By Reva Bhalla
Vice President of Global Affairs
The state of Israel has a basic, inescapable geopolitical dilemma: Its national security requirements outstrip its military capabilities, making it dependent on an outside power. Not only must that power have significant military capabilities but it also must have enough common ground with Israel to align its foreign policy toward the Arab world with that of Israel's. These are rather heavy requirements for such a small nation.
Security, in the Israeli sense, is thus often characterized in terms of survival. And for Israel to survive, it needs just the right blend of geopolitical circumstance, complex diplomatic arrangements and military preparedness to respond to potential threats nearby. Over the past 33 years, a sense of complacency settled over Israel and gave rise to various theories that it could finally overcome its dependency on outside powers. But a familiar sense of unease crept back into the Israeli psyche before any of those arguments could take root. A survey of the Israeli periphery in Egypt, Syria and Jordan explains why.
Maintaining the Sinai Buffer
To Israel's southwest lies the Sinai Desert. This land is economically useless; only hardened Bedouins who sparsely populate the desert expanse consider the terrain suitable for living. This makes the Sinai an ideal buffer. Its economic lifelessness gives it extraordinary strategic importance in keeping the largest Arab army — Egypt's — at a safe distance from Israeli population centers. It is the maintenance of this buffer that forms the foundation of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
The question percolating in Israeli policy circles is whether an Islamist Egypt will give the same level of importance to this strategic buffer. The answer to that question rests with the military, an institution that has formed the backbone of the Egyptian state since the rise of Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1952.Over the past month, the military's role in this new Muslim Brotherhood-run Egypt quietly revealed itself. The first test came in the form of the Gaza crisis, when the military quietly negotiated security guarantees with Israel while the Muslim Brotherhood basked in the diplomatic spotlight. The second test came when Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, attempted a unilateral push on a constitutional draft to institutionalize the Muslim Brotherhood's hold on power.
The military bided its time, waiting for the protests to escalate to the point that rioters began targeting the presidential palace. By then, it was apparent that the police were not to be fully relied on to secure the streets. Morsi had no choice but to turn to the military for help, and that request revealed how indispensable the military is for Egyptian stability.
There will be plenty of noise and confusion in the lead-up to the Dec. 15 referendum as the secular, anti-Muslim Brotherhood civilian opposition continues its protests against Morsi. But filter through that noise, and one can see that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood appear to be adjusting slowly to a new order of Nasserite-Islamist rule. Unlike the 1979 peace treaty, this working arrangement between the military and the Islamists is alive and temperamental. Israel can find some comfort in seeing that the military remains central to the stability of the Egyptian state and will thus likely play a major role in protecting the Sinai buffer. However, merely observing this dance between the military and the Islamists from across the desert is enough to unnerve Israel and justify a more pre-emptive military posture on the border.
Israel lacks a good buffer to its north. The most natural, albeit imperfect, line of defense is the Litani River in modern-day Lebanon, with a second line of defense between Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee. Modern-day Israel encompasses this second barrier, a hilly area that has been the target of sporadic mortar shelling from Syrian government forces in pursuit of Sunni rebels.
Israel does not face a conventional military threat to its north, nor will it for some time. But the descent of the northern Levant into sectarian-driven, clan-based warfare presents a different kind of threat on Israel's northern frontier.
It is only a matter of time before Alawite forces will have to retreat from Damascus and defend themselves against a Sunni majority from their coastal enclave. The conflict will necessarily subsume Lebanon, and the framework that Israel has relied on for decades to manage more sizable, unconventional threats like Hezbollah will come undone.
Somewhere along the way, there will be an internationally endorsed attempt to prop up a provisional government and maintain as much of the state machinery as possible to avoid the scenario of a post-U.S. invasion Iraq. But when decades-old, sectarian-driven vendettas are concerned, there is cause for pessimism in judging the viability of those plans. Israel cannot avoid thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios, so it will continue to reinforce its northern defenses ahead of more instability.
Neutralizing the Jordan River Valley
The status of the Jordan River Valley is essential to Israel's sense of security to the east. So long as Israel can dominate the west bank of the river (the biblical area of Judea and Samaria, or the modern-day West Bank) then it can overwhelm indigenous forces from the desert farther east. To keep this arrangement intact, Israel will somehow attempt to politically neutralize whichever power controls the east bank of the Jordan River. In the post-Ottoman Middle East, this power takes the form of the Hashemite monarchs, who were transplanted from Arabia by the British.
The vulnerability that the Hashemites felt as a foreign entity in charge of economically lackluster terrain created ideal conditions for Israel to protect its eastern approach. The Hashemites had to devise complex political arrangements at home to sustain the monarchy in the face of left-wing Nasserist, Palestinian separatist and Islamist militant threats. The key to Hashemite survival was in aligning with the rural East Bank tribes, co-opting the Palestinians and cooperating with Israel in security issues to keep its western frontier calm. In short, the Hashemites were vulnerable enough for Israel to be considered a useful security partner but not so vulnerable that Israel couldn't rely on the regime to protect its eastern approach. There was a level of tension that was necessary to maintain the strategic partnership, but that level of tension had to remain within a certain band.
That arrangement is now under considerable stress. The Hashemites are facing outright calls for deposition from the same tribal East Bankers, Palestinians and Islamists that for decades formed the foundation of the state. That is because the state itself is weakening under the pressure of high oil prices, now sapping at the subsidies that have been relied on to tame the population.
One could assume that Jordan's oil-rich Gulf Arab neighbors would step in to defend one of the region's remaining monarchies of the post-Ottoman order against a rising tide of Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamism with heavily subsidized energy sales. However, a still-bitter, age-old geopolitical rivalry between the Hejaz-hailing Hashemite dynasty and the Nejd-hailing Saudi dynasty over supremacy in Arabia is getting in the way. From across the Gulf, an emboldened Iran is already trying to exploit this Arab tension by cozying up to the Hashemites with subsidized energy sales to extend Tehran's reach into the West Bank and eventually threaten Israel. Jordan has publicly warded off Iran's offer, and significant logistical challenges may inhibit such cooperation. But ongoing negotiations between Iran's allies in Baghdad and the Jordanian regime bear close watching as Jordan's vulnerabilities continue to rise at home.
Powerful Partners Abroad
In this fluctuating strategic environment, Israel cannot afford to be isolated politically. Its need for a power patron will grow alongside its insecurities in its periphery. Israel's current patron, the United States, is also grappling with the emerging Islamist order in the region. But in this new regional dynamic, the United States will eventually look past ideology in search of partners to help manage the region. As U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years and the United States' recent interactions with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood reveal, it will be an awkward and bumpy experience while Washington tries to figure out who holds the reins of power and which brand of Islamists it can negotiate with amid messy power transitions. This is much harder for Israel to do independently by virtue of ideology, size and location.
Israel's range of maneuver in foreign policy will narrow considerably as it becomes more dependent on external powers and as its interests clash with those of its patrons. Israel is in store for more discomfort in its decision-making and more creativity in its diplomacy. The irony is that while Israel is a western-style democracy, it was most secure in an age of Arab dictatorships. As those dictatorships give way to weak and in some cases crumbling states, Israeli survival instincts will again be put to the test.