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Why do Israeli leaders fear a political vacuum in the region?

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem on 2 January 2022 [EMIL SALMAN/POOL/AFP/Getty Images]
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem on 2 January 2022 [EMIL SALMAN/POOL/AFP/Getty Images]

During his speech at the annual Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned against the vacuum that the US looks like leaving in the region. "We must act within existing circumstances," he said, "not in a world that we wished existed." He suggested, however, that, "The US presence in the region can be filled, God forbid, by the forces of terrorism and hatred or, with the right steps, it can be filled by Israel."

Bennett addressed the relationship between Israel and the US. "Washington has its own set of interests, which we must honestly admit do not always overlap with ours," he told conference participants at Tel Aviv University. "We are speaking honestly and understand one another. Its interest in the region is dwindling. The United States is currently focused on the Russian-Ukrainian border, and it is in a strategic conflict with China."

The Israeli politician's remarks intensified the fears revealed by the INSS annual strategic survey, which noted, "The aid that Washington can give Israel is challenged by internal US polarisation, even as America's focus of attention is directed at its internal problems and the struggle with China, at the expense of its engagement with the Middle East."

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According to the survey published on 24 January, the international environment has made the US administration "less prepared to pay attention to the interests and concerns of Israel, whether regarding Iran or in the Palestinian context. In addition, the United States is less willing to invest in extending and intensifying the normalisation agreements between Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries." These fears make the matter of filling Bennett's "vacuum" very difficult without direct American support.

The Israeli assessments and warnings of the continued change in Washington's political priorities has been met with practical implementation on the ground. Qatar's Foreign Minister, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, this week ruled out his country normalising relations with Israel, and joining the Abraham Accords.

He made his comments during the International Security Forum held in Doha, a day after US President Joe Biden met with Qatar's Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani in Washington. Despite the enthusiasm expressed by Biden to develop the relationship with Qatar — he wants to declare it formally to be the main US ally outside NATO — he was not met with the same enthusiastic response over making normalisation between Israel and Qatar one of his administration's priorities.

US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, United States on 21 January 2022 [Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency]

US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, United States on 21 January 2022 [Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency]

The Biden administration showed great pragmatism by refraining from putting pressure on Doha to join the Abraham Accords, which surpasses that of the Arab countries that normalised with Israel in 2020 and last year. Forcing Qatar to normalise will hinder its ability to manoeuvre between competing regional and international forces. This is something that the US does not want to stop Doha doing, as it increases its effectiveness as a non-NATO ally. This is a matter that Israel and its research centres are unable to address or find a solution for, as it embodies the Israeli dilemma and the rift between the international system and the regional systems stemming from it.

READ: Bennett is sending clear messages to the Palestinians

The pessimism expressed by Israeli research centres and leaders regarding the limited effectiveness of the normalisation agreements, as well as the lack of sufficient US enthusiasm to support them, was noticeable on the sidelines of the meeting between Biden and Emir Tamim. It was also apparent at the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, which went as far as talking about the possibility of holding direct talks between Tehran and Washington.

The Israeli leadership tried to reduce the intensity of this dilemma by announcing the signing of more understandings with the Arab Gulf countries. The most recent of these was the security cooperation agreement signed by Defence Minister Benny Gantz in Bahrain on Wednesday, as well as the activation of Israel's role with US Central Command. Gantz's visit to the command headquarters and the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain was a means to establish a reality that the Israeli leaders fear will turn into something which, in practice, has no value on the ground.

Gantz dedicated his visit to Manama to establishing the illusion of pairing the theory with reality. He participated in the INSS conference through a pre-recorded message in which he focused on the Iranian threat. At the same time, though, he revealed in the Bahraini capital that the Israeli occupation forces have carried out a simulated attack on Iran in the presence of an American officer for the first time.

The Israeli minister showcased his ability to shuffle the cards in the regional pack through radical measures to divert Washington's attention eastwards, and get the US back in Europe after almost drowning in Asia and the Pacific. He is unlikely to gain much American support, as Washington is aware that there are regional forces and a political reality in Palestine that will be difficult to overcome just by signing more normalisation agreements.

Israeli concerns about the decline of US support and interest in the Arab world are not imagined. They have prompted Israel and its leaders to work at full speed to try to direct America's attention back to the region. Bennett's vacuum needs to be filled, and Israel is afraid that it will be unable to do it by itself.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 3 February 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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