Israel’s unlikely ally versus Iran: the Arabs

Israel has identified unlikely allies in its emerging diplomatic dispute with the new administration in Washington over Iran’s nuclear programme — the Arab states.

“In the past, the Arab leaders would complain about the Americans being too pro-Israel,” says a senior Israeli diplomat in Jerusalem. “The situation in the region has fundamentally shifted.” The two main changes, explains the diplomat, are the apparent willingness of the Obama White House to negotiate with Iran while applying pressure on Israel and the threat that a belligerent Iran poses to many of the Arab states, especially Egypt.

“The new policy in Washington has made things more difficult for the Israeli government,” says the diplomat, “but at the same time, it also poses a challenge to the Arab leadership. They don’t have any excuses any more and are running out of time.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Egypt this week was the best example of this new situation. President Hosni Mubarak has been adept in the past at humiliating visiting Israeli leaders with lengthy delays on the tarmac and wounding remarks at press conferences, but this time he was all smiles.

Iran wasn’t mentioned in the statements to the media but in private the two leaders spoke for 90 minutes (three times the allotted time), mainly on the Iranian issue. “Mubarak is just as worried about Iran as we are,” said a Netanyahu aide.

The concern of the Mubarak regime is slightly different to that of the Israelis. While Israel’s fear of a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential one, Egypt and its Saudi allies do not believe that Tehran would ever use the bomb against a Muslim nation. They are aware, though, that Iranian success in achieving nuclear capability will signal the end of their joint hegemony in the region.

Mr Mubarak sounded a rare warning last December when he told a meeting of his party’s leadership that “the Persians are trying to devour the Arab states”. Last month, when he accused Hizbollah of trying to launch terror attacks on its territory, the meaning was clear: Iran’s chief regional proxy is trying to destabilise the region.

“Egypt has a lot to fear from a powerful Iran,” says Professor Shimon Shamir of Tel-Aviv University, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, “and this obviously creates a common interest with Israel. The Egyptians have already expressed their concerns to the Americans and there is a chance here for Israel and Egypt to coordinate their messages to the White House.”

The Egyptians are not the only ones to voice concern over Washington’s courting of Tehran. “We hope that any dialogue between countries will not come at our expense,” read a statement last week by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that Egyptian and Jordanian officials were preparing an amended version of the Arab League peace initiative which will be more palatable to the Israeli government, as part of an attempt by moderate Arab governments to build an alliance with Israel countering Iranian influence.

Senior representatives of the Obama administration, including Defence Secretary Robert Gates, have visited Arab capitals in recent weeks in an attempt to allay Arab fears.

Meanwhile, Israel has had little comfort. The annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby, Aipac, in Washington last week, is normally a venue for robust speeches of unstinting support for Israel. This year it was another opportunity for senior administration figures, including Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, to reiterate the new position that Israeli concessions to the Palestinians are key to the efforts against Iran.

“In the past, Israel could rely on its allies in the Congress to counter this kind of talk,” said a conference delegate. “It is clear for now that the Obama administration is too powerful for that. Neither does the Jewish leadership have much appetite for taking on the White House.”

Next week, when Mr Netanyahu visits Washington, he will make the usual rounds with congressional and Jewish leaders. But in his crucial Oval Office meeting, he will be relying more than anything else on the support of the Arab leaders.

    Last updated: 5:44pm, May 14 2009