Amir Levy/Getty Images
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

A New Strategic Landscape in the Middle East

Is Israel prepared for its role as a senior regional power?

by
Dan Schueftan
November 28, 2022
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Amir Levy/Getty Images

Despite what most Western readers have long been conditioned to assume, the Middle East and Arab-Israeli relations are a source of good news these days. The region is still violent and unstable; the conflict between the Jewish state and its radical enemies, Palestinians and others, is far from over; the threat of the Iranian revolutionary regime may be greater than ever. However, a new strategic alignment that has lately been emerging promises a better chance than ever before in modern history for regional states to isolate and stand up to the radicals who continue to threaten the existing order. The old structure of the Arab-Israel conflict that defined the Middle East for generations—during and shortly after the Cold War—is now being replaced by a strengthening Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran and its radical Arab proxies.

Since the 1930s, Arab radicals—the likes of the Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, and Yasser Arafat—managed to intimidate other Arab regimes and mobilize them, often against their own national interests, in a fruitless and destructive struggle for the “liberation” of Palestine from the Jews. Cooperation with Israel was condemned as treachery, and evasion of confrontation with her was considered cowardice. This imposed pan-Arab solidarity stifled regional development and repeatedly drew the region into wide-scale wars which occasionally pushed the Soviet and American superpowers to the brink of nuclear confrontation.

For Israel, pan-Arab solidarity could have presented a clear existential threat. A small, vulnerable and isolated state could hardly survive in the long run against a radical and aggressive Arab leadership that can mobilize the enormous resources of the entire Middle East—oil, gas, money, markets, international clout, control of essential waterways and impact on Muslim communities the world over.

The erosion, restriction, and ultimately the abolition of aggressive regional solidarity targeting the Jewish state was the supreme objective of Israel’s regional strategy since its inception. While the goals of regional peace and cooperation sound much more noble and appealing, every clear-sighted realist knew that this romantic dream is unattainable in this historically violent and unstable region. Besides, breaking up attempts at regional solidarity was an indispensable precondition to any progress toward peace or its lesser cousins: Arab states would consider accepting Israel only following a painful recognition of the failure of the attempt to erase it at an acceptable cost.

Israel’s grand strategy of breaking up aggressive Arab solidarity scored a crucial success in its 1947-49 War of Independence. A preemptive alliance with King Abdallah I of Transjordan broke up the joint Arab invasion on the day the Jewish state was established, thereby partitioning Mandatory Palestine between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom. Without this alliance, Israel may not have survived the coordinated Arab assault in the early part of the war, it would not have withstood the pressure to internationalize its capital city in Jerusalem, and it could not have concentrated all its forces in the south to confront the Egyptian expeditionary army. The resounding Egyptian defeat that followed forced that pivotal Arab state to betray all other Arab invaders in February 1949, by signing a separate agreement with Israel, practically enabling her to dictate the terms of the armistice and the strategic outcome of that formative war.

Only five years after having successfully shattered Arab solidarity in the late 1940’s, Israel faced her most formidable challenge when a messianic Arab leader unprecedentedly captured the imagination of Arabs “From the [Atlantic] Ocean, to the [Arabian] Gulf.” Gamal Abdel Nasser’s movement was not essentially about the struggle against Israel. It was about uniting the Arabs under Egyptian leadership to restore their historic glory, to retrieve their trodden dignity and to catapult their international bargaining position.

Yet the mobilizing commitment to “liberate” Palestine could not have been left out of Nasser’s wish list, even though Nasser himself had consistently insisted since the early 1960s that the Arabs were ill prepared to deal Israel a decisive blow and repeatedly warned that a premature war could end up in disaster, as it had in 1948. Ironically, his own political instruments—the radical rhetoric and the political mechanisms of all-Arab solidarity—were turned against him and enabled his even more radical rivals in the Arab arena to manipulate him into initiating the 1967 war.

Traumatized by the all-Arab mobilization against it in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Israel placed at the top of its regional security strategy the objective of undermining and finally shattering aggressive Arab solidarity against the Jewish state by forcefully removing its Egyptian keystone. Israel, as well as its Arab neighbors, were well aware that the eviction of Egypt from this pivotal position meant not only the collapse of the all-Arab struggle against Israel. It also inevitably meant terminating the Arab hopes for a major role in world affairs that fueled Nasser’s messianic movement. This was a zero-sum game: Israel could not be safe without it; Egypt and Arab radicals could not abide by it.

The ultimate expression of Israel’s strategic victory in this crucial round was Egypt’s 1979 separate peace agreement with Israel. The essence of Israel’s success was Egyptian acquiescence with whatever consequences Israel chose to inflict on other Arabs who continued to challenge it violently. Thus, Israel could get away, for instance, with the occupation of an Arab capital city (Beirut, 1982), the destruction of nuclear projects (Iraq, 1981; Syria 2007) and with wide-scale repression of Palestinian violence (2002-04, in response to the Second Intifada). The 1979 separate peace with Egypt was “the end of the beginning” of the “all-Arab-Israeli conflict.” When the Soviet Union collapsed a decade later, the chances of a major coordinated assault against Israel declined even further.

The next major step that changed the core of Arab-Israeli relations and the regional balance of power was not the failed “peace process” with the Palestinians or the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. It came more than three decades after the regional turning point in 1979, following the “Arab Spring” and Arab awareness of the far-reaching significance of its failure.

The exhilarating hopes for a speedy restoration of Arab greatness that Nasser inspired in the 1950s and 1960s were shattered with the 1967 defeat and obliterated by the turn of the century. The much more modest hope that prevailed in the region and among Middle Eastern scholars was that Arab societies might extract themselves from their lingering predicament by rising against their autocratic and corrupt leaders and replace their failing realities with more pluralistic modern political and social structures. The Arab upheaval in the second decade clearly proved that the failure to meet the challenges of the 21st century was deeply rooted in these Arab societies, far beyond the tyranny and deficiencies of their leadership. Never before in their modern history were Arab regimes and their politically aware elites more cognizant of their weakness and less hopeful about an effective response to their predicament in the foreseeable future.

The profound change in the strategic landscape of the Middle East in the recent decade started with this recognition, but it materialized only when it was accompanied by three more realizations among important regional players. A somewhat exaggerated and oversimplified definition may be helpful in order to characterize its four pillars: the magnitude of the Iranian regional threat, the inability of Arab states to stand up to that threat by themselves, the questionable steadfastness of American support, and the proven capacity and dependability of Israel.

Unlike most European and American political leaders, officials, and observers, Arabs fully realize the magnitude of the Iranian determination to hegemonize the Middle East at their expense and the effectiveness of Iranian brutality and sophistication in the pursuit of that objective. Watching the impact of the Iranian takeovers in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and its subversion in their own countries, they know they are in desperate need of external assistance to survive.

In this time of supreme Arab anxiety and distress, the Obama administration demonstrated a frightening combination of surrealistic misreading of basic regional realities and sweeping strategic incompetence. Some of the most important regional allies of the United States perceived Obama’s policies as an attempt to replace their own historic alliance with the U.S. by an American strategic deal with the Iranian Revolution. These suspicions, which culminated with the JCPOA, were only partially alleviated during the one-term Trump administration; they resurfaced with renewed vigor when Biden was elected. This deep mutual mistrust was manifested when even a conciliatory presidential visit in July 2022 failed to convince Saudi Arabia to help Biden to bring down the price of oil.

With the need for external support against the Iranian threat at a desperate peak, and trust in the American guarantor at its lowest ebb, the most vulnerable Arab states turned to the only power that fully appreciates the magnitude of that threat and is capable and determined to provide a forceful response. Israel is not only cognizant of the catastrophic consequences of Iranian regional hegemony but has also been engaged for more than half a decade in a wide-scale preventive war in Syria and western Iraq to thwart the Iranian takeover where it threatens Israel most acutely.

Israel is, of course, infinitely less powerful than the U.S. But to the beleaguered Arabs it is, at this stage, also immeasurably more trustworthy as an ally against their worst and most immediate enemy, which poses an ongoing existential threat.

Using an outdated vocabulary of Middle Eastern affairs, recent relations between Israel and most Arab states are often discussed in terms of peace and normalization. What is happening recently is far more significant than the willingness to live together and overshadow old grievances and animosities. It is about strategic interdependence with a senior Israeli partner. The historic all-Arab coalition against Israel has been replaced by a de facto Arab-Israeli coalition against the radical forces that threaten them both. Iran is the immediate and outstanding among those radicals, but Erdogan’s Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria—and, in a different way, its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood—are not very far behind.

For Israel, the result of these new alignments is a transformational change in its regional standing, as well as a major upgrade of its position on the global stage. In the Middle East, Israel can, for the first time, act as a full-fledged regional power. In recent decades, Israel established its position as a formidable military, economic, and technological power, but it could not openly and freely maneuver politically or partake in regional strategic alliances. Its position is dramatically enhanced when Arab parties compete over its attention and cooperation.

On the international scene, global powers and other states no longer have to weigh the advantages of cooperation with Israel against its prohibitive costs in “the Arab World.” While a large part of Arab public opinion remains hostile to Israel, European and other states can pay lip service by criticizing Israel in international forums and through symbolic diplomatic protests while deepening bilateral cooperation, with no real cost vis-à-vis Arab regimes.

By far the most significant effect of this transformation is on the American strategic calculus of its relations with Israel. Washington no longer needs to choose between support of Israel on the one hand, and Arab oil, gas, money, markets, and alliance with the United States, on the other. Most of America’s allies in the region need a strong Israel for their strategic welfare or even survival, and they share with Israel a disappointment in the degree of trustworthy support that Washington offers to its regional allies. The U.S. is already engaged in coordinating an American-sponsored regional air defense system against Iran that reflects this new and revolutionary reality. Crucially important Arab states want more of that, not less.

In some important ways, then, the “New Middle East” has arrived. Not, of course, in the surreal Shimon Peres vision of regional democracy, peace, and prosperity, but in terms of a balance of power and hard strategic realities that can guardrail a somewhat less unstable and dangerous region, where the radicals are isolated and the others cooperate to keep them at bay.

Dan Schueftan is the Director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.