Analysis: Arab NATO — dead but not buried

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 8 Jul 2022

The rhetoric about a military alliance bringing Israel together with its former regional foes is receding due to disapproval by many Arab governments and widespread public opposition.

Arab NATO   dead but not buried


When US President Joe Biden confirmed that he would be visiting the Middle East this month, he placed the primary focus of his trip on Israel’s security and said he would be looking to “deepen Israel’s integration with the region.”

Biden was playing down reports that he would discuss skyrocketing energy prices with the leaders of the regional oil-producing countries when he meets them on the second leg of his 13-16 July tour that will take him to Saudi Arabia.

On the surface, Biden’s remarks about Israel’s security being paramount were nothing new. Former US presidents have always made Israel’s security the cornerstone of US Middle East policy.   

But for many in the Arab world, Biden’s emphasis seemed to be another reward for Israel’s road to normalisation with several Arab nations, which started with his predecessor former US president Donald Trump who sponsored the so-called “Abraham Accords” in September 2020.

The agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, later joined by Morocco and Sudan, and named after the patriarch of the three monotheistic religions made official what had been covert ties between nominal enemies.

Hailed by their signatories as a historic breakthrough, the agreements were aimed at charting a new course in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, setting the stage for fully-fledged partnerships in security, economics, culture, and other realms.

For Israel, it was a major shift in Middle Eastern geopolitics since these states recognised and normalised diplomatic relations with it without its having to compromise on the Palestinian issue and Syria’s Occupied Golan Heights.

However, scepticism about the agreements being groundbreaking has been growing, and many in the Arab world see the normalisation as providing Israel with a rare opportunity to chart a new course and to begin to think of itself as a major player in a new regional order.

Nearly two years after the Abraham Accords, this scepticism has been reinforced as Israel and the US are seeing the dividends of the accords and are rushing to turn them into a model to establish and maintain a new system in the Middle East.

Charged with Biden’s intention to shore up US Middle East responsibilities after his election promises to downsize the US footprint in the region, the US Congress and Israel have been pushing for a joint regional defensive architecture similar to NATO between Israel and its new Arab partners.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the US Congress last month required the Pentagon to present a strategy for integrating the air-defence capabilities of Israel and the Arab states in order to counter ballistic missile and other projectile threats from Iran and its proxies.

Earlier, CENTCOM, the US military command responsible for protecting US security interests in the Middle East, sought to support efforts to knit together air-defence systems between Israel and its new partners in order to share air-defence data to build an overlapping radar picture.

Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, said Israel and several Arab countries had joined a new US-led network that he called the Middle East Air Defence Alliance, or MEAD, aimed at countering Iran.   

Then at the start of this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on secret meetings held in Egypt that saw military officials from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain come together to discuss cooperation on defence.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II rushed to declare his support for the military alliance, which he described as “very unusual for the region.” “I would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO,” he told the US network CNBC in an interview on 24 June.

Choruses of “experts” who work for US think tanks close to Israel have also voiced their support for the formation of an Arab NATO and have begun lobbying to remove obstacles hindering Israel’s role in such arrangements.

Yet, beyond the rhetoric uncertainty remains about the normalisation creating a new world of opportunities for Israel either in terms of official pan-Arab endorsement of the agreements or its being part of the region on people-to-people terms.

So, while Israel and the US have remained assertive about drawing the Arab countries into closer military cooperation, the proposed security umbrella, or so-called Arab NATO, remains questionable.

To underline how the idea is mired in confusion and has hit a set of obstacles, Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which already benefits from military cooperation with the US, remains cautious about any future defence alliance with Israel.

In the Gulf, three countries, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, all of which host US military bases, have showed no interest in joining. Iraq, also invited to Biden’s summit meeting, has just passed a law against normalising ties with Israel.

Even Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel, has refrained from giving public support to the proposal. Its Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, has made clear that establishing a Middle East military alliance will not be raised during any upcoming events, in a reference to the upcoming summit with Biden this month.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi has played down King Abdullah’s statements and told Aljazeera TV that the idea of a joint Arab-Israeli military alliance is not on the table.

What the overall perspective tells us is that the normalisation agreements that were officially greeted with much fanfare do not necessarily reflect Arab priorities, which favour US actions to respond to their security needs rather than to promote risky deals with Israel that make them vulnerable to external and domestic shocks.

The vision of the US allies in the Gulf has been obvious. They want the US to abandon what they view as Washington’s tepid response to Iran and its proxies, which are confronting the region with militancy, ballistic missiles, drone attacks, and a nuclear threat.

For all practical purposes, the Arab states in the Gulf have avoided escalation with Iran, and there are good reasons for them to stay on that course and leave the US and Israel to engage with Iran and its regional proxies, including by acting militarily.    

On the other hand, while these governments’ positions reflect the respective interests of the Arab states, there are notably clear challenges ahead for any such Arab NATO from the Arab publics, which have showed little support for normalisation even in countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel.

Across the Arab world, there are already signs of public resentment at the proposed military pact that many believe is not beneficial and could create a further divide between the Arabs and the Iranians.

Moreover, the plans to forge an Arab NATO of Sunni Muslim countries will likely raise sectarian tensions in the region between Sunnis and Shias who have been increasingly at odds since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that empowered the country’s majority Shia.

Successive US administrations have been aware of the Gulf countries’ strategy to drag them into a war with Iran or trap the US in a permanent standoff with Tehran, seeing this as contradicting US interests in the region.

Even former president Trump, the godfather of the Abraham Accords, made it clear that he did not want to rush into a new conflict on behalf of Saudi Arabia after attacks on Saudi oil installations in 2019.   

Observing multiple aspects of the so-called Arab NATO initiative underlines the emptiness of this supposed regional system, made obvious in the contradictory reactions and confusion it has been generating.

While Israel hopes a security pact with its partners in the Abraham Accords will trigger a domino effect that will make all the Arab states recognise it, key Arab members of the proposed alliance will feel it as a threat to their leadership in the region.

Nevertheless, the void in the current regional order has revealed that the Arab world will remain in need of a new security structure that Israel and the US will endeavour to be members of together with the Arabs.

Even if the proposed Arab NATO remains just a propaganda initiative, Israel and the US will continue to champion other security arrangements with the Arab world as a way of imposing Israel as a regional superpower.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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