Israel is actively involved in three different protracted conflicts – or more accurately competitions – that manifest the collision of various visions for the region: (1) pacifying the Gaza Strip; (2) responding to Sunni jihadists threatening the country from Syria, Sinai, Lebanon, and Jordan; (3) and rolling back the Iranian threat network in the Levant. All three present unique challenges for Israel. They entail varied combinations of nonviolent as well as conventional and unconventional military measures. Each can escalate independently, or they can morph into multiform conflicts. Some will be further complicated by the potential for concurrent major humanitarian crises, especially in Gaza, Syria, or Lebanon.
Israel’s Relations With Neighbours
The argument of Israel’s strong strategic position is persuasive. The joint Israeli-Egyptian hammerlock on Gaza has constrained operations by Hamas and weakened its authority to some extent. This has not markedly strengthened the Palestinian National Authority, which has its own problems holding together a fractious Palestinian community on the West Bank. The recent wave of knife attacks against Israelis does not threaten Israel’s strategic position in any way. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel has proved to be among the most durable features of the region, even surviving the 2012-13 government of Mohammed Morsi, led by the country’s largest Islamist movement – the Muslim Brotherhood. The relationship goes beyond neutrality to a degree of collaboration against the major powers in the region.
Jordan remains an ally under Israel’s strategic umbrella. Syria, which had been a major adversary of Israel, is so shattered by the civil war that, regardless of what emerges from the chaos, it will take at least a generation to recover. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has been severely weakened by its involvement in Syria, and is in no position to reopen conflict with Israel.
Redefining US-Israel Relations
This is partly a result of a diminished US regional role, creating space for other actors to pursue their own regional policies. Although Israel is affected by these complex unfolding dynamics, it lacks a nuanced picture of the forces, logic, and motives behind actors’ behaviours. Israel’s dependence on the United States has declined. The improvement in its strategic condition allows it less dependence on the United States and more room for manoeuvre should it need it. Israel’s greatest strategic weakness has been that its national security needs outstripped its capacity in many areas from production to manpower. Israel therefore needed the patronage of a major power, which created the most serious vulnerability Israel has ever had. If Israel’s interests diverged from those of the United States, its main patron since 1967, it would be caught in a dangerous position. The decline of regional threats frees Israel, to at least a limited extent, from US control, which is in Israel’s strategic advantage.
Old Security Threats
In fact, regime military threats to Israel’s national security from countries such as Egypt, Syria, or Iraq are today lower than ever before. Some of these countries are allies, or at least share interests with Israel, and play by the “old rules” of the state system. Other actors, meanwhile, such as Salafi-jihadist groups and members of the Shiite axis, are striving to transform the current regional balance of power in general and the state system in particular. In the coming decade, hybrid entities and networks of subnational and transnational actors will pose ever-greater threats to Israeli national security in the context of a chronically unstable region. At the military-strategic level, adversaries employing asymmetric warfare have the ways and means to bypass Israel’s previously effective military shield.
The rise of the Islamic State as a defined territorial entity is something that Israel can cope with should the need arise. But destabilizing Syria and Iraq might draw off a great deal of Arab power to be used against Israel. The Russian intervention in Syria has benefited Israel by blocking IS from further expansion and securing a crippled Assad regime, the best outcome for Israel. It also has forced Turkey, in confrontation with Russia, to re-evaluate its tense relationship with Israel. In addition, the rise of IS has alarmed the states on the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia, and led to increased cooperation with Israel. On 15 March 2016, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited Moscow to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin on Syria and the circumstances that led to Russian pull-out. According to Israeli media, the two leaders also discussed continued military coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow in Syria. Rivlin later held talks with Prime Minister Medvedevin in which Russian government sought more imports of agriculture products from Israel to replace Turkish products, blocked following sanctions on Ankara. An Israeli official told local media that “over the last few months, we had regular contact with the Russians at the highest level, and that will continue.”
For the last few years, there have been low tides in Tel Aviv-Ankara relations. But the history of the political and diplomatic vicissitudes of relationship indicate the fact that Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians has been the corner stone to decide the future of relationship between the two states.
Reports of a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey toward the end of 2015 were a welcomed development following five turbulent years. The most important factors for such a mending of relations, it has been suggested, are (1) Israel’s desire to export the huge natural gas reserves discovered in the Tamar and Leviathan wells via Turkey, and (2) Turkey’s need for that same natural gas. Of course this is all vital for the region. Let us not forget, however, that trade between Israel and Turkey in the five years when relations were impaired actually reached record levels. The thesis that commercial interests are motivating a thaw in Israel-Turkey relations is not, therefore, a very powerful one.
The signing of an agreement of cooperation between Israel, Greece and Cyprus in Nicosia in February has tremendous implications for the future of this strategic region and for Israel. The trilateral Israel-Greece-Cyprus alliance is a potential game changer at a juncture when new regional alignments are forging in the Middle East after the lifting of sanctions against Iran. The new alliance gives Israel much-needed strategic depth.
Publicly all three countries say that this alliance is not against any other country, meaning specifically Turkey. However the reality probably is the opposite. Of these countries, Israel is the only major military power. Both Greece and Cyprus have major economic problems, and although members of the EU, are not in any significant way protected by their EU-NATO alliance. Although the EU and the US are very “concerned” about Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians, Turkey has been occupying the northern third of Cyprus since 30 years, whereas the EU and the US are doing nothing about this.
Opinion polls show that although most Palestinians disagree with Hamas’ ideological extremism and support a two-state solution to the conflict, they also accept the notion of “armed struggle” as a legitimate route to get there, citing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as an example of what such pressure can achieve. This complicated preference structure gives Hamas a perverse incentive to disrupt progress in diplomatic negotiations, since the normalization of Palestinian-Israeli relations could well lessen Hamas’ appeal. As long as its military and political powers enhance each other, Hamas will be able to fend off pressures to disarm and derail progress toward peace. Given the urgency of moving the conflict toward resolution, there would eventually be no time to let Palestinian domestic politics play out long enough for Hamas’ political socialization to occur. Ideally, Israeli-Palestinian relations need improve in tandem along with conditions in the Palestinian Authority. This has the potential to create a virtuous cycle that can help drive both the peace process and the Palestinian reform process forward.
Revisiting the Old Vision
From a geostrategic perspective, the centre of Israel, together with Jordan and the West Bank, has the potential to function as the stable core of the Middle East. The area’s location along the Mediterranean, together with the maritime exclusive economic zone, creates a littoral bloc that stretches from Cyprus to Jordan. Given offshore energy discoveries and Israeli desalination capabilities, the area could well grow as a centre of the region’s water, food, and energy security and as the only secure ground-transport bridge from the Mediterranean to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Not only is fostering such a positive future in the interests of regional countries, it also coincides with the interests of international actors such as the United States, China, and the European Union.
Israel shares with Egypt and others the challenge of pacifying and stabilizing the Gaza Strip and Sinai. To achieve this, Israel needs to cooperate closely with Egypt and third parties from within and outside the region and to develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure demilitarization and prevent rearmament, while at the same time promoting de-radicalization and rehabilitation.
Given the geopolitical linkages connecting the Gaza Strip with the West Bank and Egypt, and the relations between Israel and Egypt, Israel can influence the role of the Gaza Strip and Egypt in the littoral bloc. It also retains leverage over the extent to which Gaza and the West Bank will function as a single political entity or remain separated. Embracing a strategy that incorporates expanded lines of effort and a broader cast of actors and contributors is essential to any effort to transform Israel’s security establishment to meet the demands of the changing regional environment.
Given the rise of asymmetric threats, this study argues that the Israeli security establishment must shift from its longstanding focus on military concentration to developing a strategic multidimensional competence aimed at meeting a broad range of security threats. Unfortunately, in the current system, tactical proficiency, which can be assessed by traditional measures, almost always trumps strategic competence. As noted, this is much more difficult to measure and assess. Massive rural-urban migration, mostly to littoral zones, has already vastly altered the setting and context of Israel’s wars. The offshore energy discoveries in Israel’s maritime exclusive economic zone, including the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields, are already significantly altering Israel’s energy security and its geostrategic posture. Yet the path toward independence is replete with challenges and necessitates adapted diplomatic, economic, security, strategic, legislative, and regulatory policies that the country is not yet equipped to implement. The first step in addressing the widening gap between Israel’s current security structure and the changing regional security situation is to develop a conceptual framework, or map of regional realities that outlines and analyses future national security goals and challenges. Thereby, Israel will be able to revise and even replace its US-backed “hard-power security doctrine” with the EU’s fostered “soft power security paradigm”.