An 'Arab NATO' including Israel can exist if it stays quiet
© Getty Images

In the past, when Arab governments joined forces it was against another common enemy — Israel. Nowadays, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE is expected to lay out a plan to create a so-called "Arab NATO", a force that might even have room for Israel in a later stage. 

In a press conference with President Donald Trump upon his visit to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "For the first time in my lifetime, and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but, increasingly, as an ally".

ADVERTISEMENT

Iran's growing influence in the region has been cause for concern for Arabs and Israelis alike. Faced with rapid gains made by Iran-backed forces in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and with a crumbling Middle East state order, Israelis and Arabs should realize that a turning point has come. The proposed force is perhaps the only way to balance Iran.

 

A failure to act now could prove costly. For both Israel and the Persian Gulf states, Iran's nuclear deal has done little to curb Iran’s regional conduct or its longer term nuclear ambitions.

The idea to pull together a multinational Arab force is nothing new. Efforts to foster a regional military cooperation date back to the Arab League’s founding in 1945. Since then, regional military efforts have largely come under outside leadership and saw modest Arab participation. Even in the current U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, some Arab regimes are dragging their feet. Disparate interests, lack of a credible threat and a dearth of leadership prevented its realization. 

In 2015, the Arab League agreed to form a combined military force to counter both Iranian influence and Islamist extremism. Later that year, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the 34-nation Islamic military alliance for the fight against militants like the Islamic State. Despite these ambitious plans, nothing has materialized.

Saudi Arabia succeeded to form a coalition in Yemen, but that didn't bring a turnaround in the war, and the kingdom had trouble getting the region's biggest military force — Egypt — to commit to the task, manifesting yet another reason for tension between Riyadh and Cairo.

If it wasn't a high enough hurdle before, the current initiative, with its unclear specifics, aims to include the Jewish state. This is no small matter. Some of the countries mentioned, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. The two Arab states do not even recognize Israel as a state.

Arab governments remained largely passive and showed little interest in promoting the idea of a regional peace agreement. They make clear that, unless Israel is willing to engage seriously with the Arab Peace Initiative and allow tangible progress toward realizing Palestinian self-determination, overt ties with Jerusalem will hardly move beyond the symbolic handshakes at academic symposia. 

While some senior Israeli officials, particularly Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have indeed expressed support for a settlement in the spirit of the Arab Initiative, Netanyahu remains trapped by a domestic constituency unwilling to accept substantive territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

A NATO-style alliance is still a long way off and no one expects that attacks on Israel would require an Arab intervention and vice versa. Even so, it seems both sides can benefit from exploring confidence-building measures. The two sides should start taking foreign policy risks toward each other to realize the full potential of their relations

In the meantime, it would be best for Israel to refrain from making public statements that could increase the pressure on Arab governments due to the Trump administration’s perceived identification with Israel. Netanyahu should prefer a quiet channel of communication with the U.S. administration and with its allies within the pragmatic Arab camp on weakening Iran. The unified force will work only if remains tacit. 

The most obvious cause of alignment is a desire to combine members’ capabilities in a way that furthers their ability to tackle perceived threats. But besides shared interests, the group needs dominant leadership — that of the United States. Washington should support any attempt to balance Iran by local forces.

A regional coalition prevents putting American boots on the ground and is much cheaper, both financially and diplomatically. Israelis and Arabs can go further with their cooperation than just intelligence-sharing, as the latest initiative suggest. A regional military force can broaden its missions to also include fights against Iran's subversion, terror support and weapons smuggling, so long that it remains tacit. 

President Trump should start by reassuring America's allies — Arab and Israelis united by common enemy — who are worried that, like his predecessor, he will distance America from its leadership role in the Middle East. The countries involved cannot, and should not, commit themselves to come to each other's aid, resembling NATO's Article 5. But to curb Iran's influence, a common intelligence and operational military framework is needed.

The Trump administration too should remain practical and realistic and encourage U.S. allies to coordinate a uniform security action. It's another way to restore America's credibility, image of strength and deterrence ability.

 

Yoel Guzansky, Ph.D., is a 2016-2017 W. Glenn Campbell and Rita Ricardo-Campbell National Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute. He is a 2016-2017 Fulbright Scholar and a 2016-2017 Israel Institute post-doc Fellow. Guzansky is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.