Number 34
January 2015
omplexity and ambivalence are inherent in Israel’s relationship with its
Middle Eastern environment. Israel’s national security agenda is shaped by
the hostility of a large part of the Arab and Muslim worlds. During the past
66 years, Israel has been able to crack the wall of Arab hostility, to make
peace with two Arab neighbors, and to establish semi-normal relations with
several Arab states. But the Arab-Israeli conflict, and its Palestinian core in
particular, rages on, and Iran has joined the fray as a powerful and determined
Itamar Rabinovich is a
Distinguished Fellow at
the Center for Middle
East Policy at Brookings.
In Israel, debates over the state’s identity, its place and role in the region, and the
more specific issues of the future of the West Bank and Israel’s relationship with
the Palestinians, govern the country’s politics and national discourse. The March
2015 Israeli elections are being conducted over a wide range of issues, but they are
seen first and foremost as a referendum on these key questions. Politics and policy
can hardly be separated. Appearances can be misleading. Currently, the focus of
the election campaign seems to be on socio-economic issues. The main challenger
of Netanyahu’s current government and potential right-wing coalition is “The
Zionist Camp” led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. They are strong advocates of
reviving a peace process with the Palestinians, but they realize that the Israeli
public has drifted to the right. Furthermore, the primaries in the Labor Party
produced a left-leaning list of candidates. But whatever the current drift of the
campaign, in the elections’ immediate aftermath, whoever forms the next
government will have to deal primarily with the Palestinian issue and the national
security challenges facing the country.
The Middle Eastern regional system is in a permanent state of flux. As a region
given to domestic unrest, intra-regional conflict, and superpower competition, it
has never been marked by stability, but during the first decades of the postcolonial era there was a pattern: the two protagonists of the Cold War cultivating
their local allies; Turkey and Iran playing limited roles; a series of inter-Arab
conflicts, primarily between radical, revolutionary regimes allied with the Soviet
Union on one side and pro-Western, moderate / conservative regimes on the other;
and the endemic Arab-Israeli conflict.
This pattern has been gradually altered since the late 1970s. Although the
Persian and Ottoman empires had dominated the region in earlier centuries, their
two successor states played limited roles in the region’s affairs for most of the
twentieth century. However, with the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran suddenly
went from being on the margins to being a central player in the Middle Eastern
political arena. Similarly, Erdogan’s rise to power and Turkey’s subsequent shift
from a European orientation to a foreign policy focused more on its immediate
neighborhood to the south and east saw Turkey become a prominent political actor
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 1
in the Middle East in the early years of the twenty-first century.
The entrance of these two full-fledged, powerful actors into the fray had a
profound impact on the region’s politics. Iran and Turkey are large, populous,
non-Arab Muslim states seeking to promote their brand of Islam in the Arab
world. Each has sought regional hegemony in its own way: Erdogan’s vision of
himself as the most popular leader in the Arab world and of Turkey as a model of
“Islamic Democracy” (which culminated in the years 2008-2011) ended in
disappointment and was replaced by more modest interest in its immediate
neighbors, Syria and Iraq, and support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, its own success in the first Gulf
War, and as the sponsor of a successful Arab-Israeli peace process, the United
States enjoyed a position of unprecedented influence and prestige in the Middle
East. However, since the early 2000s, both Washington’s position in the region
and its view of the Middle East have been altered.
Iran’s quest has been more sustained and ambitious. Iran is not just a regional
power seeking hegemony; it is also a revolutionary regime seeking to transform
the region’s politics and upend the status quo in several Middle Eastern countries.
During the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, its own
success in the first Gulf War, and as the sponsor of a successful Arab-Israeli peace
process, the United States enjoyed a position of unprecedented influence and
prestige in the Middle East. However, since the early 2000s, both Washington’s
position in the region and its view of the Middle East have been altered by a series
of developments: the unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure of two
efforts (a Republican one and a Democratic one) to promote or impose democracy
in the Arab world, the collapse of (and failure to revive) the Israeli-Arab (and more
specifically, Israeli-Palestinian) peace process, the diminished importance of
Middle Eastern oil to the U.S. economy, the failure to navigate between reformists
and Islamists in the context of the Arab Spring, and the apathetic response to the
Syrian civil war. All of these developments have combined to create both the
perception and the reality of diminished American interest and influence in the
region. The United States did put together the military coalition against the Islamic
State and it does play the leading role in the air campaign against the group, but
the conviction that Washington is no longer ready to commit ground troops to
cope with Middle Eastern crises has had a significant impact on the region and on
America’s standing in it.
Needless to say, the events of the past five years—particularly the Arab Spring
and the subsequent descent into chaos—have had a profound impact on the
regional political system. Five states—Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen—
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 2
can now be defined as “failed states.” The Syrian crisis has become the arena of a
proxy war between rival regional coalitions. The swift rise of the Islamic State – its
control of a large swath of land on both sides of an non-existent Syrian-Iraqi
border, and the challenge it poses (alongside other jihadist challenges) – is a now a
major issue for several states in the region, as well as for the international system.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to refer to “a regional order” in the
Middle East (“disorder” might be a more appropriate term). The organizing
principles of earlier decades (the Cold War, the Arab Cold War), and the pattern
mentioned above are absent from the scene. When trying to define the current
paradigm in the Middle East, it is more useful to point to four regional axes:
1. Iran and its dependencies: the Iraqi regime (to a limited degree), Bashar alAsad’s regime in Syria, and Hizballah in Lebanon;
2. Turkey, Qatar, and the non-state actors identified with the Muslim
Brotherhood, primarily Hamas in the Gaza Strip;
3. Moderate / conservatives states—Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf, Egypt
under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria;
4. A jihadist axis composed of the Islamic State, al-Qa’ida, and affiliated groups
across the region.
For the first five decades of its existence, Israel’s main national security concern
was conventional warfare: how to deter, minimize, and win conventional wars.
At present, and for the foreseeable future, Israel does not face a
conventional military threat. It is at peace with Egypt and Jordan, and the Syrian
and the Iraqi armies have been decimated by domestic developments and the 2003
American invasion of Iraq. But the conventional threat has been replaced by fresh
challenges at the supra- and sub-conventional levels.
The supra-conventional threat is twofold. One threat is Iran’s construction
of a nuclear arsenal. The diplomatic and clandestine efforts and the threat to resort
to military action in order to stop the Iranian nuclear project have been dominant
issues in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s national security and foreign policies since
2009. Israel was successful in aborting Iraq’s (1981) and Syria’s (2007) quests for a
nuclear arsenal, but dealing with the Iranian nuclear project is a much tougher
Israel’s threat to act militarily loomed large in 2012-2013, but has since been
eclipsed by the interim agreement reached by Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent
five members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, the
United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia—plus Germany). Like Saudi Arabia
and other regional actors, Israel was critical of the interim agreement, is dubious
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 3
about the prospect of completing the negotiations with a satisfactory final
agreement, and it is monitoring them closely. It is doubtful that Israel’s
expectations of keeping Iran at a relatively safe distance from a breakout point will
be met fully. Israel may balk at what would be a middle-of-the-road solution. But a
total collapse of the negotiations or an egregiously unsatisfactory agreement could
push Israel to revive the military threat, particularly if the March elections produce
a purely right-wing government.
The other challenge at the supra-conventional level has been the adoption
of “high-trajectory fire” arsenals (missiles and rockets) by both neighboring and
distant foes. Iran has a significant arsenal of medium-range missiles, and Syria’s
arsenal has been diminished but not eliminated by the civil war; however, it is
primarily in the context of its past and potential future conflict with Hizballah and
Hamas that Israel has to deal with this new dimension. What began in the 1970s (in
Lebanon) and in the early 2000s (in Gaza) as short-range harassment by rockets has
developed into a strategic threat. Israel’s war with Hizballah in 2006 and three
wars (or mini-wars) with Hamas demonstrated the escalating scope of the missile
threat to Israel’s cities and infrastructure and the difficulty of neutralizing that
It is difficult for a regular army to emerge from such a conflict with a clear-cut
victory. However, Hizballah and Hamas are not exactly non-state actor…They
thus offer a rare example of combining sub- and supra-conventional levels of
Hizballah’s and Hamas’s arsenals of missiles are intimately connected to
the sub-conventional level of the conflict. Israel’s military engagements with these
organizations are in many respects a form of asymmetric conflict—that is, a conflict
between a conventional army and a non-state actor. It is difficult for a regular army
to emerge from such a conflict with a clear-cut victory. However, Hizballah and
Hamas are not exactly non-state actors, and they can rely on their arsenals of
rockets and missiles in order to deter Israel, or in the event of war, to force Israel to
escalate its operations to the point of antagonizing international public opinion
and exacerbating the erosion of its legitimacy. They thus offer a rare example of
combining sub- and supra-conventional levels of threat.
Hizballah’s and Hamas’s military capabilities are also a by-product of
Iran’s regional ambitions and policy. Hizballah’s rise to political preeminence in
Lebanon is the single greatest success of Iran’s quest to export the Islamic
revolution. But beyond exporting the revolution and cultivating an important
Shi’ite constituency, support for Hizballah in Lebanon (and, in a different fashion,
for Hamas in Gaza) serves additional Iranian interests: in effect, supporting these
groups has enabled Iran to catapult itself from the Middle East region’s eastern
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 4
periphery to its core area on the Mediterranean and on Israel’s northern and
southern borders. Hizballah’s arsenal is clearly also designed to serve as a
deterrent against Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear installations. While the threats
Hamas and Hizballah pose to Israel pale in comparison to the prospect of a nuclear
Iran, they are taken seriously by Israel’s national security establishment.
Iran’s support of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad has turned it into a
significant actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It should be noted that Turkey’s
political and diplomatic support of Hamas is less significant than Iran’s military
supplies). Iranian and Syrian support of Hamas has been disrupted by the Syrian
civil war, but the support has not completely vanished. Thus, as Israel’s leaders
and national security establishment assess the prospect of an armed conflict in
2015, the three most likely scenarios they see are another round of fighting with
Hamas in Gaza, a second major clash with Hizballah, and a transition from
diplomatic to military conflict with the Palestinian Authority.
Mahmoud Abbas, as leader of the Palestinian Authority, has been and
remains opposed to resorting to armed conflict. He believes that diplomatic and
legal pressure and the threat of a one-state solution are sufficiently powerful
weapons in his toolkit. But Abbas is not in full control of his own movement or of
the Palestinian Authority, is not popular in the West Bank, and is definitely not
capable of restraining Hamas should the latter decide to launch military activity.
Thus, the prospect of another uprising or of a decision either by Hamas or by
groups closer to Fatah to launch military action against Israel looms larger as the
political and diplomatic stalemate continues and popular pressure accumulates.
In crafting its foreign and national security policies, Israel’s current choices at the
regional level are limited and clear. Of the four axes in regional politics, three are
certain or likely to remain hostile. This is certainly the case with regard to Iran and
its allies and subordinates. There is also no prospect of a fundamental
improvement in Israel’s relations with Turkey. Erdogan is interested in
maintaining the economic and trade relationship but not in diplomatic
normalization, let alone a restoration of the strategic relationship. Under these
circumstances, the prospect of exporting Israeli gas via Turkey remains dim, and
Turkey will likely remain a bitter critic and regional rival of Israel, though not an
enemy. Qatar, under Saudi and GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) pressure, has
moderated its support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, though it is still
unclear what impact (if any) this pressure will have on Qatar’s support of Hamas.
Israel will probably continue its ambivalent policy toward Qatar: wary of its
support of Hamas but interested in keeping the bridges open with an important
regional actor that has maintained a modicum of normalization with Israel.
Israel’s obvious choice is to seek to develop its relationships with the
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 5
moderate/conservative states: Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan,
Morocco, and Algeria. Israel shares with Saudi Arabia a firm opposition to Iran’s
nuclear program and its quest for regional hegemony, a wariness over
Washington’s Middle East policy, and a concern with the rise of the jihadist
current in regional politics. Israel and Sisi’s Egypt have common interests in the
Sinai Peninsula and in the Gaza Strip, and they share similar views of the region
and U.S. policy in it. Israel and Jordan maintain tacit and effective security
cooperation, and Jordan can reasonably assume that it can count on an Israeli
safety net in the event of a major crisis emanating from the Islamic State or from
Syria. On the Palestinian issue, Israel and Jordan are still performing a subtle
minuet—Jordan, at best ambivalent on the notion of a Palestinian statehood, has
been pressuring Israel to complete the final status negotiations and accept
Palestinian statehood while expecting Israel to pay the cost of stemming the tide of
Palestinian nationalism.
Jordan, like Egypt, has also recently decided to buy (indirectly) Israeli natural
gas and depends on Israel for its water supply. There has been public criticism in
both Jordan and Egypt of economic cooperation with Israel in the form of buying
Israeli gas. Critics are concerned that such cooperation represents a normalization
of relations with Israel and fear that Jordan and Egypt will become dependent on
Israel to meet their energy needs. Normalization with Israel was controversial
even at the height of the peace process of the 1990s and has become much more so
as the peace process grinded to a halt. So far, though, both governments have
decided that the need to obtain relatively cheap and secure energy outweighs the
political costs of collaboration with Israel.
The pace and intensity of political change in the Middle East over the past five
years have been exceptional even for a region proverbial for its instability. The
high hopes of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and in 2011 have now been replaced by
the grim realities of the “Great Unraveling”—a term commonly used to refer to the
period marked by the Syrian civil war, the disintegration of the Iraqi state, the
lingering failure of the Lebanese state, the anarchy in Yemen and Libya, and the
rise of the Islamic State. Against this backdrop, Israel’s response has been rather
limited and passive.
There was not much that Israel could do in the context of the Arab Spring.
Israel had a clear vested interest in the welfare of the Egyptian and Jordanian
regimes, with which it had functioning peace treaties, and more broadly, in the
stability of the moderate / conservative regimes, but Israel was limited in its ability
to shore up these regimes. An academic debate arose in Israel between the rightwing proponents of the status quo in the Middle East and the more liberal
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 6
advocates of democratic change in the region, with the latter arguing that in the
long run, democratic change is the key to stable peaceful relations with Israel’s
environment. The one concrete policy debate in this context focused on the IsraeliPalestinian peace process. President Obama (and Netanyahu’s domestic critics) felt
that this was the time to move forward in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and
that by ending the conflict with the Palestinians as part of the Arab Spring, Israel
would place itself on “the right side of history.” For Netanyahu and his right-wing
allies, on the other hand, the Arab Spring merely reinforced their skepticism about
the prospects for peace. In their view, a time of turmoil was not the right time to
give up territory and take risks.1 In any event, the Arab Spring abated, the peace
treaties with Egypt and Jordan, two pillars of Israel’s national security, were
preserved, and the old order largely survived in much of the Arab world.
The challenges and opportunities posed by subsequent events were
different. Today, Israel’s most important policy dilemma is how to deal with the
Syrian crisis. A neighboring state, a formidable military foe, and a partner to
intermittent peace negotiations has been thrown into a lengthy, terribly destructive
civil war and has become the battleground of a proxy war between regional and
international rivals. Important Israeli interests are at stake: Syria’s future as a state,
the prospect of its partition into statelets, and the dangers of an Islamist takeover;
the repercussions for Iran’s and Hizballah’s position in Lebanon; the disposition of
Syria’s advanced weapon systems and weapons of mass destruction; and, finally,
the prospect of a victory by an axis composed of Russia, Iran, the Asad regime, and
Today, Israel’s most important policy dilemma is how to deal with the Syrian
Two schools of thought on how to confront these challenges have emerged
in Israel’s policy and national security communities. The first, the “devil we know”
school, argues that despite of all his faults and shortcomings, Asad remaining in
power in Syria is preferable for Israel, as the alternative is either chaos or an
Islamist / jihadist takeover (or both). The other school argues that Asad’s survival
would leave Israel with a dangerous Iran-Syria-Hizballah coalition on its northern
borders (the memory of the 2006 war in Lebanon is still fresh in Israeli minds),
while his fall would mean a defeat for Iran’s regional policy as well as a related
first step in dismantling Hizballah’s position and arsenal in Lebanon. In 2012 and
2013, when Asad’s regime seemed to be on the verge of defeat, some Israelis began
to speculate on the potential impact of a Syrian partition with an ’Alawite statelet
on the coast and Kurdish autonomy in the east; however, these speculations never
developed into serious policy planning.
Whatever the arguments raised by the proponents of these two schools,
Israel’s actual response to the Syrian crisis has been cautious and limited.
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 7
Extending support to the moderate, secular opposition was not seriously
considered—nor was it desirable to most of the opposition groups, which felt that
an Israeli connection would undermine their legitimacy. Instead, Israel offered
medical and humanitarian aid, interdicted several times the transfer of advanced
weapon systems to Hizballah, and retaliated several times in response to local
attacks in the Golan Heights. But ironically, of Syria’s neighbors, Israel remains the
least affected by, and the least involved in, the Syrian civil war. However, it is
important to point out that this state of affairs could be reversed in short order and
that Israel could easily face a sudden national security crisis emanating from the
Syrian conflict. This could happen in a number of ways: a decision by the Asad
regime to retaliate against future Israeli interdiction of another attempt to transfer
weapon systems to Hizballah; jihadist groups taking control of a larger part of the
country and deciding to turn their weapons against Israel; or, in a development
that is presently unfolding, a decision by Hizballah to start operating against Israel
from the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. In mid-January, tensions rose along the
Lebanese-Israeli border and in the Golan Heights when Israeli drones apparently
destroyed two vehicles in the Syrian Golan, killing 12 Iranians and Hizballah
personnel. In addition to an Iranian General among the dead was Jihad Mughniya,
the son of former Hizballah Chief of Operations Imad Mughniya, who had been
killed in Damascus in 2008. Israel has refrained from taking responsibility for this
operation and is trying to calm down its northern front. It seems, though, that
Israel became aware of Hizballah’s preparations and decided to nip them in the
bud without realizing that its operation would lead to such a dramatic outcome.
The current tension may well be brought under control, but the potential for
escalation remains considerable.
Of Syria’s neighbors, Israel remains the least affected by, and the least involved
in, the Syrian civil war. However, it is important to point out that this state of
affairs could be reversed in short order and that Israel could easily face a sudden
national security crisis emanating from the Syrian conflict.
Israel’s policy toward the Syrian crisis derived from several sources: the
tendency of Netanyahu to be cautious, deliberate, and wary of bold, grand moves;
the lessons of Israel’s spectacular failure in Lebanon in 1982, when it tried to tinker
with the politics of a neighboring state; a sense of satisfaction at the idea that major
conflicts can unfold in the Middle East in which Israel is not involved and that the
violence and instability cannot be attributed to the Arab-Israeli conflict or the
Palestinian question; and the absence of a “pull factor” in Syria—something
equivalent to the Lebanese forces that played a crucial role in pulling Israel into the
Lebanese crisis in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A similar outlook has governed Israel’s policy toward Lebanon in recent
years. Israel is worried by Hizballah’s arsenal and would be happy to see a
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 8
fundamental change in Lebanese politics. Hizballah’s position in Lebanon has been
weakened by its involvement in the Syrian civil war, and Sunni-Shi’ite tensions
have been exacerbated. Lebanon has also been affected by the movement of a large
number of Syrian refugees into its territory. But whatever the potential for Israel to
exploit the new fluidity in Lebanese politics, Israel has so far chosen to keep away
from Lebanon’s domestic politics and focused its attention on Hizballah’s military
build-up and the group’s conduct along the border.
Israel is naturally interested in the future of the Iraqi state and the prospect
of its disintegration, but this interest is less intense than Israel’s interest in the
future of its immediate neighbors. The issue that is of highest potential interest for
Israel in the Iraqi context is the prospect of Kurdish independence. Iraq’s Kurds
have benefited from the turn of events that began with the American invasion in
2003 and culminated with the Islamic State’s rattling of the Iraqi state in June 2014.
The Iraqi Kurds now control more territory and oil and have a stronger position
vis-à-vis Baghdad. The temptation for the Iraqi Kurds to move from full autonomy
to sovereignty and statehood is evident, but prospects for independence are
tempered by American and Turkish opposition. The United States is interested in
preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity and would rather not face the embarrassment
of a failed Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and withdrawal. Turkey sees a
mortal danger in the establishment of an independent Kurdish state on its border
and the potential impact this could have on its own Kurdish population.
Developments in Iraq have been compounded by the autonomy that Syria’s Kurds
now enjoy. Turkey’s anxiety is also heightened by the prominence among Syria’s
Kurds of elements identified with the PKK, the militant Kurdish organization that
has been fighting against the Turkish state for decades. The Iraqi Kurdish
leadership knows full well that its current good relations with Turkey and the flow
of oil through Turkish territory would come to an end if they were to cross the
threshold separating full autonomy from independence.
Israel has an obvious interest in the prospect of Kurdish statehood. There is
a historic relationship between Israel and Iraq’s Kurds. In the 1970s, Israel trained
and supported the Kurdish rebels in Iraq, seeking to tie down the Iraqi army rather
than have it join Arab efforts against Israel on what was then known as the Eastern
Front. That collaboration was terminated by the Shah’s Iran and Israel, leaving
some residual resentment among the Kurds; nevertheless, Israel and the Kurds still
view each other as potential partners. Seeking alliances with other non-Arab
elements in the Middle East has been a traditional component of Zionist and Israeli
policy, and a Kurdish state in Iraq and possibly in Syria could have positive
strategic implications for Israel. However, though Prime Minister Netanyahu
offered one public statement of support of Kurdish independence, and Israel did
buy some oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, Israel, like the Kurdish leadership itself (and
for the same reasons), treads very carefully in this minefield.2
Ironically, Israel feels less threatened by Salafi-jihadists than do several
other Middle Eastern states that either have a significant jihadist presence in their
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 9
territory or are directly threatened by jihadist groups. This is somewhat deceptive,
though: groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State are sworn foes of Israel, have
occasionally acted against Israel or Israeli targets, and at some point are likely to
focus their attention and activity on Israel. At this point they have made a
conscious policy decision to deal first with supposed “apostate” Arab regimes and
their Western allies, but slogans like “First Damascus, then Jerusalem” truly reflect
their longer-term objectives.
As recent events in France and Belgium have demonstrated, the threat of
terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets outside the Middle East is
Israel does also face current challenges from jihadist groups. The group
Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis is active in the Sinai Peninsula, and although this group is
primarily concerned with fighting the Egyptian regime, it has collaborated with
groups inside the Gaza Strip, launched a number of attacks across the EgyptianIsraeli border, and tried several times to fire rockets into the Israeli city of Eilat.
Small jihadist groups in Gaza and southern Lebanon occasionally fire rockets into
Israel, sometimes in collaboration with, and sometimes in defiance of, Hamas and
Hizballah. In southern Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qa’ida, is the
dominant opposition group. It has so far avoided engagement with Israel,
preferring to focus on its conflict with the Asad regime, but this may well change
over time. More significantly, the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria is
now the main opposition group fighting against the regime. Its effectiveness has
been somewhat diminished by the U.S.-led air campaign, but the prospect of the
Islamic State’s ability to expand its territory, control, or influence southward
cannot be ruled out. The Islamic State also recruits Israeli-Arabs and threatens to
undermine the stability of Jordan. And finally, as recent events in France and
Belgium have demonstrated, the threat of terrorist attacks against Jewish and
Israeli targets outside the Middle East is growing.
The struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq has created at least a partial
alignment of interests between the United States and Iran. Israel, like Saudi Arabia
and other interested parties in the region, is following this development with
concern. When the interim agreement over the Iranian nuclear issue was being
negotiated, Israel and the other concerned parties suspected that in the side talks
between American and Iranian negotiators, not just a nuclear deal but potentially
also a larger understanding regarding Iran’s regional position and policy was
being discussed. From an Israeli point of view, an American-Iranian
understanding that would moderate Iran’s policies and change its position in Syria
and Lebanon could conceivably be a positive development. But the current Israeli
government, skeptical of the Obama administration and its policies in the Middle
East, worries that any concessions would be made by Washington rather than by
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 10
Tehran. Israel is specifically concerned that Iran would not be pushed sufficiently
back from the threshold of breakout capacity and that the monitoring
arrangements would not be sufficient to prevent clandestine Iranian enrichment
and weaponization. In the event of such a development, Iran’s regional ambitions
would be boosted and a more aggressive policy might well be pursued both in the
Gulf and in the Syrian-Lebanese arena. Furthermore, several Arab countries would
likely reach the conclusion that Washington cannot be relied upon and that they
should therefore make their own deals with Tehran.
The Israeli elections of March 2015 are likely to have a decisive influence on
Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian issue and the Arab world. Should a new
Israeli government decide to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, it
is quite likely that the new government would seek to place the negotiations in the
context of a broader understanding with the Arab world. It is a traditional maxim
of Israeli policy that it is easier to come to terms with the Arab states than it is with
the Palestinians. The Arab states represent a larger arena that offers greater
flexibility, and Israelis have greater confidence in agreements made with states
than with non-state actors. In the background, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002
(and 2007) is still waiting for an Israeli response. Such a response could be an
excellent starting point for a major change in Israel’s current position in the region,
as well as in its international standing. But while Israel’s interest in improving
relations with the Arab states could provide a compelling new incentive for Israel
to seek a resolution – or at least an amelioration – of the Palestinian issue, it will
not necessarily take away many of the barriers on both sides to resolution or
progress that have plagued the process for so long. At this point, however, Israel’s
ability to affect events and trends in the Middle Eastern regional arena remains
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel and the Arab Turmoil (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).
For details, see: Ofra Bengio, “Meet the Kurds, a Historically Oppressed People Who Will Get
Their Own State.” Tablet (August 14, 2014); Ofra Bengio, Surprising Ties between Israel and the
Kurds.” Middle East Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3 (summer 2014), pp. 1-12.
Israel and the Changing Middle East | January 2015| 11