By George Friedman
The strength of Israel’s position in the Middle East has been the subject of a recent spate of articles. That strength is clear, for the moment. The question, however, is how durable it is. The current situation in Israel’s vicinity indeed makes it appear that Israel has an enormous advantage, but a more careful reading of the situation shows its position to be more brittle than meets the eye.
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 2012-2013 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 under Israel’s strategic umbrella, an ally. 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.
The rise of the Islamic State as a defined territorial entity is something that Israel can cope with should the need arise, but in destabilizing Syria and Iraq it draws off a great deal of Arab power that might 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.
Finally, Israel maintains its massive nuclear advantage over Iran, even while its own program appears to be on hold. While Israel has spoken of the threat Iranian forces in Syria can pose, this is hard to take seriously. The distance from Iran to Syria is about a thousand miles along vulnerable roads and unstable regions. Iran does not have the power to deploy a force significant enough to confront Israel at that distance. The Iranian threat remains theoretical.
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 maneuver 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. It therefore needed the patronage of a major power, creating the most serious vulnerability Israel had – if its interest diverged from the United States (its main patron since after 1967) it would be caught in a dangerous position. The decline of regional threats frees Israel to at least a limited extent from U.S. controls and that has locked in its strategic advantage. For now.
The problem with this assessment is that it assumes that a transitory situation in the Arab world is permanent. It is not. The chaos we are now seeing is the collapse of states created by France and Britain, and inevitably, after a terrific fight, a new system of states and relationships will emerge. The model here is Lebanon, whose government essentially collapsed and was replaced by a series of factions battling for security and supremacy. This dynamic has lasted for generations, starting in the 1970s. In due course, the battling – which drew in Israel, the United States, the Soviet Union and Iran in various ways – finally resulted in a new constitution that created a new and complex stability in Lebanon. No conflict is permanent, and after the conflict ends, what emerges is not only new, but frequently has the strength of the battle-forged.
It is possible that IS or a successor entity will over time emerge as a major power, which would threaten Israel. But in my mind, this is not the major threat. The power that will ultimately emerge is Turkey. Whatever the current complex calculations of the Turkish government, it cannot permanently accept ongoing chaos along its southern border. The Russians are incapable of pacifying the region, and are ultimately a threat to Turkish security, since Russian involvement in the region requires supply lines through the Bosporus. The United States is not going to allow a recurrence of Iraq, where it is compelled to undertake unlimited occupation warfare with limited forces against a determined enemy.
That means there are two powers that have an interest in stabilizing the region: Turkey and Iran. Turkey is a major power, and while Iran is weaker, it can still field a significant force. Neither is an Arab country and each is concerned that the outcome of the fighting could be a nation-state larger than any previous states – a true form of the United Arab Republic that the founder of modern Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, sought to build in the late 1950s. The alternative would be ongoing chaos on an escalating path with unforeseen consequences. Syria and Iraq following the Lebanon model would concern both non-Arab powers. Iran has a deep interest in Iraq. Turkey will be forced to take a deep interest in Syria, particularly as it stabilizes.
This is Israel’s problem. The ideal situation for Israel is the one that exists now. However, if it evolves toward stabilization, the emergence of a united Arab state hostile to Israel is less likely than the intervention by Turkey and Iran. In either case, Israel’s strategic position would begin to dissolve. For the moment discounting Iran, Israel would then face a powerful Turkey, whose longer-term intentions would not be clear. Once it has taken the offensive to solve a defensive problem, the defensive problems would start piling up and necessitate increasing offensive operations.
The current situation is inherently unsustainable. The logical outcome is Turkey and Iran inserting themselves to prevent the emergence of potentially hostile states. In that case, Turkish troops would reach the Israel border at some point. We cannot predict how the Jordanians would respond, nor how Egypt would react in the face of a rising Turkey. The problem is that Israel can’t calculate the other countries’ actions either. Certainly, it has a powerful position because of the chaos. But it is precisely that chaos that can create a more serious strategic threat. The chaos will either end with competitors settling and creating a new and more united nation-state or a Lebanon-style solution will trigger interventions by other regional powers.
And then, as I have said, the future of Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian relations will depend on the intent and capabilities of an extremely significant nation-state. The Turks would actually be following the model of the Ottoman Empire, which intervened in various directions to protect itself from competitors. I suspect at the time of intervention Turkey would see Israel as a competitor.
Until now, Israel has faced weak nation-states on its frontier and maintained a close relationship with the United States. It now faces a fractious frontier and a weakening relationship with the United States. In my reasoning, this is the calm before the storm, a storm that is no less dangerous for being a decade or more away. Israel will either face a united Arab entity to its east, or Turkey to its north. It also cannot predict the American view of the Turkish evolution. For example, the United States is urging a Turkish intervention in Syria. Clearly, the United States sees Turkey as key to solving this problem, while it sees Israel as less important. Such things change among nations, but that ought to be the most sobering thought to Israel.