As this Annual Assessment reaches completion, the serious security deterioration and confrontation between Israel and Hamas is still unfolding. Significant IDF forces have been operating on the ground in Gaza since July 17, 2014. In the ten days prior to the ground operation, Hamas repeatedly fired rockets deep into Israeli territory, even reaching the outskirts of Haifa in the north. “Iron Dome” batteries successfully intercepted most of the rockets, and the Israeli Air Force carried out hundreds of attacks against Hamas targets in Gaza. Hamas’s rejection of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal, together with its unabated rocket barrage and its attempts to infiltrate Israel through a system of attack tunnels led the Israeli cabinet to decide on a ground operation.
It is too soon to assess the overall significance of the military conflict with Hamas, but it does underscore the fact that 2014 has brought Israel to a strategic crossroads on two fronts: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Both issues may place additional stress on the triangular relationship: Israel, the United States, and the American Jewish community. The diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians, which ended without result when their April 30, 2014 deadline expired, and the military conflict with Hamas leave Israel with a set of problematic potential scenarios.
At the same time, the interim agreement with Iran and the ongoing permanent settlement talks being held in Vienna raise serious concerns in Israel. The coming months may bring new tensions between Washington and Jerusalem that may trouble American Jewry and could strain the “triangle,” a cornerstone of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s strength.
The erosion of the international standing of the United States continues. Home to almost half the Jewish people who live there in unprecedented prosperity, U.S. friendship and support are critically important for Israel. Israel will be greatly affected not only by changes in the quality of its relationship with Washington, but also by a change in U.S. global standing. The perception taking root, that the United States – Israel’s ally – is in the process of decline and of abandoning the Middle East, erodes Israel’s deterrence capacity and the power associated with it.
The optimism many expressed at the beginning of the recent regional developments has given way to disappointment and concern. There is growing doubt that the movement that toppled autocratic rulers is also capable of bringing political cohesion and liberal reform to societies that lack a democratic culture and laden with poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, tribalism, social divides, radical Islam, the oppression of women, corrupt regimes, discrimination against minorities, poor education systems, backward economies, and a weakened middle class.
Israel faces a regional situation in which it is increasingly difficult to deal with weakened governments that are no longer the real “address” for what takes place in their sovereign territory and in which problematic non-state actors are strengthening at their expense. From Israel’s perspective, anchors that had provided relative strategic stability over the years have weakened: Mubarak’s overthrow and the undermining of Egypt’s general governability, particularly in Sinai; the deep crisis in relations with Turkey, which seem unlikely to return to previous levels; Syria’s de facto breakup; threats to the monarchy in Jordan; anticipated changes in Saudi leadership; and Iraq’s difficulty in maintaining unity and quelling internal terror.
The negotiations with Iran expose the significant disagreement between the United States and Israel over their ultimate objectives. While Israel is categorically opposed to any agreement that would leave Iran with an independent capacity to enrich uranium, most commentators believe that the United States and the West will come to terms with a permanent agreement that leaves Iran with a nuclear capability, including uranium enrichment on its soil. The main U.S. intention is to ensure that Iran will not have the break out capability to quickly to produce a nuclear bomb. This goal is not satisfactory to the Israeli government.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve a breakthrough in reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement ended in failure. Once the military confrontation with Hamas ends, Israel is likely to confront a new set of diplomatic challenges. It is unclear what will become of the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement, and whether the technocratic government established with it will lead to general elections as planned. A diplomatic vacuum would almost certainly push the Palestinians to carry through on threats to launch a political-legal campaign against Israel in the international arena. Israel, without a credible peace process, is also likely to face an escalating international campaign of de-legitimization and sanctions.
Growing tensions between Jerusalem and Washington may strengthen nascent trends in the United States, still far from dominant at this point. Israel is portrayed by some Americans as inflexible on the Palestinian issue and overly aggressive with respect to Iran, and so, a liability to U.S. national interests. Some warn that Israel may drag the U.S, against its will, into another Middle East war. Others assert that America’s image in the Muslim world is being damaged, that it is being pushed into isolation in international forums, or that its support for Israel draws costly destructive criticism.
The challenges to U.S. Jewry, therefore, are likely to increase the more severely the gap widens between Israeli and American positions, the more Israel presses to “mobilize” American Jewry behind the struggle, and the more Israel interferes in the administration’s political back yard. Such a situation could discomfit the U.S. Jewish community and exacerbate internal differences, especially in light of claims that American foreign policy in the Middle East is influenced by Israel and the Jewish lobby in a manner contrary to U.S. interests.
At the same time, there have also been positive developments from the Israeli point of view in the Middle East: The Arab states are preoccupied with irritating domestic and economic problems, so a decision to go to war with Israel seems an unlikely scenario. The Syrian army has been worn down by civil war, and Syria has been disarmed of most of its chemical weapons. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis is threatened. Political Islam has lost much of its stature and luster and was ousted from the Egyptian government; Hamas has lost its base in Syria, and following the outer of the Muslim Brotherhood government, it became an enemy in the eyes of Egypt’s leadership. The military conflict between Israel and Hamas has revealed significant common interests between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states that are concerned about the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and who, therefore, regard Hamas an enemy. This commonality of interests creates an opportunity for Israel to deepen regional ties and strengthen the moderate bloc, which considers itself threatened by extremist Islam. Hezbollah’s clout has declined in light of its military alliance with Assad’s forces. The continued development of Israel’s natural gas fields opens opportunities with regional elements that also align with Israel on the Iran issue.
Weighing the entire picture, this year we carefully and moderately move the Geopolitics gauge in a negative direction. Yet, at the same time, we also warn of genuine potential for continued erosion.