There are four key regional powers in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Within this group, however, there is a distinct division. Turkey and Iran are potential hegemons—they represent the heirs of the Ottoman and Persian empires. Israel and Saudi Arabia are key players, but they share a critical limitation: their strategic needs outweigh their capabilities, and they are limited in how much they can shape events in the region. We have studied in depth the weaknesses inherent in the Saudi kingdom and how its power will wane with the diminution of its oil wealth. Israel, for different reasons than Saudi Arabia, also faces a gravely dangerous future. The danger is a ways off, but the eventual challenge Israel will face is no less potent.
Israel Is Secure
Israel has never been stronger than it is today. On all of its borders, it is in a reasonably secure position. To the south, the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty remains firmly in place. That the treaty has held for 37 years can dull our sense of just how transformative it has been. From Israel’s founding in 1948 until 1979, Egypt was a mortal enemy. Today, relations between Egypt and Israel are so cooperative that as recently as 2014, Israel allowed Egypt to deploy infantry battalions and various attack aircraft in the Sinai Peninsula to fight radical elements operating there.
To the east, Israel has maintained de facto security control over the West Bank since 1967, and in 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan. The acquisition of the West Bank dramatically improved Israel’s security. Before 1967, Jordanian forces held the high ground. From Qalqilya, they stood within reach of roughly 40 percent of Israel’s population, concentrated then, as today, in the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area. From Tulkarm, Jordanian forces needed to advance only 10 miles to reach the coast and, in effect, cut Israel in half. Today, the Israelis cooperate with the Jordanians as much if not more than they do with the Egyptians, and there is no military force on the west bank of the Jordan River that poses a meaningful threat to Israeli security. Any attacking force would have to cross the Jordan River and fight through hilly, difficult terrain to reach Israel’s core.
To the northeast, Syria’s civil war has left another historical enemy in complete disarray. Since 1967, the Israelis have controlled the bulk of the Golan Heights, and Syria’s various factions are so distracted with fighting each other that they do not have the time or the resources to threaten Israel in any meaningful way, nor will they for years to come. Israeli military planners consider their greatest threat to be Hezbollah operating out of Lebanon. But Hezbollah has thrown its forces into the Syrian conflict to back Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Iranian allies. Hezbollah still has missiles that it could use to make life in the north very difficult for Israel, but it has neither the will nor the appetite for conflict now. Even if it did, it would eventually run out of rockets, and Israel has the capability to go in on the ground and cripple Hezbollah.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have never represented an existential military threat to Israel and are arguably more politically fractured today than they have ever been. Israel maintains a blockade around the Gaza Strip, and Egypt is as invested in keeping Gaza quiet as Israel is. There are occasional conflicts with Hamas—including four major spasms in the last decade. These are horrible events for Israelis living in the cities around Gaza, but they do not threaten Israel’s security. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas runs the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank and is weak politically. The recent spate of stabbings pales in comparison to the first and second intifadas, but even a third intifada would not change Israel’s overwhelming military supremacy on the ground.
On none of its borders does Israel face a force that can project an existential threat—Syria’s civil war removed the last potential contender for that title.
Three Looming Challenges
From a regional perspective three challenges loom for Israel: Iran, the Islamic State, and Turkey. Each of these challenges demonstrates how Israel is secure in the short term but in the long term cannot guarantee its own security.
Iran is the challenge most often mentioned, largely due to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has built his political career around the notion that he is the only Israeli leader sufficiently aware of and capable of dealing with the threat Iran poses. That strategy has worked well so far for Netanyahu—he is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, besides founding father David Ben-Gurion. In the short term, however, Iran cannot be said to pose a meaningful threat to Israel. In 2010, Iran was building an arc of Shiite influence that extended from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean Sea via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iraq is now in shambles, Syria is in a state of civil war, and pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon have been cut off from their direct link to Iran and are engaged in Syria. Iran is 1,000 miles away from Israel, and rhetoric aside, it faces an existential crisis in the battle for influence in Baghdad and, to a lesser degree, in its fight to prop up Assad’s regime in Syria.
The key outlier here, of course, is nuclear weapons, and herein lies Israel’s fundamental weakness. Our view has always been that Iran did not want to develop nuclear weapons so much as it wanted others to believe it was developing them so they could be used as a bargaining chip. But Israel cannot make such assumptions. It has long viewed an Iranian nuclear program as a threat yet has been powerless to do anything about it. In 1981, Israel struck and destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq in what was called Operation Opera. In 2012, Israel destroyed a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in Operation Orchard. Iran poses a much more difficult challenge. It is too far away for the Israeli air force to attack without forward deploying (and thereby alerting the Iranians). Israel lacks the weapons necessary to attack underground sites, and gaining intelligence on where the facilities are and whether strikes have been successful would be extremely difficult. In sum, if Israel were capable of destroying the Iranian nuclear program, it would have done so. Every time it has threatened to do so, it was bluffing.
The Islamic State is another potential threat that does not get enough attention. The media is fixated on the fact that IS has lost territory in recent months. We, however, see a sophisticated fighting force that has again retreated to more favorable ground and is defending a core territory. In the short term, IS works in Israel’s interests. It has crippled a mortal enemy in Assad and is not in a position to threaten Israel directly. But if IS or some other entity rises from the Syrian civil war able to unite Arab power, effecting a rebirth of the United Arab Republic that the founder of modern Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to build in the 1950s, that alliance would represent a fundamental threat to Israel’s interests. This is an unlikely scenario but not an impossible one, and Israel does not have the luxury of discounting the unlikely.
Israel has thus far stayed out of the Syrian civil war because chaos in Syria works directly in Israel’s interest—but also because Israel does not have the capability to shape the conflict. Israel’s military is well equipped and trained, but it cannot manage a protracted conflict in which it must fight over extended supply lines. Such a conflict would cripple the Israeli economy and put the military at risk of casualties it cannot afford. Though the Syrian civil war may continue for years, it will eventually end. And then Israel will face to the northeast a new reality that it cannot define and that will thrust new challenges on Israel’s security establishment. Israel benefits from Syria’s chaos, but Israel was not the architect of Syria’s situation and cannot control Syria’s future.
The country that can dictate Syria’s future is Turkey. Turkey is the strongest of the region’s powers, and however much it does not want to intervene in the conflicts raging around it, Ankara cannot permanently accept ongoing chaos along its southern border. In terms of GDP, Turkey already has the largest economy in the region, and it also has the largest military force. By the end of the 1960s, Israel and Turkey were in the US camp in the Cold War, and despite the recent strain in relations dating back to 2010, cooperation has continued behind the scenes. But we believe the most likely scenario for the Middle East in the next 20 years is that Turkey will be forced to take a deep interest in Syria and will have to insert itself into the conflict to prevent the rise of potentially hostile states.
Here again is a strategic challenge the Israelis cannot predict or shape. If Turkey decides that projecting power into the Levant is in its interest, Israel can do nothing to stop it. If Turkey decides it wants nuclear weapons, Israel can do nothing to stop it. There is no telling how Turkey’s rise will affect the future of Israeli–Egyptian or Israeli–Jordanian relations. The Middle East today is in a state of chaos, and such chaos serves Israel’s interests. This chaos, however, will not be interminable. Order will eventually return in the form of a strong Turkey, a united Arab entity, an overachieving Iran, or some other as yet unimagined scenario. And in that future world, Israel’s relative power and security will quickly evaporate.
Throughout its history, Israel has depended on a great-power patron. In 1948, it was the Soviets. Until 1967, it was the French. And since then, it has been the United States. The US–Israel relationship, however, has been fraying because it was grounded in a strategic partnership to combat the Soviet Union and its Arab allies during the Cold War. After the Soviet Union collapsed, there was something of a honeymoon phase, but Israel’s relatively secure position now allows it more independence from the US than it had in the past. And the US move to establish a balance of power in the Middle East has rendered Israel far less important to American strategic interests.
That balance of power strategy is what led to the Iranian nuclear deal, which Netanyahu felt was so misguided that he came to the US to lecture Congress about why it should oppose the deal. Ironically, though, in the long term the US’s balance of power strategy is one of the best things that could happen to Israel. It injects a modicum of strategic necessity back into the relationship. The US is more focused on Iran and Turkey now—the US considers Turkey, in particular, a very important ally, despite some friction. But while the US is seeking to establish order by letting the region proceed on its own, the US has no interest in allowing any one power to dominate the region, and certainly not Turkey, which sits on strategic real estate on the Bosporus. Israel cannot dictate strategic American interests. But Israel can serve as an important insurance policy to make sure no single power can dominate the entire region.
Israel, throughout its ancient and modern history, has existed at the whim of other powers. As it did during the days of the Davidic and Solomonic monarchies, Israel today lives in a perfect storm of circumstances that gives it strength and security. The last 68 years, however, have not been the norm in the Middle East, and neither have the last five in which Israel has become more secure than at any other point during its modern iteration. There are geopolitical reasons why Israel did not exist for a period of over 2,000 years. Those reasons haven’t gone away, and they will reassert themselves. At that point, Israel will have to depend on foreign backers, the skills of its leaders, and the unity of its state. None of those are sure bets.
Jacob Shapiro (filling in for George Friedman)
This Week in Geopolitics