As Regional Alliances Shift, Israel Must Tread Lightly

Now that the Arab world is no longer against Israel in principle, tensions among Israel’s various Arab allies need to be navigated wisely.
January 14, 2021
(L-R) Foreign Affairs Minister of Bahrain Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Foreign Affairs Minister of the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords on September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

When it comes to tensions between the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which of these two allies should Israel support? There’s tremendous importance and great benefit to Israel’s recent normalization of ties with the Arab world, but it also raises several previously unknown dilemmas.

Now that the Arab world is no longer against Israel in principle, we need to learn to navigate the tensions among Israel’s various Arab allies.

Shakespeare’s famous line, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” has been adapted to describe strange partnerships in the political arena, as “politics makes strange bedfellows.”

This is how Israel and Egypt came to collaborate in the 1960s, when they found a common enemy, the radicals who tried to drag Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser into a confrontation with Israel over Jordanian waters.

Israel’s number one ally in the region is Egypt and its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty shifted the balance of power in the region to Israel’s benefit. El-Sisi saved Egypt, the Middle East and Israel from the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was dragging the region into radicalism, war and bloodshed.

Last year’s most important alliance was that of Israel with the UAE. It signaled that the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia is possible, and promises economic and security collaboration, as well as cooperation in the fight against radicals in the region.

The UAE elite is presenting for the first time the format of complete legitimization of the Jewish state. Egypt might be more significant, but the UAE brings added value to the region and to Washington.

Egypt, the UAE and Israel belong to the same regional camp.

All three are aware of Iran’s regional hegemony aspirations, fight the Muslim Brotherhood, fear Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempt to impose his rule in the eastern Mediterranean basin, oppose the Libyan government—which supports the Turkish dictator—and support Lebanese rebel General Khalifa Haftar.

Israel, Egypt and the UAE all rely on the United States, but there are substantial differences between the three.

While Egypt is mainly concerned with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkish and Libyan threats to its western border, the UAE and Saudi Arabia worry about Iran and its proxies.

While Egypt sees Ethiopian activity on the Nile as an existential threat, the UAE is examining the southern arena in the Red Sea, in the broader context of dealing with the Houthis there and in Yemen.

In all these matters there’s tension and competition: the UAE, often with Saudi backing, is much less rigid when it comes to the Qatari supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Libyan President Fayez al-Sarraj.

The depth of the ties between Israel and the United States is also a cause for concern in Cairo. Egypt praised the Abraham Accords, but Emirati Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and the United States did not need El-Sisi to establish this normalization; the bilateral ties bypass Cairo.

The incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to pressure el-Sisi on human-rights violations, and Egypt’s previous status as Israel’s sole ally in the area will no longer protect it.

It is unlikely that Egypt will lose its status as the largest and most unified Arab state, but it is gravely dependant on economic aid, unlike its competitors in the Persian Gulf.

This dependence is always mentioned when discussing Egypt’s importance in the region. But this importance is fading away right in front of Egypt’s eyes.

Israel has to acknowledge these sensitivities and navigate the tensions carefully. It is important to use new opportunities, but we can’t abandon valuable allies in the process.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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