OPINIONS

Thu 18 Apr 2024 8:58 am - Jerusalem Time

Can Israel Harness Its Rare Moment of Regional Support?

Israel has launched a diplomatic offensive to further isolate Iran after its attack.

By Amy Mackinnon


Iran’s attack on Israel over the weekend marked the first time, after decades of shadow war, that Tehran attempted to strike the country directly, launching more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel. 


Saturday’s attack, which came in response to an Israeli strike on an Iranian consular building in Damascus that killed seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members, was also marked by the unprecedented cooperation of Arab and Gulf states in repelling the assault. Jordan intercepted a number of drones and missiles and allowed the United States and other countries to use its airspace, according to the Wall Street Journal, while the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia shared intelligence on the planned attack, according to the report. Jordanian officials downplayed their role in fending off the attack, describing it as a matter of self-defense, but the significance of the moment was not lost on many in Israel, which fought four wars with Jordan before signing a peace treaty in 1994. 

The response marked the first significant test of a burgeoning, if uneasy, alliance in the Middle East against Iran, even as Israel’s war in Gaza has outraged people across the region. “What the Gulf states did on April 13 to 14 suggests that, as committed as their publics may be to the Palestinian issue, they are still prepared to look after their own national interests first,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator. “That’s what is so significant—not that the cooperation occurred but that it happened under circumstances that were completely counterintuitive.”


As Israel’s Western partners have grown increasingly frustrated with the Israel Defense Forces’ scorched-earth tactics in Gaza and the resultant spiraling humanitarian crisis, Saturday’s attack placed renewed attention on the threats Israel faces. And Israel’s leaders are keen to capitalize on the moment to further isolate Iran. “We have an opportunity here to establish a strategic alliance against this serious threat from Iran, which threatens to put nuclear explosives on the heads of these missiles,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Sunday. 


On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the country was waging a “diplomatic offensive,” sending letters to 32 countries and calling dozens of foreign ministers, urging them to place further sanctions on Iran and to brand the IRGC as a terrorist organization. Much depends on how Israel decides to respond to the Iranian attack and whether it does so in a way that further escalates tensions and brings the region closer to an all-out war. 


Israeli officials have vowed to respond but have not disclosed when and how.“The war in Gaza has put Israel’s diplomatic relationships under duress in the region, but not under pinpoint stress, like a military response against Iran that inflames the region would,” said Joel Rubin, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration. 


Former U.S. officials have cautioned against reading too much into the Arab states’ cooperation in fending off Iran’s attack, noting that it was likely borne of pragmatism rather than altruism. “I don’t want to downgrade what the Jordanians did,” said Bilal Y. Saab, a former senior advisor for security cooperation at the U.S. Defense Department. “But most of that calculus was local and having to do with protecting their own skies,” he added, noting that the country is also a significant recipient of Pentagon funding to train and equip its armed forces. Although the Journal reported that Saudi Arabia agreed to share intelligence on the Iranian attack with the United States, Saudi officials appear to be downplaying the country’s involvement in the operation. 


Unnamed sources were quoted in the Saudi state-owned news outlet Al Arabiya on Monday denying that the country participated in the interception of the Iranian barrage, underscoring the delicate line Riyadh is toeing.


Without the promise of U.S. protection, the Gulf states are likely to remain limited in their willingness to go toe-to-toe against Tehran, Saab said. Miller expressed similar sentiments. “I think this was a hopeful sign of things that might evolve and mature, but the constraints are still pretty severe,” he said. “Gaza has not gone away. The Israeli-Palestinian piece of this has not gone away,” Miller added. “Above all, I think it’s the vulnerability question that is going to make a lot of countries think very carefully about formalizing any alignment that appears to be strategically aimed at Iran.”A U.S.-Saudi defense pact is the cornerstone of U.S. President Joe Biden’s efforts to broker a normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. A diplomatic moonshot in an election year, the White House still sees normalization with Saudi Arabia, the most influential Gulf state, as a key part of the road map out of the current war and to changing the dynamics of the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.Negotiations are still underway for a tripartite deal that would include the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a U.S. defense treaty with Riyadh, and all parties agreeing on meaningful steps toward Palestinian statehood. Iran’s attack, and the quiet display of unity among Israel, the United States, and several key Arab states, could present the Biden administration with a diplomatic pivot point amid a lull in fighting in Gaza, said David Makovsky, who served as a senior advisor for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration.“I don’t want to appear as if to say the Gaza crisis is over,” he said. But “I wouldn’t be surprised if the administration would like to explore with MBS [Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince]: ‘OK, we’ve just had a mega-moment in the Middle East—what about pivoting now?’”

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Can Israel Harness Its Rare Moment of Regional Support?

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