The regional picture is changing, creating an uncertain future for both Israel’s relations with its immediate neighbours and the broader balance of power in the Middle East. This is casting doubt on traditional cornerstones in Israel’s national security doctrine. What does this mean for Israel’s security in the Palestinian context, Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Jordan, the regional strategic balance and building peace in this uncertain environment?
The expert view provided here by Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog, a BICOM senior visiting fellow, analyses the effects of the regional change on the context surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
This ‘BICOM Expert View’ is the second in a series which aims to draw on the unique understanding of regional specialists, who can provide unrivalled insights into complex regional topics.
BICOM Expert View: Making peace after the Arab Spring
By Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog
- The regional picture is changing, creating an uncertain future for both Israel’s relations with its immediate neighbours and the broader balance of power in the Middle East. This is casting doubt on traditional cornerstones in Israel’s national security doctrine.
- Regional uncertainty is highlighting, from the Israeli perspective, the importance of solid security arrangements to fortify any future Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement.
- There is a wide consensus in Israeli security circles that these arrangements must include the following: changes to the 1967 lines to protect Israel’s vulnerable and critically important coastal plain, the creation of ‘conditional strategic depth’ through non-militarisation of the Palestinian state and a special security regime in the Jordan River area, including a long-term Israeli presence.
- The international community should promote a regional environment that is supportive of the peace process, and an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that addresses Israel’s security needs in balance with Palestinian requirements.
Whilst it is too early to determine the consequences of the dramatic upheaval sweeping across the Middle East, for Israeli strategic planners, the regional turmoil casts doubt on traditional cornerstones in Israel’s national security doctrine. These include the following:
- the future of the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan;
- the chances for completing the circle of peace with Israel’s other neighbours;
- the ability to counter and thwart threats from radical forces through de facto alliances with moderate regional powers;
- the effectiveness of Israel’s deterrence and qualitative military edge in the face of emerging non-conventional and sub-conventional threats;
- the strength of the American role in the region.
In assessing the regional drama, one should distinguish between short, medium and long-term effects. The hope for a democratic, stable Middle East, sparked by masses demanding basic liberties, dignity, proper governance and better living conditions, can probably be realised only in the long term. The region lacks a culture or tradition of democracy and, in most cases, a civil society strong enough to sustain a smooth transition to democracy. In the meantime, radical and inherently anti-democratic forces are striving to fill the void and gain power.
In addition, movement towards democracy does not mean improved prospects for good neighbourly relations between Israel and the Arab world. Quite the contrary, since the Arab street, whose voice has now become a major factor, is rife with anti-Israel sentiment, long fostered by autocratic regimes and fuelled by the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What consequences do these regional changes have for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and what can the international community do to promote peace in an increasingly unstable environment?
Israel’s security in the Palestinian context
The ‘Arab Spring’ sparked a debate in Israel regarding Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. One response is to adopt a wait and see approach, given the uncertain environment of shifting sands, lack of a supportive Arab role and a weakened American position. An alternative approach is to take the initiative and pre-empt the potential negative consequences of a stalemate, which could include a Palestinian-Israeli political and security confrontation. The Israeli government instinctively tilts to the former approach, but does not close the door on possible diplomatic initiatives.
This uncertainty has been increased by the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, currently on hold, which raised Israeli concerns about a potential scenario of Hamas taking over the West Bank, as it did in Gaza.
Whether Israelis favour a diplomatic initiative or a more conservative approach, most agree that the uncertainty of the situation highlights the importance of solid security arrangements to fortify any Israeli-Palestinian political settlement. There is a relatively wide consensus in Israel that an agreement should include the following main security pillars:
- A defensible border different to the 4 June 1967 lines, which were arbitrary armistice lines established at the end of Israel’s war of independence in 1949. Notwithstanding political debates surrounding any reference to the ‘1967 lines’, from a security point of view they expose Israel’s ‘narrow waist’. This is a strip of land – about nine miles at the narrowest point – with the Mediterranean Sea to the west and overlooked by the hills of the West Bank to the east. This narrow ‘lifeline’ contains some 70% of Israel’s population, most of its vital infrastructure and industries (accounting for about 80% of its GDP), its main international airport and more. The 1949 armistice lines deny Israel vital strategic depth in the face of potential military threats. For Israelis, this is an existential vulnerability.
- Adjustments to the 1967 lines, taking into consideration Israel’s security needs and developments on the ground (e.g. settlement blocs), would still require the creation of what Israeli military planners term ‘conditional strategic depth’. The idea is to compensate for Israel’s lack of essential geographic strategic depth (even assuming adjustments to the 1967 lines) with non-territorial elements. This would be done first and foremost through the non-militarisation of the Palestinian state so that it cannot threaten Israel either with its own military capabilities or through military alliances with other countries hostile to Israel. The principle of non-militarisation was essentially accepted by the Palestinians in previous rounds of negotiations. Naturally, an effective mechanism to monitor and enforce non-militarisation would be required. The pouring in of rockets from Syria to Lebanon and from Egypt to Gaza, and their extensive use against Israel, illustrates this requirement.
- In this context, the Israeli defence establishment has always considered that the defence of Israel against potential military and terror threats from the east should begin along the Jordan River and not at the Israel-Palestine border. Successive Israeli governments have demanded the establishment of a long-term military enforcement regime in the wider Jordan Valley area, beginning at the commanding hills to the west and including an Israeli military component along the river itself, even assuming that it will be under Palestinian sovereignty. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the US Congress in May that ‘it is vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.’ By specifying the ‘river’, and not the entire ‘valley’, he was signalling some flexibility about the specific security arrangements. This flexibility could be in agreeing to international forces in the valley, and Israeli forces in a narrower zone along the river. But whatever the specific arrangements, a peace deal will have to meet Israel’s security needs in this area.
In the broader context, the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to be achieved and sustained could considerably be enhanced by regional security architecture, i.e. a set of arrangements in which surrounding states are committed to supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace through practical measures addressing security threats. These could include, for example, internationally supported arrangements with Egypt and Jordan to further secure their borders with the future Palestinian state, or a regional network of missile defence early warning capabilities (radars with connectivity) to better face an Iranian missile threat. Such architecture could afford Israel more flexibility in security arrangements. But the regional turmoil makes it impossible, for the time being, to provide such architecture.
Unfortunately, chances currently seem higher for confrontation than for negotiations and agreement in the Israeli-Palestinian context, with the Palestinians bent on seeking statehood through the UN. Beyond the political and legal confrontation it would entail, this attempt could lead to a deterioration in the situation on the ground, with a negative impact on the hitherto good Israeli-Palestinian security coordination. Clashes could be triggered by mass Palestinian popular marches on Israeli checkpoints, border posts and settlements, which would pose a serious challenge to Israeli security forces.
However, even if these developments can be averted and negotiations renewed, political unrest in the Arab world means that Israel’s sensitivity to the security aspects of an agreement will still be heightened.
Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan
The regional challenge to Israel is best epitomised by Egypt, the heart of the Arab world. Egypt is now heading towards elections and a new constitution, with significantly more space for political inclusion. However, the country seems to be moving towards a Turkish-style illiberal democracy in which well-organised Islamists may become part of a ruling coalition, and with a foreign policy somewhat distancing Egypt from the West and relatively hostile towards Israel.
Israeli apprehension has been focused mostly on the fate of its bilateral peace treaty with Egypt, in place since 1979. This treaty closed a chapter in Israel’s history, having fought four wars with Egypt between 1948 and 1973. The peace agreement demilitarised the Sinai Peninsula and significantly widened Israel’s margin of security. It enabled Israel to decrease its defence expenditure and redirect its resources to other fronts and threats. The treaty is a pivotal strategic asset for Israel.
More likely than not, the Egyptian government will maintain the peace treaty for the foreseeable future. Abrogating it would seriously undermine Egypt’s international standing and its relations with the US and the West. But even if the treaty remains formally intact, one can expect less cooperation and worsening relations between the two governments. The public and political atmosphere in Egypt is already more vocally anti-Israel, and Egyptian policies are shifting in a very problematic direction from an Israeli perspective. The Egyptian government has declared its intention to improve relations with Iran. It has also opened up to the Hamas movement, hitherto considered in Cairo a threat to Egypt’s national security. It brokered a reconciliation deal between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, and opened the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.
It is doubtful whether the new political atmosphere in Egypt will sustain the relatively close Israeli-Egyptian security coordination that has developed over the years to counter radicalism and terrorism in the region. The Egyptian power vacuum was immediately felt in the Sinai Peninsula, with deteriorating security conditions including repeated cases of sabotage of the Egypt-Israel and Egypt-Jordan gas pipelines, and attacks by Bedouin elements hostile to the regime against state installations. Israel is highly concerned about this situation because according to its intelligence, the security vacuum has already allowed for significantly accelerated smuggling of weapons from Sinai into Gaza. It may also encourage and allow for terror attacks against Israel by extreme Islamist groups with strongholds in Sinai. Israel therefore agreed to the deployment of additional Egyptian soldiers in Sinai, exceeding the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, and moved to speed up the construction of a new fence along its 150-mile-long border with Egypt.
Jordan is also a source of concern, given manifestations of instability, but to a lesser extent. King Abdullah enjoys basic legitimacy and can ultimately rely on the loyalty of ‘East Jordanians’ who, albeit a minority, control the military and the security services.
The coordination between the Israeli and Jordanian security services and between forces on the ground along the 330-mile-long joint border (Israel’s longest) remains as good as ever. For Israel, it is extremely important that this relationship remains strong. Both countries share concerns about Islamic radicalism and regional instability and work closely, under the radar, to thwart such threats and ensure a quiet joint border. Both share a strategic interest in security arrangements along the east and west banks of the Jordan River in a future Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, in which Jordan could and should play a pivotal role.
The regional strategic balance
It is still hard for Israelis to make a judgment about how the current instability impacts on the overall strategic balance in the region, and how to shape a coherent strategy. Israel has lost its two most important pillars of cooperation in the region, previously Turkey and now Egypt, and because of the regional tumult, the moderate Arab elements no longer operate as a camp.
The regional balance will be strongly influenced by developments in Syria. Whatever the endgame of this protracted and violent domestic crisis, it is increasingly evident that President Bashar al-Assad has run out of domestic and international legitimacy. In the past, Israeli decision-makers regarded Syria as standing at the junction between war and peace, and capable of turning to either. Now Syria is regarded as capable of neither, due to the dwindling legitimacy of its leadership and its preoccupation with its domestic challenges.
The weakening of Syria as a strategic backer is likely to have a restraining effect on Hezbollah, making it currently less likely to externalise its domestic pressures in Lebanon (e.g. the indictments of its operatives in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri) by escalating tensions with Israel.
In the meantime, Syria has tried to distract attention from its domestic unrest by heating up the border with Israel (Israel’s quietest border for the past 37 years) through popular, non-violent provocations. On two recent occasions, the Syrian authorities, with help from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, encouraged young Palestinians from Syrian refugee camps to march on the border fence in the Golan Heights and break into Israeli-controlled territory.
Iran appeared to benefit from the regional unrest as long as the revolutionary energy hit pro-American regimes. However, as this energy has moved eastwards, hitting Damascus and threatening Teheran, it has shown the potential to have negative effects on Iran as well. Iran continues to seek to advance its nuclear programme under the radar, whilst world attention is focused on the dramatic events elsewhere in the Middle East. The Israeli government, therefore, attaches high importance to the international community not losing sight of the Iranian nuclear programme and on maintaining all options on the table in the face of it.
Concern over Iranian meddling in its own backyard, most notably in Bahrain, has prompted Saudi Arabia to raise the profile of its anti-Iranian activities to new levels. The Saudis have sent troops to Bahrain and conditioned their proposed $4 billion (£2.4 billion) assistance to Egypt, currently in dire need of economic aid, on Egypt not mending fences with Iran. They have also embraced the idea of Jordan and Morocco joining the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), so as to make it a symbolic alliance of monarchies.
It is far too early for Israeli policymakers to predict how these new regional developments will impact on Israel’s long-term strategic environment. This makes Israel’s security concerns regarding future territorial concessions in the West Bank even more complex than before.
Conclusion: building peace in an uncertain environment
The international community, under the leadership of the US and its major European partners, should pay close attention to the risks inherent in the current process of transformation in the Middle East, both for the strategic regional balance and for Arab-Israeli relations. Whilst progress in the Israeli-Palestinian arena is even more desirable than before, from an Israeli security perspective, the uncertainties and challenges are also greater.
The protests by Arab publics against their leaders are driven primarily by a desire for political freedom and economic opportunity, rather than issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Nonetheless, in their response to the Arab Spring, the EU and US should be mindful of the strategic impact on Israel. Promoting regional dynamics that are secure for Israel will impact positively on the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Western powers should use their political and economic leverage to help guide transition, wherever possible, towards democracy and stability. They should work to uphold existing Israeli-Arab peace and security agreements and to secure conditions for new ones. They should also maintain pressure on Iran and its radical allies.
Just as important, in striving to regenerate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and avert a confrontation, and in encouraging Israel to put forward parameters for peace, Western powers must address Israel’s security concerns and requirements.