Global Affairs

Threats to Israel's bid to exist as a 'villa in the jungle'

ISRAEL • As the "Arab Spring" of revolutions which convulsed the Middle East gave way to a wintry chaos over the past five years, Israel initially remained unmoved.

Israeli politicians did, of course, understand that the world around them was changing and that what was happening in neighbouring Arab nations would have a profound effect on the Jewish state. But they largely concluded that Israel was powerless to influence events, and agreed that Israel's best approach was simply to wait and see how the region shapes up.

However, Israeli military commanders and strategic experts now acknowledge that those days of waiting and gazing are now over, and that they no longer can remain bystanders but must intervene in the neighbouring conflicts. Shaping the Middle East in the hope of avoiding being shaped by the region is now Israel's objective, although few Israelis agree on how this should be done.

In common with most Western governments, Israel spent decades dealing with Arab leaders above the heads of Arab populations. The result was that Israel's two diplomatic triumphs in the Middle East - the establishment of full diplomatic relations with neighbouring Egypt and Jordan - were both undertaken despite fierce opposition of the people in both countries; Israel acquired Arab state partners, but never had Arab friends.

To be sure, Israel was stunned when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, whose hold over his country looked rock-solid, was toppled by street demonstrations in February 2011. And the Israelis were even more worried when the Hashemite royal family in Jordan seemed to be facing a similar fate shortly thereafter.

But the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was swiftly overthrown by the military, and the Jordanian king did what Jordanian monarchs always do best: defy gravity by holding to their throne.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

So, although Israel was rattled by the changes in the Middle East, the Jewish state quickly recovered its poise. And even as a vicious civil war unfolded in Syria, Israel concluded that the fighting was none of its concern; apart from the occasional air raids to destroy missiles and other key equipment which may fall into the hands of Hizbollah, the Iranian-sponsored militia, Israel largely kept out of the Syrian fray.

Indeed, the Middle East mayhem which initially looked to be a major threat to Israeli security subsequently came to be seen as a strategic asset for the Jewish state. Israeli right-wingers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, started claiming that they no longer had to address the plight of the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, since the Middle East had more "burning" issues. The rising antagonism between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims also deflected attention away from Israel.

And even the gruesome so-called Islamic State terrorist organisation steered clear of attacking Israelis. For those in Israel who believed that their country could continue living as a prosperous, high-tech Westernised nation in a region which is otherwise burning, a sort of "villa in the jungle" existence as some strategists put it, the last few years apparently proved that this was feasible.

Yet, when Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, the country's foremost strategic think-tank, held its annual gathering of top Israeli security specialists recently, almost everyone attending the event, from academics to senior Israeli politicians and chiefs of the intelligence services, agreed that Israel's days of "splendid isolation" are over, and that the continued disintegration of the old state order in the Middle East is not something Israel can continue to ignore.

Some advocated an immediate end to the "strategic paralysis" which is afflicting the Jewish state, while others still urged caution. But all accepted the propositions that the Middle East will burn for years, if not decades, to come, and that Israel will have to develop both the patience and the flexibility to adjust quickly to unforeseen situations.

One reason for this change of mind is Israel's realisation that the region is rapidly returning to its traditional role as a playground for dominance and influence between the United States and Russia. The snag for Israel is that it can no longer be sure how much the US would really like to stay involved in the region, nor can it predict how far the Russians are prepared to go to reinsert themselves in the Middle East.

But Israelis realise that the relations of the two big powers are changing and that Israel must be on good terms with both. Israeli planners do not relish Russia's renewed presence in their region, yet are also preparing themselves for the possibility that Russian military involvement in Syria may save the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from extinction.

As Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon recently made clear, from the Israeli perspective, the victory of the Assad regime and its supporters, such as Iran and its Hizbollah proxy, would be a disaster.

And most of the contingency planning done by Israeli Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot identifies Hizbollah as the major military challenge, following the recent build-up of its forces with tens of thousands of missiles, rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles. Mr Eisenkot fears that Hizbollah has acquired extensive operational experience during its fighting in Syria alongside the forces of the Assad regime; Israel is now determined to face the militia sooner rather than later, and on Israel's own terms.

There is also an Israeli worry that as Russian-backed Syrian government forces are rapidly closing in on the rebels - as they are now doing in the northern region of Aleppo, for instance - the Syrian war will push a variety of dangerously armed militias on to the territories of neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Jordan. So, paradoxically, an end to the war in Syria may well be accompanied by more destabilisation of other states in the region, creating a continuous loop of instability which the Israelis are determined to prevent.

As a result, relations between Israel and Turkey are improving fast, although Israelis remain doubtful about Turkey's regional motives and are particularly mistrustful of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But no such circumspection is evident in Israel's determination to save Jordan, a country which is seen by Israelis as their buffer from further instability. Israel recently supplied Jordan with at least 16 new combat helicopters to patrol its borders with Syria and has recently deployed Israeli surveillance drones on the Syrian-Jordan border to monitor attempts by Islamist militants to penetrate the Hashemite kingdom.

But the biggest Israeli fear is one recently articulated by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, whose ceremonial post is one which he is increasingly using to force ordinary Israelis into confronting their region's realities. Mr Rivlin points out that the weakening of states in the region has created a vacuum of governance which strengthens extremists throughout the Middle East.

His worry is that the so-called Islamic State terrorist organisation already has a presence in Israel, providing a call to violence and radicalisation among the country's 1.7 million Arabs, which are one-fifth of the Israeli population.

For this reason, Mr Rivlin argues, the primary task facing the State of Israel is investment in its Arab population to promote domestic integration.

Israeli strategists still hope that most of their involvement in the region will be of a benign variety and may involve the creation of new regional allies.

Some believe that a new Kurdish state, which may emerge in the Middle East, could break Israel's isolation; the Kurds, unlike the Arabs, don't view Israel with enmity. Other Israeli military planners suggest that their country could forge an alliance with "pragmatic" Sunni states now confronting Iran; the Israeli media is full of allegations about secret deals with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

However, most of these pan-Arab alliance schemes are doomed to remain just dreams; pro-Western Arab monarchies may privately welcome Israeli assistance, but are highly unlikely to forge more durable connections with Israel, at least as long as the Palestinian question remains unresolved.

So, Israel will have to face the coming Middle Eastern storm with its usual mixture of force, diplomacy and deft playing-off of one power against another.

It won't be a very smooth ride.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2016, with the headline 'Threats to Israel's bid to exist as a 'villa in the jungle''. Print Edition | Subscribe