What happened? The IDF Chief of Staff attended a summit with his regional counterparts to discuss military cooperation, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
- The talks were held in March at Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt and included participants from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan. In what was the first time such high-ranking officials of these countries met under US military auspices, they reportedly discussed coordination against Iran’s missile and drone threat.
- Israel has no formal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
- According to sources familiar with the talks, the security officials agreed in principle on ways for fast notification of aerial threats, with alerts passed by phone or computer rather than through a US-style military data-sharing system.
- The meeting took place following a secret working group of lower-level representatives who sought to identify ways the countries in the region could work together to detect and counter air threats.
- The US Central Command did not confirm the summit but noted that it “maintains a firm commitment to increasing regional cooperation and developing integrated air and missile defence architecture to protect our force and our regional partners,” adding that Iran “is the primary destabilising factor across the Middle East”.
- In related news, the IDF is due to soon assign a permanent liaison officer from the Navy to the US Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
Context: The summit comes against the backdrop of: better ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours following the Abraham Accords; the desire by many Arab states to access advanced Israeli technology; the decision to include Israel in US Central Command; and the mutual fear of Iran.
- Iran has been behind scores of drone attacks on oil facilities and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The most serious was an attack on a Saudi Aramco compound in September 2019.
- Last week, Defence Minister Benny Gantz said the “Middle East Air Defence Alliance” was already operational. “Over the past year I have been leading an extensive program, together with my partners at the Pentagon and in the US administration, that will strengthen the cooperation between Israel and countries in the region. This programme is already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.”
- Gantz also explained that one component of the US’ strategy to strengthen IDF cooperation with other regional states includes air force cooperation “against Iranian attempts to harm countries in the region with rockets, cruise missiles, and drones”.
- The concept of building regional architecture to help thwart Iran has been central to the Bennett-Lapid government. In late March, following a meeting of Foreign Ministers of Egypt, the UAE, Morocco and Israel in the Negev, Lapid talked up “a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation”. “This new architecture” he said, “the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies – first and foremost Iran and its proxies”. Also in March, Bennett explained that “the Middle East is changing and it’s changing for the better” with Israel “cultivating old ties and building new bridges”.
Looking ahead: The summit constitutes another milestone in warming Israeli-Saudi ties. In July, during his visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, President Biden is expected to announce a further step.
- This reportedly includes a deal in which Saudi Arabia agrees to allow Israeli flights over its territory (currently only flights between Tel Aviv and the UAE and Bahrain are allowed) and Israel gives give its blessing to the transfer of the long-claimed Tiran and Sanafir islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.
- Today directors-general from the foreign ministries of Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, the US, the UAE, Egypt and Morocco will attend the first meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee. The working groups will deal with regional security, food and water security, energy, health, education and tolerance and tourism. Each of the six countries will head a working group, which will meet two or three times a year.