An Uneasy Arab-Israeli Alliance – The New York Times

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By Equipo
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To understand the current confrontation between Iran and Israel, it helps to think about three recent phases of Middle East geopolitics.

Phase 1: Before Oct. 7 of last year, Iran was arguably the most isolated power in the region. The Biden administration was growing closer to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s biggest rival for power. Israel, Iran’s longtime enemy, had signed a diplomatic deal during the Trump administration with Bahrain, Morocco and the U.A.E. Iran, for its part, was financing a network of extremist groups such as Hamas and the Houthis.

Together, these developments pointed to the emergence of a broad alliance — among Arab countries, Israel, the U.S. and Western Europe — to check Iranian influence and aggression.

Phase 2: Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel scrambled the situation. Israel’s massive military response focused global attention on the plight of Palestinians — a subject that tends to isolate Israel. Arab leaders condemned Israel, while the U.S. and other countries pressured Israeli leaders to reduce suffering in Gaza and devise an end to the war.

The anti-Iran coalition seemed to be fraying.

Phase 3: The latest phase began last week, as Iran prepared to fire missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for Israel’s April 1 assassination of Iranian military commanders who work with groups like Hamas. This retaliation would become Iran’s first direct attack on Israel. And the anti-Iran coalition reassembled to repel it.

U.S. officials worked closely with Israel to intercept the missiles, as my colleague Peter Baker reported. British and French forces participated, too. Arab countries shared intelligence. Jordan went so far as to shoot down some drones itself. When President Biden commented on the attack’s failure, he did so while sitting next to the prime minister of Iraq, which is home to a missile battery the U.S. had used during the operation.

Even though Iran fired more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel, the joint response enabled Israel to avoid a single civilian death. John Kirby, a Biden aide, summarized the result as being “a stronger Israel, a weaker Iran, a more unified alliance.”

A new phase now?

The question now is how Israel will respond to Iran. Israeli officials have said they must do so to exact a price that will deter future Iranian attacks.

From Israel’s perspective, Iran is already the aggressor: Its official policy is to seek the destruction of Israel, and Iran-backed groups — like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis — regularly attack Israelis. Israel has responded with covert assassinations of Iranian officials who lead this effort, such as the April 1 strike in Syria. After any future assassination, Israel does not want to face a new Iranian missile barrage.

Some analysts believe that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, also has a political incentive to prolong the conflict with Iran. That fight, Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland told The Times, serves Netanyahu’s interests as both “a distraction from the horrors of Gaza and as a way of changing the subject to an issue where he is more likely to get sympathy in the U.S. and the West.”

But a major response from Israel — one, say, that killed many Iranians — has the potential to destabilize the broad anti-Iran coalition, much as the war in Gaza has. “The point is to respond smartly, in a way that won’t undermine the opportunity for regional and international cooperation,” Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told The Wall Street Journal.

Among the options Israel is considering: a cyberattack, targeted assassinations or a strike on an Iranian military base in another country. The Biden administration hopes that any attack will contribute to Iran’s isolation rather than Israel’s.

The threat to Arab leaders

And why are Arab leaders willing to be part of a coalition with Israel? As surprising as it may sound, many see Iran as a bigger problem than Israel, even if they don’t say so publicly. The network of extremist groups that Iran funds and arms destabilizes the region. The Houthis have attacked Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. in recent years, for instance. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt’s government has long loathed.

When Arab leaders worry about existential threats to their governments, Israel rarely makes the list. Iran and its network of outside groups do. “Many Arab leaders share the view that Hamas is a terrorist organization that should be destroyed,” said my colleague Michael Crowley, who covers diplomacy.

This shared view helps explain why the anti-Iran coalition came together in the first place. But it is a fragile coalition. Arab countries and Israel do not make for easy allies. When Israel is at war — in Gaza or elsewhere in the region — the alliance can come undone.

Related: This is the third recent newsletter on shifting global coalitions, which I think are crucial to understanding the news right now. You can also read about Iran’s “axis of resistance” and the emerging China-led alliance that includes Iran and Russia.

For more

  • Israel expected a small-scale response from Iran after the strike on the Iranian embassy complex in Syria, but it badly miscalculated, U.S. officials said.

  • Tehran has evacuated personnel from sites in Syria in preparation for Israeli retaliatory strikes, Iranian officials told The Wall Street Journal.

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