The Houthis and Israel

Netanyahu argued that Israel’s maximum pressure strategy should focus on expelling Iran from southern Syria, and strengthening cooperation between Israel and the Gulf monarchies.

By SAMUEL RAMANI
September 6, 2018 22:12
4 minute read.
People walk past a building one day after air strikes destroyed it in Sanaa, Yemen June 6, 2018.

People walk past a building one day after air strikes destroyed it in Sanaa, Yemen June 6, 2018. . (photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)

In a recent speech at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel would work through diplomatic channels to “apply pressure on the dangerous, extremist regime of Iran.” Netanyahu argued that Israel’s maximum pressure strategy should focus on expelling Iran from southern Syria, and strengthening cooperation between Israel and the Gulf monarchies.

While these policy prescriptions align closely with US President Donald Trump’s Middle East agenda, Netanyahu deviated from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May 21 Heritage Foundation speech by omitting any reference to Iran’s destabilizing conduct in Yemen. Netanyahu’s indifferent attitude towards the Yemen conflict marginalizes a critical threat to Israel’s security, and deprives Israel of an opportunity to transform its tactical anti-Iran partnership with Saudi Arabia into a genuine alliance, via a low-cost military intervention in Yemen.

Although the front-line of the Yemen conflict is located over 2,000 kilometers south of Israel’s borders, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who dominate most of western Yemen, pose a considerable threat to Israel’s security. The Houthi movement’s ideology is overtly anti-Semitic, with the slogan “Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews” featuring prominently on its flag. The Houthis have also been accused of attempting to forcibly convert Yemen’s Jewish population to Islam, and of instigating anti-Semitic violence against Yemen’s Jewish community.

The Houthi movement’s propagation of anti-Semitism has attracted the attention of Hezbollah. In late March, the Houthi movement’s leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, vowed to fight alongside Hezbollah in a future war with Israel, and al-Houthi recently sent a delegation to Lebanon to meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The strength of the Houthi-Hezbollah alliance caused Saudi Arabia to carry out airstrikes on June 25, that killed 8 Hezbollah technical advisers in Sa’dah, and on August 4, that killed 2 Hezbollah members who were training Houthi rebels in Mar’ib.

To compound the threat to Israel, the Houthis are also well-trained in the use of Iranian ballistic missile technology. Since late 2017, the Houthis have fired Iranian Burkan-2H missiles on targets in Saudi Arabia, like Riyadh’s King Khalid airport and residential areas in the Saudi capital. As Iran unveiled a ballistic missile with a 2,000-kilometer range in September 2017 and is in the process of upgrading its ballistic missile arsenal, a handover of more advanced technologies to the Houthis could make western Yemen a launching pad for missile strikes against Israel. 

This threat provides ample justification for Israeli military action against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Until recently, however, Netanyahu has remained ambiguous about what conditions would necessitate an Israeli military intervention in Yemen. This policy of ambiguity ended on August 1, when Netanyahu stated that Israel would join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen if Iran closed the strategically important Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

Yet even in the absence of this provocative step from Iran, Israel should consider providing air and logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition, as an Israeli intervention in Yemen would greatly weaken the Houthis and immeasurably strengthen Israel’s relationship with the Gulf monarchies.

Although Saudi Arabia has spent over $100 billion on anti-Houthi military operations in Yemen since the war began in March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has achieved few major military successes since it recaptured control of Aden in July 2015. The military intervention has also attracted international criticism due to imprecise bombings by the Saudi and Emirati air forces, which resulted in the deaths of more than 16,000 civilians in the first three years of the war.

As the Yemen conflict has devolved into a stagnant war of attrition, the introduction of Israeli air power could be decisive in tipping the balance of capabilities away from the Houthis and in favor of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s coalition. The Israeli Air Force’s ability to swiftly alter the trajectory of a protracted conflict was revealed by its May 10 airstrikes against Iranian military infrastructure in southern Syria. These strikes damaged most of the major Iranian military installations near Israel’s borders, without resulting in a single Israeli fatality. 

Although the Houthis have consolidated control over large areas of western Yemen due to effective insurgency tactics, an Israeli military assault could cripple their ability to launch cross-border strikes and force the Houthis to surrender control of the critical Red Sea port of Hudaydah. This scenario would allow Israel to use its military intervention in Yemen as a catalyst for an enhanced diplomatic partnership with Saudi Arabia, and its principal allies, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. 

If Israel’s collaboration with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen proves successful, Israel could make expanded security cooperation with Saudi Arabia contingent on Riyadh establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, and encouraging the Palestinian Authority’s increasingly recalcitrant leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to return to the negotiating table. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent endorsement of Israel’s legitimacy, and growing frustration with Palestinian obstructionism makes this quid-pro-quo deal a realistic target for Israeli policymakers. 

Although Yemen remains a low priority issue for Israeli policymakers, Israel should take the threat posed by the Houthis seriously and consider providing assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. If an Israeli intervention in Yemen proves successful, Iran’s influence on the Arabian Peninsula will greatly diminish, and the Israel-Saudi Arabia partnership will remain an enduring feature of the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape for years to come. 

The writer is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to The Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter @samramani2.


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