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The Cold Arab-Israeli Alliance Against Iran

Israel and the Sunni Arab states inched closer together diplomatically and geopolitically last week when Egypt transferred control of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

It’s not initially obvious why the control of two uninhabited islands moving from one Arab country to another would even affect Israel let alone suggest that Israel’s relations with its neighbors might be improving. The answer lies in the past. These islands have been flashpoints a number of times during the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they won’t be anymore.

They have no value in and of themselves—no resources, no people, no nothing—but look at a map. The two islands bottleneck the Straits of Tiran between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Any ships that want to reach Israel or Jordan from the south have to pass through there, and the passage is only a few miles across. A fit person could swim from one side to the other without too much trouble.

In 1950, during the early days of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Saudis asked the more-powerful Egyptians to take control of these islands because they feared the Israelis might seize them. Just as the Saudis feared, six years later the Israelis took Tiran Island during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and again in 1967 when Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser blockaded the straits and precipitated the Six Day War. The Saudis wouldn’t have been able to hold the Israelis back, but as it turned out, neither could the Egyptians. 

Things have settled down in the meantime. The Egyptians and Saudis aren’t worried about Israel anymore. There’s no point. The Israelis are spectacularly uninterested in another war with Egypt, and they’ve never fought a war with the Saudis. Cairo and Riyadh—like most Arab capitals—are far more worried about Iran, especially now that Washington is letting Tehran come in from the cold as part of the nuclear “deal.”

So Egypt returned control of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

Egypt’s dictator General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has turned out to be a staunch champion of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, not because he loves the Israelis—surely he doesn’t—but because, like all Egyptian Army officers, he’s painfully aware that another war with Israel would be just as stupid and pointless as the previous wars with Israel and that Egypt would get its ass kicked all over again for nothing. And he’s realistic enough to know that the Israelis won’t wake up some random morning and decide to bomb Cairo just for the hell of it.

The transfer of the islands back to the Saudis “relates to us and it does not bother us,” Israeli Knesset member Tzachi Hanegb said. “The Saudis, who are committed to freedom of shipping under international law, will not harm the essence of the agreement between Egypt and us in this regard, and freedom of shipping in Aqaba and Eilat will remain as is.”

The Saudis are congenitally incapable of saying anything friendly about Israel in public—behind closed doors, the Saudis get along with Israel fine—but Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir nevertheless said, “There is an agreement and commitments that Egypt accepted related to these islands, and the kingdom is committed to these.”

He’s referring to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1979, which guarantees passage of Israeli ships through the Straits of Tiran.

By publicly agreeing to respect Israel’s right to this particular international waterway, the Saudis are implicitly agreeing to at least part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty despite the fact that no formal peace treaty exists yet between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

How far those two little islands have come. They started out as pieces on the board in the region-wide Arab-Israeli conflict, and now they symbolize a long overdue thaw. 

Israelis and Arabs may never like each other, but they don’t have to. Look at the Greeks and the Turks. They’ve hated each other’s guts for hundreds of years, they ethnically cleansed each other in 1923 and again on the island of Cyprus in the 1970s, but the Soviet Union was a lightning rod during the Cold War, and they set aside their longstanding hostility and agreed to work with each other within the framework of NATO.

Israel was similarly a kind of lightning rod in the Middle East that unified the Arabs, but today Iran is the lightning rod. The real threat from Iran is uniting most of the Arab states, and it’s triggering a serious rethink about the non-threat from the Jewish state. 

It’s the Iranian government’s greatest diplomatic and propaganda failure. When the revolutionary regime seized power from the Shah in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini attempted to rally the Arab world behind him by singling out the so-called Zionist Entity as a threat to all Muslims. He had his work cut out for him. Hatred of Jews was never as strong a force in Persian culture as it historically has been in Arab culture. For Persians, Arabs—not Jews—were and are the ancient implacable foe. Iran had excellent relations with Israel until 1979 and would still enjoy excellent relations with Israel today if the Khomeinists had not taken over.

The most intractable fault lines in the Middle East are between Sunnis and Shias and between Arabs and Persians, and Iran has both a Persian and a Shia majority. Iran’s rulers can’t easily become the hegemons of an entire region that hates them. Their best bet, perhaps their only bet, was to unite all Muslims—Sunni, Shia, Arab and Persian—against the Jews.

So Khomeini abandoned Iran’s alliance with Israel and threw its support behind terrorist armies like Hamas and Hezbollah.

In The Persian Night, Amir Taheri sums up Khomeini’s pitch to the Arabs this way: “Forget that Iran is Shia, and remember that today it is the only power capable of realizing your most cherished dream, the destruction of Israel. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood promised you it would throw the Jews into the sea in 1948, but failed. Pan-Arab nationalists, led by Nasser, ushered you into one of your biggest defeats in history, enabling Israel to capture Jerusalem. The Baathists under Saddam Hussein promised to ’burn Israel,’ but ended up bringing the American infidels to Baghdad. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian ’patriots’ promised to crush the Jewish state, but turned into collaborators on its payroll. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda never gave two hoots about Palestine, focusing only on spectacular operations in the West to win publicity for themselves. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Hamas did all they could to destroy Israel but lacked the power, like flies attacking an elephant. The only force now willing and able to help realize your dream of a burned Israel and drowning the Jews is the Islamic Republic as created by Khomeini.”

It was a clever plan, but it failed, and its failure is a little more obvious with each passing year. Israel could have been the lighting rod that brought Arabs and Persians, and Sunnis and Shias, together. Instead, the Semitic tribes are slowly inching together. Not warmly—that’s for damn sure—but the Greeks and Turks, along with the Americans and the Saudis, showed the world a long time ago that cold alliances can work almost as effectively.

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