Monday, September 5, 2011

Israel’s Strategic Situation: Plenty to Worry About But Little to Fear

This article was published in the Jerusalem Post. I own the rights and this is my unedited version. I have also added an addendum answering reader's questions So please read and link to this site.

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Israel’s Strategic Situation: Plenty to Worry About But Little to Fear

By Barry Rubin

Since much of what I write about regional politics seems pessimistic, I periodically remind people why I’m an optimist, at least when it comes to Israel.
Even today, Israel’s security situation is as good as or better as it has been at any time since the establishment of the state. The two main threats have always been either a potential attack by most or all Arab armies or a high level of successful cross-border terrorism.

At present, though, by Israeli standards, these two threats are at relatively low levels. The immediate problem is rocket, missile, and mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip. The longer-term threat—that seems to be continually postponed--is an Iranian nuclear capability

On the level of threats from states, the problem is relatively minimal. The Saudis and Gulf Arabs, whose economic support would be vital in any confrontation, don’t want war with Israel. The same point applies to Jordan. Syria is militarily weaker than ever and entangled in a revolution whose effects will convulse the country for years whatever the outcome.

Muammar Qadhafi’s likely overthrow in Libya won’t bring a friendlier regime but will reduce the sponsorship of international terrorism arising from his personal ambitions. Similarly, Iraq has dropped out of the conflict and turned inward, while the Kurdish-ruled sector in the north is friendly toward Israel. A new addition to that short friendly list is the Republic of South Sudan.

What of Iran?  The “Arab Spring” may be a victory for Sunni Muslim Islamism but for that reason is an Iranian defeat. Tehran’s ambition of being hegemonic in the Middle East is blocked since it can no longer hope to become leader over the majority Sunni Muslims. Its rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, is the single most powerful force in Egypt, has “stolen” Hamas from Iran, and may do the same with Syria.

Moreover, Iran is taking far longer to get nuclear weapons than expected due to technical and other problems. The regime also faces potential internal revolt. Of course, Iran is a legitimate Israeli concern but the threat today is far less than it was expected to be several years ago.  The likelihood of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear installation has also dropped sharply.

This leaves Egypt. For the moment, the military regime wants to maintain the peace treaty. That could change when an elected government comes to power, especially with a strong Muslim Brotherhood contingent in parliament. The most likely president, Amr Moussa, doesn’t like Israel but he is also experienced and pragmatic enough to avoid a confrontation, even though he is also demagogic enough to talk tough. Egypt is going to be a problem for Israeli security but it might be manageable.

As for non-state actors, to the north, Hizballah is having trouble controlling Lebanon. The loss of its Syrian patron and growing Sunni-Shia tensions make its task tougher. Hizballah doesn’t want a war with Israel now or during the next few years. The threat must be closely watched and no assumptions made, but that front should remain relatively quiet.

The big problem is Hamas, especially as it tries to leverage Egypt into a conflict.  Nobody is going to throw Hamas out of power and it will periodically send barrages of missiles and rockets into Israel. Yet if this is Israel’s main security problem it is hardly existential.

A third intifadah on the West Bank is also possible but would be far costlier to the Palestinians than to Israel. Whatever the UN General Assembly decides will change nothing on the ground. The Fatah-Hamas conflict won’t go away and the demographic issue is totally phony. Israel’s intelligence and counterterrorism is in good shape.

Time is not against Israel but it is against the Arabs. They are splintering rather than uniting. Each country faces some level of civil war between Islamists and nationalists, monarchies and oppositions, and religious-communal groups.  

We are going to be seeing more assertive Kurdish (in Syria and Iraq) and Berber movements (in North Africa). The Sunni-Shia rift is heating up. Two Islamist blocs will contend, sometimes violently as we have seen in Iraq. True, both sides hate Israel but they are hardly likely to cooperate against it, and neither has a superpower ally.

The vision of a united Arab or Muslim world wiping Israel off the map—or making a serious effort to do so—is as distant as always, more distant than from the 1950s into the 1970s. The Arab Spring is in fact the start of an internal Arab political winter, 20 to 40 years fighting over who will run each country. While they fritter away money, resources, and energy, Israel will continue to advance economically and militarily.

Disastrous populist, radical nationalist, and Islamist domestic policies will also slow Arab development and widen Israel’s advantage. I do not rejoice at the Arab world’s self-made misfortune. A prosperous, happy, moderate, and democratic Arab world at peace with Israel would be a wonderful thing. But that won’t happen. Neither will there be a prosperous, united, radical Islamist world at war with Israel.

As for Israel itself, when one gets beyond all of the usual self-flagellating self-criticism, it is a strong country in both economic and military terms. Israel has weathered the international economic crisis better than any other developed country. When Israelis have time to bicker over housing and cottage cheese prices, it’s a sure sign of an improved security situation and relative consensus on “foreign conflict” issues.

There are, of course, no lack of problems and threats. Yet Israel is in good shape when compared in strategic terms to every other country between Morocco and Pakistan—and even in social and economic terms compared with virtually every European country.

A reader, trying to explore every possible pessimistic scenario, asked me some questions in addition to the above text. Obviously, Israeli policymakers and military officers are thinking about such things--and they should be--but these aren't realistic threats. Below are brief answers:

What are the risks of a military confrontation between Turkey and Israel should Turkey send warships to accompany “civilian” ships trying to reach Gaza ?  A defense pact between Turkey and Hamas, Egypt or Hizballah/Lebanon? 
--Won't happen in any meaningful way. Erdogan does not want to embroil Turkey in a costly and unnecessary international confrontation that would sacrifice U.S. support, frighten international investors, and divide Turkey. Erdogan's motive is domestic political gain for his plan to Islamize Turkey through demagoguery. He knows precisely what he's doing. And the Arabs neither want nor need Turkish boots on the ground. That would be a public relations' disaster from their standpoint.
Might Syria fire some chemical weapons at Israel as a last ditch to save itself?
--There is no indication of that happening and the Iraqis--who had much more motive to do it--didn't follow that path in 2003. Israel would have plenty of warning time and could take countermeasures. Not a realistic scenario. 
--Will Iran let Syria fall and lose her investment ?
--Iran cannot determine Syria's future. It is trying to save the Assad dictatorship but already there are signs that Tehran is thinking of jumping ship. Too much effort to help the Syrian regime will create an intense anti-Shia and anti-Persian feeling among Sunni Muslims and be more negative for Iran than even the fall of the Syrian regime. 
What about Israel’s porous border with Sinai....and the rush to now build a security fence ? Why was this not done before ?
--Because Israel doesn't have unlimited money and resources. Notice those mass demonstrations wanting the government to spend more money on housing and other things to benefit Israel's people? It cannot spend millions to build new security fences and ask people to devote more reserve days to military service without a clear need to do so.  
What is the prospect of an Islamic (Sunni) curtain stretching from Morocco to Turkey....even with temporary gaps in the curtain ?
--If you mean Islamist regimes that's doubtful. It isn't happening in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan or in Saudi Arabia--in the sense we mean it--and the Gulf Arab monarchies. It also isn't going to happen in Lebanon or Iraq which are dominated politically by Shia Muslims.
Will Jordan survive a Brotherhood takeover of Egypt and the subsequent support by Egypt to Islamists in Jordan ?
--Yes. This is, by the way, what Jordan had to do between 1955 and 1970 to surive a radical nationalist, hostile, Egypt. Today, the better the Brotherhood does in Egypt, Libya, or Syria, the more the remaining non-Islamist states will work harder and act tougher to prevent their meeting that fate. Increasingly, the Saudis and other Gulf Arab monarchies are taking Jordan under their protection and the monarchy in Amman has basically brought the unrest there to a standstill, though they could use a lot more foreign economic help. 
With Europe increasingly scared of its own muslim populations...what will this mean for Israel’s trade, security cooperation ?
--Trade? Nothing. Security cooperation? Precisely because of nervousness about Islamists at home and in the Middle East, a number of European countries--notably France, Italy, and Germany are increasing security cooperation with Israel. European states can play their usual game of pro-Palestinian rhetoric combined with little or no action in order to cover themselves.
What will Israel do should Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria all start firing missiles into Israel at same time ?
Syria won't. If Damascus attacked Israel it would be the end of the regime. Rather than mobilize mass support, as in the past, Syria's regime would have its armed forces heavily damaged and fall within a week or two, with very poor prospects for the life spans of its elite. As for Hizballah-Hamas cooperation, that's less likely than ever. Those two groups are now on different sides of the Sunni-Shia divide and didn't even work together in 2008-2009 when they were much closer to each other. Reportedly, Hamas asked for help and Hizballah refused, unwilling to risk its own interests to help its "brothers" in the Gaza Strip.
How strong relatively is Israel ? 
--Much more so than its neighbors.
Another reader has asked: But won't huge numbers of Islamist fanatics rush suicidally at Israel's borders?

--No.The number of people ready to commit suicide is always limited. Islamists have frequently expressed frustration at this reality. Here's one of my favorite examples. Many years ago the key recruiter of suicide bombers was captured and interviewed on television. Why, he was asked, since you believe in the cause so much, didn't you become a suicide bomber? I'll never forget watching his answer which I will reproduce word for word: "I didn't think I'd be good at it." It has been pointed out that no son of a Hamas or Fatah leader has ever been killed in combat or become a suicide bomber. Israel publicized the fact that a then imprisoned leader of Hamas got his son abroad the moment he heard he was thinking of becoming a suicide bomber. There's the real world and there's theory. That's the real world.
The above analysis isn't based on wishful thinking. But there are good reasons why the worst-case scenarios we can think up don't happen. As I said in the original article, my biggest concern is that Hamas will try to drag a post-election Egypt into a war with Israel. Other than that, remaining scenarios of war or high-level terrorism are unlikely.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and featured columnist at PajamasMedia His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center site is articles published originally outside of PajamasMedia are at <>

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