Israel’s Gaza Assault Imperils Its ‘Reverse Periphery’ Strategy

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

Will the response to Hamas’s atrocities undo efforts to normalize its relations with Gulf States? 

After nearly two weeks of Israeli attacks on Gaza as punishment for Hamas’s massacres of at least 1,400, people and governments across the Arab world are denouncing the retaliation, which Palestinian officials say has killed about 3,700. Protesters have taken to the streets in the millions from Morocco to Iraq, with some demonstrations turning violent. And in the wake of the reported loss of hundreds of lives in an explosion at a Gaza hospital—which US officials attribute to an errant Palestinian rocket—King Abdullah II of Jordan canceled a planned summit with President Joe Biden, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 

This response in the Arab world has driven Saudi Arabia away from pursuing an official relationship with Israel as part of the expansion of the so-called Abraham Accords. Reuters reports that, at the very least, these discussions are on hold. In the months leading up to Hamas’s killings of Israeli civilians, Riyadh had sought a US security umbrella and some assurances for Palestinian autonomy in return for a recognition of the Jewish state.  

More troubling for the Israelis and Americans, perhaps, is that the Gaza conflict has driven Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to meet for the first time with the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi. 

In this way, escalation of the Gaza war and the responses from the Arab world may be undermining what Yoel Guzansky terms Israel’s “reverse periphery doctrine,” in which it seeks to forge relationships with Gulf states to further their economic interests and balance against common threats, especially from Iran and Turkey. 

In an article in Middle East Policy, Guzansky analyzes the past and current manifestations of Israel’s regional strategy. Following its founding in 1948, the new state aimed for “outflanking its immediate Arab neighbors, with whom the nascent Jewish state had hostile relations.” 

Guzansky calls this the “periphery doctrine.” Tel Aviv aligned with nonstate actors like Sudanese Christians and Iraqi Kurds but also, more important, with non-Arab states such as Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia. These countries and groups believed that (mostly covert) relations with Israel would serve as a bulwark against pan-Arabism, the nationalist push led by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. 

For its part, Guzansky writes, Israel saw these benefits: 

  • Immediate security: Emboldening the enemies of Arab states would sap their ability to effectively strike the fledgling Jewish state. 

  • Long-term relations: States in the neighborhood would come to understand the benefits of a relationship with Israel. 

  • Geopolitical strength: Israel’s building of alliances and power would convince the United States that it would be a strategic ally in the region. 

While Israel built some bridges to Gulf states like Oman and Qatar, especially after the Oslo accords of the early 1990s—which appeared to give momentum to the two-state solution, though this has clearly waned—Guzansky argues that Arab countries and the Israelis now perceive a common threat in Iran. The US promotion of the Iran nuclear deal and inability or unwillingness “to exercise strategic leadership across the region” has pushed the Jewish state and Arab countries to bolster their own security.  

One of the most notable examples of the new “reverse periphery” strategy is the signing of the Abraham Accords, normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (and later with Morocco and Sudan). 

But the jewel for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be normalization with the Saudis. Over the summer and early fall, the two sides were reportedly in talks with the Biden administration to formalize ties. The negotiations were fraught, as Saudi Arabia sought a NATO-like alliance requiring the United States to come to its defense. 

“Saudi Arabia’s support for the Abraham Accords shows how far it has departed from its previous position,” Guzansky writes, with its endorsement reflected in the “relatively positive coverage and commentary about Israel in the many state-owned Saudi media outlets, and remarks by leading current and past officials in the kingdom.” 

However, even staunch Israel supporters like Thomas Friedman argue that in return for Saudi Arabia’s signing onto the accords, Israel would have to promise moves that “would preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.” 

Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, agrees. He writes in his Middle East Policy analysis that while the reverse periphery doctrine’s successes, like the Abraham Accords, “can contribute to Israel’s economy and increase its security and potential political clout…they cannot serve as a substitute for serious attempts to promote or solve the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” 

That process is frozen if not dead. As Friedman noted before the deadly Hamas incursion, Netanyahu would never be able to convince his far-right coalition to make real steps toward Palestinian autonomy, much less a Palestinian state. And if Israel invades Gaza, the New York Times columnist laments, “it will blow up the Abraham Accords, further destabilize two of America’s most important allies (Egypt and Jordan) and make normalization with Saudi Arabia impossible.” 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Guzansky’s Middle East Policy article, “Israel’s Periphery Doctrines: Then and Now”: 

  • The “periphery doctrine” refers to Israel’s strategy of establishing relationships with non-Arab states and groups to balance against Arab countries. 

    • The doctrine sought to bolster security and economic ties, reducing isolation. 

    • It also aimed to convince the United States to view Israel as a strategic asset in the region. 

  • Turkey and Iran were the first two states to recognize Israel, in 1949 and 1950. The two became favored destinations for Israeli military exports. 

  • However, in recent decades, Israel and the Arab Gulf states have found a common security interest in balancing against Turkey and Iran. 

    • This has led Israel to pursue a “reverse periphery doctrine.” 

  • This new doctrine focuses on building ties with the Arab Gulf states. 

    • Relationships include intelligence sharing, joint military training, improved commercial ties, and diplomacy. 

    • Another goal for Israel is to isolate the Palestinians from their supporters. 

  • The Abraham Accords of 2020, especially with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, signaled a new stage in relations between Israel and Arab Gulf states. 

    • The deal recognizes shared concerns about national security, especially from Iran, Syria, and Yemen, and the perceived US pullback from the region. 

  • This new “reverse periphery” has further normalized Arab-Israeli relations even without a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

    • Recent moves by Turkey, such as the appointment of a close ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the ambassador to Israel, may be signaling a change in its Israel strategy. 

    • Qatar’s emergence as a regional mediator also holds potential for the expansion of normalization. 

    • The Biden administration’s interest in revitalizing the Iran nuclear deal led Israel and Arab states to find common ground in their opposition to it. 

    • Saudi Arabia has some interest, though potential relations are more controversial in the kingdom. 

      • The two countries have long shared intelligence. 

  • This “reverse periphery” could become “the backbone for regional security cooperation between the Arabs and Israelis.” 

  • But even with its successes, the doctrine cannot “substitute for serious attempts to promote or solve the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” 

You can read “Israel’s Periphery Doctrines: Then and Now” by Yoel Guzansky in the Fall-Winter 2021 issue of Middle East Policy

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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