On Sunday, King Abdullah II of Jordan announced the intention to terminate two annexes to the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Although the lands, one in the north near Beit She’an and one in the south close to Eilat, are not significant, their symbolism is. Jordan is asserting its “national interests” while across the region Israel faces a variety of other problems. This illustrates that while politicians and experts in Jerusalem have stressed Israel’s security and regional role in recent years, there remains a precarious balance that could be upset.
Israel’s peace treaties with its two neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, were a result of years when there was hope that Israel and the Palestinians would also come to a peaceful arrangement. The relationship with both Egypt and Jordan never trickled down to positive relationships between peoples. It is maintained today primarily on the security front because the countries have common interests. After the instability unleashed by the Arab Spring, as passions for democracy melted amid reactionary authoritarianism and Islamist threats, Israel’s “security first” approach seemed sound.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been skeptical about dreams of peace since the 1990s.
In August, he gave a controversial speech claiming, “the strong, for good or ill, survive,” spelling out his worldview. On the 25th anniversary of the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, there remain questions in Israel over whether the Oslo peace process was doomed to lead to the increased terror of the Second Intifada, or would have succeeded under different circumstances. Today, the Palestinians in Gaza and Ramallah are more divided than ever and the chances of a fully functioning Palestinian state emerging appear unlikely.
The region is likewise very different. When Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir spoke to Fox News on Sunday about Saudi-US relations, he didn’t even mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which previously would have been one of the issues the kingdom worked closely on with Washington. Instead, Netanyahu has increasingly intimated at how Israel and various Gulf states share common interests related to concern over the Iranian threat.
However, the ease with which confidence can turn to instability was revealed by the recent murder of Saudi journalist and former insider Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate. The scandal has rocked the US and Europe, with bipartisan calls for reviewing US-Saudi relations and calls by Germany, the UK and France for Riyadh to be held accountable. If Israel was counting on a strong Saudi Arabia to lead the region in cooperation with the Trump administration to confront Iran, the last two weeks have provided a big question mark.
Saudi Arabia has received support from its traditional allies, and even from the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, which had been growing closer to Turkey in the last year. But as long as Riyadh and its allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain are dealing with the fallout from this affair, the issue of Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon will be on the back burner.
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Former head of military intelligence Amos Yadlin told Ynet news recently that Iran was shifting strategy from basing precision missile factories in Syria, to moving technology to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“This is more problematic for Israel since Israel, to this day, has not attacked the Iranian consolidation in Lebanon,” Yadlin said. Naftali Granot, former deputy of Israel’s Mossad, said in September that Hezbollah was growing stronger. Iran’s Press TV even ran a report on Granot’s claims, boasting that, yes indeed, Hezbollah is much stronger.
Iran seems more confident now. In Syria, Russia has transferred the S-300 system, including an advanced version of the system referred to as the S-300PM-2. Since the transfer, Syrian media has not reported any Israeli strikes on Lebanon. Meanwhile Jerusalem is sounding the alarm about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon. But it’s not clear what the next step will be either in Syria or Lebanon.
In Iraq, a new government is being formed and will include pro-Iranian elements, including former Shi’ite militia commanders who are linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Washington had been trying to lessen this blow, seeking Saudi support in 2017 for Iraq and encouraging more Gulf support for rebuilding. Riyadh pledged $1 billion for reconstruction and $500 million credit in February to help the country recover from ISIS. Saudi Arabia also agreed to help eastern Syria, where the US is fighting ISIS, delivering $100 million in August.
But now Riyadh is under pressure as companies and diplomats, including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, pulled out of its Future Investment Initiative conference. If Saudi Arabia is scrambling to repair its image, it may not be able to focus on repairing Iraq, and Syria and Iran’s tentacles in both places may grow.
This leaves Israel with another exposed flank in the strengthening Turkey-Qatar alliance. Turkey has come out of the Khashoggi affair appealing to the West as a stable ally. It has an agenda in this, which is to rollback US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in eastern Syria.
Turkey is also growing closer to Iran and Russia through frequent discussions over Syria. The Idlib agreement Ankara helped broker is holding.
Turkey and Qatar both want to highlight Khashoggi’s legacy. Khashoggi was skeptical of Israel’s role in the region. He passionately supported the Palestinians and felt the Muslim Brotherhood and roots in traditional Sunni politics served as a better buffer to Iran than any kind of arrangement with Israel. Today, influential western policy makers are growing more skeptical of what they see as Riyadh’s “reckless” behavior.
Many were also skeptical of Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran.
Taken together, these interconnected concerns mean Jerusalem’s narrative about Israel being more integrated into the region and possibly working quietly with a plethora of states to confront Iran is not a sure thing. In fact, the post-ISIS Middle East and the end of the Syrian civil war pose major challenges for Israel. The reshaping of the Jordanian peace treaty may be a symbol of storm clouds on the horizon.
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