In 1996, Turkey signed the Military Training Cooperation Agreement with Israel — something that raised eyebrows in the Arab world. Despite Turkish officials’ remarks that the agreement was not against a third party, it caused a great disturbance in Arab public opinion and got harsh reactions from Arab states.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria issued a joint statement expressing their concern and demanding that Turkey reconsider the agreement. For some in the Arab world, the agreement was viewed as Turkey’s second betrayal against Arabs in 50 years — with the first being Turkey’s recognition of Israel in 1949.
Today, those Arab countries and others in the region no longer consider Israel as an enemy and even seek ways to cooperate with it against regional threats. In international politics there are no permanent enmities or alliances, only permanent interests. The Middle East has proven this several times; yesterday’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Changing geopolitics and realities in the region have pushed countries to keep aside ideological differences, for the sake of national interests and stability in the region. This is so in the case of “informal cooperation” between Israel and some Arab countries.
Egypt and Jordan already have longstanding peace treaties with Israel. In 2015, it was announced that Israel was opening its first diplomatic mission in the UAE. Although there are not formal diplomatic relations with Israel, there are business ties between Israel and some Gulf countries, as well as talks behind closed doors. This has almost become a necessity as intelligence and security became crucial, and above ideological or political stances.
Changing geopolitics and realities in the region have pushed countries to keep aside ideological differences, for the sake of national interests and stability in the region.
The same year, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal and Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke at a joint public event in Washington. Also, an op-ed by Prince Turki was published in a major Israeli newspaper calling for peace between Israel and the Gulf countries. Additionally, the Gulf countries reportedly inked deals with Israeli defense contractors in order to access to Israel Defense Forces military technology.
This would all be unthinkable a decade ago. However, the geopolitical circumstances, including Iran’s regional expansion, the Syrian war and the rise of several transnational non-state groups, such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda, have pushed Gulf countries to consider Israel an unlikely ally with whom they have a common enemy: Iran. ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ could be one of the best phrases to describe this partnership.
Interestingly, Gulf countries’ desire to cooperate with Israel on regional security issues coincided with tensions in Turkish-Israeli relations at that time. For Turkey, what does Gulf-Israeli “informal cooperation” mean? Ankara, which earlier restored ties with Israel, enjoys close military and political relations with the Gulf. Turkey’s position is based on geopolitics and pragmatism in relations with both sides, and any step for regional stability is considered a plus by Ankara.
The stance of the Donald Trump administration toward Iran is another factor. President Trump, who seeks strong relations with all the countries in the Middle East with the exception of Iran, reportedly called for a regional alliance like NATO, between Arab nations and Israel against Iran and terrorist organizations. The proposed alliance would focus on sharing intelligence regularly and allowing Israeli defense companies to do business in the Arab world.
Needless to say, today the most important reason behind Arab cooperation with Israel is intelligence-gathering, something the Israelis are quite successful at.
However, at a time of high uncertainty in the region, talks about an alliance are not more than words. It would be a tough task to turn such a tacit relationship between Arab countries and Israel into permanent cooperation and a real alliance.
Also, regional countries already have structures such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League, which themselves sometimes struggle to find common ground on several key regional issues. Therefore, the crucial point here is not whether such an alliance could be formed, but over the change of heart in the Gulf and Arab countries toward Israel.
But despite the change of heart in Arab politics toward Israel, for decades Arab public opinion was fed with rejection of Israel — sometimes mixed with outright anti-Semitism. It is not as easy to change longstanding domestic public attitudes, as it is to change a political stance.
So it is still too early to expect Arab countries to align their policies with Israel publicly in defiance of popular sentiment, not to mention any aim of a NATO-type alliance. Moreover, for such an alliance, diplomatic relations would first need to be established; considering public opinion, Gulf countries are unlikely to recognize Israel’s right to exist anytime soon.
However, it seems the “unlikely partnership” between Israel and the Gulf will continue for the foreseeable future — as long as it fits the strategic and national interests of both sides.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.