By Jacob L. Shapiro
The fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq put a number of issues on hold in the Middle East. But the Islamic State is now all but defeated, and with the loss of a common enemy has come the loss of a common purpose for the anti-IS coalition. Concerns that dominated the region before IS are dominating the region once more. That means Israel, which mostly sat on the sidelines in Syria and Iraq, will become a more active player.
Whoever emerged as the victor in the war in Syria would have been an enemy to Israel, and all things being equal, the Israelis preferred the Assad regime to IS. But Assad is still an enemy, and the more his regime consolidates its power, the more of a threat Syria becomes.
A Nightmare Scenario
Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East changed in 2011 when the Syrian civil war broke out. At the time, there was great uncertainty on all of Israel’s borders, particularly on the Egyptian border. Egypt fell into disarray, and the Muslim Brotherhood briefly rose to power. Although Egypt’s military never seriously relinquished control, Israel had to begin considering a worst-case scenario: a hostile government in a country that was the most serious threat to Israel’s existence in the decades following 1948.
A return to hostilities with Egypt would have been a serious threat. But Israel’s biggest fear isn’t invasion by one enemy; it has the military and advantageous geography to resist any single invader in the region. The country’s nightmare scenario is a well-coordinated invasion by multiple powers. (Had the coalition of Arab states that attacked Israel in 1948 been better coordinated, it might have defeated Israel.) The civil war in Syria, therefore, was actually the silver lining in the uprising in Egypt for the Israelis. At the same time that Israel was dreading the return of past demons in Egypt, its enemies to the north were suddenly incapacitated.
A picture taken on Nov. 20, 2017, shows Israeli Merkava Mark IV tanks taking part in a military exercise near the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images
This turned out to be a boon for Israel, especially once Egypt’s military replaced Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi with the current president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Syria was being torn apart, and the Assad regime was too busy fighting for survival to challenge Israel. Hezbollah, which viewed the Assad regime as an ally and which fought a war with Israel in 2006, was preoccupied in Syria. And, most important for Israel, Iran’s strategy to create a crescent of influence extending to the Mediterranean was temporarily thwarted.
Israel was more secure at that moment than it had ever been. As long as the fighting continued in Syria, Israel faced no immediate threats on its borders. This is not to say that Israel was uninterested in who won out in Damascus, but the best-case scenario for Israel was a long, drawn-out civil war that weakened all sides. And for a few years, this was exactly what happened. Israel intervened occasionally to prevent certain types of weapons, like anti-air or anti-ship missiles, from finding their way into Hezbollah’s hands. But for the most part, Israel, which in the past has had to act pre-emptively to ensure its survival, was largely a bystander.
This passivity made sense while the war raged on. But now the conflict is scaling down and Israel must examine its options. It is in this context that the media’s recent obsession with a budding friendship between Israel and Saudi Arabia must be understood. That Israel and Saudi Arabia should find common cause right now makes perfect sense: It’s a classic case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Iran is a threat to both countries, and the Iran nuclear deal signaled to the United States’ two oldest and most reliable allies in the region that U.S. interests – not Israeli or Saudi interests – were going to dictate future U.S. policy in the Middle East. Intelligence sharing and behind-the-scenes cooperation between the Saudis and Israelis is not so much a revelation as a fait accompli.
There are limits, however, to what Saudi Arabia can offer Israel. Much has been made of the possibility that Saudi Arabia may be willing to recognize Israel – and coax other Arab states to do the same – in exchange for an Israeli strike on Hezbollah in Lebanon. That is the kind of simplistic geopolitical thinking that gives analysis a bad name. Saudi Arabia can offer Israel very little at this point: Egypt and Jordan already recognize Israel, Syria is beyond Riyadh’s reach, Lebanon is now also out of its grasp, and the Gulf states are no longer all under Saudi control now that Riyadh has severed ties with Qatar and is reportedly having trouble with Kuwait too. Israel will not risk its security for recognition from a few Gulf states.
Concerns Closer to Home
The only area in which Saudi Arabia could help Israel is much closer to home, in the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, Israel has charted its own course in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel has pulled out of Palestinian areas that were either unimportant or indefensible. It has continued building settlements in the West Bank, creating numerous new “facts on the ground,” in the past decade and a half. Israel has waged mini-wars against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as if the Gaza Strip were an overgrown garden that required occasional upkeep. Israel could afford this approach because its strategic environment was relatively steady.
But this isn’t the case any longer. The Palestinian issue by itself is not a serious threat to Israel, but it can become one if the Palestinian territories erupt at the same time that Israel faces a foreign invader. Israel has not had to think in these terms for decades, but it no longer has that luxury. Assad’s victory, Iran’s ascendance in the region, Washington’s distractions, Egypt’s instability and even Turkey’s increased assertiveness in its old Ottoman stomping grounds are all potential threats for which Israel must prepare. Israel does not want a Palestinian intifada to break out at a time when the country is facing critical threats, nor does it want a foreign power to be able to use the Palestinians to distract Israel from its regional priorities.
The question, then, is whether Saudi Arabia has enough influence with the Palestinians to strong-arm them into signing a peace deal that would allow the Israelis to put the issue to bed, at least temporarily. The timing makes sense: Israel is in a position of power, and perhaps will never be as strong as it is now. The issue will be getting the Palestinians to accept a deal that grants them a small fraction of the country they have envisioned for generations. The recent machinations in Egypt to secure a reconciliation deal between the Fatah and Hamas factions in the Palestinian territories are the first step in this process, but there is a long way to go, and it’s not clear that Saudi Arabia and Egypt have enough pull to make it happen. Iran, which in the past has financially supported Hamas and currently backs the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, would love to spoil the plan.
Right now, Israel is relatively strong and secure, but it may not stay that way. The U.S.-Israeli relationship, though still strong, is not what it once was. Russia is a bit player that can’t really help Israel. Turkey is strengthening and increasingly independent-minded. Iran, Syria and Lebanon are all enemies of Israel, and Israel can’t assume that Egypt and Jordan will be docile forever. Israel must now play a delicate game – but playing that game isn’t going to be easy if it’s facing constant strife at home. If Saudi Arabia can help, then Israel may be willing to return the favor. But there is no silver bullet. No single relationship is going to fix all of Israel’s problems. Israel is strong now, but danger is on the horizon.