UNESCO just voted to support the Muslim claim that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (which includes the Islamic holy site Al-Aqsa Mosque) ought to be regarded as a solely Muslim site. It denied that either Judaism or Christianity have any legitimate claims to the site.
This resolution has no practical consequence for Israel. But it is a good starting point for considering the country’s current strategic position.
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Israel has no threats on the borders
Israel is now in the best strategic position it has ever been in. The peace treaty with Egypt remains in place. Even without it, Egypt’s military has deteriorated as a force and does not pose a threat to Israel.
Jordan depends on Israel for its national security. It is fairly weak and faces threats from both the north and the east. Jordan serves as a buffer for Israel against those same threats.
Syria, which was once a direct threat to Israel, is engaged in a civil war. Whatever the outcome, it will take at least a generation to recover.
Lebanon is basically stable. Hezbollah, which Israelis see as a major threat, is being used in the Syrian war by its Iranian allies and is trapped in the labyrinth of Lebanese politics.
Given these factors, Israel has no military threats on its borders.
UNESCO – Beyond the borders is less predictable
To the west, there is chaos. The conflict doesn’t affect Israel’s immediate interests, but its evolution is uncertain. Meanwhile, the Sinai Peninsula is filled with groups that support the Islamic State (IS). Israel and Egypt are cooperating to try to contain these groups.
To Israel’s east, Iraq and Syria are engaged in a multi-sided war. The United States, Russia, and Turkey are directly involved with countless competing factions. Among them is also IS, which holds a big portion of Syria under its control.
At the moment, Russia and the US are at loggerheads over Aleppo; Turkey is being inscrutable; and IS seems on the defensive, but that’s only because it hasn’t chosen to act. Israel’s best hope, a pro-Israeli government, isn’t going to happen.
The resolution of the conflict will involve either a partitioned Syria (with attendant dangers) or a single country forced by one of the outside powers, which is also worrisome. In Iraq, the situation could evolve in such a way as to be a direct threat to Jordan, and so, to Israel.
UNESCO – Israel’s security relies on neighbors’ weakness
There are three regional powers in the Middle East besides Israel: Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Ideally for Israel, one of them would take the lead—not only in Syria, but also in Iraq and Egypt. Or the United States could take that role.
But the US will not. It already learned the lesson in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The idea that the US would do this now is absurd, and the Israelis know it.
Relying on the other three regional powers to take this role is also not viable now, for two reasons. First, each of these countries has its own problems. Turkey is dealing with the aftermath of the attempted coup, and Iran’s ability to project force is limited by the nature of its military.
Finally, Saudi Arabia is in a deep financial crisis and is bogged down in Yemen. It is not going to be the solution.
There’s another problem for Israel. Any country that brings stability to the region would have to be quite powerful to achieve this goal. And its forces would wind up directly on Israel’s border (in at least the Golan Heights, and quite possibly in the Sinai Peninsula and Jordan River valley).
So, Israel is secure right now because its immediate neighbors are either weak or in chaos. No regional power is in a position to solve the problem, nor would Israel welcome that.
UNESCO – A dangerous diplomatic game
Israel is therefore engaged in a complex game of regional diplomacy… where no one is quite sure of its positions. It’s a diplomatic game to keep the dangers at a distance.
At some point, however, it could blow up and result in a more powerful, unified Islamist force. That would radically change Palestinian behavior. If IS were freed from the current, it could give the Palestinians something they never had before—the tools to stage a broad-based armed uprising.
To this point, IS hasn’t had much success in penetrating the Palestinian groups. This is partly because of Palestinian politics and culture, and partly because it was a luxury IS could not afford.
But if Israel lost control of the regional political situation, this would be possible.
Why the UNESCO Vote Reveals Weakness
The importance of the UNESCO declaration is that so many nations either voted for it or abstained, including some European nations—particularly France. Israel has never been popular in the UN, but the declaration shows how unpopular it has become.
Only six nations—the US, the UK, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Germany, and Estonia—voted against it. Some of these are very important nations, but they are also nations that are either licking their wounds from battle or facing internal political problems.
Even in the UK, which voted against the resolution, the degree of anti-Israel feeling is extraordinary. If Israel passes from a highly favorable strategic position to a much less favorable position, it will have to call on these nations for help.
It is a small and reluctant group and, ultimately, one that has to deal with domestic political problems.
The Israelis have reached a superb strategic position. It cannot get better. But it can get worse. If it deteriorates, Israel will need support, and that support depends on the political mood of the possible ally. Israel needs to manage that mood because it may determine the outcome of one possible scenario.
The UNESCO resolution can be condemned, ignored, or ridiculed. But the extreme nature of the resolution and the small number of countries that voted against it are warnings. Israel needs to execute its strategy with perfection. In most things—especially the most important—that isn’t the likely path.
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