By Dr. Adnan Abu Amer
Regional developments in the Middle East are so fluid that they do not allow decision-makers to assess the situation in a calm environment. This includes Israelis who view the escalating conflicts around the region as threats that may turn into opportunities at some point, leading them to look for “interests” here and there.
The most pressing and dangerous development in the region, according to the Israelis, is the gradual deterioration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It looks as if they are on the verge of a long period of political and diplomatic tension; nobody knows if this will translate into direct action on the ground or if they will remain content with their “proxy wars” in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Without going into the details of the conflict occurring in the Gulf zone, Israeli silence on the deterioration in Riyadh-Tehran relations does not mean relief. Israel has the opportunity to appear as a cohesive national state that represents the Jews of the world and is capable of managing its conflicts and differences calmly.
Nevertheless, Israel does not hide its concern over Iran’s expansion in the region and its growing influence over a number of Arab countries, up to and including the edge of the occupied Golan Heights in Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps has military bases monitoring Israel from the Heights, forcing the Israelis to redefine the territory as a military combat front, similar to Lebanon and Gaza. As such, Israel may view Iran’s conflict with Saudi Arabia as a distraction for Tehran away from the Golan Heights.
The Israeli government does not hide its reservations about Saudi Arabia’s foreign policies, especially since King Salman took the throne. It is concerned over Saudi Arabia’s reconciliation with Hamas, its turning of a new page with Turkey, the tepid nature of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel’s closest Arab ally Egypt, and Riyadh’s distance from policies consistent with those of the US administration.
Many analysts suggest that Israel’s reconciliation with Turkey is going to happen, slowly but surely. Teams of diplomats have apparently agreed on a number of the required conditions, including compensation for the victims of the Freedom Flotilla attack in 2010 and lifting the siege of Gaza. All that is left is the agreement of the leaders in Ankara and Tel Aviv to end more than five years of near total estrangement.
The Israelis are almost certain that the strategic ties and alliances that they had with Turkey prior to 2010 will reappear in 2016. This conviction has grown stronger because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has only made this necessary turnaround with Tel Aviv following his spat with Moscow and he requires good regional and international relations. It seems that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to get closer to Erdogan for economic reasons associated mainly with gas and exports to Europe.
Ankara and Tel Aviv are thus growing closer day by day with a reconciliation in the light of the heated situation across the entire region, without paving the way for the full normalisation of their relations. However, Israel may believe that the return of relatively warm relations with Turkey is a means of managing the regional crisis, despite the fact that Netanyahu is facing personal difficulties from his reconciliation with Erdogan. He fears being accused by his extreme right-wing coalition partners of giving in to Erdogan’s conditions at a time when, ironically, he is listening to the recommendations of the opposition to press ahead with improving relations with Turkey.
As far as its southern neighbour is concerned, Israel makes a huge effort in influential capitals to provide Egypt with diplomatic cover internationally. In exchange, the current Egyptian leadership provides unmatched security stability on Israel’s borders, where Israeli air force jets overfly Egyptian territory regularly, especially across the Sinai Peninsula.
Israel has demonstrated its concern about the social and political instability of Egypt. It believes that it could lose an ally that is now even more important than it was during the rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, so it makes a huge effort to ensure the survival of the Sisi regime in Cairo. There can be no gambling over the fate of the regime, no matter what the cost. Thus, Israeli security agencies give their Egyptian counterparts full support to combat what they believe are serious security threats on Israel’s southern borders, especially in Sinai. Israel does not trust any other party to protect it and is happy to boost Egyptian security in every way.
With chaos across the region, Israel can do without any internal security threats, not least the outbreak of the Jerusalem intifada in October last year, which escalates daily. This may force it to make core changes in its security priorities, which may in turn disrupt its plans to address the general developments in the Middle East. Indeed, given that it can always return to internal matters at any time, the Israelis may disregard the internal security situation until they evaluate the regional situation fully, specifically in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
However, the continuation of the Palestinian uprising and its potential to move from stabbings to the use of guns may force the Israelis to make dramatic decisions on the ground. They could, for example, increase the number of raids in the occupied West Bank and begin a new military offensive, which could lead to the collapse, dissolution or deterioration of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
The Gaza Strip also poses a serious military threat to Israel’s security. Israeli threats to wage a fourth offensive against Gaza have increased in line with the Palestinian resistance movements’ continued efforts to reinforce their military capabilities, including more tunnels and missile tests. The Egyptians, meanwhile, are strengthening security on Gaza’s southern border.
There are historical precedents pushing the Palestinians to express concerns over Israel’s exploitation of regional developments to attack them and impose new facts on the ground, while the Arab states and Iran are distracted by their own conflicts. Look at what happened in 1982; while the Arab world was busy with the Iran-Iraq War, Israel attacked Lebanon and expelled the Palestine Liberation Organisation fighters from the country. The Israeli government also took advantage of the post-9/11 “war on terror” to besiege and ultimately kill Yasser Arafat and destroy the Palestinian infrastructure without attracting too much international attention.
The Israelis probably cannot imagine a more favourable situation for them than that being witnessed in the Arab world at the moment. The so-called “Arab-Israeli” conflict has been effectively downgraded and is slowly taking a back seat, while the Arabs make time to resolve their own domestic problems. Until these are resolved, Israel will remain powerful and able to act with impunity.