Exercises demonstrate Israel’s new military ties
Nov 23, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update discusses some recent joint military exercises that Israel has hosted or participated in, together with a growing number of military partners, including Arab states – as well as some other signs of growing military cooperation between the IDF and other regional militaries. It looks at the implications of these growing military ties for both Israel’s security, and for the region.
We lead with a Wall Street Journal piece from Israeli strategic affairs columnist Seth Frantzman. He argues that Israel is looking increasingly like the central player of a new international security order for the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean in the wake of recent aerial and naval exercises. He even describes this as a new alliance system that stretches from Europe to India, including partnerships that were unthinkable up until very recently between Israel and Arab nations. For all the other details and Frantzman’s complete analysis of its implications, CLICK HERE.
Another Israeli security analyst, Yaakov Lappin, looks in more detail at one of the key forces driving the development of this informal alliance – concern over the radical Sh’ite axis led by Iran. He notes that Israel now sees Iranian proxies on its Lebanon, Syria and Gaza borders – and other Middle East actors see similar growing threats from Iranian proxies, not to mention from Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program. Lappin notes that Israel’s efforts to strike against Iranian assets, especially in Syria, and its close ties with the US, have raised its stock among Sunni Arab powers and created a new willingness to cooperate with Jerusalem. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE. Also exploring the strategic implications for Israel of the unprecedented recent military exercises with new partners is Israeli strategic analyst Eran Lerman.
Finally, on a related note, Ghaith al-Omari and Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy look at a fascinating new example of non-military cooperation between Israel, Jordan and the UAE. The three have just agreed on a deal whereby the UAE will build a solar farm in Jordan and export the power to Israel, while Israel will use that power for a new desalination plant that will provide water to Jordan. This initiative, brokered by the US, will both help address climate change and build on the Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab states, as al-Omari and Henderson explain. For all of their insights into this agreement’s significance, CLICK HERE.
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- AIJAC Research Associate Dr. Ran Porat discusses the differing timelines of Iran and the Biden Administration in the current nuclear talks in the Strategist, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
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- Details about AIJAC’s next webinar with Dr. Jonathan Schanzer on the subject, “Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and eleven days of war” – based on Schanzer’s new book on that conflict – on November 24 at 12:30pm.
Israel is at the Center of a New International Security Order
An alliance that spans from the U.S. through Europe to India is emerging to combat belligerent actors in the Middle East.
By Seth J. Frantzman
Wall Street Journal, Nov. 15, 2021
A landing craft from the US amphibious transport dock ship, the USS Portland. The current US-Israel-UAE-Bahrain naval exercises include at-sea training aboard the Portland to enhance interoperability between participating forces’ maritime interdiction teams. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin Kates)
Jerusalem- Iran couldn’t have been happy to see forces from Bahrain, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. Navy training together for the first time in history. Last week’s five-day drill in the Red Sea was intended to enhance interoperability among the countries, but also sent a strong message to Tehran: There’s now a large, organized bloc of countries opposed to its ambitions of regional hegemony. The bloc’s nexus is Israel.
The Abraham Accords—which Israel, the U.A.E. and Bahrain signed in September 2020—smoothed the way for last week’s joint exercise. Since the Cold War, Israel has been a part of the U.S. European Command’s area of responsibility rather than that of Central Command, which stretches from Egypt to Kazakhstan. Though it makes more geographic sense for Israel to be included in Centcom, doing so would have upset the many countries in that area of responsibility that until recently didn’t recognize Israel. If the Centcom forces trained with Israel, many other regional allies would have refused to conduct joint exercises. The Abraham Accords altered the geopolitical landscape. In January the U.S. announced Israel would become a part of Centcom’s area of responsibility, making it easier for the U.S. to organize joint military drills in Israel.
Last week I spoke with Maj. Shai Shachar, 33, commander in charge of the warfare branch of Israel’s elite counterterror school. He was part of another recent joint training with roughly 500 U.S. Marines. After arriving in early November in Eilat, a southern Israeli city on the Red Sea, the American forces traveled to a place called “little Gaza” in the Negev Desert to train with Israel commandos. They practiced urban battlefield tactics and even underground combat—in which Israelis are experts, having fought Hamas terrorists in Gaza’s cities and tunnels.
For the Israelis who participated, swapping knowledge with U.S. Marines was a unique experience. Mr. Shachar said the American soldiers had a remarkably similar war-fighting methodology and problem-solving approach to Israel’s commandos. He expects to see more training in the future.
Troops from around the world have come to Israel this year to train. Last month, air force units from France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S. flew in the biennial Blue Flag drill over Israel. This year’s exercise included the largest number of countries since it began in 2013. In July Israel hosted American, British and German drone operators. The month before, Israel, the U.K. and the U.S. flew F-35s together as part of the Tri-Lightning exercise. In March, Cyprus and France joined the Israel-led Noble Dina naval drill for the first time off Cyprus’s west coast.
These exercises aren’t only to strengthen each country’s military expertise, but to build a new alliance system that stretches from India to Europe, with Israel as its linchpin. Israel faces daily threats from terrorists, from the fighting in Gaza in May to its frequent airstrikes in Syria against Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah. Military units that practice with Israeli forces gain real combat expertise and signal that Jerusalem has allies increasingly working to confront potential threats in the region. This military diplomacy is knitting together an alliance that connects further-flung countries like India or Germany through regional partners like the U.A.E. and Bahrain or Cyprus and Greece.
Military aircraft from multiple countries fly together in formation during the Blue Flag exercises in Israel in late October (Photo: IDF)
It’s also bridging a variety of foreign-policy controversies. This includes recent spats such as France’s frustration with its exclusion from a new submarine deal signed by Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., as well as Middle Eastern countries’ longstanding diplomatic distance from Israel. Even a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the U.A.E. air chief to visit Israel or Israeli companies to showcase new cooperation and technologies at the Dubai Air Show. The Abraham Accords changed all that.
These new collaborations have many potential uses, from fighting terrorist groups to checking Iran’s attempts at controlling the region. Where belligerent actors once faced a series of isolated countries, they’ll now have to tangle with an organized alliance that is intent on opposing them—even on the battlefield.
Mr. Frantzman is Middle East correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and author of “Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future” (Bombardier 2021).
Allies Step Up Confrontation with Iran as U.S. Looks to Scale Back from the Middle East
by Yaakov Lappin
IPT News, November 14, 2021
The various Iranian proxies operating across the Middle East (Image: Wilson Centre)
In recent months, the United States has sent unmistakable signals that, 20 years after 9/11, the era of its Middle East counter-terrorism mission is drawing to a close.
The August withdrawal from Afghanistan marked the end of an era in which counter-terrorism was the U.S.’s central international focus. It now seems clear that Washington feels that its main global issue is its competition with China.
The new situation is evident to all Middle East actors, and particularly to the two main blocs that are locked in a fateful struggle over the region’s future – Iran’s radical Shi’ite axis and the moderate bloc, which is made up of pragmatic Sunni states and Israel.
With the vast majority of negative developments in the Middle East are linked to Iran, and with Iran building terrorist proxies throughout the region – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip – the need to stop the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from entrenching itself in the region has become top priority for America’s allies.
Israeli defense officials who look at a map today see Iranians on their northern border, compared to 20 years ago, when Iranians were 1,000 kilometers away in Iran. The chief concern regarding the Islamic Republic in 2001 was its nuclear program. Today, it is both the nuclear program and the Iranian terror armies that are being built throughout the region.
Iran is pursuing a long-term strategy of encircling Israel with armed militias, firepower capabilities, and smuggling arms from its powerful defense industries to its proxies. To that end, Iran is managing a broad proliferation network of advanced weapons across several countries.
America’s shifting focus has its Sunni allies – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan – feeling uneasy, leading American officials to reiterate their commitment to their security, as well as to Israel’s security.
The United States also is committed to maintaining a footprint in the Middle East, with small forces in Iraq and Syria. But ultimately, America’s allies, led by Israel and Saudi Arabia, understand that the time has come to take on more regional challenges by themselves, enabling the U.S. to prioritize other areas.
The Iranian axis, for its part, senses what it perceives as growing American weakness, a development underscored by last month’s armed drone attack on the U.S. military base of Al-Tanf in Syria. The radical Shi’ite axis also is confident enough to try to eliminate regional leaders who are U.S. friendly, as the Nov. 7 armed drone assassination attempt on the Iraqi prime minister in Baghdad’s Green Zone starkly demonstrated.
In response to these developments, the region has seen an intensification of grey zone war fighting between Israel and the Iranian radical axis, particularly in Syria, and an intensification of Saudi-led economic and political pressure against the Iran-Hizballah bloc.
Recent weeks have seen stepped up reported Israeli strikes on Iranian weapons smuggling runs in Syria, including three reported strikes in the past two weeks. Some of those attacks occurred in daytime and early evening hours – an unusual occurrence in Israel’s grey zone campaign to rein in Iran’s takeover attempts of Syria. These unusual timings signal apparent urgency in the intelligence information about the movement of advanced weapons by Iran. The daytime attack on Oct. 30 appears to have been aimed to stop the transfer of advanced weapons to Hizballah’s depots in Lebanon.
In recent days, meanwhile, a major diplomatic, political, and economic crisis erupted between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, after Lebanese Minister of Information George Kordahi defended the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, who routinely target Saudi cities and strategic sites with explosive drones and missiles.
Kordahi, a Maronite Lebanese Christian, belongs to the pro-Hizballah March 8 political camp, and so his anti-Saudi comments are no coincidence. Riyadh wasted little time in responding, expelling the Lebanese ambassador and freezing bilateral trade. The Saudis were joined by their Sunni allies Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE, who all expelled Lebanese ambassadors as well, and called on their citizens to depart Lebanon.
According to the Alma Center in Israel, “the economic implication of the trading halt has the potential for an annual loss of Lebanese exports totaling $750 million. And the inability of Lebanese workers in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia alone has about 400,000 Lebanese citizens) to transfer billions of dollars from their salaries to the faltering Lebanese economy, which (to say the least) needs it like breathable air.”
The Sunni countries that have retained their sovereignty in the Middle East are extremely disturbed by Iran’s aggression, and this has led them to cooperate with Israel. A new, moderate regional architecture is taking shape, made up of the Abraham Accord partners who have joined Egypt and Jordan in establishing official ties with Israel.
All of these countries want the same thing: Stability and prosperity in the region. These countries’ anti-Iranian priorities are more important to them than the need to patiently wait for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be resolved before setting up ties with Israel.
Emirati Air Force chief Ibrahim Nasser Muhammed al-Alawi, left, shakes hands with Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin after landing in Israel to observe the IAF’s Blue Flag exercise on October 25, 2021. (Israel Defence Forces)
The historic visit of the commander of the UAE’s Air Force to Israel last month to attend the Israeli Air Force’s international Blue Flag air drill, is evidence of this trend. According to reports, the Royal Jordanian Air Force also took part in Blue Flag.
While the Israel-Sunni bloc is not an explicit military alliance against Iran, its existence is bad news for the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is unhappy to see growing numbers of states joining the anti-Iran bloc.
Khamenei is likely well aware that this cooperation can evolve into trends that could severely disrupt his long-term hegemonic plans. Gulf states could give Israeli aircraft overflight rights, and could purchase Israeli air defense systems like Iron Dome. Joint military training, and additional capability and technology sharing could follow. As time goes by, Israel and the Sunni states increasingly recognize one another’s comparative advantages. They could also cooperate in intercepting Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles, by pooling together radar data, enabling better tracking and interception abilities.
Israel’s entry into the U.S.’s CENTCOM area of responsibility in September could make such cooperation even more effective.
According to a report by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), reassigning Israel to CENTCOM has the potential to lead to regular combined military exercises among the United States, Israel and partner Arab countries. “Such training would be crucial for developing effective theater missile defenses, as well as boosting readiness and interoperability in cyber, counterterrorism, special operations and maritime security, among other key areas.”
Under CENTCOM, Israel “also could work more closely and effectively with U.S. forces in the Middle East and Arab partner militaries, under U.S. auspices, on regional military aspects of strategic planning, command and control, logistical support, intelligence sharing and even procurement,” said the report.
Ultimately, the fact that Israel is the only state consistently militarily targeting Iranian assets in the region has increased the value of its ‘stock’ in the eyes of Sunni powers, and made them more interested in cooperating with Jerusalem.
With the U.S.’s growing focus on the Far East, America’s Middle Eastern allies are increasingly stepping up to the Iranian challenge by themselves.
IPT Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
UAE to Fund Israel and Jordan’s Solar/Water Deal
by Ghaith al-Omari, Simon Henderson
Nov. 18, 2021
The new deal calls for a vast solar panel farm in Jordan, like this one at Wadi Rum, to be financed and built by the UAE, which will supply Israel with electricity, while Jerusalem will give Jordan desalinated water in return. (Photo: Ms. Li, Shutterstock)
The trilateral agreement will combine long-established peace partners with one of the Gulf parties to last year’s Abraham Accords, providing a model for broader normalization efforts.
On November 22, ministers from Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates will reportedly sign a landmark energy-for-water deal in Dubai. Under its reputed terms, a solar power plant will be built in Jordan to provide electricity for an Israeli desalination plant, which will in turn send water to Jordan. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is expected to attend the ceremony.
The agreement will help address Jordan’s pressing need for water while sending more electricity to Israel in a manner consistent with regional climate change concerns. Full details about the project are not yet available, though published reports do raise practical questions. Beyond the practical, however, the deal can facilitate important diplomatic goals and serve as a model for integrating the first generation of Arab peacemakers—Jordan and Egypt—with countries that have joined the Abraham Accords.
Breaking the “Cold Peace” Mold?
Although security relations between Jordan and Israel grew strong following their 1994 peace treaty, relations in the civilian sphere—whether government to government or people to people—remained cold. Economic relations resulted in some bilateral deals, such as the agreement under which Jordan buys Israeli natural gas from the Leviathan offshore field. Yet such deals have typically faced significant political opposition in the kingdom.
Currently, relations are recovering well from their low point under former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Yet even at their best during the 1990s, they remained limited. As a result, the peace treaty has failed to address many common challenges such as climate change, water shortages, and electricity demands. This “cold peace” dynamic is similar to the pattern established after Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty.
By contrast, when the UAE spearheaded the Abraham Accords last year, it seemed to usher in a new approach to Arab-Israel peace agreements. Unencumbered by the history of direct conflict that constrained Jordan and Egypt’s ties with Israel, civilian relations between the UAE and Israel have made great progress in a short period of time, building on their existing record of discreet ties. In 2009, for example, the UAE won the role of hosting the new International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) on condition that it allowed member-state Israel to establish a representative office in the Emirates—this despite the fact that the two countries did not yet formally recognize each other. Today, they have signed agreements in the commercial, tourism, medical, cultural, and other fields.
When last year’s UAE-Israel peace initiative first came to light, it directly affected an issue of broad regional concern: namely, heading off Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Afterward, however, their bilateral initiatives focused largely on bilateral issues. Despite bringing a few other parties into the Abraham Accords, UAE-Israel normalization did not have much impact on Jerusalem’s relations with its immediate Arab neighbors. The new deal with Jordan may represent a step toward changing that pattern.
Water Needs and Energy Deals Both on the Rise
In recent years, climate change and a large Syrian refugee population have worsened Jordan’s chronic water shortages. This year alone, six of the country’s fourteen dam reservoirs have dried up as rainfall dropped to 60 percent of its annual average. Israel transfers 50 million cubic meters of water to the kingdom each year pursuant to their peace treaty, and occasionally sells additional amounts as needed (e.g., an extra 50 million cubic meters this year).
The new solar-for-water announcement comes at a time when several other energy-related initiatives are afoot in the Middle East. On November 11, Syria signed an agreement with Emirati companies to build a solar power station near Damascus. In October, Jordan agreed to provide electricity to Lebanon via Syria. Similarly, Egypt announced in September that it would provide natural gas to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria. These arrangements have more political, economic, and technical complications than the Israel-Jordan-UAE deal, as will be analyzed in a forthcoming Washington Institute study.
The Mujib Dam in the Madaba Governorate of Jordan: Jordan’s sparse water reserves are rapidly drying up in the face of drought and climate change. (Photo: INTREEGUE Photography, Shutterstock).
Details and Challenges
According to unofficial details reported by the Israeli news portal Walla, the deal calls for the Jordanian solar farm to be operational by 2026 and produce 2 percent of Israel’s energy by 2030, suggesting a capacity of 460 megawatts. Israel will apparently pay $180 million per year, to be divided between Jordan and the UAE. It is unclear what Israel will be paid for building the extra desalination capacity and sending more water to Jordan. No details are available regarding supply routes for the electricity or water, but in all likelihood they will be fully integrated into Israel’s existing grids.
Technical details are important because failure to get them right has undermined previous deals and their diplomatic potential. This week, for example, Israeli energy minister Karine Elharrar called for the cancellation of an agreement whereby Emirati oil products would be piped across Israel from the southern port of Eilat to the Mediterranean coast, citing environmental concerns. Similarly, the delays and disagreements that led to the cancellation of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project generated diplomatic tensions between Jordan and Israel.
The new deal furthers two U.S. foreign policy objectives: addressing climate change and strengthening the Abraham Accords. Although the agreement was driven by the parties concerned, U.S. officials—particularly Kerry—played an important role in facilitating its conclusion.
Once implemented, the deal could bolster Jordan’s stability by addressing its severe water shortage and providing help to the cash-strapped government. Israel, the UAE, and the United States all see the kingdom as an ally and are invested in its stability.
The deal also demonstrates additional ways to build on the Abraham Accords. So far, most of the diplomatic activity surrounding the accords has focused on adding new countries or deepening bilateral relations between Israel and its new partners. These efforts should be continued, but the solar/water deal shows how the accords can simultaneously deepen Israel’s relations with the first generation of Arab peacemakers.
With the trilateral deal, the UAE will not only provide all-important financial resources, but also help create a context in which Jordan-Israel relations can proceed in a less-charged political environment. Criticism of Israel is common in the Jordanian media, but commentators tend to be more cautious when discussing a friendly Arab country such as the UAE, arguably Amman’s closest Gulf ally. Abu Dhabi’s role may have a similar effect on the Israeli domestic scene. Although Israel has traditionally been keener than Jordan to develop bilateral civilian ties, signs of politicization have emerged there as well. For example, Netanyahu recently criticized the current government’s decision to sell more water to Amman. Framing the bilateral relationship within the Abraham Accords—which are immensely popular in Israel—can blunt some of that politicization.
Depending on its final details, the new trilateral agreement may highlight how Arab parties to the Abraham Accords can facilitate numerous areas of cooperation in Israeli-Jordanian (and Israeli-Egyptian) relations. Amman, Cairo, and Jerusalem seem ready for such progress, and the Abraham Accords countries are poised to assist in this regard. This dynamic also creates an opportunity for U.S. diplomacy to advance a more cooperative Middle East, as Kerry’s engagement demonstrates.
Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute. Simon Henderson is the Institute’s Baker Fellow and director of its Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy.