By Maria Abi-Habib – Wall Street Journal –
Beirut—The Trump administration is in talks with Arab allies about having them form a military alliance that would share intelligence with Israel to help counter their mutual foe, Iran, several Middle Eastern officials said.
The alliance would include countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that are avowed enemies of Israel, as well as Egypt and Jordan, which have longstanding peace treaties with Israel, five officials from Arab countries involved in the discussions said. Other Arab countries could also join the alliance.
For the Arab countries involved, the alliance would have a NATO-style mutual-defense component under which an attack on one member would be treated as an attack on all, though details are still being worked out, the officials said.
The U.S. would offer military and intelligence support to the alliance, beyond the kind of limited backing it has been providing to a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, the officials said. But neither the U.S. nor Israel would be part of the mutual-defense pact.
“They’ve been asking diplomatic missions in Washington if we’d be willing to join this force that has an Israeli component,” one Arab diplomat said. “Israel’s role would likely be intelligence sharing, not training or boots on the ground. They’d provide intelligence and targets. That’s what the Israelis are good at.”
Trump administration officials have said they want to revitalize American alliances in the area and take new steps to constrain the regional influence wielded by Iran, though they didn’t respond to requests for comment on the plan. A spokesman for Israel’s prime minister didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But at a news conference on Wednesday with President Donald Trump, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said, “I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our newfound Arab partners.”
Mr. Trump followed by saying, “It is something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before. And it’s actually a much bigger deal—much more important deal in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory.”
It isn’t clear how far the talks on an alliance have proceeded. Currently, the Arab countries involved in the talks have no mutual-defense agreements.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are putting forth their own demands in exchange for cooperating with Israel, officials said. Those two countries want the U.S. to overturn legislation that could see their governments sued in American courts by families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they said.
Trump administration officials have told Gulf allies they would lobby Congress to amend the legislation, though it passed last year with overwhelming support that could make changes difficult. Some representatives have expressed regret for supporting the legislation because of concerns the legislation could allow foreigners in turn to sue the U.S. government in other cases, and have voiced plans to amend it.
The Middle Eastern officials said Arab diplomats in Washington have been holding talks about the plan with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Mike Flynn, who was President Trump’s national security adviser until resigning on Monday. Diplomats who spoke before Mr. Flynn’s resignation said plans for the alliance would be discussed during Mr. Mattis’s visit to the region this month.
Mr. Flynn floated a similar idea in testimony to Congress in June 2015, shortly after he left his position as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He urged the U.S. government to create and support an “Arab NATO-like structure and framework,” to counter Iran and extremist groups such as Islamic State. “Build an Arab army that is able to secure their regional responsibilities.”
One Arab diplomat suggested that the notion that the Trump administration might designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group was being floated as an incentive for Egypt to join the alliance. The current Egyptian government sees the Brotherhood—which it overthrew in a coup in 2013—as a terrorist organization.
The Trump administration has asked Egypt—which has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1979— to host a combined force, although Saudi Arabia is eager to do so, the officials said. But one official said the alliance may be difficult to cobble together, with a 2015 proposal to create a pan-Arab force gaining little traction.
The Sunni Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia are locked in a power struggle with Shiite Iran for regional influence, which has traditionally played out through proxies. The new alliance would expand upon the existing Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries fighting in Yemen, the officials said.
The new alliance’s first test would be in Yemen. The U.S. would step up military aid to the Yemen campaign and secure the Red Sea, a vital global shipping route threatened by the war, according to two officials. In late January, the Houthis—Iran’s allies in Yemen—launched a deadly attack on a Saudi warship in the Red Sea.
The Obama administration blocked the sale of some advanced weapons systems to Saudi Arabia over human-rights concerns in Yemen, with more than 10,000 civilians killed in that conflict so far, according to the United Nations, the majority by Saudi-led airstrikes.
In talks with administration officials over the past two weeks, Emirati and Saudi officials have expressed admiration for Israeli security and intelligence capabilities, tacitly agreeing to pool intelligence with the Israelis if the alliance is formed, the officials said.
Arab diplomats have told administration officials they would pursue more overt cooperation with Israel if it ceases settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—something Israel refused to do under intense pressure from the Obama administration.
The diplomats also said their countries’ cooperation would be contingent upon the Trump administration refraining from moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, an effective recognition of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital. In recent weeks, the administration has walked back previous statements supporting settlement construction and moving the embassy.
Israel and Saudi Arabia staunchly opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with the U.S. and five other world powers, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on some of its nuclear activities. Arab officials have said Israel and Saudi Arabia already covertly share intelligence on Iran and its proxies, such as the Lebanese militant and political group Hezbollah.
Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, a military adviser to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense, said he couldn’t comment on a plan that isn’t yet official. He welcomed the prospect of greater military cooperation among the Arab countries but said he couldn’t comment specifically on plans for intelligence collaboration with Israel.
“With Israel, we don’t have official relations,” Gen. Asiri said. But, he added, “the Israelis are facing the same Iranian threat, exactly like us.”
Margherita Stancati, Rory Jones and Jay Solomon contributed to this article.