In the past few weeks, I have held numerous conversations with opinion makers and decision takers in the Middle East. They are all worried.
They are tracking, apprehensively, Iran’s concerted efforts to develop long-range, cruise and precision-guided missiles that threaten to destabilize the region. They are monitoring, anxiously, Iran’s repeated provocations of the international community and its violations of the commitments it made in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They are watching, fearfully, as Iran resumes enriching uranium (to 20 percent purity) in breach of the JCPOA, and limits access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to its nuclear facilities.
But during these conversations, I also heard encouraging voices, the likes of which I had not heard before. Almost all the Arabs I spoke with said the only ally (against Iran) that they trust without reservation is Israel. And almost all Israelis I spoke with said the only ally (against Iran) that they trust without reservation is the Arab world.
A century after it began, the Arab-Israeli conflict is truly ending. The Egyptian-Israeli treaty began the process in 1979, followed by the Israeli-Jordanian pact of 1994. But the peace agreements signed in 2020 by Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have finally ushered in a genuine regional revolution. Other moderate Arab nations that have not yet joined the Abraham Accords are quietly cultivating relations with Israel. As their fears of Iran grow, and their doubts about the West deepen, Arabs and Israelis are growing closer than they have ever been.
As I finished this exhilarating round of talks, I had a thought: Isn’t it time to combine the monumental struggle against Iran with this blossoming Arab-Israeli partnership? Isn’t it time to take a further, daring step beyond the Abraham Accords? Could this be the time for Arabs and Israelis to embark on a strategic alliance?
In the 1980s I worked at the Pentagon and served as US Ambassador to Austria. There, I saw at first hand what a crucial role NATO played in ensuring Europe’s security and stability against the Soviet threat. Now, the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, may well be the time to form an Arab-Israeli NATO to ensure the security and stability of the Middle East against the Iranian threat.
The founding members of this new alliance — Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO) — could be the nations in the Middle East and North Africa that already have a treaty or an open relationship with Israel: Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. I am optimistic other Arab nations may join the Abraham Accords soon. MEDO could also pursue close relations with Greece, Cyprus and some Africannations, with the objective of protecting their stability and encouraging swift economic development.
Thus, it could establish a formidable bulwark against Iran. And thus, it could curb Turkey’s imperialist ambitions, battle extremism and terrorism, and foster a cautious, gradual Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. It could take advantage of the historic breakthrough of the past year to create a truly new Middle East. MEDO would serve the interests of all the stability-seeking nations in the region, and all citizens who seek to escape poverty and hardship, to better their lives. In doing so, this new organization would also indirectly serve the interests of the West and the international community — calming one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world without relying on one US or UN soldier, or seeking favor from other world powers.
Clearly, a decision to establish a Middle East NATO should be made only by the sovereign nations of the region. No one else can command or coerce them to take upon themselves the suggested MEDO framework. But my personal impression is that a regional strategic alliance is an idea whose time has come. Facing the accelerating threat of a malevolent Iran and the weakness of a coronavirus-hit world, the path toward self-reliance seems also to be the only path forward. Israelis and Arabs should seize the opportunity to work together to save the Middle East from the looming catastrophe of extremism and nuclearization.
• Ronald S. Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress
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