These Are The 3 Biggest Threats To Israel by Jacob Shapiro, Mauldin Economics
Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are key regional powers in the Middle East. A distinct division, however, exists within this group.
Turkey and Iran are potential hegemons. They represent the heirs of the Ottoman and Persian empires. Israel and Saudi Arabia are key players, but they share a critical limitation… their strategic needs outweigh their capabilities… and this limits their regional impact.
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The Saudi Kingdom’s weakness is its dependence on oil. Israel also faces a gravely dangerous future… but for different reasons than the Saudis. The danger is a still in the future, but the potential challenge is no less potent.
Israel has never been stronger than it is today. It is in a reasonably secure position on all of its borders (read more in my full article). From a regional perspective, however, three challenges loom for Israel: Iran, the Islamic State, and Turkey.
Iran is the threat most often mentioned in Israel, largely due to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has built his political career around the notion that he is the only Israeli leader aware of and capable of dealing with the threat Iran poses.
That strategy has worked well so far—he is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, besides founding father David Ben-Gurion. Israel, however, is no threat in the short run.
Iran was building an arc of Shiite influence in 2010, which extended from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean Sea via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iraq is now in shambles, Syria is in a state of civil war, and pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon have been cut off from their direct link to Iran and are engaged in Syria.
Iran is 1,000 miles away from Israel, and rhetoric aside, it faces an existential crisis in the battle for influence in Baghdad and, to a lesser degree, in its fight to prop up Assad’s regime in Syria.
The key outlier here, of course, is nuclear weapons—and herein lies Israel’s fundamental weakness. Our view has always been that Iran did not want to develop nuclear weapons so much as it wanted others to believe it was developing them, so they could use it as a bargaining chip.
But Israel cannot make such assumptions. The nation has long viewed an Iranian nuclear program as a threat yet has been powerless to do anything beyond a few air strikes on nuclear reactors. Israel struck one of them in Iraq in 1981. They also destroyed Syria’s suspected nuclear reactor in 2012.
Iran poses a much more difficult challenge.
It is too far away for the Israeli air force to attack without forward deploying (and thereby alerting the Iranians). Israel also lacks the weapons and intelligence necessary to attack underground sites.
If Israel were capable of destroying the Iranian nuclear program, it would have done so. Every time Israel threatened to do so, it was bluffing.
The Islamic State
The Islamic State is another potential threat that does not get enough attention. The media is fixated on the fact that IS has lost territory in recent months. We, however, see a sophisticated fighting force that has again retreated to more favorable ground and is defending a core territory.
IS works in Israel’s interests in the short term. It has crippled a mortal enemy in Assad and is not in a position to threaten Israel directly. But if IS or any other entity that could rise from the Syrian civil war united Arab power, that alliance would be a fundamental threat to Israel’s interests.
This is an unlikely scenario… but not an impossible one, and Israel does not have the luxury of discounting the unlikely.
Israel has thus far stayed out of the Syrian civil war because chaos in Syria works directly in Israel’s interest. Israel also doesn’t have the capability to shape the conflict.
Israel’s military is well equipped and trained, but it cannot manage a protracted conflict in which it must fight over extended supply lines. Such a conflict would cripple the Israeli economy and put the military at risk of casualties it cannot afford.
Israel benefits from Syria’s chaos, but it cannot control Syria’s future. The Syrian civil war may continue for years, but it will eventually end. And then Israel will face a new reality that it cannot define and that will thrust new challenges on Israel’s security establishment.
The last country that can dictate Syria’s future is Turkey. Turkey is the strongest of the region’s powers. And no matter how much they don’t want to intervene in the conflicts raging around it, Ankara cannot permanently accept ongoing chaos along its southern border.
Turkey already has the largest economy in the region in terms of GDP, and it also has the largest military force. By the end of the 1960s, Israel and Turkey were in the US camp in the Cold War, and despite the recent strain in relations dating back to 2010, cooperation has continued behind the scenes.
Despite everything, we believe the most likely scenario for the Middle East in the next 20 years is that Turkey will be forced to take a deep interest in Syria and will engage in the conflict to prevent the rise of potentially hostile states.
Here again is a strategic challenge the Israelis cannot predict or shape. If Turkey decides that projecting power into the Levant is in its interest, Israel can do nothing to stop it. If Turkey decides it wants nuclear weapons, Israel can do nothing to stop it.
There is no telling how Turkey’s rise will affect the future of Israeli–Egyptian or Israeli–Jordanian relations. The Middle East today is in a state of chaos, and such chaos serves Israel’s interests.
This chaos, however, is temporary. Order will eventually return in the form of a strong Turkey, a united Arab entity, an overachieving Iran, or some other as yet unimagined scenario. And in that future world, Israel’s relative power and security will quickly evaporate.
Israel has always depended on a great-power patron. In 1948, it was the Soviets. Until 1967, Israel was France’s ally. And since then, it has been the United States.
The US–Israeli relationship, however, has been fraying because it was grounded in a strategic partnership to combat the Soviet Union and its Arab allies during the Cold War.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, there was something of a honeymoon phase, but Israel’s relatively secure position now allows it more independence from the US than it had in the past. And the US move to establish a balance of power in the Middle East has rendered Israel far less important to American strategic interests.
That balance of power strategy is what led to the Iranian nuclear deal, which Netanyahu felt was so misguided that he came to the US to lecture Congress about why it should oppose the deal. Ironically, the US’s balance of power strategy is one of the best things that could happen to Israel in the long run.
It brings strategic necessity back into the US–Israel relationship. The US is more focused on Iran and Turkey now. In fact, Turkey is considered a very important ally despite some friction. The US, however, has no interest in allowing any one power to dominate the region, and certainly not Turkey, which holds strategic real estate on the Bosporus.
Israel cannot dictate strategic American interests. But Israel can serve as an important insurance policy to make sure no single power can dominate the entire region.
Today, Israel exists in a perfect storm of circumstances that gives it strength and security. The last 68 years, however, have not been the norm in the Middle East, and neither have the last five in which Israel has become more secure than at any other point during its modern iteration
There are geopolitical reasons why Israel didn’t exist for over 2,000 years. Those reasons haven’t gone away, and they will reassert themselves. At that point, Israel will have to depend on foreign backers, the skills of its leaders, and the unity of its state. None of those are sure bets.
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