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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Israel Faces New Challenges as the U.S. Rethinks Its Role in the Middle East

Filed under: Israel, U.S. Policy

I would like to give you a sense of how the strategic environment of Israel has changed. It was nearly thirty years ago that we had the Madrid Peace Conference which launched what people called the Arab-Israeli peace process. That was in October of 1991. And we’re in a different situation now.

The Gaza Strip has become a launching pad for rocket attacks against the State of Israel. The premier organization involved is not just Hamas, it’s Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which from our point of view is an extension of the Iranian security establishment.

When we asked ourselves thirty years ago why was it that all of a sudden we were on the verge of some peace discussions with our neighbors which were not possible in the 1980s or 1970s, the answers were basically three critical factors. One, the Soviet Union had been defeated by the United States in the Cold War and subsequently even collapsed. And therefore we were in a new global situation which allowed, under the umbrella of American paramountcy, the states in the region to feel that they had to sit together and try and work something out. That was the first condition.

The second important condition is that after we made peace with Egypt in 1979, the last major Arab power that spoke about destroying the State of Israel was Iraq. But Iraq had been defeated by a coalition of countries after it invaded Kuwait, and clearly, the fact that Iraq had been crushed and Saddam defeated created a regional circumstance that was new. And third, if we looked around the Middle East for somebody who wanted to pick up Iraq’s crown as regional leader with military options against the State of Israel, that country was Iran. But Iran had just finished an eight-year war with Iraq and it was in no position to project military power in the direction of the Mediterranean and towards Israel. So that created a unique set of circumstances that allowed us to protect our security.

What is happening right now is, first of all, that President Putin of Russia is seeking to restore the status of Russia as a global superpower. It’s not doing too badly, by the way. That creates certain dilemmas and challenges for the State of Israel. I use the term “frenemy.” A frenemy is a little bit of a friend, a little bit more problematic. I first read the term in The Economist. In Syria we have a massive Russian military presence. We have the Iranians seeking to create a presence in Syria and calling Syria the 35th statelet of Iran. But obviously with Russia there with a large military presence, that affects our calculus of what we can do and what we can’t do. One of the great achievements of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the balancing act – going to Sochi and sitting with President Putin and working out rules of engagement. But obviously, if you develop a new structure of relations for the State of Israel, you have to adjust to this new reality.

At the end of that Gulf War, the balance of power between Israel and its most hostile neighbors was more or less stabilized. The terror organizations were now becoming terror armies and that was new. But when we saw particularly the Iranians trying to transfer to Hizbullah new weaponry that could alter the balance of power – just an example, there’s a cruise missile called the Yakhont, Russian-produced, with a reach of about 200 kilometers out to sea. It’s an anti-ship missile. But when you are investing in new gas fields in the Mediterranean and your adversary is about to take possession of anti-ship cruise missiles with that kind of strategic reach, that are supersonic, that changes things. So, obviously, when we have information that missiles like the Yakhont are about to be transferred to Hizbullah, Israel doesn’t sit on its hands. There are other missiles that could change the air balance, the SA 22. Again, when we see that that’s about to occur, we have to respond.

We never wanted to get involved in the Syrian civil war. Our only involvement was having a field hospital on the Golan Heights to take care of Sunnis who had been wounded. And finally, of course, the massive rocket force which Hizbullah has -which a former American Secretary of Defense says is larger than the rocket forces of many Western countries. When we saw that Hizbullah was seeking to introduce accuracy to weapons that are known to be relatively inaccurate, that also changes the balance of power, should it occur.

So what you have is Israel with a situation which looks like a frozen balance, with the other side trying to upset that balance, trying to improve its position in ways that would damage Israel.

One last feature of what is going on in our region, and it’s also beyond Israel, something very clever that Iran has been doing. It has been setting up militias of Shiites and stationing them, among other places, in Syria. They also exist in Iraq. These Shiite militias allow Iran to become militarily active without killing Iranians in those battles. So you have a militia set up of Afghans who have been brought into Syria. You have a militia including Pakistanis and Iraqis who come into Syria to fight in the interests of Iran.

Recently, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London put out a very long and detailed report showing what these new proxy forces were doing. One of the things that struck me in their report was they wrote that Iran had a military advantage over the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East because of these Shia militias. So something is changing and it’s something Israel has to monitor and Israel has to respond to.

It is very important for us to stress the problems and challenges that Israel faces and especially if the United States is rethinking its role in the Middle East. It has to be aware that there are new challenges out there which are not just affecting Israel, they’re affecting the Gulf Arabs, Saudi Arabia, and other allies of the United States. We have to have a region-wide discussion about how we protect stability in the future. We have to remember that when the British Empire went to war against the Ottoman Empire, some of the most important forces that fought with the British was the British Indian Army. We haven’t forgotten that. We even have photographs of the British Indian Army marching on Jerusalem. I think that will perhaps give us a context, a way of thinking about creating a new security structure for the Middle East.

I recall when I was ambassador of Israel to the United Nations and we found India’s voting in the General Assembly was beginning to change, I said something’s happening here. A lot of it goes back to the structure of the architecture of international security prior to 1991 where the Soviet Union figured so prominently, and that affected everything in our relations. But with the Soviet Union pulling back and becoming Russia, Russia is seeking a new identity of cooperation and also a conflictual identity. I think it came much easier for our two countries to work together openly and I think that has a lot to do with the change.

Now there are still issues that are out there that’ll have to be addressed and resolved. I mentioned Iran. Iran figures extremely prominently. The organizations in Gaza that are attacking Israel are supported by Iran. I wrote a book that was very nasty on Saudi Arabia in 2003. The publisher called it Hatred’s Kingdom. At that time the budget of Hamas came roughly 50-70% from Saudi Arabia. Today, Saudi Arabia doesn’t give Hamas a nickel. But the support to Hamas comes from two sources, primarily from Iran but also from Qatar. That’s a huge change and it makes us see that the Iranian problem has multiple dimensions that affect our security directly – of people living in Ashkelon who see these rocket attacks coming right into their homes.

Some of the subjects raised here like the problem of North Korea – North Korea interacts very closely with Iran. So there may not be a security architecture yet for all of Asia, but there’s a security architecture for the bad guys and I think we have to be attentive to that. Pakistan was always very far away from us, but Pakistani Shiites are now in Syria. It means that I think we’re going to have to put our heads together about how our backyards are affecting each other.

As ISIS declined in Syria and Iraq, it prospered in Egyptian Sinai. The president of Egypt has spoken about it so I feel free to speak about it. One of the little-known stories is that the revival of ISIS power in Sinai, which has placed the Egyptians in a very difficult position – the Egyptian war effort against ISIS has not been so successful – has led to Israel helping Egypt fight ISIS. And that is something that is going on along Israel’s southern front today. There was a second issue   raised about Indians dying for Israel – and Americans.  That’s a very cute comment from my perspective that is a false accusation which only springs from hatred towards Jews in Israel and therefore I reject it totally.

Now let me tell you something, as somebody who negotiated agreements in the name of the State of Israel, we repeatedly told our American friends that Israel will defend itself by itself. Do you see proposals to put the 82nd airborne in the Jordan Valley? No. Do you see requests of us to Prime Minister Modi to put Indian forces in the area the Golan Heights? No way. So it’s a scenario that attracts a lot of anti-Semites. It has absolutely nothing to do with the security doctrine of the State of Israel. End of point.