Analyst warns Israel's security situation worst in decades

Weakening of US in Middle East, Arab revolts and Iran create precarious situation for Israel.

binyamin netanyahu 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
binyamin netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
A recent report issued by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv has concluded that the Arab revolts and an emboldened Iran have created the most precarious security situation for Israel since the end of the Cold War.
The report, titled “The 2011 Arab Uprisings and Israel’s National Security,” was authored by the center’s director, Prof. Efraim Inbar, who wrote that given the deteriorating security environment, “Israel has no choice but to continue to nurture its strategic partnership with the US.”
The report identified a number of regional trends that have brought with them myriad risks for Israel: greater uncertainty over the behavior of leaders of Israel’s neighbors, increased terrorist activity, reduced Israeli deterrence and growing regional isolation, as well as emerging threats in the eastern Mediterranean and the continuing Iranian nuclear challenge.
The Christian Edition recently sat down with Prof. Inbar to take a closer look at his study.
In your new BESA report, you claim that Israel’s security situation is the most dangerous it’s been since the Cold War. Give us a brief understanding of what Israel faced during the Cold War.At that time we faced a superpower in the Soviet Union and Arab nations supported by this superpower. We had a lot of conventional wars with the Arabs, but after the end of the Cold War the situation has improved due to the great strength of the United States. Everybody came to the Madrid Conference [in 1991], and we had a much more benign strategic environment. The United States took care of Saddam in Iraq, twice actually, which was conducive to our security. Also, the peace treaty with Egypt had been signed already in 1979 and was reinforced with the peace treaty with Jordan and negotiations with the Palestinians. So at the end of the Cold War, particularly due to the great status of the United States, our security was doing very well, and this has now changed.
I remember seeing some of the strategic reports right when the Cold War was ending which showed Israel was facing Arab armies that had received top-of-the-line weapons from the Soviets and other Arab armies that had advanced arms from America. It was a difficult scenario that probably no other country faced, in terms of the broad array of weaponry that the Arabs possessed. But you say it’s even worse now. So how bad is it? It is getting worse for three main reasons. First of all, we see a terrible weakening of the United States in the Middle East. This is at least the perception of most Middle Easterners, be they foes or friends. The United States has retreated from Iraq. The United States has failed in its attempts to democratize Iraq. America faces great difficulties in Afghanistan and will probably pull out. America has, at least in my view, mishandled much of the Arab uprisings.
A second important trend is, of course, the more questionable relationship with Egypt after the Arab Spring, which is a misnomer. Islamists are probably taking over Egypt – they won elections there.
Egypt is a very important country – the most important Arab country.
The third trend is that these Arab uprisings have actually deflected attention from the main strategic problem in the Middle East, which is a nuclear Iran. So, as a result of what is happening in the Arab world, the Iranians got one more year to work on their nuclear program. Facing a nuclear Iran in the near future is a terrible challenge for Israel.
Do Israeli military and political leaders agree with your assessment that Israel is in a very tight corner right now? I think that my report reflects a large consensus in this country. Israelis from the very beginning were very skeptical about the enthusiasm in the West over the Arab Spring, and unfortunately we were right: things did not turn out as well as the great expectations last year.
I also think that Israel is concerned with how America is viewed in the Middle East. The relations between the Obama administration and [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu are not helpful. There are tensions, and to some extent this erodes Israeli deterrence, because our deterrence is dependent not only upon Israeli might but also upon the perception that, in the case of need, America will be with us. And now there is a need of facing a nuclear Iran, and we are not sure that America is with us on this issue. We see a lot of people – highranking officials – coming all the time trying to tie Israel’s hands on this issue.
And again on Iran, I think everybody in the world understands this is a problem, but unfortunately not much is done about it.
Do you have positive expectations that Netanyahu’s visit to Washington to talk to President Obama has gotten them on the same page regarding Iran? Frankly, I don’t see the Obama administration doing much about Iran.
It’s in the middle of elections, and I think that from what we know, Obama is not in the mood for large military action.
Actually, we have seen part of his policies to appease his enemies in nice liberal language. This is called “engagement,” but in the Middle East everybody understands that this is basically “appeasement” of the Iranians and Syrians. This was part of American policy in past years. We have seen it in action when Obama didn’t do much when there was an attempt by the opposition in Iran two-and-a-half years ago to change the regime. They were simply observing spectators and were not helping the opposition.
So I think my expectations are quite low. Israeli leaders are trying their best to convince the Americans to act, but unless there is a surprise, the general feeling in Israel is that we are alone on this.
You mention in the report that the Saudis also feel that the Americans are not doing enough to solve the Iranian problem, and this has given a sort of commonality of interests between Jerusalem and Riyadh. Do you see that progressing to the point of some sort of covert cooperation to target the Iranian nuclear facilities? I think the Saudis are very disappointed with the Americans, particularly since they were criticized for intervening in Bahrain and stabilizing a pro-Western regime there, where the Fifth Fleet is [headquartered], and they are very concerned with the continuous progress of the Iranian nuclear program.
I am sure they will be ready to cooperate with Israel if Israel would need an air corridor to strike Iran. I think they will be happy to provide it, and I think that they are looking forward to a change in Washington.
Because the central regime in Egypt is weaker, the Sinai is now the ‘Wild West.’ What should Israel do if terror increases from the Sinai? I think that we see quite clearly that the Egyptians have lost their grip over this territory. We see attacks by Beduin on Egyptian police stations; we see terrorists attacking gas pipelines that deliver natural gas to Israel and to Jordan. Those are, of course, an affront to Egyptian sovereignty. We see more weapons being smuggled via Sinai to Hamas in Gaza.
We see more attacks from the Egyptian border on Israel. For years this border was quiet, and this is now changing.
Israel has a dilemma. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to have terrorists there. On the other hand, it doesn’t want to acerbate the relations with Egypt, because Egypt is important. We are trying to do our best in order to maintain the formalities at least of the peace treaty, particularly the demilitarization of Sinai.
You also note that Hamas has moved some of its rocket factories into Sinai, thinking Israel won’t strike them there like they would in Gaza. That is a very troubling development. You also suggest that Israel might have to reoccupy parts of Sinai. What particular areas? I think that if the new Egyptian government, which will be dominated by Islamists – if they miscalculate and decide to violate the demilitarization clauses of the peace treaty, which are the mainstay of strategic stability between Israel and Egypt, we may have to recover some parts of Sinai in order to be able to defend ourselves.
Like the former security zone in south Lebanon? Yes! It will be a security zone, maybe up to the El-Arish line, which has been defined in the past as a defensive line in Israel’s strategic thinking.
Most of this is open territory, unlike in south Lebanon...It is open territory, although it’s been groomed by al-Qaida, Hamas and by hostile Beduin. This is indeed the ‘Wild West,’ as you put it.
Your report also identifies the possibility of increased terrorism and even piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean like we are seeing off the Somalia coast. With Israel and Cyprus coming together in the discovery of vast natural gas deposits under the sea bed off Haifa, and the whole Eastern Mediterranean getting surrounded by countries coming under radical Islamist influence, it does appear to be a formula for trouble.

This is an insight that I hope Jerusalem is aware of, but do you think Washington is? Well, if we take a look on the map, we see that the Eastern Mediterranean might soon become an “Islamic lake.” In Tunisia, the elections put together an Islamic Brotherhood-type of regime.
Libya is a country in which we do not know exactly what will happen, but we see there Islamist and al-Qaida elements already participating in the political process. [As for] Egypt in the recent elections, again, the Muslim Brotherhood together with an even more radical form of Islam have a majority in the Egyptian parliament. As we mentioned before, Sinai is becoming a Somalia, Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. North of Israel, we see Lebanon, which is ruled by Hezbollah, a radical organization linked to Iran. If we go further north, we see Syria is a Russian ally, and if there will be a change of regime in Syria it will probably be a radical Sunni regime. Further north is Turkey, which those in Washington see as an ally, but in my view it’s a Trojan horse within NATO... The Turks are also present in Cyprus, and that there are those gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean you mentioned – the Turks have already threatened the Cypriots in order to get access to those gas deposits. Even in the Balkans, we actually have three Muslim states – Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia – in which we see an Iranian and Turkish presence.
Overall, this will make the Eastern Mediterranean a place where Western ships will be in danger.
The report notes that 90% of Israel’s foreign trade is through shipping via the Eastern Mediterranean; that is a very sobering fact...
Yes, and that is precisely why Israel has to enlarge its navy, to be able to defend its shipping and trade routes.
You say that Israel has to increase its defense spending, but in the current austerity climate and all these tent protests this past summer demanding more social welfare, do you think this is realistic? I think that Israel has to increase its defense expenses, and I think that with the right leadership the Israeli public can be convinced about it. Our economy, in contrast to other economies, is doing much better, and we can spend more on defense. I would spend on increasing the land forces, I think that we need a larger navy, we need more money for defense missiles, and we need more money for research and development. These would be my priorities.
Do you have a lot of confidence in the Arrow II and David’s Sling antimissile defense systems? I think that we are the best in the world in those technological niches. I think that the Americans are cooperating with us to try to market the Arrow II and probably the Arrow III, which is in development. The Iron Dome, which is intended to intercept short-range missiles, has been proven to work very well. And David’s Sling, which is intended to intercept mid-range missiles, will probably be just as successful. I think that Israeli technology and ingenuity have proven once again to be very good.
And Israel has proven once again that necessity is the mother of invention. Thanks for your time.