George Friedman follows the evolving fortunes of the Middle East and looks at some of the unexpected alliances that may be spawned by recent developments there.
The US-Israeli relationship was forged in the crucible of the Cold War, when Israel functioned as a meaningful counterweight to Soviet ambitions in the Middle East. The Iran nuclear deal is not so much an existential threat to Israel as it is a development that burdens it to act and to help shape the region the way the United States desires. Israel may often be forced to the front lines in the coming years, whether as a result of Iran striking via proxies such as Hezbollah or whether by becoming an appealing secondary target for the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. It will also find itself in strange alliances, such as partnering with the Saudis against Iran, with Hamas and Egypt against the Islamic State, and simultaneously with Turkey and various Kurdish factions.
Nevertheless, the US-Israeli relationship will endure. Although this relationship will not be the cushy arrangement it was during US President George W. Bush’s administration, Israel will still be important to the US strategy of creating a balance of power in the Middle East.
Judging from the openly antagonistic relationship between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it would be easy to assume that the Iranian deal will further fray the ties between Israel and the United States. Indeed, part of Washington’s strategy to create a balance of power means forging more pragmatic relationships with regional powers: in this case, countries such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The United States was not going to avoid an agreement with Iran just because Israel said to.
But that does not mean Washington will abandon its relationship with Israel, a nation that is essentially an American insurance policy should Iran or Turkey prove able to capitalise too effectively on regional turmoil. Though the United States cannot depend solely on Israel to shape the region to Washington’s wishes, Israel still serves a very important role in Washington’s overall strategy. A powerful Israel, armed to the teeth by the United States, precludes the possibility of one power dominating the region completely. This means Israel will still enjoy significant American support, but it also means Israel will become a target for would-be regional hegemons.
The role of Israel’s geography
For any power emanating from the east, whether based in present-day Iraq or Iran, Israel is situated on particularly important strategic territory. The ancient Persian Empire pushed to the eastern Mediterranean precisely because it required an anchor in the Levant to protect against aggressive actions from Mediterranean powers. Without a foothold in the Levant, Iran cannot feel secure.
Even if Iran’s Shiite crescent strategy had succeeded in the 2000s, Iran’s proxy in the Levant, Hezbollah, would have had to face an aggressive Israel that would not have tolerated such a powerful Iranian-backed force so close to home. The Lebanon conflict of the 1980s was disastrous for Israel, but it also demonstrated that when sufficiently threatened, Israel will extend its influence north to the Litani River. A Hezbollah stronghold connected by land all the way to Iran’s Zagros Mountains would have forced Israel’s hand.
Israel is also important strategic territory for a potential Mediterranean power such as Turkey. The simplest reason is that without controlling the greater Levant, a Mediterranean power leaves itself open to attack from an eastern power such as Iran. Turkey’s geographic core is the Sea of Marmara, and its greatest geopolitical advantage is its control of important maritime trade routes in the Mediterranean; an ambitious foreign power with a grip on the Levant could disrupt valuable trade routes or challenge maritime domination of the Mediterranean. Furthermore, if Turkey ever hopes to reclaim even a portion of the power it wielded as the Ottoman Empire, when it controlled both the northern and southern littorals of the Mediterranean, control of Israel is an imperative. Without it, no government in Istanbul can easily project land-based military power into the southern Mediterranean.
The Israelis will not necessarily find the Middle East’s new diplomatic climate a temperate one. The current front-line battleground in the Middle East is Iraq and Syria. Yemen is the secondary front, but Israel will not be able to stay out of the general fray forever. When the Syrian civil war eventually abates, Israel may find that it is bordered to the north by either an Iranian-backed Alawite state, a Sunni Islamist state with ties to Turkey or Saudi Arabia, or some other as-yet-unimaginable entity. This unknown is nothing short of terrifying for Israel, and it will have to be vigilant against attacks from both conventional forces and militants. The Palestinian question in recent years has been a minor irritant at worst for the Israelis, but the possibility that a foreign power could use the Palestinian issue against Israel cannot be overlooked.
Like other Middle Eastern players, Israel will have to become significantly more opportunistic. It will be unable to simply build a security fence on all sides of its borders and let the Middle East stew in its own juices. Traces of change in Israel’s behaviour are already apparent. There are indications that furtive Saudi-Israeli relations have accelerated in recent months and that Riyadh and Israel have working understandings regarding the conflict in Syria. A recent sophisticated attack by the Islamic State’s Sinai Peninsula franchise in Egypt has created a shared fear among Egypt, Hamas and Israel, and all three will work to combat the Islamic State’s attempt to establish a base of operations in Sinai.
Moreover, talks between important officials in Israel and Turkey were leaked to the media in June. Although formal reconciliation has not occurred yet, Israel will work with Turkey on issues of shared interest, particularly in Syria but also in preventing Iran from becoming too powerful. Also, there are indications that Israel and the Palestinian National Authority might return to the negotiating table. This runs parallel to Israel’s quiet exchanges with Hamas. All the while, Israel will continue to maintain relationships with stateless groups in the region such as the Kurds and the Druze, while forging new alliances and alignments to minimize the fallout from the emerging balance of power.
The relative calm and quiet Israel has experienced in recent decades is not the norm. Israel is not in jeopardy of being overrun by Iran or any other Middle Eastern power for as long as the United States backs it. And while changes in US strategy have downgraded Israeli influence over the strategic decisions Washington makes, Israel remains an integral part of the overall US attempt to create a more stable Middle East. Israel has had years to prepare for this situation. The new strategic environment will force Israel to be much more aggressive in pursuing calculated relationships with old enemies and new friends. Israel is not going anywhere, but that should not obscure the fact that its geopolitical circumstances just became significantly more perilous.