Originally produced on Oct. 17, 2016 for Mauldin Economics, LLC
Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted overwhelmingly to support the Muslim claim that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (which includes the Islamic holy site Al-Aqsa Mosque) ought to be regarded as a solely Muslim site. This particular vote was different than the usual condemnation of Israel because it did not condemn Israeli actions. Instead, it essentially denied that either Judaism or Christianity have any legitimate claims to the site. The resolution was so extreme that even UNESCO’s director condemned it. She said that the site was sacred to all three religions.
The resolution has no practical consequence of course, but it is a good starting point for considering Israel’s current strategic position. Of late, the focus in the region has been the fighting in Syria and Iraq, the Russian intervention, the attempted coup in Turkey, financial problems in Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni civil war, and the eternally pending attack on Mosul.
Given this list of problems, Israel has not been a focus in the region. Even Muslim states have had far more to worry about than Israel. Israel has become a side issue, but this is likely only temporary. First, Israel is the most powerful military force in the region. Second, there is intense fighting in the region. At some point, attention will swing back on Israel. The UNESCO resolution gives us an opportunity to consider Israel’s position at the moment.
Israel’s Strength Amid Chaos
Israel is currently in the strongest strategic position it has ever been in. The peace treaty with Egypt remains in place. Even without it, Egypt’s military has deteriorated as a fighting force and does not present any threat to Israel.
Jordan depends on Israel for its national security. It is a relatively weak country and faces threats from both the north and the east and is an essential buffer for Israel against those same threats.
Syria, which was once a direct threat to Israel, is engaged in a civil war that, however it ends, will take at least a generation to recover from. Lebanon is relatively stable. Hezbollah, which Israelis see as a major threat, is being used in the Syrian war by its Iranian allies and is trapped in the complexities of Lebanese politics. Therefore, Israel has no military threats on its borders.
Beyond its borders, there is a sea of unpredictable chaos. To Israel’s west, the situation is in chaos. The conflict doesn’t affect Israel’s immediate interests, but its evolution is uncertain. Meanwhile, the Sinai Peninsula is filled with groups that support the Islamic State (IS), and Israel and Egypt are cooperating to try to contain these groups. The military currently has control of Egypt, but the militant groups operating in Sinai have substantial support in Egypt and might emerge at any point in a direct challenge to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.
To Israel’s east, Iraq and Syria are embroiled in a multi-sided war… with great powers involved. How the Syrian conflict will end is uncertain, to say the least. The United States, Russia, and Turkey are directly involved with an endless array of factions competing. Not least among them is IS, which holds a substantial portion of Syria under its control. At the moment, Russia and the US are at loggerheads over Aleppo; Turkey is being inscrutable; and IS seems on the defensive, but that’s only because it hasn’t chosen to act. Israel’s best hope, a pro-Israeli government, isn’t going to happen.
The resolution of the conflict will involve either a partitioned Syria (with attendant dangers) or a single country through forced unification by one of the outside powers, which is also worrisome. In Iraq, the situation could evolve in such a way as to be a direct threat to Jordan, and therefore, to Israel.
The Role of Regional Powers
There are three other regional powers in the Middle East besides Israel: Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s strategic ideal is that one of them would take responsibility not only in Syria, but also in Iraq and Egypt, or that the United States takes on that role.
But the US is not going to do that. It has learned that it has enough force to crush an opposing army, but the occupation and pacification of a country are another matter. It failed at this in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The idea that it will attempt to occupy and pacify the entire region is preposterous, and the Israelis know it.
But, there are two problems with relying on the other three regional powers to take this role. First, each of these countries has its own problems. Turkey is dealing with the aftermath of the attempted coup and trying to define its foreign policy. Having purged the Turkish army’s officer corps, it will only be engaged in limited operations for the time being. Iran’s ability to project force is limited by the nature of its military, which engages in covert operations at a distance. It can’t project and sustain force, particularly in a hostile Sunni Arab country. Finally, Saudi Arabia is in a deep financial crisis and is bogged down in Yemen. It is not going to be the solution.
The second problem (from Israel’s point of view) is that any country that brings stability to the region would have to be not only quite powerful to achieve this goal, but also would wind up directly on Israel’s border (in at least the Golan Heights, and quite possibly in the Sinai Peninsula and Jordan River valley as well). The current self-generated disorder poses a danger to Israel, but it is not an immediate one. The regional solution to the disorder might pose a greater danger to Israel than the disorder.
So, Israel is secure for the moment because its immediate neighbors are either weak or in chaos. No regional power is in a position to solve the problem, nor would Israel welcome that. But the weakness of the Saudis and Turks and the limits on the Iranians offer Israel an opportunity. The Saudis need a strong regional supporter, since the United States has become unreliable. Saudi Arabia is dealing with economic problems that prevent it from simply using money to manage its foreign affairs. Therefore, it has an interest in a relationship with Israel because of shared enemies and interests. They want the chaos to be contained but not necessarily resolved.
A similar situation exists with Turkey. Turkey is opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, therefore, to the Russian and Iranian attempts to save him. At the same time, Turkey wants to play Russia against the US. This leaves Turkey in an even more complex position than Israel, but both have roughly similar interests.
The Palestinian Complication
Israel is therefore engaged in a complex game of regional diplomacy… where no one is quite sure of their own positions, let alone anyone else’s. Israel is using this diplomatic game to keep the dangers in the region at a distance. It is a purely tactical game, but sometimes the only viable strategy is tactical.
Lurking beneath these tactics is a deep Israeli concern. Israel has managed to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization. It has managed to contain Hamas. But one of the reasons for this is that many Muslim countries—including Jordan, for example—were either indifferent or hostile to Palestinian interests. The uprisings in Israel were contained because external support was limited. Even Iran, which is very hostile to Israel, was not interested in seeing a powerful Sunni or secular Palestinian movement succeed.
However, if the tactical game that regional powers are playing blows up and results in a more powerful, unified Islamist force (either through the support of a regional power or operating on its own), it could radically change Palestinian behavior. If IS were freed from the intense pressure it is currently under and did not need to participate in a civil war, it could give the Palestinians something they never had before—the tools to stage a broad-based armed uprising.
To this point, IS has had little success penetrating the Palestinian groups, partly because of Palestinian politics and culture, and partly because it was a luxury IS could not afford. But if Israel loses control of the regional political situation, such an outcome is not impossible. Indeed, this could happen as a result of Israel simultaneously facing a radical and aggressive Egypt or Syria, or even a hostile government replacing Hashemite Jordan.
Why the UNESCO Vote Reveals Weakness
The UNESCO vote should be viewed in this context. Israel’s inclination is to regard it as proof of how corrupt the UN has become. But there is a logic to follow from that point. If the situation is such that France would first support the resolution in a previous vote and then agree to abstain, then the question Israel has to ask is, why would France choose to do this?
In the scenario I am laying out, Israel will not be in a position to deal with a challenge by itself. It will need the support of the Europeans. But the French feel that the Israelis have put them in a domestic political circumstance that makes it impossible to even vote against this resolution, let alone come to Israel’s aid. Europe’s political inclinations are, in this scenario, a matter of strategic importance. Wining the moral argument but losing the political basis for support is a net loss for Israel.
This is compounded by Israel’s American problem. It is clear that after 15 years of fighting in the Islamic world, the US is reconfiguring its strategy. It knows it cannot occupy and pacify these countries, and it is also reaching the conclusion that the US interest in the status of the region is decreasing. Watching US caution in both Iraq and Syria drives home the point that the US is now limiting its exposure.
The political equation has shifted as well. The power of the Israeli lobby in the US has waned over the last 15 years. It is not negligible (as the recent aid package for Israel shows), but it is not decisive. If Israel found itself losing control of the regional political structure, facing an armed intifada and, in the worst case, a simultaneous threat from a bordering power, it does not have the ability to engage without at least American support or even forces.
The importance of the UNESCO declaration is that so many nations either voted for it or abstained, including some European nations, particularly France. Israel has never been popular in the UN, but the declaration shows how unpopular it has become. Only six nations—the US, the UK, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Germany, and Estonia—voted against it. Some of these are very important nations, but they are also nations that are either licking their wounds from battle or facing internal political problems. Even in the UK, which voted against the resolution, the degree of anti-Israel feeling is extraordinary. If Israel passes from a highly favorable strategic position to a much less favorable position, it will have to call on these nations for help. It is a small and reluctant group and, ultimately, one that has to deal with domestic political problems.
The Israelis have reached a superb strategic position. It cannot get better. But it can get worse. If it deteriorates, Israel will need support, and that support depends on the political mood of the possible ally. Israel needs to manage that mood because it may determine the outcome of one possible scenario.
Ideally, what other countries think of you shouldn’t matter. You manage external political relationships in anticipation of things going wrong. In this case, Israel’s approach to managing its relations with the European and American public has been clumsy. For most nations, that wouldn’t represent an existential threat. For Israel, there are circumstances where it might.
Israel’s own internal politics do not permit planning for the next phase of Israeli history. Israel has achieved strategic security, and it is politically unwise to act as if that achievement is a permanent condition. The UNESCO resolution can be condemned, ignored, or ridiculed. But the extreme nature of the resolution and the small number of countries that voted against it are warnings. Israel needs to execute its strategy with perfection. In most things, especially the most important, that isn’t the likely path.