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The Middle East’s Marriages of Convenience

While other Middle Eastern countries adapt to current strategic conditions – including Iran’s emergence essentially as a nuclear power – Israel remains committed to its longstanding “shadow war” against Iran. Given Israeli leaders' lack of vision and courage, they are unlikely to step up to the altar any time soon.

TEL AVIV – As the United States focuses on its showdown with Russia in Ukraine and its escalating competition with China, the Middle East has been left to run its affairs the way it always has: with marriages of convenience between rival powers. These are not Catholic-style “holy matrimonies,” comprehensive and permanent, but coolly pragmatic deals to survive through short-term relationships that fit changing strategic conditions. If only Israel understood that.

Of course, one relatively constant factor – religion – does play an important role in determining whether countries in the region are rivals or allies. But the Sunni-Shia divide has been accorded excessive weight in assessments of the Middle East’s diplomatic shifts. Geopolitical interests and regime survival always prevail over religious identities. This helps to explain why conservative Arab regimes have shown such a remarkable ability to withstand both internal upheaval – exemplified by the resounding defeat of pro-democracy forces during the Arab Spring – and external pressures.

The Gulf countries exemplify this hardheaded approach. Business-oriented and living in the shadow of predator states like Iraq and Iran, they are much more concerned with commerce and discreet security understandings than with ideology. A particularly striking display of such diplomatic pragmatism came last month, when Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Sunni world, and Shia Iran reestablished relations.