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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The countries of the region do not need an additional military presence if the goal is merely to project deterrence, experts say.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz steps off a helicopter during a tour of the Gaza border area, in southern Israel March 2, 2021. (Reuters)
JERUSALEM - Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Tuesday that he intends to develop a “special security arrangement” with Gulf Arab states that have relations with Israel and share common concerns over Iran.
However, ambiguity surrounds the Israeli initiative, amid questions related to its significance. Analysts wonder if the talk will lead to actual security arrangements allowing Israel to use Gulf bases as a launchpad to direct strikes at Iranian sites, or if instead it will be constitute only a loose front for an Israeli deterrence policy based on limited strikes as it is the case now in Syria.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain established formal relations with Israel last year.
As part of their US-backed rapprochement, Israel and the UAE have proposed defence and military cooperation.
On a visit to an Israel-Gaza border crossing, Defence Minister Benny Gantz played down a report by public radio Kan that Israel was considering a defence agreement with Gulf Arab countries, but said security ties would be pursued.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a defence pact but we are going to develop defence relations with every country that we have relations with,” Gantz told Reuters.
“We have this process of setting up (a) special security arrangement, and within this arrangement we can continue and develop our relations,” he said.
Gantz declined to go into details on what such an arrangement would entail.
Defence experts believe that the Gulf countries do not need ineffective “security arrangements” that only carry propaganda value over normalisation with the Gulf countries.
They point out that the countries of the region do not need an additional military presence if the aim is to issue warnings or deterrence threats to Iran, as these countries have their own air force capabilities that could play the same role, in addition to the presence of American forces stationed in different bases in the Gulf, which have been in watch-and-wait mode without striking at Iran.
The experts point out that the stationing of foreign forces in the Gulf no longer exerts pressure on Iran, which now uses this presence as an incentive to develop its own weapons and parade ballistic missiles and drones. Without direct strategic benefit, the bases will be felt as a burden by countries of the region.
“Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain discussed the issue of expanding cooperation to confront common enemies,” an informed Israeli official said on Monday.
The source added that the matter is under “informal discussion.”
He added that the UAE and Bahrain are allies of the United States.
All three allies, who believe that a nuclear Iran would be a major threat, have been wary of US President Joe Biden’s plan to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
Statements about facing up to the common Iranian threat put back on the table the idea of forging an Arab-Israeli military alliance in the face of Iran, especially after the United States gave up in recent years its role of standing up to Iranian expansionism.
This alliance could receive a strong boost as a result of US pressure on Saudi Arabia and the attempt to prevent it from playing its role as a regional power that aims to confront Iranian threats. The US stance was illustrated by the decision to stop selling offensive weapons to Riyadh. The US decision may push the Saudis to abandon their reservations about establishing direct relations with Israel.
Ron Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, has previously called in an article published in Saudi newspaper Arab News, to accelerate the building of “NATO in the Middle East”.
Lauder said that the Arab countries with which I have had contacts consider Israel the only reliable ally against Iran, and vice versa.
“Facing the accelerating threat of a malevolent Iran …, Israelis and Arabs should seize the opportunity to work together to save the Middle East from the looming catastrophe of extremism and nuclearization,” he wrote.
But observers warn against rash conclusions, as Israel may be aiming less for an actual confrontation with Tehran than using the Iranian threat as a scarecrow to obtain regional recognition and break the psychological barriers that still hinder full normalisation.
They point out that Israel and Iran, despite their obvious hostility to each other, keep their possible confrontation within the limits of a few sites in a way that avoids a full showdown.
Observers point out the example of the blast on the Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman, where Israel, according to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, limited itself to making accusations against Iran without directly retaliating, just as Iran has reacted against Israeli attacks by hinting at revenge but not following through. Iran acted in a similar way after Israel carried out raids in Syria against Iranian sites or operations that targeted scientists involved in Iran’s nuclear programme.
Asked if Israel would retaliate, he said: “You know my policy. Iran is Israel’s biggest enemy. I am determined to fend it off. We are striking at it all over the region.”
The attack on the ship was, according to observers, an extension of messages that are exchanged between the two countries: You strike in Iraq and Syria, we strike in the Gulf.
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