Israel appears strong, but there are risks ahead

The perception that Israel is on the right track is one that is held in Israel, despite the gloom and doom abroad.

October 3, 2019 23:22
4 minute read.
Israel appears strong, but there are risks ahead

Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with senior IDF officials in the North, August 25, 2019. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Israel waltzed into its second election of this year with a kind of malaise and acceptance that all will be well. OK, there is some chaos in the government and the prime minister has dominated many of the central portfolios over recent years, including defense and foreign policy, but all is well. Israelis can take comfort in what seems like decent GDP growth, a burgeoning population and one of the most hi-tech militaries in the world.

The perception that Israel is on the right track is one that is held in Israel, despite the gloom and doom abroad. It is other Western democracies that have tended to falter in recent years. Instead of Tony Judt’s prescription that Israel was an ethnocratic anachronism, the reality is that Israel’s version of muscular democracy appears to be securing it better than many other democracies that appear less sure of themselves and have real political chaos in their midst. What comes to mind is the Brexit problems in the UK and the current impeachment crisis in the US.

This optimism in Israel is founded on more than 10 years of security. The wars that made up the post-Second Intifada phase – in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2014 – have faded a bit from memory. Gaza, which is always a looming disaster, appears to be as far away as the Moon. The West Bank, once home to a massive terrorist infrastructure that caused hundreds of deaths in Israel, is apparently quiet. The peace process is largely over and so are the dreams of the Oslo generation. But that’s OK, because Israel thinks it has circumvented this problem and made outreach to the Gulf. No matter that the Kingdom of Jordan is outraged – the kingdom has many other issues to worry about, such as one million Syrian refugees that it is hosting. It pays lip service to anger over the status quo in Jerusalem. Egypt is fighting ISIS in Sinai. It, too, seems reliable.

BUT ISRAEL has some issues on the horizon that, if they would come together at the wrong time, would be a perfect storm. Among these is the increasing hostility of Turkey. Ankara has become more nationalist and religious-nationalist, a toxic mix. It is flexing its muscles, taking over swaths of northern Syria and seeking to keep on track to totally remove the Americans from the region. That would be a setback for the US – and setbacks for the US also impact Israel. Turkey is buying the S-400, not in itself a problem for Israel. Ostensibly, both Ankara and Jerusalem have an interesting relationship with Moscow today, borne of Russia’s increased role in the region, particularly in Syria.

Russia’s role in Turkey is strategic and also related to energy and Syria. This can impact Israel in a complex way. Turkey’s current government is seeking to take up the mantle of being the main opposition to Israel in the region. It bashes Israel over Jerusalem, and its media run hyperbolic stories about Israeli abuses. Turkey is close to the Muslim Brotherhood today and wants to see Hamas have a more prominent role in Ramallah. Yet Israel can deal with Turkey’s anger. The question is whether it can deal with the emerging Turkey-Iran relationship.

Iran has been a challenge for Israel due to a variety of reasons, but lately it is capitalizing on the weakness of its adversaries. That means it is increasingly playing a role in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. That means it is transferring precision missile technology to Hezbollah.

Iran’s IRGC says that it can destroy Israel. It launched an attack on Saudi Arabia on September 14 that has ramifications for Israel. That Riyadh did not respond shows that Israel’s supposed common interests with the Gulf are more problematic than in reality. Saudi Arabia won’t confront Iran. So who will confront Iran? The US? No. The US has signaled it will not. And the next US administration may be more pro-Iran than this one. That could give Tehran what it wants in Syria, which means a kind of “land bridge” that ends near the Golan and threatens Israel.

What Israel faces today is potentially two strong adversaries in Turkey and Iran, although they are quite different in how they confront Israel. Turkey uses soft power; Iran uses hard power. But Israel, appearing strong, now faces these challenges in some ways alone. It is not like the 1950s, when Israel was truly alone. Israel has made major inroads in India, China and elsewhere. But the immediate challenges are still there. It is dangerous to be too confident and arrogant today, and it is essential that Jerusalem seek to analyze and deal with these challenges in the long-term because short term planning won’t work. Iran thinks in the long term – and its role in the region is a long-term role.

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