public enmity towards Israel notwithstanding, Israel “still played a tacit yet highly important role in the system of checks and balances which developed in the region.”[v]

Today—perhaps a sign of a flagging Arab state system[vi]—the relationship is in full display with much fanfare. The new relationship was born out of a raging geopolitical competition between three trends. The first is a Turkey-led coalition that saw the Arab Spring as an unfinished business. The Islamists, which this coalition has capitalized on, saw their rise and looked like a winning horse. Subsequent events had belied the Islamist coalition’s ambition, which proved to be a will-o’-the-wisp.

The second trend is the revolutionary Islamic movement led by Iran with various non-state actors extending from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. A self-styled Liberation Theology of sorts, Iran and its allies seek to dislodge the US hegemony in the region, liberate the lost land of Palestine, especially Jerusalem, and unseat Arab allies of both the US and Israel.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead the third trend, which is, for a lack of a better term, the status quo coalition: A coalition that contends to preserve the prevailing order against what has transpired in the Arab Spring. The coalition, moreover, strives to fend off the two previous trends and build an Arab alliance as a bulwark against non-Arab intervention in their affairs. Unlike the Arab state system of yore, the coalition welcomes international allies’ support in the endeavor to check regional rivals; especially against what it perceives as their malign activities. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani described these activities as “more blatant than ever, from its military program to its ballistic missiles, from its interference in other states to its increasingly overt involvement in conflicts”. Further, he averred, “Iran today challenges regional security as aggressively as at any time in recent history”.[vii]

Israel historically sought alliances from outside the Arab core in the region.

Israel—which was viewed with suspicion, fear, and outright hostility by the Arab World— historically sought alliances from outside the Arab core in the region. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, had adopted what was called the “Periphery Doctrine”, or the Alliance of the Periphery. The doctrine had seen the Arab world as a sworn enemy, and Israel had an opportunity to forge alliances with the non-Arab states of Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia, the non-Arab minority of South Sudan, and the Kurds in Iraq, on the periphery of the Arab states[viii]—in an attempt to wring the Arab world’s neck. Besides being non-Arab, these states and groups had been well ensconced in the pro-US camp. 

Today, the erstwhile allies have become a menace to Israel. Turkey reimagined its Ottoman legacy and saw itself as the leader of the Sunni world. Iran, an ideological and geopolitical contender with Israel, perceives itself as the axis of resistance to the US and Israel’s domination of the region; and the promoter of the oppressed and the downtrodden in the world to boot. Article 154 of Iran’s Islamic Constitution unequivocally declares that the newly found revolutionary republic “supports the rightful struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors anywhere in the world.”[ix]

Israel had to reverse its strategy from an alliance of the periphery to the alliance of the core against the old periphery. Reeling from their experience with the Obama administration[x], and having their backs to the wall, few Arab states welcomed Israeli support, overcoming their traditional taboo: a realism born out of a strategic imperative as well as a transformation of the regional system. 

Looking forward, what are the prospects for the current alliance between some Arab states and Israel? Experience has taught us certain lessons that could be a guide to the future of such relations. There have been four patterns in Arab-Israeli relations:

The first pattern could be described as an initial bang, which ended in a whimper. The late president Anwar Sadat, in a moment of enthusiasm, had taken a flight to Jerusalem to address Israel’s Knesset for a separate peace. Egypt suffered isolation in the Arab World and arduous negotiations with its former foe. In the end, Egypt regained its lost territory of Sinai, and despite normalization, the relationship fell into what had become, in regional parlance, a cold peace. 

Likewise, Jordan after losing its bet on Saddam Hussein’s foray into Kuwait gestured its readiness for settling its differences with Israel. The US, ever ready to lend support and enhance Israel’s legitimacy in the region, sponsored the peace talks and assisted Jordan in its economic woes. Lack of popular support for the Israel-Jordan peace treaty and the fact that any progress on the Palestinian issue came to a grinding halt led eventually to another cold peace. 

The second pattern is confrontation. Israeli-Palestinian relations were always fraught. Israel viewed Palestinians as an inconvenient fact, even before the creation of Israel. Early Zionists denied the existence of a people in the coveted land of Palestine. Palestine in the Zionists’ imagination was “a land without a people, for a people without a land.”[xi] Beyond the realm of imagination, however, the conflict on the ground was real over contested claims on the same land.[xii]

It will be a long time before both sides of the conflict mutually recognize each other. Israel reading the international situation carefully with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apartheid regime in South Africa, opted for secret negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords. The Fourth Industrial Revolution of technology and the internet opened new vistas for Israel as a center of a technology. To enhance ties with other emerging centers of technology worldwide, it had to shed its image as uncompromising occupying power and reach a simulacrum of understanding with the Palestinians and attitudinize a peaceful posture. Trita Parsi described Israel Labor Party’s vision in the 1990’s for the region as follows:

Once the political disputes between the Arabs and Israel had been resolved, economic ties between Israel and Arabs and Israel would emerge as the region’s economic engine, producing goods for 240-million strong Arab market, [Shimon] Peres believed. As the Hong Kong of the Middle East, Israel would achieve the same gross domestic product (GDP) per capita as the United States. And by moving the economic center of the Middle East toward the Red Sea area and Israel, the Persian Gulf region (and Iran) would lose its strategic significance.[xiii]

When the rubber hit the road, to coin a phrase, the relationship collapsed into a confrontation. Palestinians despairing from the lack of progress with the peace process, which became an end in itself, returned to violent resistance and commenced the second intifada. The subsequent upsurge in violence between both sides put an end to the hope for a solution between them.

The Third pattern in the relationship could be dubbed as a breakdown. There are two cases of such breakdowns. The reason perhaps for such denouement was the functional nature of the relations to start with. When the function outlived its usefulness, the ties snapped.

The first case of the breakdown was with the Lebanese Phalanges in the 1970s. Perry points to earlier relations between the Maronite Christians and Zionists: “Amicable Zionist-Maronite contacts go back to the pre-1914 period.”[xiv] The 1970s had seen a new element in the relationship, namely, the armed presence of the PLO in Lebanon. The latter has used Lebanon as a platform to attack Israel in the hope of wrestling the Palestinian patrimony out from the Israeli hands.

The Maronites saw the PLO as a threat to their dominance and influence and a source of instability, given Israel’s harsh reprisal against Lebanon. Israel and the Lebanese Maronite made a common cause against Palestinian presence. Palestinians reciprocated by allying themselves with the Lebanese National Movement who opposed Lebanese Rightists. 

The alliance between the two was a function of Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon, and once the PLO had departed from Lebanon in 1982 as result of Israel’s invasion, the reason for the alliance dissipated.[xv] The occupied south remained an issue with the declaration, in 1978, of the State of Free Lebanon in the south by a renegade officer, Saad Haddad. The Israeli puppet state was to serve as a cordon sanitaire. However, with the liberation of the south from Israeli occupation, the last fulcrum of alliance dissolved. It is no mere exaggeration to say that the Lebanese Christians are as critical of of Israel as their Muslim compatriots are, and many of them feel betrayed by Israel.[xvi]  

The second case of breakdown is the little-discussed relations between Mauritania and Israel. In the1990s, Mauritania felt isolated in the aftermath of the Kuwait war. The US and the Gulf countries had strained relations with Nouakchott because it had sided with Saddam. Moreover, Washington had been criticizing Mauritania because of human rights violations, accusation practices of slavery, and the mistreatment of refugees. 

Short of cash and diplomatically isolated, Nouakchott approached Israel for full diplomatic recognition and exchange of ambassadors. The US oversaw the signing ceremony between the two in Washington in 1999. Nevertheless, popular pressure had built up against normalization with Israel. As Mauritania elected a genuinely democratic government between 2006 and 2007, voices of dissent were heard loud and clear. The Gaza War of 2008-09 provided the motive for ending the relationship. After a decade of full diplomatic ties  Nouakchott ordered the Israeli diplomatic mission packing in 2009.

So far, four countries have signed the Abraham Accords in a matter of months. The normalization process, with some of them, is proceeding with a breakneck speed.

The fourth pattern with this wave of normalization has just started, and it is too early to assess its durability. So far, four countries have signed the Abraham Accords in a matter of months. The normalization process, with some of them, is proceeding with a breakneck speed. Will this trend endure, or another conflict will halt it dead in its tracks— and maybe even reverse it? The most important of the four that of the UAE has seen few hiccups. Israel had to pull out of the UAE’s annual military exhibition last February due to “business tensions between the two countries.[xvii] Another spat resulted from what was perceived as Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt at political manipulations, which led to the UAE cancelling the prime minister’s trip to Abu Dhabi, Netanyahu’s protestation to the contrary notwithstanding.

The UAE has telegraphed its irritation with Israel through veiled public statements. Anwar Gargash, an adviser to the UAE president, said the [Abraham] accords provided a foundation for peace with Israel and the wider region, adding in a tweet: “The UAE will not be a part of any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever.”[xviii]

It remains to be seen how far it will go, and whether the last wave of normalization will establish a new pattern of relationship between Arab states and Israel.

[i] Jared Kushner is of that opinion, see his recent op-ed “Opportunity Beckons in the Mideast,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 202. https://www.wsj.com/articles/opportunity-beckons-in-the-mideast-11615750526 retrieved March 26, 2021
[ii] For example, The Faisal–Weizmann Agreement 1919. King Abdulla of Jordan had contacts with the Zionists since he had become the Emir of Transjordan see Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1988). On Maronite-Zionists relations see Laura Zittrain Eisenberg, My Enemy’s Enemy: Lebanon in the Early Zionist Imagination, 1900-1948 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994).
[iii] International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies 1(1):11-31, 1984
[iv] Ibid, p. 11.
[v] Ibid, p. 14.
[vi] A sequel to Perry’s aforementioned article is “The Arab System and Its Erosion,” Asian Profile 12(3) 1984.
[vii] Emily Judd, Al Arabiya Englishhttps://english.alarabiya.net/News/gulf/2020/12/01/Iran-s-malign-activities-more-blatant-than-ever-in-Middle-East-Bahrain-FM retrieved April 10, 2021
[viii]Eyal Zisser, “Israel and the Arab World – Renewal of the Alliance of the Periphery,” Athens Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 5(4):225-240, 2019. See also Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 21-22.
[ix] Islamic Consultative Assembly, The Constitution of the Islamic Republic Of Iran, 1979, Published by the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Public Relations and Cultural Affairs Department, Second Printing, n.d. https://en.parliran.ir/UploadedData/previmages/iran-parliament_English_SHR01.pdf retrieved April 10, 2021.
[x] For Obama and GCC mutual suspicion, see “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016.
[xi] The historiography of the phrase is shrouded with controversy. Two early Zionists, Israel Zangwill and Max Nordau, “are often credited with coining the phrase “a land without a people for a people without a land,” though Benny Morris observes that Lord Shaftesbury jotted down the phrase in his memoirs in the 1850s.” Robert L. MacDonald, “A Land Without A People For A People Without A Land”: Civilizing Mission And American Support For Zionism, 1880s-1929,” PhD dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 2012, p. 13, fn. 7.
[xii] Several Israeli historian have addressed these and other issues on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that deconstruct official Israeli history. They are known collectively as the New Historians. See the writings of, among others, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and Avi Shlaim.
[xiii] Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, p.159.
[xiv] Perry, “Israeli Involvement in Inter-Arab Politics,” p. 17. See also Eisenberg’s My Enemy’s Enemy
[xv] Itamar Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon, 1970-1983, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984). Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Yaari, Israel’s Lebanon War, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984).
[xvi] Pew Survey shows Christian Lebanese negative attitude towards Israel and Jews.  See chapter 3 “Views of Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center, February 4, 2010  https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2010/02/04/chapter-3-views-of-religious-groups/ retrieved March 21, 2021
[xvii] “Honeymoon period hits commercial rough patch,” Intelligence Online, February 24, 2021.
[xviii] “UAE Reduces Contact with Israel in Election Row,” Financial Times, March 18, 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/d1a896bf-ce8d-4d8b-8a3a-0a14ae7c3144 retrieved March 21, 2021.