For those who are inclined towards parsimonious, systemic understandings of foreign policy, the burgeoning relationship between Israel and pragmatic Sunni states in the Middle East that took off during the previous decade and culminated in the Abraham Accords had an easy explanation. These countries all wanted to combat Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony and restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and were attempting to do so at the same time that the U.S. was increasingly withdrawing from the region. This leadership vacuum pushed what were initially enemies and then strange bedfellows together, since Arab states could not count on the U.S. but viewed Israel as a regional power with the capabilities and desire to confront Iran. As a result, first covert and then overt normalization between Israel and its neighbors increased, driven primarily by a shared stance on Iran and enabled by the perception of a weakened and disengaged American presence. Keeping in line with this thinking, the forces pushing Israel and Sunni states together would inevitably lead to Israel-Saudi normalization as well, since Iran was not going anywhere and the U.S. was not interested in re-engaging in a more robust way.

President Isaac Herzog and UAE Ambassador Mohammed al-Khajah inaugurating the UAE embassy in Tel Aviv, July 2021 by Mark Neyman / Government Press Office, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

Yet over the past year, a starkly different outcome has unfolded. The same Sunni states that had been moving closer to Israel—presumably in part in order to build a unified regional axis to counter Iran—have worked toward rapprochement with Iran. The UAE returned its ambassador to Iran in September after a six-year gap and Iran reciprocated by naming a new ambassador to the UAE two weeks ago, and officials from both sides have made high-profile visits to each other’s countries in recent months. Last month, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced that they were restoring their bilateral ties after a seven-year rift in a deal brokered by China. Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-aligned regime in Syria, which had been tossed out of the Arab League during the Syrian civil war, is rapidly restoring its ties with the Sunni bloc as well, with Saudi Arabia paving the way. The two countries agreed last week to reopen embassies and restore direct flights, and while Syria has not yet been admitted back into the Arab League, Riyadh is pushing the countries that are holding out to drop their objections. None of this is going over well with Israeli officials, and at the same time that Israel’s current and prospective friends are moving closer to Iran, relations with Israel are hitting visible bumps. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s canceled visit to Abu Dhabi has still not been rescheduled, the discussed direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage appear to be dead in the water, and Netanyahu and other Israeli cabinet ministers are no longer dropping hints that normalization with the Saudis is imminent.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

And for many, the cause of the new divergent trend is the same as the earlier one. It is because there is an American leadership vacuum in the region as the Biden administration continues the trend of U.S. deprioritization of the Middle East, ceding ground to other actors and causing traditional American partners to turn toward Iran. Before, when the U.S.’ Arab allies forged closer relationships with Israel in an effort to counter Iran, it was because of American weakness in the region. Now, when the U.S.’ Arab allies are forging closer relationships with Iran and are cooling things off with Israel, it is also because of American weakness in the region. The current narrative is that countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have no choice but to move closer to Iran since the U.S. has demonstrated no real interest in providing them with a safety net, and that operates to Israel’s detriment. So Israel’s upgraded regional standing and success in marshaling opposition to Iran was in response to disappointment with the U.S., and now Israel’s faltering regional standing and frustrated efforts to marshal opposition to Iran is in response to disappointment with the U.S.

It can be tempting to blame everything on the U.S. After all, the largest actors also make for the largest and easiest targets. Particularly following years of Israeli governments portraying their regional successes as practically inevitable and driven almost entirely by Israeli indispensability, it is awkward to explain the new dynamic without finding an external cause. But while repeating “American weakness in the region” as a way of explaining everything that happens comports with a certain worldview, it does not fully capture why Israel suddenly finds itself on the wrong side of regional trends.

This is not to say that the American role has made no contribution here, because it has. Whether it is objectively accurate or not, there is a widespread view in the Middle East that the U.S. is less willing to commit attention and resources to the region, that China is becoming a serious regional player, and that Russian influence has exploded in the past decade concurrent with its intervention in Syria. If this is your basic read of things and you believe it is a harbinger of trends for the next couple of decades, and you are watching the formulation in real-time of a China-Russia-Iran axis, then you might reasonably conclude that hedging your bet on American dominance—which includes reaching out to Iran—is a smart move.

Tehran, Iran

But blaming the U.S. for these regional trends that are less rosy for Israel misses a bunch of other critical variables. One is the inherent Israeli limitations on what it can and cannot do for its neighbors on the Iranian front. Israel can to varying degrees frustrate Iran’s nuclear development, drain its resources through repeated strikes on Iranian positions and weapons shipments in Syria and Lebanon, and do hundreds of other covert things to prevent Iranian entrenchment in other places. But it cannot end the Yemeni civil war, or prevent Iranian attacks on Saudi oil and gas facilities, or stop Iran from harassing Emirati shipping. Short of all-out war, which none of the Sunni states are even remotely interested in, the only way to accomplish these things is direct engagement with Iran and a closer relationship. That leaves Israel holding the short end of the stick, but there’s no way around it.

Another is the gap between Israel’s worldview and the Sunni states’ worldview. Israel sees the region as zero-sum, where any gains it makes result in losses for Iran and vice versa. But the Saudis, Emiratis, and others do not share this view. They think that they can have relations with both Israel and Iran and keep them compartmentalized, and this view has nothing to do with the U.S. role or presence in the region. If they can benefit from Israeli security technology and construct valuable economic relationships with Jerusalem, and at the same time trade with Iran while keeping its militias and proxies off their backs, that is an unambiguous win-win for them. They do not have and never had the same level of threat perception of Iran and its nuclear program as Israel does, so while Israel views the region as a bipolar struggle, its newest friends have a more complicated view.

Finally, some of the blame for the sudden chill towards Israel coming from Saudi Arabia—and to a lesser extent from the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco—lies with Israeli policies. Israel has been reluctant to recognize that Riyadh has different calculations than Abu Dhabi and has been unwilling to concede that the Palestinian issue still matters to everyone, even if the degree varies depending on where you look. None of Israel’s regional friends care about judicial reform or Israeli democracy, but they do care about Israel’s stability, and they cannot ignore the pervasive radicalism of current Israeli ministers and current Israeli policy in the West Bank. None of this pushes Sunni states towards Iran, but it does push them away from Israel. And thus you have Mohammed bin Salman, who Israeli officials and some Americans too insisted could not care less about what happens with the Palestinians, hosting Mahmoud Abbas in Saudi Arabia this week while a Hamas delegation just happens to be there too for the first time in half a decade.

Then-Defense Secretary James Mattis and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, D.C., March 2018 by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

If the U.S. had different foreign policy priorities, it would undoubtedly influence dynamics in the Middle East. But pointing to an absent U.S. as the unwitting cause of Israel and Sunni states moving closer to each other, and then pointing to the same absent U.S. as the unwitting cause of those relationships stalling, is too analytically narrow. There are other factors at work here, including a very large dose of Israeli agency on a few different fronts.