Growing defense cooperation between Israel and Persian Gulf states is one of the few promising security developments in the troubled Middle East. In his testimony this week, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla, appointed to head US Central Command, mentioned the integration of cyber defense and missile defense, in particular, as areas where he could to concentrate.
There is strong support in Congress for bringing Israel deeper into the region’s security architecture. Almost every member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who asked Kurilla a question about Israel and Iran’s threats supported a move in that direction.
The question in the future is not whether, but how. Kurilla noted that different Gulf states have different capabilities and priorities and he would visit each country before deciding on a way forward. What he did not say is that these countries are divided and distrustful of each other, and that Israel’s military role in the region remains complicated and perilous. There will be many opportunities, but also pitfalls.
The potential for open engagement between the Gulf States and Israel promises to bring Tel Aviv to pursue its own security, not to mention its extraordinary reach and capabilities, in closer alignment with governments in the region that are making facing similar threats from Iran and its proxies. There will be opportunities to gradually deepen defense cooperation and interoperability across a range of sectors.
Decades of political isolation in the region and imminent, existential threats from neighboring militaries have led Israel to act unilaterally as a matter of course. Nevertheless, Israeli operations against Iranian arms proliferation and militia networks, as well as chemical and nuclear weapons sites in Iraq and Syria, have benefited regional governments, especially vulnerable Persian Gulf states.
The Israel Defense Forces are among the most capable and professional armies in the world, especially in areas such as air power, precision strikes, intelligence and special activities. Other regional armies tend to underperform, despite substantial material investments and state-of-the-art equipment.
Israel has also shown unparalleled political will to confront Iran. Israeli forces have taken the lead in direct action against Iran’s destabilizing activities, particularly its arms smuggling and militia-building operations in Syria. Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against arms depots and arms convoys linked to Iran and Hezbollah. These strikes did not result in any significant retaliation or escalation from Iran.
The US military, including naval forces in the Persian Gulf, can cooperate openly with Israeli forces with less risk to relations with regional partners. US forces could for the first time involve Israel in multilateral exercises and planning efforts, subject to the political sensitivities of individual partners. It will be complicated, and sometimes difficult, to make this work; nothing in the Middle East is ever easy.
Lifting political taboos against cooperation with Israel will open the door to interoperability and even outright integration with the advanced armies of the Persian Gulf, particularly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but also in Saudi Arabia, maybe at some point. Many of Israel’s most advanced capabilities are American-made, the main one being the F-35, as well as much of the Gulf states’ weapons inventory. The UAE could eventually buy the F-35, despite recent setbacks. This would open up many possibilities for improving interoperability with Israel.
Gulf states can now consider buying Israeli air defense platforms and other systems, which was inconceivable just a few years ago. Missile defense cooperation could greatly improve the security of the Persian Gulf, given the huge gaps in this sector. Unlike US-made platforms, Israel’s Iron Dome and David’s Sling air defense systems were designed to counter the short-range missiles, rockets and drones plaguing the region.
Israeli air defense systems are said to be more cost effective and can therefore be purchased in larger quantities by wealthy Persian Gulf states facing an increasing amount of missile and UAV threats from multiple trajectories. Gulf states that operate Israeli systems could one day share data with Israeli forces, and vice versa, contributing to a more integrated and resilient air defense architecture.
Iran may start to hold the Gulf States responsible for Israel’s aggressive military actions and intelligence operations, now that there is open cooperation or even the perception of such cooperation in the minds of Iranian leaders . Tehran could retaliate against countries like the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain to force them to limit their cooperation with Tel Aviv, or simply because the Gulf countries are easy targets compared to Israel.
Either way, governments in the region that choose to recognize Israel or simply cooperate behind the scenes may find themselves assuming the risk of Israeli activities from which they have long benefited for free.
Involving Israel in multilateral exercises and other forums could prove controversial with countries that have yet to recognize Israel diplomatically, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Israel’s participation could create divisions or lead some countries to refuse support or behave more cautiously. Iran would likely react with extreme prejudice to the idea of Israel operating in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, which would complicate multilateral exercises and joint operations.
American interlocutors will need to anticipate these sensitivities – for example, which countries in the region may be reluctant to discuss Israel’s role openly, or not at all – and be prepared to discreetly advise Israeli officials to sit on the sidelines or keep their secret involvement.
Israel is a small country that faces huge security threats. It has limited capacity for cooperative efforts and little room for compromise when it comes to unilateral operations against imminent threats from Iran and other actors.
Too much cheerleading and too little realism could lead to disappointment and misunderstanding that inhibits further cooperation. Governments in the region, for example, could interpret continued Israeli unilateralism as a cavalier disregard for regional security, or even as a cynical ploy to drag the Gulf states into war with Iran. US policymakers should allow Israel’s gradual integration into regional security arrangements, but avoid overemphasizing these developments.
The benefits of regional cooperation with Israel far outweigh the risks, many of which seem manageable. Yet tensions will persist and views on regional security will diverge in various ways, limiting cooperation and creating new risks. US officials should take it easy and follow a measured and pragmatic approach to Israel’s involvement in the region that does not fall victim to unrealistic expectations.
Jerry Meyerle is a senior defense analyst at CNA, a nonprofit research institute. He served as an embedded advisor in U.S. Central Command, with U.S. Marines and Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, and with the USS Carl Vinson Aircraft Carrier Carrier Strike Group in the Gulf. Persian. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of CNA or the Department of Defense.