Israel and the Changing Middle East

How does Israel respond to the tumult affecting many of its neighbors and much of the Middle East? How should observers think about the new challenges posed by a rapidly shifting strategic environment?

In a new paper, I argue that supra- and sub-conventional military threats are Israel’s primary security concerns. At the supra-conventional level, worries about Iran’s nuclear program and skepticism regarding the wisdom of ongoing negotiations with Tehran keep the prospect of Israeli military action alive. Hamas and Hizballah’s acquisition and use of longer-range high-trajectory fire missiles and rockets are an additional supra-conventional pressure. 

These organizations’ persistent sub-conventional danger is intimately connected to the deterrence posed by their arsenals. Though any military engagement with Hamas or Hizballah is in many respects asymmetric, the numerous and highly advanced missiles that they possess constrain Israel’s ability to respond to them and / or act against Iran. They represent difficult hybrids of supra- and sub-conventional threats. And Israel may yet have to contend with the potential for renewed armed conflict in the West Bank.

I also note that Israel’s sole and feasible diplomatic option is further development of its relationships with the moderately conservative Arab states – the Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria. These actors share considerable security and economic interests with Israel: opposition to Iran’s rise, possible collaboration on natural resources issues, and perhaps even security cooperation in the Levant.

Israel has acted tentatively in the face of the Middle East’s “Great Unraveling,” which I describe as the period marked by Syrian civil war, anarchy in Libya and Yemen, state weakness in Iraq and Lebanon, and the rise of the Islamic State. Jerusalem had limited ability to support the regimes in Egypt and Jordan and has intervened only sporadically in Syria’s civil war – with humanitarian aid and limited retaliation to provocations in the Golan Heights and arms transfers to Hizballah. Israeli policymakers are split on the question of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is preferable to the chaos that could emerge on their northern border following his exit. And Israel has displayed similar caution in Lebanon, while its actions on Iraq have been limited to rhetorical support for Kurdish independence. 

Although Israel faces Salafi-jihadist threats in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere, it views the implicit cooperation between Iran and the United States on the Islamic State with concern. For Jerusalem, any rapprochement between Tehran and Washington would go against Israel’s unequivocal position on the issue of a nuclear agreement. 

Overall, while Israel’s options in the region remain limited, the elections will have a significant impact on its relationships with the Arab states. With the Arab Peace Initiative still awaiting Israeli response, these states could provide the impetus for a fresh look at the Israel-Palestinian conflict. 

Download the full paper here.