Recent years have seen a dramatic shift in the focus of international conflicts. During the Cold War, the front line of Europe was the inter-German border, where Soviet armored divisions sat in East Germany and the Czech Republic, putting the focus on Central Europe. Today, while the southern flank of NATO is at the heart of the discussion, the reference is not to armored divisions threatening to chop Europe in half. The reference is to a large human migration beginning in southern Europe and making its way northward. It is mainly the huge flow of migrants coming into Europe as a result of conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and to some extent Afghanistan, and there are other waves on the way. In Syria, Iran seeks to expel Sunni Arabs and bring Shiites from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, thereby altering the demographic makeup of the country.
Israel may play a role in dealing with the problems that arise from this issue. During an official Israeli visit to Italy several years back, one of the topics of discussion was interest in Israeli naval capabilities and working with Italy to see whether our detection systems could be helpful, at the time, with people attempting to cross into Italy from the Balkans, rather than from Africa or North Africa.
Since that time, a new focus has emerged on the threat of migration, not only from the Middle East but also from sub-Saharan Africa. In meeting with our British counterparts on policy planning, there was a great deal of concern regarding Nigeria, which by the middle of this century will have a larger population than the whole European Union. People are already leaving Nigeria.
Appearing on the CBS program “60 Minutes” on January 6, 2019, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi admitted to the unprecedented military cooperation between Egypt and Israel in fighting ISIS in Northern Sinai. Imagine if Israel did not do that, and ISIS succeeded in taking over Sinai or northern Sinai. Their next step would be an attempt to extend their power toward the Nile Valley and take over Egypt.
The millions of Coptic Christians who live in Egypt would not remain there at the hands of ISIS if they took over. Many Muslims would not stay there either.
Today, we could face a new wave of migration, not from Syria but from Egypt. The Greeks would not open their doors – at this point. So the pressure would fall upon Italy, Spain, and beyond within Europe.
In other words, Israel’s assistance to Egypt is not only out of Israel’s self-interest: In helping Egypt fight ISIS, it is clear that Israel is helpful to all of Europe, to the extent to which Israel can forestall that kind of new population shift out of Egypt toward Europe. Israel has been assisting the Sub-Saharan states in the areas of water management, agriculture, and security in ways that could provide these states with a sounder economic base, and in so doing reduce the need for mass migration.
Egypt is not the only example. Libya has become a fertile terrain for ISIS since its failures in Syria and Iraq. In addition, thousands of Africans coming from Central Africa pass through Chad and other countries using Libya as a jumping-off point to go into Europe.
Added to this are hostile countries that are exploiting this population movement for their own benefit. Turkey maintains leverage over Europe by controlling the flow that comes through their country. Over the past year, Moroccan diplomats have pointed out that Iran had used its embassy in Algiers as a conduit for assisting the Polisario. On the basis of this Iranian activity and the scale of its severity, the foreign minister of Morocco flew to Tehran in May 2018 to inform Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that Morocco was cutting diplomatic relations with Iran. Clearly, if the Maghreb is destabilized, that puts pressure on Spain and the whole Iberian Peninsula. By sea or land, several conduits for moving populations into Europe have not been fully exploited by hostile Middle Eastern players.
To the extent that Israel can communicate with countries in the Maghreb, it can explain its very strong position against Iranian meddling. Israel insists on seeing Iran removed from Syria, obviously, but also removed from meddling in other countries in the Middle East.
Today, diplomacy is not just sending a good cable. Diplomacy is about articulating one’s position in the court of public opinion. That is where think tanks can come in and how the Jerusalem Center can play a role in dealing with this issue, using its potential to sensitize learned publics to the challenges Europe and Israel face. Once our common interests are identified, we must be on the same side and work intensely to protect our interests. Today, when the expression “our common interests” is used, this includes our Arab friends, whether they are in the Arabian Peninsula or Egypt.
Migration has evolved into the leading issue with which Israel and its neighbors are contending. Along with the threats that might emerge from these new population flows, there are also new opportunities for regional cooperation with which Israel must become fully involved.