Israel and the Sunni Arab states have formed a covert alliance due to shifting geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East. Longtime enemies over the Palestinian issue, Israel and Sunni Arabs can no longer afford to remain rivals due to precarious common threats that demand their attention: Iran and the Islamic State.
During the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Arab nationalism, support for Palestine and antipathy for Israel largely united the Arab world. More recently, Sunni Arab states have refused to work with Israel without a proposed solution to the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which defines Israel as a perpetual enemy.
Regional dynamics have changed significantly, however, and Arab support for the Palestinians to govern their own state is no longer the “all-encompassing, emotive issue it once was.”
Sunni Arab rulers have realized that they share more perilous and serious threats in the region with Israel than they have differences, causing those states to adopt a tougher stance toward Palestine. A resolution to the conflict is no longer the most important factor in Arab relations with Israel as priorities have shifted, opening up possibilities for new regional alliances.
Over the last few months, Israel has launched airstrikes in Egypt’s Sinai desert, with support from Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. The targets are the Islamic State affiliate operating in the Sinai and other Islamist militant groups that wreak havoc on the peninsula. Even as the Islamic State has lost a vast majority of its territory in Iraq and Syria, it remains a threat.
In November 2017, the Islamic State affiliate murdered over 300 worshipers when gunmen opened fire at a mosque on the Sinai. Other attacks have taken place and the victims of these heinous attacks include soldiers, police, Coptic Christian churches, and even Sufi Muslims – those who do not share the Islamic State’s views.
As a result, counterterrorism and security are at the center of the recent Israeli-Egyptian alliance. This alliance underscores the Egyptian army’s struggle to rid Egypt of the militant group and also highlights the necessity of the alliance between Israel and not only Egypt but its Arab allies.
Egypt is not the only Sunni Arab state to form an alliance with Israel for security reasons. So, too, has Saudi Arabia, a longtime staunch opponent of Israel.
Insecurity and strife define the Middle East today, as the region suffers from violent civil wars, ineffective governments, humanitarian disasters, failing states, and terrorism. As the Sunni Arab leaders look at the condition of their region, they recognize that their states and Israel are equally troubled by Iran’s quest for hegemony across the region.
Since 1979, after the overthrow of the Iranian Shah, Iran’s objectives in the Middle East are to spread the Islamic revolution and to extend its influence throughout the region. As a result of Iran flexing its muscles, the Israelis and Saudis have deepened their security ties, joined in their common disdain for Iran. Egypt and Jordan already have peace treaties with Israel, dating back to the late 1970’s and mid-1990’s. Similarly, in 2015, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a less conservative Sunni state, allowed Israel to open its first representative office. Cooperation between Israel and the Sunni Arab states is likely to continue expanding in the face of the Iran and Islamic State threats.
Israel and the Sunni Arab states can no longer afford to remain rivals when such dangers loom in the region. As Iran seeks hegemony and the Islamic State continues to terrorize the Middle East, Sunni Arab states now view Israel as a competent, powerful, and necessary ally against Iran and the Islamic State.
This fact is timely as cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arab states are imperative to counter the threats posed by both Iran’s increasing influence and the Islamic States’ reign of terror.