As the Arabs and Iran reconcile, what happens to Israel?

ByHindustan Times
Apr 22, 2023 12:29 PM IST

This article is authored by Rajeev Agarwal, assistant director, Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.

When Benjamin Netanyahu won the parliamentary elections in November 2022 and finally managed to muster a full majority in the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) after a turbulent political period of three years since 2019 over which Israel had to hold five Knesset elections, it was greeted with cautious optimism. ‘Bibi’ as he is popularly known as, was back in power as prime minister (PM) 17 months after last losing the elections in the June 2021 to Naftali Bennett. The victory was greeted with optimism because the return of Benjamin Netanyahu with full majority (however thin) offered hope for a period of internal political stability. Caution because, knowing Netanyahu and his traditionally aggressive ‘security oriented’ policies, there is always a fear of blowback for Israel in the region. The ride so far has however been far from smooth with Netanyahu facing serious challenges both within the country as well as in the region.

FILE PHOTO: A man holds an Israeli flag as he stands in front of a large picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.(REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: A man holds an Israeli flag as he stands in front of a large picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.(REUTERS)


We're now on WhatsApp. Click to join.

Internally, the Israeli government has been facing stiff resistance over some of the controversial reforms that Netanyahu has proposed within months of taking over as the PM, primary among them being the judicial reforms. The judicial reforms are aimed to substantially constrain the authority of the judiciary and give the government near-complete control over the appointment of judges. The reforms triggered wide spread protests on the streets of Israeli cities with citizens groups including workers’ unions and even reservists of the Israeli Defense Forces, calling the bill a murder of democracy. It also led to Netanyahu firing his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on 26th March, when the minister insisted on a pause to the judicial reforms. Although Yoav Gallant was reinstated on 10th April, the event has exposed the deep fragility within the coalition government.


Netanyahu’s troubles have however, not subsided with the reinstatement of the defence minister. The attacks on Palestinians worshippers at the Holy Al Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem twice in first week of April, not only provoked various armed groups in West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syria but also drew sharp criticism from the Arab countries in the region. Israeli police claimed that they were forced to enter the mosque compound after “masked agitators” locked themselves inside the mosque with fireworks, sticks and stones, but there are not many who are ready to buy this argument, especially as the worshippers were offering prayers in the holy month of Ramzan. Provoked by Israeli raids on worshippers at Al Aqsa Mosque, al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement fired six rockets from Syria on 9th April, drawing immediate retaliation from Israel. There was armed clashes reported across Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank too, thus escalating the security situation all around Israel.


The Al-Aqsa in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, hosts Islam’s third holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It may be recalled that even in May 2021, just before being defeated in elections, PM Netanyahu’s forces had attacked Al Aqsa compound against Muslim worshippers during Ramzan, injuring hundreds of Palestinians, drawing international condemnation.


Earlier, at least 10 Palestinians were killed on 22nd February, in fighting with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Nablus, sparking unrest in the area. This was soon followed a retaliatory action in which two Israeli brothers shot dead in a terror attack on 26th February West Bank town of Huwara. Concerned over the escalating situation and the upcoming period of Ramzan, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, senior adviser to UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was dispatched to meet PM Netanyahu on 23rd March, in order to convey a message to the Israeli government concerning its treatment of Palestinians. “The direction of this government goes completely against the Abraham Accords,” Mubarak was quoted as having told Netanyahu.


In midst of all this internal turmoil, two major developments were reported from the region, having a direct bearing on Israel. On February 28 2023, the UN reported that Iran has enriched parts of uranium to 84% purity, causing alarm on Iran being at the threshold to developing a nuclear weapon. Just a few days later, on March 10, China stunned the world when it announced that Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to resume diplomatic relations after seven years, in a peace deal brokered by it. Both these announcements have profound impact on Israel’s regional policies. Against Iran, Israel has been propagating stiff action (including military) to counter its nuclear programme which it alleges, has a strong military dimension and poses existential threat to Israel. A firm critic of the Iran nuclear deal, it was the first to welcome when President Trump pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018, calling it ‘the worst deal ever’. Recent reports of Iran enriching uranium to very high levels, almost weapon grade, can, therefore, be not good news for Israel.


The other development ie the Saudi-Iran rapprochement may raise more concern in the Israeli establishment than even the nuclear enrichment by Iran. The Saudi-Iran peace deal threatens to put to waste years of backdoor attempts towards reconciliation with the Arab world in general and Saudi Arabia, in particular. In the past few years, there were even reports of Saudi going slow on the Palestinian issue as also trying to find a way to fit Israel into the regional framework where the sole aim seemed to unite, ‘against Iran’. This seemed logical to some extent because Iran was the common enemy for Israel as well as Saudi Arabia, especially since Iran backed proxies had upped the ante and targeted Saudi Arabia with drones and long-range weapons since 2019. The Abraham Accords signed in August 2020 between Israel and four Arab countries ie UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco were an initiator towards this process, deliberately keeping Saudi Arabia out of it while incorporating its powerful ally UAE, to test the waters. The Saudi-Iran peace deal is, therefore, a huge setback to Israel’s regional calculus. If Iran no longer remains ‘enemy No.1’ for the Arab world, how does Israel find support for its anti-Iran crusade in the region?


This is not all. Following the Saudi-Iran peace deal, there seems to be a wave of reconciliation among the Arab counties in the region. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Syria on 27th February, first trip by a top Egyptian diplomat to Syria since its civil war began in 2011 in a signal towards possible warming ties between Syria and Arab states. Earlier in March, Egypt’s foreign minister held talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on the possibility of restoring ties, during the first visit to Cairo by Turkey’s top diplomat since relations ruptured after overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013 in Egypt. Qatar and Bahrain too have announced restoration of diplomatic ties on April 13, an important step towards unity within the GCC.

There are also serious developments taking place on getting Syria back within the folds of Arab League. During President Assad’s visit to the UAE on 19th March, the UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan told Assad “Syria has been absent from its brothers for too long, and the time has come for it to return to them and to its Arab surroundings.” On 14th April, GCC foreign ministers and their counterparts from Egypt, Jordan and Iraq met in Jeddah, upon the invitation of Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan to discuss Arab developments. “The ministers discussed the efforts that aim to reach a political solution… which preserves Syria’s unity, security, stability and Arab identity and that brings Syria back to the Arab fold,” a statement issued by the Saudi foreign ministry said.


The developments in the Arab world mentioned above leading towards larger reconciliation in the Arab world and peace deal with Iran could permanently alter the decades old geopolitics of the West Asian region. With mainstreaming of Iran in the region, Israel will have to rethink its strategy, especially with Iran nuclear deal going nowhere and Iran steadily enriching Uranium to higher grades. The reluctance and in fact, inability of the US to influence geopolitics in the region is another dampener for Israel. Also, China’s active and assertive diplomatic involvement in the region and Russia leaning towards China and the countries in the region for support in view of Western sanctions on it owing to the war in Ukraine, may make it tough for Israel, especially if it keeps resorting to frequent armed actions against the Palestinians in Gaza Strip and/or the West Bank. Its strategy of ‘enforcing peace through security’ and a fast fading option of a viable two state solution for Palestine will require a serious review, going forward. Israel needs to stay ahead of the curve to reap the benefits of its diplomatic overtures in the region in the past few years, lest it finds itself left out in the region once again, turning back the clock to the 1990s, a period of hostility and isolation.


This article is authored by Rajeev Agarwal, assistant director, Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.

"Exciting news! Hindustan Times is now on WhatsApp Channels Subscribe today by clicking the link and stay updated with the latest news!" Click here!
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, September 28, 2023
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals