On Dec. 15, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, drew a harsh portrait of American weakness, unreliability and poor judgment in the Middle East. His speech was likely cheered as vigorously in Jerusalem as it was in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Although neither side will say so publicly, these Middle Eastern rivals seem to agree more with each other than with Washington these days.
Israel and the Gulf states share a deep suspicion about the interim nuclear deal with Iran. Both tend to believe that the United States has lost influence in the Middle East and abandoned its willingness to use force. As a result they increasingly doubt America’s commitment to their security. While Israel and the Gulf states may be equally unhappy with American policy, they should not expect to impact the next phase of negotiations with Iran just by bemoaning President Obama. Unless Israel and its Gulf neighbors start talking — and more importantly — working together, they will continue to miss an opportunity to offer a viable alternative.
The Obama administration has tried to match this criticism by reaffirming its commitment to the security of its allies (this was a consistent focus during my four years working on the president’s national security staff). On Dec. 7, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel itemized American’s long-term defense commitments in the Gulf at the Manama Dialogue, a regional security forum attended by many Gulf leaders. The same day in Washington, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, Mr. Obama reasserted that security cooperation between the United States and Israel “has never been stronger.” These statements reflect a five-year record of close military collaboration. So why aren’t Israel and the Gulf states convinced?
For Israel, no level of security assistance seems capable of overcoming its anxiety that the United States will ultimately accept a nuclear Iran rather than initiate a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if the diplomatic process falls apart or Iran develops the capability and know-how to produce nuclear weapons in short order.
Mr. Obama has acknowledged that Israel should not be expected to contract out its security. And yet he is hoping Mr. Netanyahu will do just that by foregoing a military strike and trusting America to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through sanctions-backed diplomacy and force, if necessary.
The Gulf states have long feared being sold out by America to their Persian rivals, especially since the president first proposed engagement with Iran in 2009. The interim nuclear agreement with Iran has only inflamed those anxieties. They worry the West will accept a long-term deal that only addresses Iran’s nuclear program but ignores Iran’s ability to sponsor terrorism and sow sectarian violence from Lebanon and Syria to Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen — threats the Gulf states view as existential.
In the eyes of both Israel and the Gulf states, the United States is a country thousands of miles away, where the people are weary of war, legislators are cutting defense budgets and leaders regularly expound a shift toward Asia. But Iran and its proxies are on their doorstep. American military deployments, exercises and sales cannot overcome this fundamental imbalance of proximity and vulnerability.
They also seem to realize that America’s regional partners have few options available now that Mr. Obama has called his play and the broader international community supports the diplomatic track with Iran.
Would Israel really risk international isolation through a dangerous military strike at the moment the West seems ready to embrace Iran? Would the Gulf states really start buying Chinese military hardware and relying on the Russian Navy to protect their ports?
There is another way out of this impasse for leaders in Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi: start working together to lay an alternative foundation for security in the Middle East. As unnatural as it may seem, they should sit down together and develop a series of actions that they will undertake jointly, take the proposal to Washington and offer it in exchange for firmer commitments from the United States.
For example, the Gulf states could advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by spelling out a process for normalizing relations with Israel, publicly embracing the outcome of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace diplomacy, and committing to underwrite a compensation package for Palestinian refugees who forego their “right of return” to Israel.
They could undertake joint actions to isolate Hezbollah and Hamas and shore up the moderate Palestinian Authority and Lebanese government; mutual commitments to insulate Jordan from the spillover from Syria’s civil war; and coordinated outreach to potential violators of anti-Iran sanctions. A joint proposal along these lines made to the White House could pave the way toward a regional security framework that benefits Washington’s traditional partners more than their Iranian rivals.
This will not be easy, and it would require a degree of cooperation and trust among actors programmed to do the opposite. Any dealings with Israel would be denied by the Gulf states until they had something to show their publics for it, such as an agreement on Palestinian statehood. But if Israel and the Gulf states truly fear the outcome of a “bad” deal with Iran, working together may be the only alternative they have left to shape its terms. Otherwise, they will have to sit tight and hope the Iran negotiations break down on their own — an outcome largely beyond their control.
Ben Fishman, a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, served on the United States national security council from 2009 to 2013.