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Israel’s status as a regional superpower is unusual for its lacking a reliable set of local allies. Even where security ties with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia might be strong, the country is forced to keep those ties in the background. Regardless, it exerts a degree of influence just by its own strategic value. While ties are not public, they are also not available for public scrutiny, perhaps enhancing the relationship opportunities with the above mentioned countries as well as other Arab states.

“Rather than a charm offensive,” asserts Robert Kappel of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, “Israel needs an assertive regional foreign policy" in order to gain more allies.

But is that really true?

“I don't think that it's either-or,” says Professor Eytan Gilboa of Bar Ilan University. “I think Israel has a regional policy. We don’t see it but it collaborates with Arab countries and the Persian Gulf, especially on Iran and much more on counter-terrorism. It has a regional policy but it's undercover.”

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is not a Condition for an Alliance

Turning back specifically to Kappel, Gilboa states “I think he means to use it to deal with the Palestinian issue; then comes the Arab Peace Initiative. The assumption is the PA is unable, unable, to reach an agreement with Israel.”

Gilboa sees an Arab desire to expand relations with Israel in spite of the conflict with the Palestinians. Thus, the Arab Peace Initiative might be evidence the Arab countries are eager to reach out with a public offer that would allow them to open the door for Jerusalem without necessarily having to seal a deal on the conflict.

“I reject one claim: that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a condition for a regional alliance. The reason for this is simple - all these countries couldn't care less about the Palestinians. They have an interest in blocking Iran and extremist Islamic organizations. They made all kinds of statements to the contrary but that is not the issue. I don't think there's a linkage here.”

Pressing his point, Gilboa says “There's much less opportunity for regional pressure on the Palestinians than most people think. ‘Collaboration’ is a euphemism for security cooperation on ‘negative interests.’"

Those negative interests are opposition to common regional security challenges like the above mentioned Iran and Islamist terrorist organizations. But to create an alliance, you need much more than common enemies, says Gilboa - you need common interests.

“Turkey ambivalent to ISIS – they share an ideology but still see it as a competitor. Erdogan would like to revive the Ottoman Empire where a non-Arab country leads the Arab world. Where you see this kind of geopolitics, there are a lot of opportunities for collaboration with these countries.”

And actually, “there's criticism of Israel for not exploiting the situation,” says Gilboa.

New Countries?

When Arutz Sheva asked if Israel’s chances for regional alliances might actually increase if Syria were to collapse into several smaller states or the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) were to become a full-fledged independent state, Gilboa sees the idea as having validity.

“I think this is a valid point. I am only hearing that Israel is collaborating with the Kurds there and you can do a little bit more, but it is a lot more than it used to be. The alliance with Turkey had prohibited close collaboration with the Kurds. But now that the relationship is bad, this condition is nonexistent. I think indeed they could do more.”

Focusing on the much more developed autonomy, infrastructure and ambitions of the Iraqi Kurds than other groups that could emerge in Syria, Gilboa says Kurdistan could definitely become a game-changer in the region’s mixture of waxing and waning alliances. Most significantly, it could be something that does not necessarily replace Arab states as a reliable ally, but actually enhances the chances of a strong alliance between those Arab countries and Israel.

“I also think there is room for a strategic alliance between Israel and pro-US Arab states. Not just potential between Israel and the non-Arab groups, but collaboration with Israel, non-Arab states and those emerging new political entities in the Middle East. It could be done on a bilateral basis first – perhaps between Israel and Kurdistan – or multilateral. Once you gain influence with a group like the Kurds, you could translate that into the other (multilateral) type of alliance.”

Israel and Kurdistan have a long history of both covert and overt relations, especially on security. Kurdistan might then be an example of an emerging country where Israel could carry more influence than the Saudis (assuming Kurdistan is able to gain more autonomy or full sovereignty). Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic and military clout is still behind that of Israel, according to Gilboa.

“Saudi Arabia’s power is limited to its ability to manipulate oil markets, but their strength is precarious as major importers like the United States become self-sufficient in that realm. Even their military strength might turn out to be limited as its operation in Yemen is one of the largest it has ever undertaken. The assumption the Saudis might have strong influence over Pakistan and could persuade Islamabad to sell Riyadh a nuclear bomb to pull ahead of the Iranians has been thrown into doubt by Pakistan’s decision not to join the military operation against the Houthis.”

Ultimately, it might be Israel’s power that the Saudis need more.

Anything but a Saudi win (in Yemen) would not be good for Saudi Arabia,” emphasizes Gilboa. On the other hand, “Israel is much stronger diplomatically, militarily and its society is much more vibrant.”