Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 11, 2016
Israel's 'diplomatic spring' and West Asia's shifting balances

While attention in West Asia has largely been focussed on the spate of suicide bombings in Iraq, Syria and the war against the Islamic State, Israel has gone on a diplomatic blitzkrieg. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently visited Moscow and a number of African countries, while high profile delegations from Egypt as well as from Saudi Arabia visited Israel. Simultaneously, Turkey, under economic duress, has also announced that it would normalise ties with Israel, which had been strained after Israeli coastguards shot dead Turkish citizens on a Gaza-bound flotilla. Israel's regional diplomacy, in particular, has entered a watershed moment, even as the region is seeing some tectonic geopolitical shifts, as some analysts point out, entering a post-American era.

Netanyahu's visit to Moscow in June was his second visit this year. Soon after, he publicly asserted that the US was Israel's closest ally and it could not be replaced by Russia. Israel is carefully recalibrating its policies towards the changing power dynamics in the region where Russia has heralded its return as one of the major power-influencers with its intervention in the Syrian civil war, outreach to countries like Egypt and strong ties with Iran. With 1.5 million of its population having Russian and Soviet origins, Israel has everything to gain by pursuing strong relations with Russia. And, the bilateral ties have increasingly improved since President Vladimir Putin came to office in 2000, with deepening military and defence cooperation.

It was thus not surprising that when Russia militarily intervened in the Syrian civil war last September, in order to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad — Israel's sworn enemy — Israel did not join the United States and other NATO nations in their criticism of Russia's actions. Netanyahu met with President Putin soon after to address Israel's concerns about security, and the two sides set up a mechanism to avoid accidental clashes like the one between Russia and Turkey, and secured guarantees that Russia would rein in Hezbollah from any attacks on Israel.

Furthermore, with its strong nuclear and military ties with Iran, Russia, which has now activated the long pending agreement to provide Iran with S-300 missiles defence  system, can be of great help to Israel to prevent any Iranian aggression. For their part, the Russians, battling the Islamic State and having already undergone an Islamist insurgency on its own territory, are interested in close cooperation with Israel in intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism.

During Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow, these topics, together with the Islamic State threat and the Arab-Israeli conflict, were discussed. Israel also assured that it would not attack Russian jets flying close to Israel’s border with Syria.

Additionally, Russia is also interested in oil and gas developments in the east Mediterranean, and energy cooperation was also on the agenda during the Netanyahu-Putin meeting. Gazprom had negotiated to receive gas from Israel’s Tamar field in 2013, but the deal was never signed. Interfax recently reported that the company still wants to invest in Israel’s Leviathan field. Significantly, Putin also endorsed Israel's reconciliation with Turkey.

The Turkish-Israeli  reconciliation too comes at an opportune moment for both countries. Normally warm ties between them had begun to fray with the ascendancy in Turkey of the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and attempts to isolate Israel for its military operations in Gaza. Matters came to a head in 2010 when Israeli forces raided a Turkish-sponsored flotilla that aimed to reach Gaza contravening an Israeli naval blockade on the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish citizens were killed, leading to the rupturing of the diplomatic ties. Since then, Turkey's demand for a formal apology and financial compensation for the dead has been met by Israel and the lifting of the Gaza blockade was circumvented by a bilateral agreement that both sides signed in June this year. So, while Turkey can send humanitarian aid to Gaza, it will be delivered at the Israeli port of Ashdod and will undergo Israeli screening first. Simultaneously, Turkey committed to drop all criminal charges against Israeli IDF commanders and soldiers and as Prime Minister Netanyahu stated — in a clear allusion to Hamas — "to prevent all terrorist or military activity against Israel from Turkish soil, including collecting funds for these purposes."

Turkey also committed to enable Israel's entry into organisations that it is part of, in the first instance to allow Israel to open an office with NATO.

The rapprochement with Egypt follows a similar trajectory. The first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel and establish full diplomatic ties with it, Egypt had been Israel's strongest regional ally. But, ties suffered drastic setback when the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi came to power and support for Hamas got a fillip. But, under the presidency of Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, who has clamped down heavily on the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in Gaza, the bilateral ties are being reinvigorated. Moreover, Egypt is battling the branch of the Islamic State in the Sinai, also a threat for Israel, and intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation between both sides is vital.

In fact, a few weeks ago, the Islamic State in a video had accused Israel of helping the Egyptian military in its war against them, claiming that Israel was also participating in the strikes against it in Sinai, and threatened to target Israel.

Early in 2016, Egypt sent its ambassador back to Israel and on July 10, in what has been claimed to be a 'landmark visit'. Egypt's foreign minister Sameh Shoukry visited Israel, marking the first such trip in nine years.

Thus the worsening security environment in the Middle East has necessitated that both Egypt and Turkey to mend relations with Israel and enhance strategic cooperation with it. If for Egypt, it is the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State, for Turkey it is blowback through the numerous terror attacks on its soil for its adventurism in the Syrian conflict. The recent failed coup attempt has also sent shockwaves through Erdogan regime, prompting it to seek reconciliation with its neighbours. Turkey's (now ending) confrontation with Russia also called for normalising relations with Israel whose energy resources can help wean Turkey away from its dependency on Russia.

These geopolitical shifts have been strategically significant and beneficial for Israel, which has been quick to seize the opportunities that have presented themselves. While energy cooperation between the three sides are on the cards, it is also believed that Israel is trying to broker negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding a dam the Ethiopians are building.

The diplomatic coup, however, has been Israel’s hosting of a Saudi delegation of academics and business persons, headed by former general Anwar Majed Eshki, on July 22. Though soon after the visit, the Saudi Foreign Ministry clarified that visit did not represent the views of the government in Riyadh, which “has no ties to Eshki and the likes of him.” However, it is common knowledge that such a visit could not have materialised without the tacit knowledge of the regimented Kingdom.

Moreover, Saudis and Israelis have been openly meeting in different parts of the world, including in India last year. General Eshki and Dore Gold, veteran Israeli diplomat and director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had met in Jerusalem and in Washington DC also.  Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud has also in recent years openly met with retired Israeli generals Yaakov Amidror and Amos Yadlin, and written an article in the Israeli broadsheet Haaretz.

Michael Melchior, a former Israeli minister, who was part of the Israeli group that met with the visiting Saudi delegation recently, said that Israelis could be able to visit the Gulf state “much sooner than you dream about." So what does this mean for the region?

The Iran nuclear deal with the P5+1 earlier this year and the Obama  administration's reluctance to intervene in the Syrian civil war has created the perception that the US has abdicated its responsibility to stand by its Sunni allies in the region as well as by Israel, which fear Iran's growing clout in the region. On the other hand, Iran's funds that will be unfrozen with the lifting of the sanctions and Iran's entry and integration in the world energy market threaten to decisively swing the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of the Shiite power.

Moreover, Russia has decisively stood by the Iranian backed Assad regime in Syria, recognises Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah as a legitimate political player in Lebanon, and also renewed economic and defence cooperation with Iran. The Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt face a common adversary with Israel and Iran, while the Islamic State threatens all of them. A regional security alliance is thus only a matter of course.

As Melchior noted, while the Saudi-Israeli meeting last month prompted condemnation from Iran and its Lebanon-based protege Hezbollah, “the Sunni Arab world has neither condemned nor supported it.”

Israeli commentators speak of Israel going into a 'pre-emptive mode' with regards to Iran, without spelling out any details. But, Israel's ongoing strategic convergence with Russia can help pre-empt any attack by one on the other.

Analysts have, however, warned that the growing Israel-Arab ties would also mean reinvigorated negotiations with the Palestinians. As the recent Arab League conference proved, the Palestine issue was not the priority. But the words of General Eshki himself are instructive: "The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not the source of terrorism, but it does create fertile ground for acts of terrorism in the region. If the conflict is resolved, the countries that exploit the Palestinian issue, namely Iran, will no longer be able to capitalise on it."

Even if it is only for reason of not ceding space to Iran, the Arab world will not allow the Palestinian issue to fall off the list while dealing with Israel. After all, both the Saudi delegation and Sameh Shoukri met with the Palestinian Authority too. While the Saudis are trying to push ahead with their 2002 peace initiative, Egypt is trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to talks under its auspices. Turkey will continue to send humanitarian aid and assist Gaza. Qatar, another Gulf state with which Israel has been clandestinely cultivating ties, is making payments to Hamas officials, clearly a step approved by Israel. And Russia, during Netanyahu's June visit, reiterated its commitment to a two-state solution. According to reports, a regional peace broker is more acceptable to Israel than an EU one or any clause imposed by the Security Council. Both the Saudis and Netanyahu have hinted that they are amenable to revisiting the provisions of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. And in a tumultuous region, this opens up a window of opportunity for the resolution of at least one conflict.

The author is an independent journalist, researcher, and translator, specialising in West and Central Asia, and gender. She writes for the Indian and international media, and has translated literary and archival works from Russian to English.

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