To take on Iran, Lapid sketches out vision for a regional ‘alliance of life’

Foreign minister’s ambitious plan would establish a broad axis stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic, but can he make it happen?

By LAZAR BERMAN1 September 2021, 10:40 pm  

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a ceremony with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in Rabat, on August 11, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a ceremony with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in Rabat, on August 11, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Speaking at a Casablanca hotel last month during his first visit to Morocco after Jerusalem and Rabat reestablished relations last year, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid laid out his vision for a coalition that would bring hope and prosperity to the region.

“What we are creating here, and what we have been creating over the past few months, is essentially a political axis,” Lapid told journalists.

“Think about it as a sort of alliance consisting of Israel, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan, and in some ways one can also add Cyprus, Greece, Bahrain, the UAE — all the nations that are moderate religiously with truly limitless economic potential… An alliance of life in the face of the alliance of death of Iran and its emissaries.”

The remark didn’t cause much of a stir during Lapid’s Morocco trip, and it remained below the radar when he revisited the theme last Sunday during a meeting with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts.

The trilateral alliance, Lapid said, was “a key part of something bigger. A moderate, pragmatic and forward-looking alliance. A growing group of countries working together with a shared vision. From the UAE and Bahrain in the Gulf, Morocco in North Africa, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East, Cyprus and Greece in the Mediterranean, and others that are joining all the time.”Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

An “alliance of life” that spans from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean seems to be the essence of Lapid’s emerging vision for the region: the next phase of the Abraham Accords process that Israel — and the foreign minister himself — hopes to lead.Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias (right) and Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, August 22, 2021. (Foreign Ministry)

Facing Turkey and Iran

Though Lapid largely focuses on uncontroversial initiatives like cooperation on agriculture, water, and technological innovation, there is an undeniable geopolitical — even national security —  element to the growing partnerships.

There are two very different regional powers that are of concern to members of Lapid’s “alliance of life”: Iran, certainly, but also Turkey, which is seeking to expand its power and influence at the expense of its neighbors.

But interests within Lapid’s desired assortment of partners are tangled and complex, based on countries’ individual concerns.

This is especially apparent in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE — both Western-allied hereditary Sunni regimes with growing ties with Israel — do not see eye-to-eye on their primary foe Iran. For the Saudis, the Iranians represent the main security threat, while the UAE sees the Muslim Brotherhood — and the Turkey-Qatar axis backing it — as its foremost adversary.Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (L) speaks with UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (C) as Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (R) looks on following a meeting with foreign ministers and military officials from the Saudi-led coalition, in Riyadh, on October 29, 2017. (AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine)

“You see this different emphasis,” says Brandon Friedman, director of research at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “Whereas the Emiratis are very much concerned and cognizant of wherever the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be rearing its head in the region, the Saudis ––while certainly seeing the Brotherhood as a threat internally — externally I think have a less aggressive approach to the Brotherhood outside of Saudi borders.”

While the Saudis have worked closely with the US and Israel to counter Iran, the Emiratis maintain open diplomatic channels to Tehran along with a healthy trade relationship.

Meanwhile, Greece and Cyprus are overwhelmingly focused on Turkey. Besides being a historical enemy with which a series of wars have been fought, Turkey has been flexing its muscles over gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean while holding the threat of renewed Muslim immigration into Greece and Europe over Athens’ head.Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (R) welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) prior to a Greece-Israel-Cyprus summit for talks on offshore oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean and environmental issues in Thessaloniki on June 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

In Lapid’s view, there is enough of a common perception of regional threats among Israel’s partners for an alliance to hold. All the countries he names seek regional stability, accept neighboring actors with different views and are not looking to export their religious brand.

Old, cold friends

Egypt and Jordan have had diplomatic relations with Israel for decades, but both countries have maintained a cold peace with the Jewish state, and especially its people.

Israel’s relations with Amman were particularly problematic of late. In March, years of Jordanian frustration with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu boiled over as officials in Amman appeared to accuse him of endangering the region for political gain and alleged that Israel had violated agreements with them.

The Bennett-Lapid government seems determined to change the dynamic. There has been a flurry of high-level contacts between the two neighbors since the new government took office, as well as new economic deals.

The government is also hoping to make headway with the Egyptians, with which Israel enjoys close security cooperation. Last month, Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate chair Abbas Kamel visited Jerusalem for talks with Bennett and Defense Minister Gantz, and extended an invitation for Bennett to make an official visit to Egypt within the next few weeks. The visit would be the first public visit by an Israeli premier since 2011.

Positive energy

Energy resources are another pillar of Lapid’s vision.

The East Mediterranean Gas Forum, or EMFG, which includes Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the Palestinian Authority, and is in the process of expanding, has become a de facto outgrowth of one of the regional splits, which has seen Turkey and Qatar leading a pro-Islamist faction, and Egypt siding with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a pro-Western camp that has increasingly included Israel.This photo taken on August 23, 2019, in Istanbul shows Turkish General Directorate of Mineral research and Exploration’s (MTA) Oruc Reis seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, which searches for hydrocarbon, oil, natural gas and coal reserves at sea. Greece on August 11, 2020 demanded that Turkey withdraw a research ship at the heart of their growing dispute over maritime rights and warned it would defend its sovereignty, calling for an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers to resolve the crisis. (Ozan KOSE / AFP)

Turkey insists that its exclusive economic zone stretches across the entire Mediterranean, thanks to a maritime border deal with Libya that would essentially block Israel and Egypt’s access to Europe, potentially upending the EMFG’s plans.

In the Mediterranean, Egypt has aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus, longtime rivals of Turkey that accuse it of illegally drilling for natural gas in their exclusive economic zones. Israel has signed a series of agreements with EMFG countries, especially Greece and Cyprus.

Bringing the alliance to life

The pressing question for Lapid now is how he turns his vision into reality.

Ties between the countries’ civil societies and private sectors in the countries in the axis are a major component of the vision, it is clear. Lapid seems determined to avoid the mistakes made in Israel’s relationships with Jordan and Egypt — and to some extent Turkey — which were mostly based on security ties.

There is also the important question of the role the US will play in firming up such an alliance.President Reuven Rivlin and US President Joe Biden in the White House on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

As has been on clear display in Afghanistan, Biden is accelerating the bipartisan trend of US withdrawal from the region, hoping to focus on the competition with global powers Russia and China and to deal with domestic challenges.

The Biden administration also doesn’t seem particularly motivated in promoting the Abraham Accords and expanding the countries normalizing relations with Israel. The administration did not call attention to the recent one-year anniversary of the agreements, and Biden’s spokesmen still won’t use the term “Abraham Accords” in describing the pact sealed by the previous administration.

Still, Israeli government officials insist that their US interlocutors have been supportive of both deepening ties with countries that recognize Israel and expanding the existing accords to new countries.

If Lapid, with US support, is able to move his “alliance of life” beyond statements and symbolic agreements, and to create a new, broad and deep coalition, it would certainly be a game-changer. With a reduced US regional presence, such a union would supply a new path for countries to limit Turkish and Iranian ambitions in the region.From left: US President Donald Trump, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk at the White House at the ceremony for the signing of the Abraham Accords between them, September 15, 2020 (Avi Ohayon/GPO )

It also holds the potential to create new opportunities for the young generation in the countries of the alliance, as they deepen their economic, technological, and educational relationship.

That is not to say there won’t be surprises or difficulties for the countries making up the coalition. For Israel, certainly, a new flare-up in Jerusalem or Gaza would strain ties with its new Arab friends.

But the deeper and more varied the ties, the more stress the relationships will be able to bear.

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