Israel should navigate its path based on the assumption that it cannot, at least not in this generation, fundamentally change the situation in the Middle East, neither by political agreements nor by using military force.
* Note: This is an English version of an article by General Amidror that was published several months ago in the Hebrew journal “HaUma,” issue 217. The article outlines the global strategic situation before the advent of the coronavirus crisis; a crisis with as yet unknown impact on the world.
From the end of World War II and for almost half a century, the general picture of the world was quite clear: there were two centers of power – “poles” as they were referred to – one in Washington and the other in Moscow, and the world revolved around them. The international system was divided into three blocs: the democratic-Western world, which relied on the power of the United States; the communist world with its satellites, ruled by the Soviet Union; and a third, so-called non-aligned group led by India and Egypt, which was inclined toward the Soviet Union but was not completely under its wing.
The world was governed by rules. Each group was careful not to tread on the other group’s turf, and when one party broke those rules, in Korea or Cuba, for example, the other side reacted forcefully in order to maintain the status quo. At the same time, when problems arose in one camp, for example in Hungary in the 1950s and in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, the other side did not come to the aid of the “rebels,” because the event was taking place on the territory of the opposite camp.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 inspired hope that this would be the “end of history” and would propel the world toward more democracy, free markets, fewer wars, and perhaps even international institutions that would govern the world peacefully, all under the auspices of the United States – the superpower that won the Cold War.
But that’s not how things developed. From the standpoint of 2020, the year launching the third decade of the 21st century, the world has become less orderly, with no accepted rules of conduct and no properly functioning international organizations. Moreover, a sober assessment of the state of affairs in the world today leads to the clear conclusion that democracy has not won. The threats to it as a system of government have only increased, and the rivalry between the world’s most powerful countries has become more challenging and perilous.
The rising superpower in the east, China, declares in acts and even in words that it has no intention of aligning itself with the rules set under the leadership of the United States since World War II. It offers an alternative, in the words of the Chinese president, and is neither democratic nor does it abide by the international system when such a thing does not suit its interests.
The successor to the Soviet Union, Russia, has not disappeared from the world stage. It operates in areas that are important to it, such as Ukraine in its immediate vicinity, and the more distant Syria, in the heart of the Middle East, where it acts with the aggression and self-confidence of a superpower, despite its failing economy and population decline due to its negative birth rate over the years.
These two countries in no way promote the spirit of democracy, open markets or civil rights; on the contrary, they challenge the Western-democratic world on almost every issue.
The Western world is in deep crisis. Politically, there is a large gap between citizens’ expectations and what democratic governments can provide. Socially, there is a division within many democratic countries whereby the richer, and usually more liberal, sectors of society perceive their status and interests as being part of a global system that eradicates differences between countries and cultures. In contrast, the more conservative segments of these countries want to ensure the continuity of the nationalist paradigm and its traditions, each country in its own separate and unique way. This was potently expressed, inter alia, in the US elections, the referendum on the UK’s departure from the EU, and the East-West divide within the EU. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, the division between these two groups is almost exactly fifty-fifty.
Europe as a continent and a political unit has retained its economic strength but lost all its military capability, making its impact on the world stage extremely low. It was and remains dependent on the United States for everything related to the use of military force for defense and the preservation of its interests. Some of the principles adopted by Europe appear unsuitable for a world in which countries such as Russia, China, Iran or international terrorist organizations operate, a world in which stakeholders use force to realize their interests. Americans are right in claiming that part of Europe’s ability to ignore threats and avoid devoting efforts to curbing negative trends in the world stems from the knowledge that the United States will do the work on its own, if necessary.
The United States remains the most dominant economic, technological, and, certainly, military power. But China is breathing down its neck and making the US uneasy, as it feels that China is not playing by the rules, mainly because its economy is led and supported by the government, thereby removing any real competition both within the country and between it and the world.
The Chinese, according to the United States, manipulate their own currency and are therefore adversely affecting the global economy, and they do not hesitate to violate any law related to the protection of trade secrets, intellectual property, patents and the like. The US claims that China is behind computer hacking around the world in a bid to advance its economy by stealing scientific and trade secrets, without shame and without fear. China has ostensibly opened up its economy, but in fact it has become a more centralized state that utilizes technology not only to develop its economy but also to better control its citizens and monitor them more strictly, and to isolate them, when necessary, from the rest of the world.
The United States understands that it is in fierce competition with China, and therefore wants to break free from areas and commitments that distract it from its main focus. This sentiment was dubbed the “Pivot to Asia” by the Obama Administration and “America First” by the Trump Administration. Both presidents learned that it is hard to evade past commitments, and that as a superpower, it is nearly impossible for the United States to surrender large areas to its various rivals.
This is evident in the Middle East, where there is great concern over the US abandoning the region and its allies, in light of the desire of other countries, especially Russia and Iran, to exploit this situation to expand their influence (and it would be no surprise should China join them in these efforts).
Soleimani’s assassination by the United States has led to some hesitancy on the part of the Iranians, and will perhaps even damage Iran’s capabilities in the region in the short term, but it does not change the fundamental state of affairs described here. We will have to wait and see what the effect of this move will be in the longer term. It has certainly injected uncertainty into Iran’s decision-making processes, especially regarding the behavior of the United States when it feels threatened.
The international institutions on which so many hopes were hung after World War II, especially the United Nations and its offshoots, have become a political tragedy and a comedy in practice. When Iran is a member of the UN’s disarmament committee and Libya a member of the UN Human Rights Council (a ridiculous body in its own right), it is clear why the international system is unable to offer any cure for any problem.
Proof of the international system’s futility lies beyond Israel’s northern border. In Syria, a two-hour flight from the heart of Europe, a bloody war has been raging for about nine years. To date, more than 600,000 people have been killed, and half of the country’s residents have become refugees inside their own country as well as outside of it. No international body has been able to intervene to stop the murder taking place in Syria, or to prevent the deportation of 12 million men and women from their homes.
This situation is characteristic not only of the Middle East. It is the case wherever a strong country has decided to exercise power. Take, for example, when Russia occupied part of Ukraine and the world simply got used to it; or the fact that China is exercising force hundreds of miles off its coast, in the South China Sea, disregarding the rules of international law (and even a decision by the international court) and the world basically remains passive. And of course, no one is concerned about the occupation of the northern part of Cyprus (by Turkey). Even the international institutions responsible for dealing with specific issues do not play their part.
For example, the UN force deployed in Lebanon in 2006, in accordance with the Security Council decision following the IDF’s operation in Lebanon (based on Resolution 1701), has not since issued a single report on the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, and yet the organization boasts one of the largest missile and rocket arsenals in the world, second only perhaps to that of the United States. This body’s mandate is renewed every six months, and no one makes a peep to comment on its dysfunction.
In this respect, the world is like the way it was between the Great Wars. After World War I, all the old-world rules of conduct broke down and the leaders of the era failed in their attempts to address problems in a different manner. The world did not know how to stop the new kinds of states that arose in place of the fallen empires, that is, how to prevent wars whose motives were ideological, and the result was disastrous: World War II.
In contrast to the dysfunction of the political systems in the international arena, in the economic sphere a complex network of ties and interdependence between countries and regions has reigned for about forty years. Synergy has been created in the world between the segments that are abundant in human resources and hungry for development, and the other parts, in which “consuming” is a cultural element and not just an economic imperative supported by a high income.
This phenomenon, dubbed “globalization,” is facing great danger, mainly because the United States has decided to bring back within its borders many industries that, as part of the process, migrated to China, and is trying to force China to behave more responsibly and fairly within the economic system. The Chinese, meanwhile, who are fighting for their place in a world they entered very late and following years of humiliation by the West, want to maintain their freedom of action even if this means defying the rules that have been accepted to this point. They claim that these rules primarily serve the needs and interests of the United States, which formulated the rules itself some 70 years ago.
The trade war between the two competing superpowers in which each side wants to produce and sell more, threatens the arrangement that was convenient for both parties and that resulted in a growth of the global economy that was unusually large in both scope and span. This trade war is affecting the global market in many respects, and if it does not end in compromise and agreement, it is liable to create serious difficulties for many countries that depend on the functioning of an open world that allows import and export from a purely economic perspective.
Significant harm to the elements that comprise globalization will further damage the process of international cooperation and exacerbate a phenomenon we are witnessing in the world: unrestrained egoistic competition between every country, even at the expense of the greater good of the global community, inasmuch as this concept is still relevant.
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the flow of people from one end of the world to the other as a clear expression of globalization, but has also underscored the strong economic links between parts of the world that are interdependent.
Within the chaotic international framework, the Middle East stands out as being unstable and lagging behind the developed world economically, with parts of it drawing their legitimacy from religious, tribal and familial elements – the state being a less binding framework and therefore prone to internal shocks. Conflicts within the Middle East resonate in part because they are exceptionally brutal, and because the dispersion of Moslems around the world gives regional conflicts international impact. ISIS is an example of a local organization that grew against the backdrop of conflicts unique to the Middle East (in this case within the Sunna, and due to friction with the Shiites). But because of its extreme (and well-documented) ruthlessness, and the Moslems around the world who aligned with it, ISIS become a worldwide problem (which is what led to an all-out war against it).
Today there are three trends characterizing the Middle East: There is friction between Shiites and Sunnis wherever the two sects and their offshoots (the Houthis in Yemen or the Alawites in Syria) are found. There is a clash within the Sunni world between those who believe that “Islam is the solution” and those who think and act within the more modern paradigm of peoples and states. Then there is the reality that non-democratic and dysfunctional governments reign throughout the region. Therefore, almost all citizens of the Middle East are living difficult lives with no real hope for improvement in the next generation. Despair as a result of this situation typifies the entire region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India, in which all of the countries are Moslem and most are Arab.
Israel is the only country in the area that is not Arab or Moslem, nor does it share the problems of the countries surrounding it, which only reinforces its uniqueness and its identity as an outsider in the region. It is perceived by its neighbors as an “outpost” of the West in the heart of the Moslem-Arab world, and by itself as an oasis or as a “villa in the jungle” – three images that do not help its relations with the countries of the Middle East.
Of the four most influential countries in the region, only two are Arab.
Iran is the largest Shiite country, and although not Arab, it leads the Shiite world in the Middle East with a strong hand. The Shiite expanse under its leadership today encompasses Lebanon, where Iran exercises almost completely unrestricted control through its proxy, Hezbollah; Syria, where Iran holds great influence but is not alone, as Russia perhaps holds even more, and even the Alawite regime itself is trying to hold onto what remains of its rule; Iraq, where a fierce battle is being waged between the growing Iranian influence in the country and the Iraqis’ attempt to preserve their sovereignty, and Yemen, where the Iranians have joined the Houthis in their fight against the Sunni regime, which is backed by the Saudis who are embroiled in an intense (and brutal) war there.
Then there is Turkey, also a non-Arab state but a Sunni one, which is trying to gain influence by utilizing its large army to intimidate other countries in the region. It is fighting on the Syrian border, mainly in order to prevent the Kurds from achieving partial independence or autonomy, mostly due to the fear that such a move would adversely affect the millions of Kurds who make up Turkey’s largest minority. This is a minority that is fighting for its autonomy and represents the most significant threat to the territorial integrity of modern Turkey. Turkey has expeditionary forces in Qatar, providing the small and very wealthy island state with assistance in view of the hostility it faces from the other Gulf States. It is involved in the civil war in Libya, opposing Egypt, which is antagonistic towards it and backs the other side in its neighboring country………… It is an important host for Hamas officials and is trying to increase its involvement with the Palestinians, including in Judea and Samaria, and especially in Jerusalem.
One thing shared by these two great non-Arab states, Iran and Turkey, is the dream of a grand future, which stems from their nostalgia for the glory of the empires they once were – Persia many moons ago and Turkey until about 100 years ago. In both cases, the dream comprises strong religious elements.
The Arab states revere these two non-Arab countries, which are regional powers and are driven by dreams of the past, for the times when they dominated over the Arabs. Thus, in addition to the desire to protect local interests, there is a deep historical and psychological component to the Arabs’ trepidation with regards to the Turks and the Iranians, in part because many in the Arab countries recognize the fact that the two countries are authentic, with significant history and serious academic institutions and economies – unlike a large number of modern Arab states.
The two most important Arab countries are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The first is the largest in the Arab world (almost 100 million people), is ancient as a political entity, and sees itself as the central Arab state. The conception of Egyptian pride and power is based on the size of the population and on the long history of the country, the “mother of the world” in the eyes of the Egyptians, who also have a nostalgic view of their distant past as a pre-Islamic regional power and of Egypt’s position as a cultural center for all Arab countries. The second country, Saudi Arabia, is important due to its control over the holy places of Islam (Mecca and Medina), its exceptional wealth, and its place as the largest of the Gulf States.
Egypt, however, which is struggling financially, has lost its natural supremacy – a country receiving financial handouts can hardly claim the throne of leadership. Saudi Arabia has found itself in the midst of an intense struggle due to the generational exchange of power (the grandchildren of the founder of Saudi Arabia are set to assume responsibility after the current king’s death), and it is not known how this fight will end. Despite its wealth, the Arab world has difficulty accepting the Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula and Saudi Arabia – an artificial state lacking history – as its leader.
The weakness of the leadership on the Sunni side versus the powerful Iranian leadership on the Shiite side allows the region’s small Shiite minority, about 15 percent of all Moslems in the Middle East, to prevail in most places where there is friction between Shiites and Sunnis. Iran – due to its willingness to involve itself with an exceptional level of aggression, and given the degree of risk it takes as a country while mobilizing Shiite forces throughout the Middle East and even beyond it (Afghanistan and Pakistan) – is involved in most of the friction points in the region. It is the force driving the change of the status quo in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, in an attempt to bolster Iranian influence in the Arab world. Its efforts ultimately support its desire to acquire a nuclear umbrella by building a “ring of fire” around the State of Israel and developing the ability to threaten US allies in the Gulf, in a bid to prevent any decision on the use of force to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities before it affectively becomes nuclear.
Iran’s current campaign to build up fighting capabilities in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon should serve its nuclear strategy, above and beyond its desire to influence developments in these countries in favor of local Shi’ite and Iranian interests.
The conclusions to be drawn in Israel from the general picture of the complex world we live in, and the aggression that is rampant in the Middle East, are not simple.
In the world in general, the most important rule of which is “the aggressor will prevail,” one must take into account that anything is possible, and nothing is inevitable merely because it is “illogical,” “dangerous,” or “unprecedented.” And when anything is possible, it creates a difficult situation for small countries that are under threat. At the same time, today there is no mechanism to contain threats and end wars in a way that allows for a political move to complete military actions. The world has become more belligerent, leaving less room for diplomacy. Crude power is the main component of international relations. Add to this the unique competition between a rising power and the superpower at the top trying to maintain its status, and it is not a process that heralds stability.
Given the situation in the Middle East, it is clear that, on the one hand, Israel is not going to have to deal with a conventional military threat any time soon, like the one it faced for decades. On the other hand, a nuclear Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel in the future, or at least launch a very aggressive policy against it, under a nuclear umbrella. Already today, the capabilities that Iran has built in Lebanon, Syria (where they are still in their early stages) and Iraq pose a real threat to the heart of the State of Israel and its civilian home front, certainly if they are combined with the rocket-launching capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza (a collaboration that is not at all safe, based on past experience). Preventing Iran’s military nuclearization is Israel’s biggest challenge.
Fortunately for the State of Israel, it was able to build impressive military capability over the seventy years that have passed since the end of the War of Independence. Moreover, it has a strong intelligence community that knows how to detect threats, and has the determination needed to contain Iran’s endeavors in both the nuclear and the regional spheres. This attempt at containment involves the risk of escalation to a wider conflict, if Iran responds harshly to Israeli efforts, which are usually conducted under the radar.
The new reality in the world and the Middle East portends great opportunities:
For a US that is seeking to leave the Middle East, Israel will become an even more important ally. Israel can help to secure American interests in the region. A stronger Israel is a clear interest of the US, which remains a close friend of the Jewish state.
For the first time, some of the most important Arab states also want to significantly improve their relations with the nation-state of the Jewish People. They see Israel as a stable, strong, modern country that can provide them with knowledge and technology that will allow them to recover from their economic and political troubles, and a country that can help them face down a Shiite and bellicose Iran – in an era when the American umbrella is showing signs of collapse.
The main obstacle to significantly upgrading these relationships is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has recently been placed on the back-burner because it is clear that there is no way to bridge the gap between the minimum that the Palestinians are willing to receive and the maximum that Israel is willing to give, and it is not at all clear whether the Palestinians are ready to enter into true dialogue and negotiations (and there are those who say that this is also the case in Israel). The latest move by the US administration, namely the President’s “Deal of the Century” proposal, could change the situation, which as mentioned is at an impasse following the profound disappointment from the Oslo process and the consequences of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
Israel must decide what the right steps to take are in light of this plan, and annexation of the Jordan Valley will probably be the immediate outcome. The annexation of larger areas is liable to lead to major tensions, as such a move would be perceived as essentially eliminating any prospect of future negotiations, even though the American plan contains a declaration, one which Israel is also expected to accept, that an independent Palestinian state should be established under certain conditions. Acceptance of the plan by Israel is a formal admission by the state that it intends to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state as a fact, though it would be contingent on the fulfillment of conditions that would be extremely difficult for the Palestinians to implement, including the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip, the chances of which are remote.
Preserving these options for the future, while managing the conflict in a manner similar to what Israel has been doing until now, seems to be the appropriate course with regards to the Palestinian issue in the current reality, despite the euphoria that followed the announcement of the American proposal among a significant portion of Israeli society. This euphoria, which is inherently temporary, should not lead to decisions that would shake the stability of countries in the region, especially Jordan, whose stability serves not only the residents of Jordan but also Israel’s security needs.
The challenge of finding a solution for relations with the Palestinians should remain a priority on Israel’s political agenda, but this time without any illusions about a “new Middle East,” because it is quite clear that the Middle East is not changing. It will remain violent and on the verge of exploding for many years to come. Israel should make its moves based on the realistic assumption that it cannot, at least not in this generation, fundamentally change the situation in the Middle East, neither by political agreements nor by using military force.