Sam Seitz

Intro – Israel’s Position in the New Middle East

The New Middle East, defined as the period following the 2011 Arab Spring, has secured Israel against conventional wars by weakening traditional regional rivals like Syria. But the Spring concomitantly generated a range of new issues by undermining the traditional sources of stability, the authoritarian Arab regimes. This instability has created an ungovernable region and led to the proliferation of violent nonstate actors, interference from regional and global powers, and increasingly aggressive expansion from revisionist states like Iran.[1] This has resulted in numerous tactical and strategic challenges for Israel, but nearly every challenge derives from the instability and lack of state control in the region. Israel must develop new strategies for addressing the root cause of its problems – regional instability – or risk being overwhelmed by every tactical challenge it faces. At the same time, Israeli policymakers should improve their ability to rapidly respond to increasingly unpredictable and variegated threats both from outside and within Israel’s borders.

Issue Analysis – Highlighting the Salient Features of the New Middle East

Four Camps – Israel faces an environment defined by geopolitical competition among the Iranian-led Shia block (Houthis and Hezbollah), a “moderate” status quo block (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt), a group defined by political Islam (Turkey, Qatar, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood), and Salafi jihadists (ISIS and al-Qaeda). The competition among these camps has created a regional cold war in which regimes compete with religious movements and each other for influence and control.[2] This has eroded regional order, as Middle East powers meddle in other states’ affairs and increasingly exploit terrorist groups and nonstate actors as proxies. Many of these proxies, like Hezbollah, pose a serious strategic threat to Israel. However, it is important to recognize that competition between these camps is not zero sum, and Israel might be able to cooperate with different camps to achieve strategic objectives.
Great Powers – Russia and the U.S. have played a major role in shaping regional events. Russia has invested considerable resources in Syria to buttress the Assad regime, which has in some ways stabilized the region by preventing the complete collapse of Syria but has also limited Israeli freedom of action and provided cover for Iranian proxy groups hostile to Israel to expand and threaten Israeli interests and security. The U.S. has also remained deeply involved in the region, although the current American strategy lacks clear objectives and prioritizes destroying ISIS over actors, like Iran and Hezbollah, that present a greater threat to Israel. Israel’s solid working relationships with both great powers mean that it might be possible for Jerusalem to leverage U.S. and Russian capabilities to its advantage, though conflicting priorities pose a major limitation to this approach.
Breakup of Arab States and Warring Nonstate Actors – Instability in neighboring Arab states has created a permissive environment for militant nonstate actors. This has led to a new form of irregular warfare characterized by guerrilla tactics, mixing of civilians and combatants, and prolonged low-level conflict.[3] The end of stable, autocratic rule in countries like Syria has made it difficult to ascertain and predict future trends and threats. Further, the lack of clear battlefields creates difficulties for the small state of Israel, as it must prepare its military for expeditionary operations in places like Lebanon while, at the same time, protecting its borders and guarding against attack in its interior. However, by becoming embroiled in domestic conflicts and civil wars, Arab states are less focused on Palestine, which may prove beneficial for Israel’s domestic security.

Possible Solutions

Reform the IDF – To effectively defend against the multifaceted threats that Israel currently faces, the IDF must do a better job of specializing and expanding its forces because, as the Institute for National Security Studies notes, “The [current] effort to use military units for diverse and fundamentally different missions… leads to a decline in the professional level of the forces… and lack of efficiency in organization and resources.”[4]
Increase Cooperation with Status Quo Powers and Useful Nonstate Actors – Israel shares several strategic interests with status quo states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, as all are threatened by Sunni jihadists, refugees and/or Iran. Israel also shares interests with certain nonstate actors in Syria as well as, potentially, the Kurds. Aligning with these groups would allow Israel to better influence the regional order and shape emerging regional political entities.[5]
Work with Great Powers to Set the AgendaBoth the U.S. and Russia have significant assets and influence in the Middle East. Israel should work to better leverage its relations with both powers to more proactively shape regional developments, minimize the risks of nonstate actors, and balance regional rivals such as Iran.

Strategic Recommendations

  1. Israel should emphasize countering guerrilla tactics in its military training, create a separate military police force within the IDF to provide security in the Palestinian territories and protect against infiltration by nonstate actors, and increase the size and capacity of the Israeli Navy to counter the growing range of threats to trade and energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.[6] These reforms should occur over the next year – though naval expansion may take longer – because the alternative is an overly generic force poorly prepared for the broad range of possible contingencies present in an increasingly complex and unpredictable Middle East.
  2. Israel should continue to rhetorically support useful nonstate groups such as the Druze and Kurds as well as provide them with humanitarian aid and defensive military equipment. This would ensure that Israel possesses influence in the stateless regions of the Middle East and is on friendly terms with groups opposed to Iran and its proxies. Further, Israel should continue offering limited assistance to al-Nusra fighters in Syria to balance against local Shia militias and minimize the risk of conflict with Salafi jihadists. Were Israel to lose these connections, Iran would be able to exploit regional chaos to further entrench its influence in Syria, creating a strategic disaster for Israel.
  3. Israel should seek to improve strategic relations with Greece and Cyprus to balance against an increasingly intransigent Turkey.[7] Additionally, Israel should work with the U.S. to provide Egypt with the financial and military resources necessary for securing the Sinai. This would increase Egyptian goodwill and boost Israeli influence among the status quo camp, which could perhaps lead to cooperation on other issues like Palestine and Iran.
  4. Israel should work with the U.S. to create common regional priorities including limiting the spread of Iranian proxies (especially in Southern Syria), providing joint military and financial aid to status quo states like Jordan and Egypt, and better coordinating regional grand strategy.[8] Israel should also pledge to freeze new settlements in the West Bank sometime this year, as this would appease American Democrats whose distrust of Netanyahu grew after he delivered his speech to Congress without President Obama’s consent. Regarding Russia, Israel should offer to serve as an honest broker between Moscow and Washington, as Trump and Putin both ostensibly desire better relations, and success in this regard would improve Israel’s usefulness and standing in both the U.S. and Russia. Finally, Israel should coordinate with Russia before initiating any major operations against Iranian proxies. Russia is skeptical of growing Iranian power, and might be amenable to limited strikes by Israel against Hezbollah, even helping de-escalate after Israel achieved its limited objectives.[9] But failure to coordinate could lead to dangerous escalation spirals and the erosion or loss of beneficial relations with Moscow.

Limitations

While military specialization and expansion is certainly possible for a well-funded and organized force like the IDF, the level of training and expansion necessary might produce funding and capacity challenges in the short to medium term, especially given the IDF’s status as a conscription force. Working with nonstate actors is also difficult, as their interests and goals are not always possible to ascertain, and they don’t always align with those of Israel. Moreover, becoming too committed to certain nonstate actors might lead to entanglement in conflicts – such as Kurdistan-Iraq – that are ultimately of little importance to Israel. These same problems also exist when dealing with regional powers like Egypt. But, unlike cooperation with certain nonstate groups, efforts to engage with the status quo Camp are also constrained by public opinion: the Egyptian and Jordanian public, for example, do not support Israel, a reality that would likely limit potential cooperation.[10] Finally, working with the great powers is complicated due to their wide-ranging regional interests and frequent animosity toward each other. Israel is useful to both and can, therefore, work to push both Moscow and Washington in the direction it wants. However, the great powers will always place their interests ahead of Israel’s, limiting certain areas of cooperation.

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Notes:

[1] Ephraim Kam et. al., “The Turmoil in the Middle East,” in Strategic Survey for Israel 2014-2015, edited by Anat Kurz and Shlomo Brom, 91-114, Tel Aviv, Israel: Institute for National Security Studies, 2015.

[2] Bülent Aras and Emirhan Yorulmazlar, “Mideast Geopolitics: The Struggle for a New Order, Middle East Policy 14 no. 2 (Summer 2017): 58-59.

[3] Amos Harel, “Israel’s Evolving Military: The IDF Adapts to New Threats,” Foreign Affairs, June 8, 2016, 44-46.

[4] Kobi Michael and Gabi Siboni, “The First Circle of Military Challenges Facing Israel: Multiple Arenas and Diverse Enemies,” in in Strategic Survey for Israel 2016-2017, edited by Anat Kurz and Shlomo Brom, 203-215, Tel Aviv, Israel: Institute for National Security Studies, 2016, 204.

[5] Aras and Yorulmazlar, 67.

[6] Efraim Inbar, “Implications for Israel in a Transformed Middle East,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 19, no. 1 (Spring 2015), 76.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carmit Valensi and Udi Dekel, “The Current Challenges in the Middle East Demand a Joint United States-Israel Strategy,” Strategic Assessment 19, no. 1 (April 2016), 32-37.

[9] Dmitry Adamsky, “How Moscow Could Benefit From A Conflict Between Israel and Hezbollah,” Foreign Affairs, October 6, 2017.

[10] Yousef Munayyer, “Why Iran Won’t Bring the Israelis and Arabs Together,” Foreign Affairs, June 6, 2017.