The Long Road to Israel’s Very Good Month

The Jewish state has become too valuable to the Arab world to be treated as a pariah.

Not since May 1948, when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union recognized the state of Israel in the critical weeks of its war for independence, has Israel had a diplomatic month like this. On Aug. 13, the United Arab Emirates and Israel signed an agreement to normalize relations, with the formal ceremony to be held Tuesday in Washington with President Trump. On Sept. 11, Bahrain followed suit. The Palestinian Authority, holding the rotating chair of the Arab League, introduced a resolution condemning the U.A.E. move at a Zoom session of Arab foreign ministers, but in a shocking departure from past practice, the motion failed to pass. On Sept. 13 another Arab nation, Oman, issued a statement of support for Bahrain’s decision to normalize relations.

Meanwhile, defying pressure from the European Union and in exchange for Israeli recognition of Kosovo’s independence, Kosovo became the first Muslim-majority country in the world to agree to place an embassy in Jerusalem in another Trump-brokered deal. (The status of a similar pledge from Serbia isn’t clear.)

With Saudi Arabia allowing flights from Israel to the U.A.E. to pass over its territory and Morocco reported to be close to allowing direct flights to the Jewish state, something of a tipping point seems to have been reached in the Middle East. Resentment of Zionism and sympathy for the Palestinians will no longer be allowed to interfere with what embattled Arab rulers see as a vital relationship.

These changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Arab opposition to Israel’s existence has never been as unanimous or implacable as casual observers sometimes assume. Geopolitically, conservative Arab states have long understood that their interests and Israel’s are connected.

The strongest force in international politics is driving the change: fear. The Arab world as a whole is confronting its greatest crisis since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq and Syria, once pillars of Arab nationalism and strength, can barely hold themselves together. Yemen and Libya are sunk in bitter civil wars. Egypt, whose economy is staggering as the pandemic slashes its income from tourism and trade, can barely manage its own security, much less export stability to the rest of the Arab world. Lebanon, for so long a financial and cultural capital of the Arab world, suffers from a failing state and Hezbollah’s heavy hand.
Even the wealthy Gulf oil states fear for their economic future. American fracking is likely to keep oil prices low even when the global economy recovers from Covid-19, and with pro-Green New Deal Democrats leading in U.S. polls, the pressure from the West on fossil fuels seems likely to grow. What limits a President Biden would place on fracking likely wouldn’t cut domestic production enough to raise oil prices significantly. The Gulf states must diversify from hydrocarbons or wither away, and they know it.

On top of all this, the American withdrawal from the Middle East keeps gaining momentum. The Trump administration continues to push to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, while a Biden administration would seek to revive the nuclear deal with Tehran while distancing itself from Saudi Arabia on human-rights grounds.

Behind all these worries lie the real terrors of the Arab world: Turkey and Iran. Muslim Brotherhood leaders fleeing Egypt have found a haven in Turkey, and many Arabs believe that Ankara’s ambitions pose a greater long-term threat to Arab independence than Tehran’s.

In the short term, Iran, which hopes that a Biden election would lead to open trade with the West, poses what Gulf Arab leaders see as an existential threat—especially with America looking to reduce its regional commitments.

The more the U.S. withdraws, the greater the value of Israel to the Sunni Arab world. Israel, growing numbers of Arab leaders believe, is the only country with both the will and the means to help the Arab world defend itself from regional threats—and the only country with enough political support in America to ensure that Arab pleas for help will not be utterly disregarded.

Beyond that, more Arabs are beginning to see the advantages in working with Israel. Israel is not, as many Arabs once believed, a fragile artificial society held together by U.S. support. It is by any measure the most successful state in the Middle East with the most technologically advanced economy in the region. Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Indian and American military leaders all want the benefits of Israeli tech.

Timing aside, the Arab rapprochement with Israel is no pre-election stunt staged to help Donald Trump. It reflects a sober and serious response to realities that no Arab state can ignore. As a military and intelligence partner, as a diplomatic force multiplier, as a trading partner, as a source of investment and of development expertise, Israel is too valuable to the Arab world to be relegated to the status of a regional pariah. It has earned its place in the Middle East.