It's Time for Israel and the Arab States to Talk Mutual Security

The Iran deal has led Israel and the Arabs to see eye-to-eye on a whole host of issues.

The situation in the Middle East today—where the current state order is being challenged by upheavals that began with the so-called Arab Spring and deteriorated into violence in and between several states—raises the question of whether this situation is conducive to the initiation of regional security dialogue as a means of helping to enhance security and restore stability. In one sense, the breakdown in security underscores the need to create new understandings and mechanisms, and the first step is regional security dialogue. Indeed, as states feel increasingly vulnerable in the face of the intensifying violence it is perhaps a particularly opportune moment to begin seriously considering regional discussions. In another sense, however, it might be the worst possible time to entertain such ideas, given the chaos in a number of regional states, especially Iraq and Syria. And the failed-state status of Libya raises the question of who would even be the relevant participant in such a dialogue.

Complicating the situation further is the complex matrix of state and sub-state interests that has emerged across the Middle East over the past few years. Regional upheaval has exacerbated tensions and disputes between pragmatic Sunni Arab states and Iran and its proxies, as well as between these states and Salafi-jihadist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. These states are feeling weaker also due to internal tensions. But superimposed on this dynamic are the rivalries among the Sunni states themselves. Turkey, for example, cooperates with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in fighting Assad and ISIS, but is in conflict with Egypt over the treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and related factions.

And different states attach different weights to the various perceived threats. Egypt is a good example of this complexity: unlike states in the Gulf, Egypt does not see Iran as the major threat currently, and is more focused on the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi-jihadist movements. Egypt also sees Turkey—a major player in the pragmatic Sunni camp—as a salient threat.

When it comes to a major non-Arab and non-Muslim state like Israel, there are additional complications as far as regional dialogue is concerned. Although the pragmatic Sunni states tend to place less emphasis today on the Arab-Israeli conflict, they cannot ignore public opinion, which remains hostile to Israel as long as there is no progress in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Moreover, dialogue with Israel, denoted as “normalization,” has come to be viewed in and of itself as a prize for Israel and not something to be “given” without getting something in return, again, primarily in the framework of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Still, the nuclear deal with Iran that was announced in July could mitigate some of the opposition to dialogue with Israel. The JCPOA has many states in the region quite nervous about the implications of failure, and about Iran's ability to nevertheless achieve a military nuclear capability. In the Gulf states, fears focus primarily on the implications of Iran’s enhanced regional clout, and what that will mean for their own security and regional standing. But whether threat perceptions focus on the nuclear weapons per se or the regional implications of a nuclear Iran, the combined effect has fostered a mutual interest among the so-called “like-minded states” in the region that oppose Iran, and provides a basis for pursuing security dialogue in a framework that could include Israel.

What can we learn from past efforts to advance regional cooperative efforts in the Middle East? First, organizations such as the Arab League and the GCC have reached a high level of institutionalization mainly because they play to a common identity. And even so, these organizations have not been highly effective due to conflicting interests, although the GCC has been more successful than the Arab League. The only regional security dialogue ambitious enough to include Israel in the fold was the groundbreaking Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks of the early 1990s. There are different explanations for the ultimate breakdown of these talks, but the fact that they were ongoing for four years is quite amazing, and clearly had something to do with the impact of the Gulf War on the one hand and the broader Madrid peace process on the other. Both of these developments encouraged a common sense that dialogue was both necessary and possible, although not all states bought into this logic. Here, the role of the U.S. and its ambitious regional security agenda for the region was crucial, including the pressure that the Americans brought to bear on the regional parties to attend.

Ultimately, for regional dialogue to be productive, there does not have to be a common identity among the participating states. Nor do all participants have to define their threats in the same way. Therefore, the complex matrix of security threats and rivalries currently defining the Middle East is not necessarily an impediment to regional dialogue. However, an essential precondition is the existence of some, even minimal, common interest that the states are working to realize; moreover, states must assess that they need each other in order to achieve the common goal, even if very broadly defined as “increasing the security of all states in the region.” Without that, rivalries will no doubt be stronger than common interests. This raises the question of whether there is any conceivable common interest today that is region-wide, and strong enough to overcome the differences among the states in their interests and threat perceptions.