One of the reasons that the Abraham Accords were so well-received is because they represented something beyond individual agreements or specific cases of bilateral ties. They were viewed as the first step of Israel’s real integration into the Middle East, a process that did not happen with the Israel-Egypt or Israel-Jordan peace treaties. Normalization was not only about the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but about the way in which the normalization process with those two states signaled the transformation of covert acceptance of Israel among Sunni states into open acceptance. Despite there being plenty of remaining hurdles to overcome, Israel was finally joining the region in a fuller way.
Having helped to broker the Abraham Accords and having long pushed for Israel to be accepted by its neighbors, the U.S. was and remains enthusiastic about normalization. Aside from wanting to see Israel treated as legitimate by Arab states, the U.S. has its own interest in American partners coordinating and operating in tandem strategically. The theory is that the more that this happens, the less of a security burden that falls directly on the U.S., and the more that the Middle East will be aligned with American goals and priorities. In this vein, the sight of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan meeting this week in the first ever trilateral summit between any of those countries’ leaders is a welcome one for the U.S. That such a meeting can take place, and that it is no longer viewed as particularly extraordinary, is the latest demonstration of just how much Israel is truly integrating into the Middle East rather than being the villa in the jungle that dominated decades of Israeli strategic thinking and the general Israeli mindset.
Yet despite the many reasons for the U.S. to welcome and encourage Israel’s acceptance into the region, the process does not come without tradeoffs. An Israel that is more comfortable and accepted among its Middle Eastern neighbors is also an Israel that will view its interests and positions in similar ways to its neighbors, and that is bound to create friction with the U.S., which operates in a different sphere. This tension is not new and has arisen prominently in the past, particularly with respect to deep differences over Iran policy. But in recent weeks there are signs that the U.S. may increasingly have to grapple with some challenges that arise amidst the benefits of an Israel that is better enmeshed within the Middle East.
Israel’s reluctance to unambiguously join with the U.S. and Europe in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to take part in the sanctions regime is driven primarily by the Israeli government’s fear of Russian retaliation that will limit Israel’s ability to operate in Syria. Yet it is a mistake to view Israel’s strategic reluctance as stemming from the Syria angle alone without considering it in the context of the rest of Israel’s neighbors, who do not have the same concern about air operations in Syria and yet have also assiduously maintained a neutral posture with regard to Russia. There are a variety of reasons for the region-wide ambivalence. Some of it, as Martin Indyk noted in the run-up to the fighting, stems from the growing Russian presence in the region twinned with a conviction on the part of Arab leaders that the U.S. is doing all it can to reduce its own footprint. Some of it stems from anger about American policy on Iran specifically and the charge that the U.S. has abandoned Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others to face Iranian missile and drone attacks on their own without an American response designed to establish deterrence against future Iranian salvos. Some of it stems from specific economic concerns arising out of Russia’s status as an OPEC+ state and the reliance on both Russian and Ukrainian wheat exports. Israel shares some of these concerns as well, and the more that Israel views itself as part of the Sunni status quo bloc, the easier it will be to buck the U.S. in tandem with its new friends.
Tuesday’s trilateral Sharm el-Sheikh meeting provided a good example of the benefits and challenges to the U.S. that have arisen from regional normalization. Seeing Bennett, Sisi, and MBZ together without an American role in convening the gathering is proof itself of normalization’s success, but much of the conversation was undoubtedly devoted to frustrations with U.S. policy and how the three states can move ahead on their own to mitigate what they see as damage arising from American actions. None of the three wants to be pinned down on Russia, none of the three is happy about a U.S. return to the JCPOA that will boost Iran’s conventional capabilities and its ability to challenge the regional order, and none of the three is happy about U.S. pressure regarding their ties to China or American concerns about their domestic policies. It is also noteworthy that the tête-à-tête took place during a period of particularly heightened U.S.-UAE tensions, on the heels of reports that MBZ refused to take President Joe Biden’s phone calls or meet with CENTCOM Commander Frank McKenzie. In short, the U.S. push to institutionalize normalization and create a less fragmented non-Iranian Middle East is making things easier for Washington in some ways, at the same time that it is enabling the creation of a more unified bloc that may drift away from the U.S. in setting a more independent foreign and security policy.
An Israel that views itself as more tied to its own region and less reliant on the U.S. is not in any imminent danger of falling out of the American orbit. If there is one issue that unites nearly all Israeli leaders and thinkers no matter where they fall on the spectrum, it is that maintaining strong relations with the U.S. is the only truly existential priority for Israeli security. But that has never translated into Israel being in lockstep with the U.S. on every issue no matter how often some officials bemoan the loss of a fictitious history of “no daylight,” and the more that Israel looks like the rest of the Middle East, the more Israel will peel away from the U.S. in specific instances. As much as successive administrations have cheered Israel becoming a bigger part of the Middle East, the U.S. needs to be prepared not only to reap the benefits of this process but to navigate the challenges as well.