The following transcript discusses the implications for Israel in light of the instability in the Middle East since the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear and hegemonial ambitions. It is part of a symposium entitled, “Regime Collapse and Sectarian War: Where is the Middle East Headed?” The symposium was held on March 15, 2015, to mark the launch of the newly named Rubin Center for International Affairs in honor of MERIA founder and former editor the late Prof. Barry Rubin.
Editor’s Note: Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the world has witnessed the collapse of a number of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the consequent opening of an ungoverned space. Two formerly strong states, Iraq and Syria, have ceased to exist. The result has been the emergence of a series of paramilitary and political organizations–most based on ethnic and sectarian identity–all competing for control on the ground of what were once those states. There has also been an attempt by existing and intact regional powers to move into that space to take advantage of it for themselves. The Islamic Republic of Iran now controls part–though not all–of Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, while Turkey is another contender. This symposium examines this issue from a number of different angles, including the role the West has played.
I will speak about security implications. We mentioned here that Americans do not understand the Middle East; I’m not sure whether Israelis understand the Middle East, particularly during an election year. What really transpires from the changes in the Middle East is the power differential between us and our Arab neighbors–some of whom are enemies, some quasi-allies–is gone. Basically, the chances of conventional war between an Arab entity or a coalition of Arab forces against Israel have clearly diminished.
There is no Iraqi army. There is no Syrian army; they are busy with other things. Even if we count the Egyptians as a potential rival, the Egyptian army has difficulties enforcing the sovereignty of Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula and even in the Delta. So there is less chance for a conventional war, and we should recognize and be happy about it.
At the same time, I think we should not be tempted to be lulled into a period of thinking that our national security problems are over. We still need a very strong and balanced military. Unfortunately, we’ve seen in our recent encounters with substates that our military is not balanced. We have real problems in our force structure; our ground forces are not large enough, for budgetary reasons, but also due to doctrinal thinking, which is problematic.
Another clear implication of what’s happening around us is that we are seeing more terror. This is for two main reasons: As the countries, the states around us are basically losing their grip on their territory, they are disintegrating, and of course there is less ability on the part of the state to monitor its territory, to keep the bad guys away, and the bad guys have greater freedom of action.
We see sub-state groups emerging in a country like Syria. It was a “nice” dictatorship. We knew that Assad could run the state and everything was in order. This is no longer the case. In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was a dictator and nothing moved without his permission. This situation no longer exists, and the sub-state terrorist organization has greater freedom of action and has access to weapons.
As the states lose the ability to guard the national arsenals, those arsenals are falling into the hands of the bad guys. We’ve seen Hamas fighting with weapons coming from Libya. We know, we are afraid, that some of the weapons in Syria will fall into the hands of Hizballah or other bad guys. We know ISIS is fighting with American weapons, which they captured from the Iraqi army. So the terrorists have greater access to weapons.
We also see countries, states in the Middle East, actively arming some of those groups, like Iran, and those substates have greater capabilities than before. Some of them, as we all know, can cover with missiles all of the State of Israel. This is true of Hamas; this is true of Hizballah.
So indeed, we should remember that these types of terrorist groups are relatively weak and terrorism is a weapon of the weak, not the strong, but they still can do a lot of damage, and we have to prepare ourselves for these types of encounters, which will not disappear, particularly because the sub-state groups are highly motivated. They are mostly Islamists and one of their desires–not the only one, but one of their desires–is to remove the Jewish state from the map.
Another problem is that we have new entities, new leaders, which increases the chances of surprises. There is greater uncertainty in our region. We knew how the dictators were thinking. We knew Assad, Saddam, now we have an entirely new coterie of leaders who have not been socialized into the Middle East we knew, and they seem different. They are capable of doing things, maybe, that we are not prepared for.
So there is greater chance of surprises. We have excellent intelligence. We have a huge intelligence apparatus, but still with this entire intelligence apparatus, they didn’t know that Mubarak was going to fall. If you had asked our intelligence a few days before Mubarak was removed from office, the answer would have been, “No, he’s staying.”
By the way, I’m not sure we can foresee every development. This is the nature of surprises; you don’t know everything. We’ll continue to have surprises and should be ready for that. We should prepare ourselves for the worst-case analysis rather than rosy scenarios–which there is a tendency to do, particularly when the going is good.
Another problem, which is not really well considered, is that the east Mediterranean is largely becoming an Islamist lake. If we take a look at Libya, after Qaddafi was removed, with the great strategic wisdom of the West–he was a nice guy, cooperated with us; he gave up his nuclear weapons, sold oil, you know, what do you want from him?–we had a destroyed country. So we had elections, so what? Elections are held in many places in the world. It is quite clear to us that in this country the Islamist elements have a voice, and they fight, they have weapons. If we go further east on the map, it is Egypt, where Mursi served for a year as an elected leader. In every place where elections are held in the Arab world, the Islamists are taking over, because let’s face it, the Arabs like the Islamists. It’s not our taste, but it’s their taste.
And the Egyptians, as I mentioned before, had great difficulties after Sisi took over to enforce their sovereignty within their own country, and Egypt is probably the only true historic state in the Middle East, but even historic states can disappear. We’ve seen this. The Jewish people are an old people who saw countries come and go. I’m not prophesying that Egypt will disappear, but this is obviously a possibility.
Afterwards is the Sinai desert, where there are Salafists and all types of groups. We are already witnessing terrorism against the sea lanes, the Suez Canal; we may see Sinai develop into a Somalia. Afterwards is Gaza. Gaza is ruled by Islamists, the Hamas terrorist organization. Afterwards we have the Jewish state. Further north is Lebanon, ruled largely by Hizballah, which is an Islamist terrorist organization in close alliance with Iran. Further north is Syria. Syria–Assad was a secularist, but he was an ally of Tehran, probably the most stable and oldest relationship in the Middle East. Nowadays we don’t know what will happen in Syria, which is in the midst of a civil war, but it is quite clear to all of us that the Islamist forces are gaining a stronghold in Syria.
Further north is Turkey. Turkey is an Islamist country. Since 2002, the AKP under Erdogan has been ruling the country and slowly moving it into a more Islamist position. It is distancing itself from the West. This is something that Barry Rubin foresaw even before me, and Turkey as we know it is gone. Turkey is indeed still part of the NATO alliance, and the Americans have no idea how to digest it. Turkey is playing an increasing role in the Middle East. Its foreign policy is fueled by neo-Islamists, neo-Ottoman impulses.
We have Cyprus, an important strategic island in the east Mediterranean, which was partly conquered in 1974 by the Turks. Taking the rest of the island would be a war for the Turkish Army, but they may do it, because maybe they need energy resources south of Cyprus.
Greece is a Western country, although always part of the Eastern question. But it’s weak; it’s in big trouble. Now, with all the troubles it has–with the government, with Leftist leanings–it will hopefully come to its senses and behave in a pragmatically.
Over 90 percent of the Israeli exports go to the east Mediterranean. This means that we need a larger navy. We also have important energy resources in the sea and in our part of the region, but legal rights are not enough. You cannot go take Hizballah, for example, to court. They shoot. In fact, Hamas tried to shoot at one of our gas installations in the sea.
In the Middle East–as was already pointed out–we also have a risk of nuclear proliferation. If Iran becomes nuclear, other countries will follow suit, unquestionably. Obviously these countries do not rely on the American nuclear umbrella–extended deterrence, as it’s called-which has no chance of success in the Middle East–because no Arab will trust an American on issues that are very important for its security.
So they will go for nuclear weapons. The Turks will do the same. This type of multi-power nuclear Middle East is a strategic nightmare for Israel. We should not kid ourselves. The only way to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear country is by military action. Negotiations, they’re very good at negotiations. Actually, I have a colleague, who is an expert on Iran, he says, “Once you’re in the room with Iranians, you’ve already lost the negotiations.”
From what we know about the negotiations, it looks as though this is indeed the case. So we need an Israel that is capable–and money was invested in this capability to reach Iran and destroy the nuclear infrastructure, but you also need the guts to do it. I hope that our future government—the elections are approaching, and I’m not doing any election propaganda, but I hope that whoever our future defense minister and prime minister will have the guts to do what is needed. This is the only thing that can prevent this nightmare scenario.
I think that if you look at the region also, it’s much more difficult for Israel to find allies. I know we have been told it’s a great opportunity for finding allies. The periphery doctrine is gone. We had great allies in the past: Iran, Turkey–those were real countries, but now both those countries are not our friends; they’re our enemies. And the rest is in shambles.
Maybe Saudi Arabia is moderate, though I don’t know how a Wahhabi regime could be called moderate, but let’s assume it is moderate, that the ship gongs in the Gulf are moderate. Maybe, but they are weak. They are not strong allies. Egypt perhaps could be, but Egypt is in big trouble. Without the money from the Gulf, it would not be able to exist. For year’s Egypt’s foreign policy has been “search for food” to provide enough food for its citizens. This is not the type of ally we can rely on in the Middle East.
In this respect, our freedom of action in the Middle East and ability to bring on our side power has been limited.
Finally, we have to realize that as a result of these changes in the Middle East, and as a result of changes in Washington, we have a deep problem, a true structural problem with the United States, and I agree with Martin Kramer’s assessment [earlier in the conference proceedings] that this probably is the most important challenge for Israel, in terms of security. American-Israeli relations are in crisis not because of bad chemistry between the president and the prime minister. That is a minor issue. The issue is that the Americans see the Middle East in very different terms from how we see it, and this is why they try to reach an agreement with Iran, in my view knowing well that this agreement will not last for long. They just want to pass the buck.
Moreover, the Americans, many Americans of the realist kind, believe in a grand bargain with Iran. They need a policeman here. They look around. Who is strong enough to be a policeman? It is Iran. They are ready to make a deal with the devil, as was pointed out, because they have no interest in doing something serious, in using their muscles. We will probably see, if this deal goes through, the Americans being evicted from the Gulf as well.
Paradoxically, in realist terms, Israel is now more important than ever to the United States in this region, because they have no real friend here. There is definitely no way an American airplane could land in Egypt, in Jordan, or in Saudi Arabia, only in Israel. But this is no great comfort with this type of administration.
So if I want to wrap it up, Israel is a villa in the jungle, as aptly put by Ehud Barak. We are a strong country, however. We have a strong economy. Much of our future is dependent on our decisions, be it Iran and even the challenge of managing the relationship with the United States. We are not helpless vis-à-vis a hostile administration. Our international position is actually not as bad as some people think. The Indians don’t care about Palestinians; the Chinese don’t care about Palestinians. International action is moving to the east.
Therefore, I think Israel has a good chance of surviving this very difficult environment if it makes the right choices. Thank you.
Audience Question: Is Israel capable of filling the vacuum of power left by the United States in the Middle East?
Prof. Efraim Inbar: In short, no. We are a small nation. Our ability to influence what is beyond our borders is very limited. Even the United States tried to fix the Middle East and it didn’t work. So we should be modest in what we can do.
Audience Question: Is Israel able to fight a prolonged war without a 1973-style airlift?
Prof. Efraim Inbar: I think that Israel is capable of short-term action, military action, without the acquiescence of the United States. We can increase this time period by spending more money on defense. Some of the military equipment we get from the shelf of the American producers can be produced in Israel, but we don’t want to spend the money, because, you know, creating less items costs more money. Second, I think that we can decrease the time of action by paying less attention to casualties. Some of the Israeli military considerations that make our operations longer are due to sensitivity to casualties. So there are other trade-offs that are dependent upon us, not upon the Americans.
*Prof. Efraim Inbar is a Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (the BESA Center). He specializes in Middle Eastern strategic issues with a special interest in the politics and strategy of Israeli national security. Inbar holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. He served as visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was also a Manfred Warner NATO Fellow, a visiting fellow at the (London) International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the recipient of the Onassis Fellowship. He has authored five books, including Israel’s National Security: Issues and Challenges since the Yom Kippur War (2008), and is editor of twelve collections. Among other positions, he was a member of the Political Strategic Committee of the National Planning Council. He also served as President of the Israel Association of International Studies.