Israel enters the 2020s looking toward its region from a position of confidence. Israel recently signed treaties to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, and begin a normalization process with Sudan, deepening and making public dramatic shifts in Israel’s regional position. Relative to its neighbors, Israel enjoys military prowess and economic strength, despite the heavy toll of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, Israel has never been safer. Still, in a tumultuous region, several pillars of Israel’s successes rest on uncertain foundations. With a new administration in Washington, and as regional and global changes continue at a stark pace, new and emerging threats risks threaten to challenge Israel’s safety over the next two decades. In some instances, swift and decisive changes in policy are in order.
These threats will emerge on three levels: transnational trends which affect every country in the region; changes in the outlooks of important regional countries, whether partners of Israel — public or discrete — or its outright adversaries; and the trajectory of great power dynamics in the region, especially those involving the United States, Russia, and China.
Of the transnational trends which may shape Israel’s threat environment, climate change and related effects, governance failures and economic shocks, and the spread of new and newly accessible military technologies stand out as particularly important in thinking about the future of the region itself. Alone, any of these trends could lead to a meaningful threat to Israeli security or well-being. In combination, they point to a region in which regional governments, including Israel’s neighbors, struggle to maintain their control as cross-border crises mount and non-state actors have more powerful tools at their disposal.
Israel has depended on security cooperation with its neighbors for decades to cope with non-state threats. Of these neighbors, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Jordan, and Egypt are the most important. Given challenges to their models of governance and ongoing economic woes, these governments are each at risk of instability. Meanwhile, of Israel’s regional adversaries, both Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon also could see domestic unrest, which could improve Israel’s position, but offer no guarantees of such improvement. Unrest in Israel’s new partners in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, could bring to power more hostile rulers. In general, while sentiment in the Arab world has improved Israel’s position in some quarters, public opinion among the vast majority of Arabs remains, at core, far more sympathetic to the Palestinians and wary of cooperation with Israel. Public opinion may not always directly shape politics, but its potential to do so, as it did in 2011, remains potent.
Great power politics in the region stand to undergo important shifts throughout the coming decades, with some already underway. For Israel, the greatest questions regard the United States and the bipartisan commitment to the American special relationship with Israel, its desire for engagement with the region more broadly, and its burgeoning rivalry with China. Should the trajectory of American retrenchment continue, Russia and especially China seem likely candidates to play a greater role in regional geopolitics. Beijing’s interests as a massive energy importer from the region will likely shape its policy choices, and more assertive Chinese regional policies could leave Israel either to navigate mounting U.S.-China competition in its neighborhood or to face the prospect of a dominant external power indifferent to its core interests.
Many of these developments are beyond Israel’s direct control. They necessitate preparation but involve few policy shifts. Over other issues, however, Israel does have meaningful influence, despite widespread perceptions in Israel to the contrary. In these areas — most notably the U.S.-Israeli relationship — Israel can and should act. Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, which were largely irrelevant with the Trump administration, will be crucial to the health of these relations in the long term. The meaningful challenges facing this relationship are further exacerbated by its China-related dimensions. Failing to act to preserve this relationship would risk undermining a central pillar of Israel’s national security, while further raising important moral and political considerations. Israel’s current sense of strength must not lead it to complacency.
Rachel Slattery performed graphic design for this report and the graphic above.
While the full text of this report represents the views of the lead authors alone, several colleagues made invaluable contributions to its ideas during interviews and other discussions. In particular, parts of this report include contributions from or were written in consultation with Eyal Tsir Cohen, Sharan Grewal, Ryan Hass, Shadi Hamid, Suzanne Maloney, Bruce Riedel, Shibley Telhami, and Tamara Cofman Wittes. The authors further thank the following individuals for their valuable input to this report: David Dollar, Kemal Kirişci, Amanda Sloat, and Angela Stent for expert advice and consultation; Ted Reinert and Rachel Slattery for their excellent editing and layout; two anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback; and Erik Yavorsky and Angela Chin for their essential research support.