Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani flew into Ben Gurion Airport late Wednesday morning on the first-ever official visit to Israel by a minister from his country, and spent the day in Jerusalem meeting with Israeli leaders and participating in a tripartite summit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Such developments would have been unthinkable until very recently. But Al Zayani’s visit was evidently deemed so unremarkable — after Israel reached accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in the past three months, and everybody started sending delegations back and forth to finalize, formalize and develop the fresh ties — that none of Israel’s three main TV stations deemed it worth interrupting their banal late-morning output in order to broadcast his airport arrival live.
Brokered under the Trump administration, Israel’s latest accords were not born of a new zest for Zion in Abu Dhabi and Manama, but rather, primarily, of the widening realization in the Gulf that in the face of the rapacious Islamic Republic regime, Iran’s enemies would do well to make friends.
US President Donald Trump declared three weeks ago that up to 10 more countries were preparing to warm their ties with Israel, with five of them firmly on course and the others also “right in the mix.” But that was before the November 3 presidential election.
Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden, and Biden’s explicitly stated intention to “rejoin” the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement — negotiated when he was Barack Obama’s vice president, and from which Trump withdrew — has at a stroke remade the region’s calculations on Iran. The question of which other countries, and when, might now decide to normalize their relations with Israel is only one aspect of the wider recalibration triggered immediately by Biden’s victory.
The Middle East doesn’t do vacuums, and Trump’s defeat is rippling across our neighborhood. The Palestinians have suddenly decided to resume security cooperation with Israel, and are indicating that they want to reestablish ties with the US, assuming that the Trump peace vision they so loathed is off the table. In Israel, with Trump deemed most unlikely to authorize annexation of settlements, since that plan was explicitly suspended under the terms of the Israel-UAE deal, Netanyahu is under pressure from his own right-wing camp to legalize dozens of West Bank outposts before Biden takes office.
And on Iran, the pieces are moving by the hour.
Anticipating a more empathetic approach to Tehran by a successor whose victory he has yet to concede, Trump reportedly mulled doing in his final weeks what the 2015 JCPOA manifestly failed to do — dismantle the ayatollahs’ rogue nuclear weapons program — by striking at one or more of the Islamist regime’s nuclear enrichment sites.
That he was talked out of this by his worried aides, and that this has become public, has already emboldened Tehran, whose Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — US secretary of state John Kerry’s wily interlocutor in the negotiations on the JCPOA — on Tuesday magnanimously agreed to discuss how the US could reenter the 2015 deal, provided it first lifts all its sanctions on Tehran. This, even as Iran deepens its breaches of the deal by accelerating its uranium enrichment.
Also evidently concerned that Biden might prove a soft touch for Tehran, the minister of state for foreign affairs of Saudi Arabia — the big fish among the 10 countries Trump saw as readying to normalize relations with Israel — is warning that his kingdom may seek the bomb itself if Iran’s nuclear drive isn’t derailed. Discussing the Iranian threat, US policy, the advent of Biden, and Riyadh’s own concerns, Adel al-Jubeir told the German DPA news agency succinctly: “We believe that the Iranians have only responded to pressure.”
Emphatically sharing that assessment, Israel early Wednesday morning launched airstrikes against eight targets in Syria, including several facilities controlled by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, hours after the IDF announced that it had found explosive devices, planted at Iran’s direction, intended to blow up IDF patrols in Israeli-controlled territory at the Syrian border.
Iran is relentlessly seeking to deepen its military hold in Syria; Israel has been relentlessly seeking to foil it. The strikes early Wednesday, and the fact that Israel atypically immediately acknowledged that it had carried them out, were plainly designed, among other things, to clarify that a change in the US presidency will not yield a change in Israel’s determination to thwart Tehran wherever and whenever necessary.
In an echo of Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress imploring legislators to block Obama’s “very bad” nuclear deal, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer on Monday publicly urged Biden not to rejoin the JCPOA. “Sit with your allies in the region. Listen to us,” Dermer pleaded. “We have the most skin in the game. We have the most to lose. Speak to us. Try to work out a common position, which I think is possible, not only to do with nuclear issues but also to deal with the regional aggression of Iran.”
Bahrain’s visiting Al Zayani said much the same thing, albeit more mildly. Citing concerns over Iran’s “belligerence,” he told the Axios website in Jerusalem on Wednesday: “We need to be consulted if the US pursues such an agreement with Iran.” It’s what all Israel’s new regional partners, and all those potential partners in waiting, are thinking.
Israel remains the regional military heavyweight with no choice but to stand up to Tehran. After all, the regime avowedly seeks our destruction and works implacably to attain the tools to achieve that ambition. But Israel’s room for maneuver, and that of likeminded nations in the Middle East and beyond, is immensely widened if the United States fulfills its superpower role, and safeguards its own interests, by placing itself at the forefront of the battle to keep Iran from the bomb.
There is no escaping the fact that the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government are going to differ and clash over the Palestinian issue. In their belated phone call on Tuesday, when Netanyahu finally managed to acknowledge Biden as the US president-elect, Biden took pains to emphasize his commitment to Israel’s “future as a Jewish and democratic state.” This was a carefully chosen formulation, designed to underline his support for the two-state solution no longer firmly endorsed by Netanyahu.
But on Iran, the two leaderships can, should, indeed must be closely aligned. Biden, in the Tuesday call, also stressed his “steadfast support for Israel’s security.” That requires clear-headed, closely coordinated policy to thwart the ayatollahs, in contrast to the 2015 negotiating process, when Israel was marginalized by the Obama administration. This time, please, no daylight.
** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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