TOP STORIES Israel confirms regional military project, showing its growing role

Israel confirms regional military project, showing its growing role

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Jerusalem. The Israeli government confirmed on Monday that it is part of a regional military partnership to combat threats from Iran, the latest example of Israel’s growing engagement with some Arab governments and the recalibration of Middle East alliances.

Members of a new initiative called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance are working with the United States against Iranian missiles, rockets and drones, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said at a briefing to Israeli lawmakers.

“This program is already in place and has already successfully intercepted Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries,” Mr. Gantz said.

First published by The New York Times in March, the military partnership is one of the most important results of the diplomatic détente that was sealed almost two years ago between Israel and parts of the Arab world and ended decades of Israeli isolation.

Ostracized for years by all but two Arab states, Israel began formalizing relations in August 2020 with four others, including the United Arab Emirates, brokered by the Trump administration.

The Air Defense Alliance highlights the speed with which some of these relationships have moved from symbolism to substance. It also shows that fears of Iranian aggression are currently of more pressing concern to some Arab leaders than an immediate end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Until 2020, all Arab countries, except Egypt and Jordan, 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 to Israel undermined that position.

Iran is the clearest example of common interest. Shared concerns about Iran’s nuclear program — along with Iranian support for proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Western Sahara and Yemen — have led Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and the Emirates to step up military cooperation.

Israeli officials have yet to name specific countries participating in the new alliance other than the United States. Other countries in the Middle East have not confirmed their involvement.

But Mr. Gantz said more details could be released during President Biden’s July visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, with which relations have yet to normalize.

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, facilitating the three countries’ military coordination. The commander of the Emirati Air Force took part in an Israeli-led air force exercise last October, highlighting the growing ties between the two militaries. And Israel deployed a military representative in Bahrain as part of a separate regional anti-piracy initiative.

The new air defense alliance was already working to shoot down an Iranian drone that had been launched from Iraq towards Israel, according to a senior Israeli military official who spoke on condition of anonymity under Israeli protocol.

Alliance members are developing a communications system that allows each partner to warn each other in real time of incoming drones from Iran and its proxies, a senior defense official said.

Like the Israelis, the Emiratis fear that US-backed talks to persuade Iran to end its nuclear program on Iranian soil will do nothing to curb other forms of Iranian aggression outside of Iran.

Israel and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war in the Middle East for years, a war that has escalated in recent weeks with several alleged assassinations of Iranian officials and warnings of attempts to kidnap Israeli tourists in Turkey.

But Iran and its puppets are also targeting their Sunni Arab neighbors. Earlier this year, Iranian-backed militants in Yemen, the Houthis, attacked the Emirates and their ally Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles, fueling the desire to build a regional defense architecture with Israel.

The new air defense alliance follows a major trade deal between Israel and the UAE in May. Once ratified, the deal will eventually cover 96 percent of bilateral trade and become the largest deal of its kind between Israel and an Arab nation.

In another sign of the thaw in Arab-Israeli relations, leading diplomats from Israel and four Arab states met in Israel in March, the first such high-profile diplomatic summit to take place on Israeli soil.

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