There is broad agreement in Israel about the fact that Iran has captured the top spot on the list of the Jewish State’s bitterest enemies over the past decade. Israel views the “Iranian threat” as the sole existential threat to the country’s future. Iran is Israel’s last remaining significant strategic threat in all security-related respects. The Iranian nuclear program is considered a direct strategic threat, and Iran’s expansion throughout the Middle East and the Shiite axis it heads from the Persian Gulf in the south to the Syrian port of Latakia in the north are regarded as a significant conventional threat. To top it all off, Iran is also the main purveyor of state-sponsored terrorism against Israel and the prime funder of the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah movements, all committed to Israel’s annihilation. Whereas Iran describes Israel as “little Satan,” for Israel, Iran is undoubtedly “big Satan.”
By the same token, one can describe Iran as one of Israel’s most significant strategic assets at this time. This is no exaggeration, but a fact. Recent months have seen the unveiling of a growing number of clandestine contacts Israel is conducting with Arab and Muslim states in the region and the world with which it does not have diplomatic ties. The budding romance between Israel and several Sunni states is also turning slowly into an up-front relationship. This is all being enabled “thanks” to Iran. The Shiite threat and Iranian expansion westward are of great concern to a large number of regional leaders. Israel is being sucked into the center of this arena as the only response to the primeval fear of a reconstituted Persian Empire and the growing Shiite influence on the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the energetic help of Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen and national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, is effectively leveraging the emerging situation to fortify Israel’s standing as a bastion of regional defense and a magnet for all those who fear Iran.
The president of Chad, Idriss Deby, made a surprise visit to Israel on Nov. 25, at the end of which Netanyahu announced that he would soon pay a reciprocal visit to that Muslim African state during which the two would announce the renewal of the diplomatic relations Chad ruptured 46 years ago. At the same time, Channel 10 news reported that a special emissary of Israel’s Foreign Ministry met in Turkey last year with senior Sudanese officials to discuss the possibility of advancing bilateral contacts. The meeting came against a backdrop of intensive contacts between Israeli officials and some Persian Gulf states, among them Bahrain, regarding an upgrading of their secret ties with the Jewish State. On Oct. 26, Netanyahu paid a historic visit to Oman as the personal guest of its ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The tip of the diplomatic iceberg between Israel and Saudi Arabia was also revealed recently, with Netanyahu playing principle advocate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over his alleged role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. All of the above is still only an iota of the actual events that have turned Israel into a vital port of call for any ruler seeking survival in the chaotic environment of the Middle East.
As previously mentioned, none of these developments could have occurred without the growing Iranian presence throughout the Middle East. Israel is perceived as the only true response to the Iranian threat and the only one truly able to confront it. The Gulf States, including the Saudis, find it hard to trust President Donald Trump; he himself told The Washington Post on Nov. 28 that the United States maintains its presence in the Middle East to defend Israeli interests.
In addition, Israel has cleverly leveraged its defense capabilities. It has used its varied defense technologies, especially its well-developed cyber capacities, to lure states in the region seeking access to these “treasures.” An intermediary who sought his help in buying offensive cyber technology for Saudi Arabia reportedly contacted former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2015. Many Israeli cyber firms have signed hefty contracts in countries with which Israel has no diplomatic ties that are preparing and arming themselves against the danger from Iran. “I have no idea where we would be in this respect today were it not for the Iranian threat,” a senior Israeli defense official tells Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Thanks to them [the Iranians], Israel has not been the regional pariah for a very long time, but rather the state whose closeness and favors everyone seeks.”
This is a dramatic change, an ongoing strategic process of recent years that shows no signs of abating. On the contrary, it appears to be strengthening. This process also has a very important side effect for Netanyahu: Whereas in the past, a threshold condition for any Arab or Muslim state to conduct ties (even clandestine ones) with Israel was progress on an agreement with the Palestinians, nowadays this is almost a moot issue. “The Palestinians are no longer of interest to the Arabs,” a former top Israeli diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Once it was the first question at every secret meeting. Today, they pose the question to be polite, at the end of the meeting.” Israel is no longer being forced to promise progress on the Palestinian issue and not even to discuss the prospects of negotiations with the Palestinians. Instead of making these demands, Israel’s Arab interlocutors are asking Israel to maintain a low profile. Keep quiet, they urge the Israelis, so that the Palestinian issue does not re-emerge on the agenda.
In other words, Arabs and Muslims in the region are content to maintain the Israeli-Palestinian status quo in order to continue advancing their ties with Israel, both the open ones and those behind the scenes. This is perhaps one of the reasons that made Netanyahu opt to end the latest crisis with Hamas without being drawn into a full-scale war in Gaza, to swallow his pride and help Qatar fund Hamas despite its terror activity against Israel. All he wanted was to douse the flames on the southern front.
Given this state of play, Iran has become a type of strategic Israeli asset in recent years. The question of whether it is more of a burden than an asset does not have a clear answer for now. President Trump adopted in full the Israeli approach vis-a-vis Iran, taking a hard-line position on the Shiite state, while Israel continues to exploit the situation to its advantage. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the current situation can be frozen in place forever. Iran can keep being a “threshold” nuclear state threatening the region while Israel joyfully reaps the fruit.