For Israel’s once-potential Arab allies, ties with Jerusalem lose some sheen

Nation’s image as key to Washington undermined by Biden’s refusal to invite Netanyahu, and response to flareup in Gaza didn’t do much for its aspirations to lead anti-Iran bloc

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Left: US President Joe Biden at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, March 28, 2023. (AP/Carolyn Kaster); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool photo via AP)
Left: US President Joe Biden at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, March 28, 2023. (AP/Carolyn Kaster); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool photo via AP)

Last month, on Israel’s 75th Independence Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a video which featured, among other things, the premier lauding the peace agreements that Israel has reached with Arab countries over the years, especially the 2020 Abraham Accords.

“I intend to lead the expansion of this peace to unimaginable heights,” he pledged in the recorded message to the nation.

It’s a promise Netanyahu has been offering since before his return to office late last year, and hardly a diplomatic meeting or speech goes by in which he or his foreign minister don’t talk of such an expansion.

But circumstances are making it ever harder for Netanyahu to bring more Arab countries — and especially the big prize Saudi Arabia — into the “circle of peace,” as he calls it.

Without a marked change in Netanyahu’s relationship with the Joe Biden White House, and in the prime minister’s control over his own coalition, that circle is not going to expand.

The key to Washington

There are two primary reasons that Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel in recent years, and that others wait in the wings.

For one, consider the region’s volatility, which forces countries to choose sides between Iran and the West. For the latter group, along with states too broken to form a coherent foreign policy like Sudan or Yemen, ties with the United States have traditionally been of paramount importance.

But in recent years, America’s Arab partners have sensed a shift in Washington that gives them ample reason to worry.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat ahead of a working lunch at the G20 Summit, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)

After decades of sacrificing blood and treasure in pursuit of democratic experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no longer any appetite in either US political party for significant military engagement in the Middle East. China, not al-Qaeda, is the bogeyman of the moment, and the pivot to Asia and the Pacific that began under former US president Barack Obama has only gained steam under his successors.

The countries that signed the 2020 Abraham Accords came with wish lists that they wanted from an increasingly disengaged America as a reward for signing the accords, and Netanyahu was expected to go to bat for them with his friend Donald Trump, the now-former US president. Morocco wanted support for its claims to Western Sahara, Sudan wanted off the terror list, and the UAE wanted F-35 fighter jets. Bahrain bolstered its position with Washington.

With Trump out of office, traditional US allies needed an advocate in Washington even more. Countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia came under very public attack from Biden over their human rights records and were unable to build the personal rapport with him that they had with Donald Trump.

Israel, however, could offer a way back in.

Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel, on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Saudi Arabia has even detailed a series of requests from Washington before it will sign an agreement with Israel.

Secondly, consider Iran. Not only do the Gulf countries see the Islamic Republic as their prime adversary, but even distant Morocco cut ties with Tehran five years ago.

No one in the region is under any illusion that Biden is going to order a military strike on Iranian forces or its nuclear program, leaving Israel as the only player actively fighting Iranian attempts to expand its control over the Middle East and to move closer to nuclear weapons capability.

Overt ties with Israel not only send a deterrent message to Tehran but also make it easier for Arab countries to carry out joint military exercises and to create a regional anti-Iran military infrastructure.

Spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Behrouz Kamalvandi, center, briefs the media while visiting the Fordo nuclear site near Qom, south of Tehran, Iran November 9, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Both these benefits — access to decision-makers in Washington and an improved posture against Iran — must come at an acceptable price for Arab leaders, who have to take the public’s sympathy for the Palestinians into account.

No invitation and a ‘feeble’ deterrence

In all of these regards, Arab countries see diminishing incentives to normalize with Israel, alongside growing costs.

One doesn’t have to follow the US-Israel relationship especially closely to notice the tensions, and leaders in Arab capitals are keen observers of the signals coming from both sides.

A major point of contention has been the proposed judicial reform in Israel. Initially, US officials said they didn’t want to weigh in on what they viewed as an internal Israeli matter. But they have gradually moved away from that position, first issuing vague pronouncements, when asked, about the importance of independent institutions, before shifting to more overt criticism.

US President Joe Biden speaks to the press at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, on March 28, 2023. (Jim Watson / AFP)

They have also displayed disapproval of comments made by the far-right elements of Netanyahu’s government.

In March, Biden called Netanyahu to raise the issue of the reform personally. The White House then issued another statement of concern over Netanyahu’s decision to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Biden said days later that Netanyahu would not be invited to the White House in the “near term,” noting his distress over the government’s judicial overhaul effort and urging the premier to “walk away” from the legislation.

The White House continues to reiterate publicly that Netanyahu is not invited to Washington, most recently on Monday.

Every time a senior Biden official reminds the world that there are no plans to host Netanyahu, Israel’s perceived value as an advocate in Washington decreases. Saudi Arabia can’t put much hope in an Israeli leader who is unable to get his own audience with Biden, who invited UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed to the White House and flew to Jeddah to meet the de facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman.

The site where a rocket fired from Gaza into southern Israel, hit and damaged a car in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, May 2, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the potential domestic cost of recognizing Israel has likely gone up in Arab countries. Ben Gvir’s Temple Mount visit less than a week after the government took office, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s call to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara after a terrorist attack, is not anything Arab leaders want to be seen as supporting by signing normalization agreements with Israel.

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The countries that have already signed the Abraham Accords have made their displeasure known in a number of ways in the wake of these developments, including avoiding high-level visits and publicly denouncing Israel.

Happy time for the axis

While Israel struggles to make diplomatic headway in the region, Iran and its allies are enjoying a hot streak.

As Israeli leaders continue to dream of a deal with Saudi Arabia, Riyadh reestablished ties with Tehran in April.

Earlier this week, many of Israel’s Arab partners met with Syria’s foreign minister in Amman, a short drive from Israel’s border, as they work to end Damascus’s isolation from the Arab world.

Photo released by the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad (r), welcomes Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Damascus, Syria, May 3, 2023. (Syrian Presidency via Facebook via AP)

The Assad regime didn’t try to hide that it intends to remain in Tehran’s orbit even as it accepts renewed ties with pro-Western Middle Eastern states. On Thursday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi came to Damascus to meet his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad and sign a series of long-term agreements, the first Iranian leader to do so in more than a decade.

Raisi took the opportunity to gloat at his country’s recent uptick in fortunes and mock Israel’s struggles, after a tough winter of domestic protests and Western fury over its military support for Russia.

“The supporters of the normalization of relations are facing protests and questions by their own people and realized that there is no other path but to resist and stand against the Zionist regime,” he said.

Netanyahu will likely get his invitation at some point, and his trademark caution around Gaza could be described as prudence. But one of his core campaign promises – that only he is the statesman that can gather a coalition to stop Iran’s nuclear program and make peace with the Saudis – is being undermined by the chaos in his coalition, and his inability to control his right flank.

Unfortunately for the prime minister, the very same ministers making life difficult for him in Abu Dhabi and in Washington know they can’t be replaced. After breaking too many promises in the past, there are no other party chiefs in Israel who trust Netanyahu enough to sit with him in a coalition.

So he finds himself in a bind with no clear path out – increasingly distant from his goals, and beholden to the very partners driving him even further away from them.

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