Israel’s regional policy in the coming years should include three layers: regional security cooperation, regional economic peace, and in the future, based on the first two layers - political peace as well.
The first layer, the regional security layer, should focus on building a bloc against Iran, because the strengthening of the Shi’ite axis led by Iran in Syria constitutes now the biggest strategic threat, and not only to Israel. The threat could become even worse if, in the day after the campaign to free Mosul, in which Shi’ite militias are taking part, Tehran would be able to complete an overland corridor connecting Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. In such a scenario, an Iranian crescent would be formed which would reach the eastern basin of the Mediterranean on one side (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Gaza Strip) and the Red Sea on the other side (the Houthi rebels in Yemen are backed by Iran).
If Iran and Hezbollah base themselves in Syria, it would be a constant source of tension and strife between them and the Sunni majority in Syria, the Sunni countries in the region and Sunni minorities outside the region as well. An acute imbalance in the region in favor of the Shi’ite axis led by Iran would be a constant source of instability. This threat, common to Israel and Sunni states in the region, was recently manifested in declarations of senior Saudi and Turkish officials. The Saudi foreign minister articulated at the Munich Security Conference that Iran is the main generator of terror in the world and called for imposing sanctions in order to change Iran’s behavior. It is clear that the Iranian threat is perceived as the most serious threat by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and to a large extent, by Turkey as well, regardless of the economic and political relations between Ankara and Tehran which continue in parallel. The shared perception of the Iranian threat by Israel and these states, holds the potential for cooperation.
There is potential for cooperation between Israel and the Sunni countries against the Iranian threat and the Islamic State threat. Israel’s growing value and usefulness in the view of the Sunni countries and the attitude towards Iran of the new American administration, which, as opposed to the previous administration, sees Iran as part of the problem and is already taking a tougher stance in response to its provocations - all an opportunity for advancing the regional security layer, which is the first and essential layer of the ‘Three-layered Regional Concept’ presented here.
THE SECOND layer of the ‘Three-layered Regional Concept’ is the economic layer. It is based on two central insights. One is that in the present regional security reality and in view of the division in the Palestinian arena, where the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria is weak and Hamas in Gaza denies Israel’s right to exist, any talk about a Palestinian state is not realistic. Many people on all sides of the political map recognize this, including leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog in his ten-point plan.
In this situation everyone should acknowledge what cannot be done and do what they can. We should focus, under these circumstances, on civil initiatives. Israel should advance, in cooperation with countries in the region and with the support of the United States, regional economic initiatives, for the benefit of all sides, including the Palestinians.
In this framework, I am proposing to advance, among other things, a regional transportation initiative which will leverage Israel’s historic geo-strategic location at the crossroads of three continents and on the coast of the Mediterranean, and fulfill its potential as a land-bridge between Europe, the Mediterranean, Jordan and countries to the east.
This is a potential which has already been realized in recent years, because of the obstruction of the route through Syria, due to the civil war raging there, thousands of trucks have been arriving by ship at the Haifa port from Turkey and crossing Israel to Jordan and countries to the east through Beit She’an and the Sheik Hussein border crossing.
Such an initiative, if it is provided political tailwind by the United States, and receives assistance in planning, financing and execution from other states in the international and regional arena and is agreed to by our neighbors to the east, will have economic, political and perhaps also security advantages. Strategically, it could galvanize and strengthen the pragmatic camp in the region (Israel and the Sunni countries) vis-a-vis the Iranian axis.
In addition, I am proposing to advance, in the framework of the regional economic layer of my concept, the idea, which I have been promoting for a long time, of building an artificial island with a port and civilian infrastructure installations three miles off the coast of Gaza. This is an idea which, if realized, would provide the nearly two million Palestinians crowded into the Gaza Strip an economic and humanitarian outlet to the world without endangering Israel’s security. At the same time, it would also advance our separation from the Strip, for which we continue to be perceived as being responsible despite withdrawing from it over a decade ago.
The third layer of my approach, the political peace layer, will be built in the future on the foundations of the first two layers which I expanded on in previous paragraphs: the regional security layer, which is necessary in any construct, and the (regional) economic layer, which holds the potential for a deep positive change in relations in the region as a whole and in relations between Israelis and Palestinians as well.
Following the change, which I expect to occur in the day-to-day security and economic reality in the region and in the Palestinian arena on the basis of the first two layers, it will be possible to conduct future negotiations with the Palestinians, under the aegis of the pragmatic Arab countries, about practical autonomous authorities.
The ‘Three-layered Regional Concept’ presented here, which should guide Israel’s policy in the coming years, is a realistic and practical concept that, on the one hand, does not ignore the constraints of the threat-saturated environment and gives high priority to security and national considerations. On the other hand, it also proposes a gradual concept for improving reality on the regional level as well as in the Palestinian context, including initiatives which are much more than “more of the same” and which hold the potential for deep positive change.
The author is the Minister of Intelligence, Minister of Transportation, and member of the Security Cabinet.