The Israeli government confirmed Monday that it is part of a regional military partnership to combat threats from Iran, in the latest example of Israel’s growing engagement with some Arab governments and the recalibration of Middle Eastern alliances.
The members of the new initiative, called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance, are working together with the United States against Iranian missiles, rockets and unmanned drones, Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, said in a briefing to Israeli lawmakers.
“This program is already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries,” Gantz said.
First reported by The New York Times in March, the military partnership is one of the most consequential outcomes of a diplomatic detente that was sealed nearly two years ago between Israel and parts of the Arab world, ending decades of Israeli isolation.
Ostracized for years by all but two Arab states, Israel began to formalize relationships in August 2020 with four others, including the United Arab Emirates, after mediation by the Trump administration.
The air defense alliance highlights the speed at which some of those relationships have moved from symbolism to substance. It also shows how fears of Iranian aggression are now a more pressing concern for some Arab leaders than an immediate end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Until 2020, all Arab countries apart from Egypt and Jordan had refused to normalize relations with Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved. But over time, the economic opportunities and military benefits associated with full ties with Israel eroded that stance.
Iran is the clearest example of a common interest. Shared fears of Iran’s nuclear program — along with Iranian support for proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Western Sahara and Yemen — have led Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and the UAE to tighten their military cooperation.
Israeli officials have yet to name the specific countries involved in the new alliance, apart from the United States. Other Middle Eastern countries did not confirm their involvement.
But Gantz said that more details might be announced during President Joe Biden’s visit in July to Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has not yet normalized relations with Israel.
Some military cooperation between Israel and the Arab world has also already been confirmed.
The Israeli Defense Ministry recently signed preliminary agreements with its Bahraini and Moroccan counterparts, making it easier for the three countries to coordinate militarily. The chief of the Emirati air force attended an Israeli-led air force exercise in October, highlighting growing ties between the two militaries. And Israel has stationed a military liaison in Bahrain, as part of a separate regional initiative to combat piracy.
The new air defense alliance already worked to shoot down an Iranian drone that was fired from Iraq toward Israel, according to a senior Israeli military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with Israeli protocol.
The members of the alliance are developing a communication system that allows each partner to warn one another in real time about incoming drones from Iran and its proxies, the senior defense official said.
Like the Israelis, the Emiratis fear that U.S.-backed negotiations to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program on Iranian soil will do nothing to limit other kinds of Iranian aggression outside Iran’s borders.
Israel and Iran have been locked in a shadow war across the Middle East for years — a war that escalated in recent weeks with several suspected assassinations of Iranian officials, and warnings about attempted kidnappings of Israeli tourists in Turkey.
But Iran and its proxies are also targeting their Sunni Arab neighbors. Earlier this year, Iran-backed militants in Yemen, the Houthis, attacked the UAE and its ally, Saudi Arabia, with drones and missiles, accelerating desires for a regional defense architecture with Israel.
The new air defense alliance follows a major trade deal between Israel and the UAE that was sealed in May. Once ratified, the deal will eventually cover 96% of bilateral trade, and will be the widest-ranging deal of its kind between Israel and an Arab country.
In another sign of warming Arab-Israeli ties, the top diplomats from Israel and four Arab states met in Israel in March — the first time that such a high-profile diplomatic summit had occurred on Israeli soil.