The geopolitical developments of recent months have not afforded the new Israeli government a grace period. These include:
- Dealing with the challenges and implications of the nuclear agreement with Iran;
- The danger of a military deterioration on the northern front (Hezbollah and Syria), on the southern front (Hamas and terror groups in Sinai), in Judea and Samaria and in Jerusalem (individual violence, public protests, and organized terror);
- Continuing tensions with the United States;
- The continued erosion in the U.S. view of the need to maintain a regional presence and lead the effort of stabilizing the Middle East;
- The push to change the paradigm for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from direct negotiations led by the U.S. to a multinational initiative backed by the UN;
- Realizing the opportunity to improve relations with the moderate Sunni countries;
- Israel’s dwindling international standing as growing BDS and de-legitimization efforts inflict further damage;
- The strained resilience of the “triangular relationship”: Jerusalem – Washington – U.S. Jews.
Given these challenges, the need to rehabilitate and nurture the relationship with the U.S. as Israel’s only true and significant ally takes priority. Already inflamed tensions could potentially worsen in the coming months and weigh heavily on the U.S. Jewish community.
The nuclear agreement with Iran received extremely sharp Israeli criticism. From the point of view of Jerusalem the agreement paves the way for Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons and enables it to amplify its subversive activities and support for terrorist organizations in the Middle East. The deal does not cover Iran’s ballistic missile program (whose sole logical aim is to deliver a nuclear warhead to its destination), and does not relate to Iran’s violent regional subversion or its threats to Israel. The Obama administration’s initial goal was to change the nature of Iran’s nuclear program to eliminate its capacity to develop a nuclear weapon, but the president radically changed the goal, which turned into increasing the breakout time it will take Iran to create a nuclear bomb, if it so decides, to at least a year.
The Israeli government was not convinced by President Obama’s argument that “there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward.”6 Israel will have to decide whether to reluctantly accept the agreement and conduct a dialogue to translate America’s stated commitment to Israel’s security into operational and practical terms, or take military action.
The collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations reinforced the campaign of political and legal warfare against Israel and undercut the “direct negotiations with American mediation” model. The Palestinians requested membership in 15 UN treaties, and, through Jordan, petitioned the Security Council for recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and an end to occupation in two years. They failed to convince a majority of the council’s member-states, which spared the U.S. the need to use its veto.7 Yet, Abu Mazen signed (December 31, 2014) accession agreements to 22 additional international treaties including the Rome Treaty, which paved the way to joining the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Given the stalled political process, the French are interested in convening an international conference to jump-start negotiations that would follow a successful Security Council resolution. They were persuaded to wait to reexamine the new Israeli government’s positions. America has not ruled out possibly supporting the French move, but has pressed the French for postponement until after the nuclear agreement with Iran is signed. Netanyahu’s Election Day remarks (March 16, 2015), that a Palestinian State would not be established under his watch, gave the French plan a second wind.8 The White House made it clear that it would reassess its options in the wake of Netanyahu’s new positions. The near future will reveal whether the new Israeli government has a real interest and the political wherewithal to present a diplomatic plan that will gain the trust of the international community. But the diplomatic deadlock is encouraging various parliaments toward resolutions calling for recognition of a Palestinian state.9 The Palestinians have gained recognition by 135 countries (80 percent of the world’s population). Three of the five permanent Security Council members (the U.S., UK, and France) have not granted recognition along with Germany, Canada, Australia, Italy, and Japan. The diplomatic deadlock may cause support for a Palestinian state to grow.
JPPI expert panel participants saw a period of stasis on Israel-Palestine due, in part, to pre-occupations such as Iran and ISIS, but that this in itself leads to worsening conditions (“No prospects [and] a growing gap between the sides…only makes things even worse.”)
Tehran’s influence is growing along with control in four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and now Sana’a. ISIS continues to contribute to the collapse of the nation-state system and jihadist organizations are declaring their allegiance. ISIS controls roughly half of Syria, as the civil war there continues to rage. In parallel, Washington sees ISIS as the central threat, thus creating a reality of indirect cooperation between the U.S. and Iran. Saudi Arabia is attempting to push back the Houthi militias in Yemen. The joint Arab military force that was formed (March 29, 2015), combining forces from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan, and Jordan, may indicate the beginning of Arab countries gradually ceasing reliance on the U.S. as the “regional policeman.”
Israel should be apprehensive over a joint Arab military force that gains experience in coordinated military action. In the event the U.S. signs the nuclear deal with Iran, it may compensate the Sunni Arabs with further arms sales. The U.S. is not interested in deepening its involvement in the region, is not interested in sending (back) its soldiers to shed their blood in the Middle East, and prefers to “lead from behind.” Moreover, it doesn’t seem that the U.S. and Russia can, at this point, cooperate effectively in order to jointly bring about regional stability.
One bright spot is that Israel does not currently face any significant conventional military threats. Its enemies are asymmetric in strategy and increasingly hybrid in nature opting for a three-pronged approach: forcing Israel into complex and often urban territory; fighting from within civilian areas; and manipulating the international media. Continuing political paralysis could lead to deterioration in the security situation in Judea and Samaria and even to some form of third intifada. Experts assess that Israel could end up facing a wide-spread civil disobedience campaign combined with popular violence not necessarily coordinated by a central actor.
This view was certainly expressed in response to the JPPI expert panel questionnaires. While most saw overall improvement in Israel’s regional standing due to developments surrounding it, its overall security situation had clearly worsened because of the number and seriousness of potential threats, especially from Iran.
Tensions in the special relationship between Israel and the U.S. also diminish Israel’s status. The JPPI experts all saw the relationship between the U.S. and Israel as having seriously deteriorated. (Even the carefully groomed relationship with Russia has taken a hit in the wake of the framework agreement and with Putin’s unfreezing the S-300 missile deal with Iran.) Recent incidents illustrate that tension. Discomfort with Israeli policy has prompted sharp reactions from all levels within the White House. The American criticism also touches on the deeply shared values at the base of the special relationship. The administration responded sharply to Netanyahu’s warnings to voters on Election Day that Israel’s Arab citizens “are going to the voting booths in droves.” The conclusion of the agreement with Iran carries a strong potential for growing tensions between Washington and Jerusalem. What stands out is the lack of trust. Yet, the U.S. continues to reiterate its commitment to Israel’s security. The new Israeli government could treat President Obama’s remaining time in office as a period of containment with the hope that the policies of the next president will be vastly different.
There are some silver linings. The election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, a known friend of Israel, opens new opportunities. China is focusing its investment efforts in Israel as a strategic “trade junction” leading to Europe. Israel’s attraction of foreign investors in its high-tech sector points to the potential in the Israeli market, but the difficult diplomatic situation may limit its realization.
Against the background of the nuclear agreement with Iran (July 14, 2015), characterized by Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “mistake of historic proportions,” we are moving the dial to signify a negative trend in regard to Israel’s geopolitical situation. The disagreement between Israel and the United States, Israel’s single meaningful ally, over a question the Israeli government presents as “existential,” stands out. This is especially so In the face of the Iranian challenge, which includes its nuclear program and Tehran’s drive to de-stabilize existing regimes through its support of terror organizations. The intensification of the tension between Israel and the United States increases the stress on American Jewry and threatens to erode the robustness of the “triangular relationship,” which is a cornerstone of Israel and the Jewish people’s strength. In parallel, Israel faces concrete security threats from Hezbollah and Hamas, an outbreak of lethal violence in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem, and attempts to isolate her in the international arena through a campaign of de-legitimization and boycotts.