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Nuclear Iran: How Netanyahu became an advocate for the Arab world

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses US Congress on March 3, 2015
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses US Congress on March 3, 2015 AFP

When Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the US Congress on Tuesday and denounced President Barack Obama's efforts to broker a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, the spectacle – on the surface at least – raised an unlikely paradox.

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The leader of Israel had, for all intents and purposes, become a spokesperson for the Arab world.

Though the Israeli Prime Minister has since 2009 been one of the most uncompromising and thunderous of critics for allowing Tehran to persevere – amidst restrictions – with its uranium enrichment programme, Sunni Arab countries are those most troubled by the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

From Cairo to Riyadh and throughout the Gulf states, the idea that Iran could one day cross the threshold that separates the elite club of nuclear powers from the rest of the world sends shudders down the spine.

It would, in the current context of the open warfare between the two major branches of Islam – Sunni and Shiite – be a development with incalculable consequences that could profoundly upset the delicate strategic balance of the Middle East.

Netanyahu makes a high stakes gamble

And yet, no Arab leader has dared to openly defy their US ally (and financial backer) as has the risk-taking Netanyahu. Indeed, whether motivated by ideological convictions or mere political calculations, there is no doubt that the Israeli leader is taking a big gamble.

Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor, for example, described Netanyahu’s circumventing of a hostile White House to speak in front of Congress “destructive”.

The manoeuvre has also brought Netanyahu severe criticism in his own country. The former Mossad director Meir Daga, for example, accused him of causing “heavy strategic damage” on the Iranian issue and bringing “intolerable” risk upon Israel by endangering its relations with Washington.

Netanyahu, however, has his mind not on the Israeli establishment, but on the country’s voters – three quarters of whom have a negative opinion of Obama, according to the latest polls. In particular, he is hoping that voters will thank him for his stand against the White House when they head to the polls in two weeks' time.

De facto alliance between Israel and Sunnis

But even if Arab leaders remain silent (as has Europe, including France) on the Obama administration’s unabated pursuit of a deal with Iran, feathers have nevertheless been ruffled in the Arab world.

Ahmad Al Faraj, columnist for the Saudi daily Al Jazirah (no relation to the Qatari television network) said he was “very glad of Netanyahu’s firm stance” which will “serve our interests, the people of the Gulf, much more than the foolish behavior of one of the worst American presidents”.

Farj’s comments only highlight what is already a well-established political reality in the region: the existence of a de facto alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab countries.

It is an alliance that the Jewish state needs now more than ever – first of all strategically, because Iran is the only power in the region that could one day challenge Israel militarily, economically, scientifically and even culturally.

And now that it is no longer at war with Shiite Hezbollah – currently preoccupied with keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power – it also makes tactical sense for Israel. This period of relative peace allows for essential cooperation on security with the likes of Jordan and in particular Egypt, which recently ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power and declared Hamas a terrorist organisation.

This raises another area of contention between Israel, the Arab world and the US, that of their respective attitude towards political Islam. While Obama continues to make room for Islamists, Cairo persecutes them and Riyadh is scared stiff.

Much of the rest of the Gulf shares the Saudis’ view, with the exception of Qatar, which continues to support groups like the Muslim Brotherhood even if more subtly than before.

A rock and a hard place

This is not, as some believe, a case of betting on the Islamic State (IS) group to topple the Syrian regime and the Shiite leaders in Baghdad and Tehran. Both the Arab countries and Israel believe that choosing between a rock and a hard place is a fool’s game. And in a some ways it is this informal but objective alliance between the ‘Zionist entity’ and the post-Arab spring governments that is swelling the ranks of the IS group.

While the US considers a rapprochement with Iran (and with Assad’s Syria?) as indispensible in the war against the enemy of highest priority – the IS group – and the Europeans, with the same goal in mind, ponder cooperation with Assad, in a historic moment of accord, the Israelis and Sunni Arabs see Obama as committing a political and moral error that puts their fundamental interests and security in danger.

Antagonising both of them is an audacious act no previous American president has  dared commit.

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