The fact that politics makes strange bedfellows is nothing new. What is new is the alliance between Israel and the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, based on a mutual fear of Iran and its nuclear program. Instead of relying on regional non-Arab countries, Israel is now tacitly aligning itself with some of its fiercest Arab critics.
While such an alliance has short-term advantages, it also leaves Israel without a coherent strategy to deal with the Obama administration’s policy towards the Middle East.
The so-called Periphery Doctrine, in which Israel aligned itself with non-Arab regional neighbors like Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia, was a hallmark of Israeli foreign policy for the country’s first 30 years. The idea was that both sides had an interest in aligning against Arab states who were the common enemy.
The Doctrine died a slow death, starting with the 1979 Revolution in Iran and culminating with the dispute with Turkey in 2010 over the killing of nine of its citizens — all travelling on a “Freedom Flotilla” bound for Gaza — by Israeli commandos.
In its place, Israel relied on an increasingly close relationship with the US based on an increased American presence in the region after the first Gulf War in 1991. Under the second Bush administration, Israel felt that it had an ally that understood the threat from Iran and that it could rely on American’s security umbrella.
Given the continued threat of Sunni extremism from Syria to Afghanistan, the Obama administration instead has calculated that Shia Iran might be a natural ally for America’s long-term interest in the region of preventing terrorism.
So now both the Israel and the Gulf Arab States feel that the United States is abandoning its commitment in the region and selling them out to Persian domination. These mutual interests led Israeli President Shimon Peres to address through video an Arab security conference in the United Arab Emirates earlier this month. Scenes such as this will no doubt become increasingly common in the coming months as the US works towards a comprehensive agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.
The Periphery Doctrine has come full circle with the Israelis relying on an alliance with Arab States. It appears the mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is again the basis of Israel’s foreign policy.
Yet the unresolved Palestinian question makes it unlikely that any relationship with the Arabs can become a long-term strategic alliance. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s relatively muted reaction to the interim nuclear agreement with Iran indicates that they would rather be part of the American rapprochement with Tehran instead of opposing it — perhaps calculating they can have more leverage with the Americans if they work with them.
So far, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has resisted any accommodation, but it is unclear how much longer he can maintain that position. If the US is able to reach a long-term agreement with Iran, can Israel really count on the security option of a partner in Riyadh?
About the author:
Sam Shirazi currently attends the University of Virginia School of Law, where he is a managing editor for the Journal of Law and Politics. He has worked for a prominent international law firm and for the US Department of Justice. Born in Tehran, Iran, he grew up in Los Angeles, California.