Israel cannot expect a quick improvement in the violent and unstable region in which it must operate. Two-thirds of the region’s residents are 29 or younger. The unemployment rate among those capable of work stands at 30 percent (twice the global average). The regional economy is crawling, tribal and clanship affiliation is rising at the expense of civil commitment to the state. Central rule is failing and the nation-state system is weakening. The phenomenon of “failed states”, where sovereignty over territory is nominal at best (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen), is increasing.
The harsh disillusionment that resulted from the failure of the “Arab Spring” has yet to subside. Regional shifts have created a power vacuum that allows for the rise of radical armed and violent non-state actors – local militias, terror organizations, and movements guided by radical Islamist ideology. These forces, which at times form new alliances, erode the power of the central authority, destroy economies and infrastructure, and render some national borders irrelevant.
The civil wars in Syria and Yemen and the murderous terror of ISIS have created millions of refugees: Over 2.5 million have found shelter in Turkey, 1.4 million in Jordan, and a million in Lebanon (a quarter of its population). The problem-laden reality of the Middle East – social, economic, political, and religious – has not improved. In states without central rule capable of enforcing its authority in the territory under its sovereignty, even more murderous groups than ISIS could arise in the wake of the severe setbacks it has suffered.
Despite the Middle East’s violence and instability, Israel does not face any immediate military threat from a neighboring country or coalition of Arab countries, as it has in the past. However, this encouraging situation could change if Iran succeeds in establishing a military presence in the Syrian Golan Heights, and actualizes a strategic land corridor between Tehran and the Mediterranean.
This corridor would open a space of direct Iranian influence and empower Hezbollah as a military surrogate of Iran. Egypt, Jordan, and the Sunni camp view Israel as a partner that can assist in pushing back these key threats, and are increasing their security cooperation with Jerusalem. However, one cannot ignore the fact that the advanced weapons systems Arab governments who fear Iran have purchased from the United States for very large sums of money could one day pose a threat to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME). These arms, theoretically, could one day be turned on Israel in the event of policy or regime change.
Israel’s immediate security threats emanate primarily from terror organizations that operate from ambiguous territorial realities (Hamas) or from the territories of failed states (Lebanon, Syria). These terror organizations employ an asymmetric strategy and operate from within dense civilian populations. The IDF must therefore contend with a reality in which its capacity to project deterrence differs from when the opposite side is a functioning country. Even though Assad’s forces are exhausted from years of a continuing civil war, Hezbollah is deeply mired on Syrian battlefields, and Hamas is isolated and weakened, there is still the possibility that a conflict with any of these could occur.
The Palestinian “Lone Wolf” intifada has yet to fully subside. The wave of violence that began in October of 2015 has claimed over 50 Israeli lives so far. The Temple Mount shooting attacks (July 14, 2017) and the violent escalation that ensued after Israel installed metal detectors there illustrate the potential for an even more violent escalation, especially if fueled by religious fervor.
Israel also must prepare for threats arising from the 1400-year-old Sunni-Shia conflict and as well as those that result from new technologies and cyber warfare.
After six years of fighting, the death toll from the Syrian civil war stands at around half a million. Five million have fled and an additional seven million are internally displaced. The average life expectancy in Syria dropped from 70 to 56. With assistance from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, Assad was saved from the jaws of defeat and his status has been reinforced since.
This reality caused the U.S. and the West to modify their policy vis-a-vis Assad. They have come to terms with his continued tenure in power and the inevitability of including him in any political talks regarding Syria’s future. Given the anarchy that would likely ensue if he were deposed, Assad is now regarded as part of the solution, the best of several bad options. Assad’s growing self-confidence may trigger a possible change in his attitude toward and response to Israeli air force strikes on Syrian territory (Syria’s air defense command launched a number of missiles at Israeli planes on March 17, 2017).
Currently, hundreds of armed factions, organized according to regional, tribal, ethnic, ideological or religious affiliations, are operating in Syria. Regional powers (Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) and outside powers (Russia and the U.S.) are also playing roles in Syria. Russia’s intervention significantly swayed the battle in favor of Syrian government forces and halted the rebels’ momentum, a favorite target for Russian airstrikes.
The fall of the rebel stronghold in Aleppo (December 2016) – after repeated shelling of civilians, instituting a state of siege, starving the population, and creating a humanitarian catastrophe – was a milestone of the war. President Putin surprised everyone when he announced (March 14, 2016) that his forces had completed their mission in Syria and were pulling out. However, in actuality, Russian jets are still targeting rebel forces and Russia continues to maintain a naval base in Tartus and an air force base in Latakia.
Despite warnings that Putin would “drown in the Syrian swamp,” the Russian leader has managed to achieve his main goals, at least for the time being. These include bolstering Assad’s position and creating a reality in which Russia, as the dominant actor, sets the tone and has the defining role in resolving the Syrian crisis. Moreover, Russia is now perceived in the Middle East as an actor that is prepared to use force, loyal to its allies, and therefore cannot be ignored. Russia has leveraged its position in Syria to sign a 49-year agreement giving it exclusive and autonomous use of its naval base at Tartus. Russia can dock submarines and large nuclear-powered battleships there, and can also deploy a comprehensive and independent defense system over the port facilities.
Israel has managed to develop an effective working relationship with Russia, even convincing Moscow to respect its “red lines” vis-a-vis Syria (especially preventing Iran from transferring strategic arms to Hezbollah and allowing Hezbollah and Iran to establish bases in southern Syria). Russia, so far, has not obstructed Israel as it enforces these lines. However, it would be a mistake to interpret this as a sign of the depth of relations: Russia cooperates with Israel’s enemies in Syria (Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah) and is engaged in a great power rivalry with Israel’s key ally, the United States.
Russia’s positioning of S-300 and S-400 air defense systems in Syria highlights the caution Israel must exercise in continuing to intercept arms transfers to Hezbollah without creating friction with Moscow. However, Russia has its own interests, and summoned the Israeli ambassador for a reprimand after IAF jets struck targets deemed too close to Russian forces.
A key Israeli concern is that Iran will succeed in creating a land corridor between Iran and the Mediterranean controlled by Iranian troops and Shia militias under Iranian command. Undoubtedly, if Iran establishes itself as Israel’s neighbor, putting it in a stronger position to back Hezbollah, there will be friction. Iran signaled its intentions and capabilities when it fired ballistic missiles against ISIS targets 600 km from its border, even if they were not all that accurate (June 18, 2017).
Israel does not deny the fact that it takes military action in Syria from time to time. The outgoing air force commander, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, revealed that in the last five years, Israel attacked weapons convoys in Syria intended for Hezbollah and other terror organizations nearly 100 times.13 Prime Minister Netanyahu noted: “We are operating in Syria from time to time, working to prevent Syria from becoming a front against us.”14 Israel fears a ceasefire agreement that will strengthen the Iranian camp in Syria, but its ability to influence the content of any agreement is limited.
On May 5, 2017, an agreement was struck at the Astana Summit, the capital of Kazakhstan, to establish four de-escalation zones; Russia, Turkey, and Iran were signatories. This was the fourth attempt in the past year to achieve a cease-fire in Syria. The plan could hold the framework for a future agreement that would end the fighting in Syria and define the areas of influence within Syria. The zone nearest the Golan Heights is especially sensitive for Israel and Jordan, not to mention that Iranian forces would be involved in enforcing the de-escalation under the Astana agreement.
In response to these fears, a separate agreement was reached between Washington, Moscow, and Amman for a cease-fire in southern Syria (July 7, 2017) intended to ensure that Iranian forces stay away from the area. However, this agreement caused Israeli concern because it does not preclude Iran from entrenching itself in Syria, which could eventually lead to the presence of Syria, Iran or Tehran’s surrogates, like Hezbollah, very near Israel’s border.
Despite Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s attempts to dispel Israeli fears by promising that Russia and the U.S. would do everything possible in consideration of Israel’s security needs, Israel does not trust Russian oversight on the ground (Russian military police battalions are already deployed in southern Syria to oversee the agreement), not to mention that their presence will limit Israel’s ability to act.15 Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed Israel’s complete opposition to the agreement arguing that it does not take Israel’s security interests into account, which demand pushing Iran and Hezbollah back from Israel’s Ramat HaGolan border, preventing a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, and deterring Hezbollah from arming itself with accurate missiles.
Israel’s discomfort could bring a change in its policy, which until now has been to avoid involvement in the fighting, except for limited assistance to moderate militias near its border that formed a buffer between Israel and the fighting in Syria.
Israel’s ability to protect its security interests in Syria depend in large part on the United States. However, the U.S. has yet to articulate clear positions on the end game it envisions there, or the strategy it endorses to deal with Iran’s ambition to create a strategic corridor and base itself in Syria. Nor has it delineated the scope of the resources it is willing to invest over time in addressing these issues. Recent reporting on President Trump’s orders to stop training rebels raises doubts that Washington will take the lead in defining Syria’s post-war future, or whether, as it seems now, it will allow Syria to be divided up into Russian, Iranian, and Turkish zones of influence.16
A key question following Trump’s election is to what extent his presidency will signal a strategic pivot in U.S. policy on Iran. The nuclear agreement (JCPOA, July 14, 2015) delayed Iran from becoming a nuclear power, but, at the same time, granted it legitimacy as a threshold nuclear power and permitted it to maintain its nuclear production capacity.
After 15 years, Iran will be able to reduce its “breakout time” to a military nuclear capability to a critical threshold of weeks, or even days. The nuclear agreement further allows Iran to increase funding to its armed forces. It continues to develop its ballistic missile array and conducts missile tests. As such, it has breached the terms of UNSC Resolution 2231, at least in spirit. Furthermore, the nuclear agreement did not put an end to Iran’s regional subversion.
It seems that during the Obama presidency, Iran even felt a surge of self-confidence to increase its drive for regional hegemony, taking advantage of Obama’s reluctance to use force and his penchant to “lead from behind,” if at all.
There was a widespread perception that Obama was prepared to tolerate Iran’s problematic regional behavior as long as it didn’t abrogate the nuclear agreement, which he regarded as a key legacy achievement. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, Iran exercised significant influence in four Arab capitals: Beirut, Sanaa, Damascus, and Baghdad.
Iran’s influence in Iraq is growing, and Saudi Arabia cannot seem to achieve a decisive victory in Yemen against the Shia tribal Houthi militias Iran supports. The IDF is preparing for the day when Iran’s efforts to deepen its influence in the region will intensify. Iran will continue to act through terror and proxy militias.
Indeed, Iranian military officers are in Syria commanding combat systems, and Tehran continues to fund terror groups, transfer advanced arms to Hezbollah, and smuggle arms into the Gaza strip.
The coming months will show whether Trump’s declarations turn from rhetoric into an actual strategic turning point. In stark contradiction to his predecessor’s policy, Trump is totally in line with the Saudi-led Sunni camp and has clearly blamed Iran for the terror and instability in the region. Trump has not canceled the nuclear agreement, and has allowed its continued implementation. The terms of the agreement require the president to certify Iran’s compliance every 90 days. However, critical decision points are expected down the road, and Trump’s original intent to cancel the agreement could still materialize.
In parallel to this dilemma, Congress is moving ahead with additional sanctions against Iran in response to its role in regional terror, its support of Assad, and its continued development and testing of ballistic missiles.
The question as to whether the timeout created by the agreement, 10-15 years, will allow the moderate in Iran camp to defeat the radical camp and pave the way for a more moderate regime remains open. Sixty percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 30 and the religious Islamist revolutionary ideology does not appeal to many of them. The re-election of President Hassan Rouhani (May 20, 2017) and the fact that he defeated Ebrahim Raisi, a more conservative opponent, highlights the influence of less radical elements.
However, Israel cannot base its security policy on such hopes. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot described Israel’s challenge clearly: “Pushing Iran back and limiting its influence in the immediate circle around Israel is no less an important challenge than defeating ISIS, and for Israel perhaps the most important challenge.”17
There are two main, interconnected questions regarding Trump’s Iran policy that have strategic implications for Israel: Will Trump steer the U.S. out of the agreement with Iran and will he formulate and implement a strategy to block Iran from filling the void left in the region after ISIS is defeated? Each of these carries considerable escalatory potential. Passivity from the Trump administration in the face of Iran’s efforts to establish itself in Syria could cause tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship (see Israel’s public criticism of the de-escalation agreement in southern Syria, of which the U.S. is a party).
The IDF considers Hezbollah the most serious military threat to Israel. The Iran-backed organization has an annual budget of around one billion USD. Hezbollah’s support for Assad eroded its standing in the Arab world and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) even designated it a terror organization (March 2, 2016). However, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah’s success in defeating the rebels and leaving Assad in place, put Hezbollah on the winning side. At least 5000 Hezbollah soldiers are fighting alongside Assad’s troops; it is estimated to have suffered at least 1500 dead thus far and around 5000 injured, significant numbers for an organization with an estimated 30,000 full time fighters (and around 25,000 reservists).
The Arab world views Hezbollah’s standing alongside the hated Assad as joining the Shia front against the Sunnis, which contradicts the image Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah has tried to cultivate over the years, as defending the interests of all Lebanon against Israel. However, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has not slowed its growth within Lebanon. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said (Feb 12, 2017) that there is a need for Hezbollah as “a complement to the Lebanese army’s actions.”18
Although Hezbollah is shedding its blood in Syria, it is, at the same time, gaining valuable military experience fighting in a complex war. From many standpoints, the IDF will face a foe with the operational capabilities of a modern military force in the next conflict. Hezbollah has been deterred from opening another front against Israel, as it has been for the past decade since the Second Lebanon War. The group even refrained from significantly responding to IAF attacks against its strategic arms convoys from Iran through Syria. However, Hezbollah’s continued efforts to arm itself with advanced weapons and base itself in southern Syria, together with Israel’s tenacity to thwart these efforts, could escalate to revenge attacks against Israel and Jewish targets abroad, and eventually another direct armed conflict.
Hezbollah is currently deployed in around 240 Shia villages in southern Lebanon. It has an array of over 120,000 rockets, some of which can strike deep into Israel and with greater accuracy than those Hamas launched in Protective Edge (August 2014). Nasrallah even threatened (February 16, 2016) that in the next conflict, his forces, by launching missiles at the chemical facilities in Haifa Bay, will have the effect of a nuclear strike on Israel.
It was reported recently that in order to avoid dispatching weapons convoys vulnerable to IAF attacks, Iran is establishing underground arms production facilities in Lebanon to supply rockets and advanced arms for Hezbollah. IDF Military Intelligence (AMAN) Chief Maj. Gen. Herzi HaLevi stated: “We see that Hezbollah is establishing an arms industry on Lebanese soil with Iranian know how,” and warned “Israel will not remain apathetic to such a development.”19
Israel is preparing for the possibility that Hezbollah will try infiltrating Israeli territory to conquer areas near the northern border in the next escalation, and strike at critical infrastructure such as Israel’s maritime gas platforms. However, intelligence analysts agree that Hezbollah has no interest in opening a second front against Israel in the near future. The group is still fighting in Syria and has suffered heavy casualties. Of course, one cannot exclude the possibility of an unintended escalation that could lead to a war, even against the interests of both sides.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot noted, “The effort to prevent Hezbollah from upgrading the accuracy of its missile and rocket array is one of the top operational priorities for the IDF.”20 It is not unfounded to imagine a security escalation in the wake of one of these IDF pre-emptive operations. Experts assess that the next war in the north will be harder on the Israeli home front than any war in the past.
ISIS was not able to withstand the onset of the coalition of forces allied against it in recent months. The group lost 50 percent of the territory it had captured in Iraq and Syria, including its stronghold in Mosul, the most significant city it controlled in Iraq. The expected fall of its Syrian capital, Al-Raqqa, would signal a final defeat, but will not end the organization’s ability to continue to wreak havoc. In any case, the defeats ISIS has suffered broke its halo of invincibility, and eroded the force of attraction it held for young Muslims around the world. It will likely try to increase its murderous terror attacks abroad – outside the Middle East and within it in – to compensate for these losses. ISIS-inspired terror elements are still operating in Sinai. Although focused on fighting the Egyptian army, they have conducted some attacks on Israel and could attempt more. Even in southern Syria, an ISIS presence could turn its guns on Israel if pressed.
Washington has identified ISIS as a main threat. U.S. bombers strike ISIS targets and provide intelligence to coalition fighters (which has created a sort of indirect cooperation between the U.S. and Iran, which also considers the Sunni ISIS a dangerous threat). Achievements in the fight against ISIS do not guarantee the destruction of its social and religious infrastructure, the network through which its ideology spreads. Even if its territorial bases in Syria and Iraq fall, ISIS – or its heirs – could continue to prove a practical threat and significant ideological challenge. After all, there is still a core of significant support for the ideas and spirit ISIS represents – in the Middle East and beyond. Many ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq are expected to return to their countries of origin where ISIS’ message still resonates for many Muslims. As the demise of ISIS nears, so does the question mark around the day after: Who will fill the void left in Syria and Iraq, and will they be able to impose order and stability? Fulfilling this challenge seems almost utopian.
We will likely witness additional shocks to regional stability. For example, the Kurdish decision to hold a national referendum (September 25, 2017) in northern Iraq on secession and independence could exert a destabilizing effect that energizes the central government in Baghdad’s resolve to keep these oil rich territories. Other countries fear that this move could encourage separatist demands in their own countries, especially Turkey and Iran where there are considerable Kurdish populations.
The crowning of the Saudi King Salman (January 23, 2015) has brought significant changes to the kingdom. Muhammad bin Salman, the 31-year-old son of the king who is simultaneously Defense Minister and Chair of the Economic Development Council, and who was recently named first crown prince (June 21, 2017), is leading these changes.
Saudi Arabia has adopted a more assertive foreign policy and has become more aggressive toward Iran and its allies. Based on current low oil prices and the sense that the country requires comprehensive reforms, the crown prince launched (April 25, 2016) a long-term plan, “Saudi Vision 2030,” to diversify the Saudi economy’s revenue sources – to free it of its dependence on oil and place it on a development and modernization path.
Saudi Arabia is exhibiting its determination to block Iran from achieving regional hegemony. Riyadh was taken aback by President Obama’s comments that it would have to get used to a reality that offers Iran a legitimate space for regional influence. Riyadh sees Iran’s moves to broaden its reach with the aid of Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen as an existential threat, and it is determined to block that threat. The Saudi air force is conducting an air campaign in Yemen, and Saudi financial aid is backing rebel forces in Syria.
Inspired by Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is not deterred from taking aggressive action, most recently against Qatar, the tiny kingdom that possesses some of the biggest gas fields in the world. Riyadh seems to have lost all patience for Qatar’s double game.
Qatar, which hosts the giant U.S. air force base Al Udeid with its 11,000 troops, is developing its relations with Iran while also providing sympathetic media coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas through Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, together with Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, have severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and enacted a boycott on air, sea, and land transportation between them and the kingdom. They are demanding Qatar significantly decrease its ties with Iran, halt its support for terror groups, label the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah terror organizations, shut down Al-Jazeera, and put a stop to Turkey’s military presence there.
While Iran, Turkey, and Russia are waiting to exploit the crisis to deepen their grasp on the rich kingdom, the U.S. is trying to mediate between the parties. It is safe to say that the aggressive line Saudi Arabia is taking was reinforced by President Trump’s official visit to the kingdom (May 21, 2017) and his sweeping support of Riyadh in its conflict with Iran. This visit helped secure a massive 110 billion USD arms sale from the United States, which has the potential to threaten Israel’s QME.
Muhammad Bin Salman is seen as more open to the possibility of advancing relations with Israel than his predecessors. However, he is reluctant to take official steps to publically normalize cooperation with Jerusalem as long as there is no real progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue (see below).
Egypt continues to struggle with difficult security and economic challenges. Unless there is a drop in its birthrate (2.6 percent), Egypt’s population is expected to reach 180 million by 2050. Half of Egypt’s population subsists on less than 2 dollars a day. The IMF conditioned aid to Egypt (12 billion USD) on significant economic reforms. The Egyptian government, which agreed to float its currency and cut subsidies for basic goods, faces difficult dilemmas. If it moves to privatize its economy, it would harm the military, which controls considerable parts of the economy. Therefore, the Egyptian government is required to harm its greatest source of support.
At the same time, lifting subsidies – a key requirement of the IMF – would lead to skyrocketing prices of basic goods and could result in public unrest, a public already living under a regime whose record on democratic principles and human rights is perhaps worse than under Mubarak. The Egyptian government continues to hunt the Muslim Brotherhood, which it regards as a grave threat. It has, further, yet to defeat terror groups either loyal to ISIS or inspired by it, or Islamist elements from the fringes of the Brotherhood who became radicalized and violent. They have struck sensitive targets, such as the double attack on Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria in which 45 were killed (April 2017), or the suicide bombing in northern Sinai (July 7, 2017) which killed 27 Egyptian soldiers.
The threats from terror and Islamist actors, the chaos in Sinai due to ISIS, and the danger emanating from Iran’s growing regional presence, create a situation that invites greater cooperation with Israel.
Jordan absorbed 1.4 million Syrian refugees, 13 percent of the kingdom’s population. These refugees are draining Jordan’s already fragile economy and are a source of instability. These are in addition to the hundreds of thousands of refugees already there from Iraq. Together, they use up almost 20 percent of Jordan’s budget. King Abdullah ll warned that his country could reach a “boiling point… sooner or later as the dam could burst.”21
The Jordanian economy further suffers from trade limitations with its neighbors who are mired in violent domestic conflicts – Syria is in a civil war and Iraq is fighting ISIS. Tourism has decreased due to security concerns. Its supply of subsidized gas from Egypt has been cut off because of pipeline attacks in Sinai, which has caused Jordan to turn to more expensive alternatives. These problems come on top of preexisting difficulties undermining the Jordanian economy: just 36 percent of working age Jordanians are employed, only 15 percent of women are in the labor force, and the youth unemployment rate is 40 percent.
The Jordanian regime must prepare for outside security challenges such as ISIS attacks and spillover from the Syrian Civil War into Jordanian territory. A ceasefire agreement in Syria could harm Jordan’s security interests as it would place hostile forces on its border, either ISIS or Iran loyalists.
Additionally, the Jordanian regime must contend with domestic radical Islamists (about 2500 Jordanians joined the jihadi ranks in Iraq and Syria, and many are expected to return home) as well a reality in which over half the population is of Palestinian origin and influenced by the upheavals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In an interview in the Washington Post (April 6, 2017) King Abdullah spoke about incidents in which his forces killed 40 terrorists, 96 percent of whom were of Palestinian origin. The king’s conclusion: “So if we don’t move the Israeli-Palestinian process forward, that is a major recruiting [opportunity] for disenfranchised and frustrated people.”22
The foreign media have reported on widespread security cooperation between Israel and Jordan. Israel came to Jordan’s rescue and provided a solution to its crippling water shortage. In addition to the 50 million cubic meters Israel transfers each year to Jordan according to the peace accords, Israel has transferred an additional 50 million cubic meters of water from the Galilee. In exchange, Jordan agreed to transfer a similar amount to Israel from a desalination plant north of Aqaba. The two counties are cooperating in planning the water conveyance system from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, and have signed an agreement for a 15-year gas supply from Israel valued at 10 billion USD. When the first gas supply began flowing from the Tamar gas field to the potash plant in Jordan in the southern Dead Sea area (January 2017), it was a moment of great significance in the relationship of the two neighboring states.
Despite the mutual interest Jordan and Israel have in closer relations, especially in security matters, there is also a fragility due to the Palestinian context. Disturbances on the Temple Mount, and the killing of a Jordanian attacker and bystander by an Israeli embassy security guard (July 23, 2017) exposed this fragility. King Abdullah issued a warning (July 27, 2017) that the way Israel deals with the embassy guard will directly impact relations between the countries.
The failed coup attempt (July 15, 2016) allowed President Erdogan to declare a state of emergency (which he has yet to lift), to get rid of opponents and to shore up his rule. In his extensive purge campaign, some 50,000 people were arrested and 100,000 lost their jobs. Erdogan also achieved his goal of switching the regime from a parliamentary system to a presidential one in which he has the key powers. The decision was reached with a slim majority in a national referendum (April 16, 2017), Erdogan lost in Turkey’s three main cities – Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.
Erdogan’s personality and demeanor have led to sharp polarization within Turkey and widened existing divisions with the West. During the campaign prior to the vote, Erdogan called Germany and Holland “Nazi remnants” when they refused to allow his ministers to disseminate election propaganda in the Turkish immigrant communities in their countries. Despite whatever aversion to Erdogan, the West cannot ignore the strategic importance of Turkey, its membership in NATO, significant involvement in Syria, and as the gatekeeper controlling the flow of refugees into Europe.
Turkey has suffered a series of terror attacks, some perpetrated by ISIS and others by Kurdish separatists. But the bulk of Turkey’s concerns lie in the threat posed by Kurdish nationalism. Turkey fears that pressure from its Kurdish citizens to secede and declare independence will rise if an independent Kurdish state is established on its border. These form the background to Ankara’s opposition to the referendum on Kurdish independence in Iraq, and tensions with the United States as it supports the Kurdish forces in Syria (YPG) in its fight against ISIS. Even its relationship with Russia, although remediated from the plummet that followed the downing of a Russian jet in its airspace (end of 2015) and despite cooperation to de-escalate Syria, is mired in mutual suspicion and conflicting interests.
Relations with Turkey show how mercurial the Middle East is and demands that Israel conduct itself with caution and strategic acumen. The rapprochement deal with Ankara (June 28, 2016) and the possibilities it opened for deepening relations (including gas exports) did not prevent President Erdogan from sharply rebuking Israel, accusing it of the “Judaification” of Jerusalem and conducting an apartheid policy: “Each day Jerusalem is under occupation is an insult to us.”23 After the Temple Mount terror attack and Israel’s installation of metal detectors in response, Erdogan warned Israel from trying to wrench Al Aqsa from Muslim control: “The Israeli soldiers defile the ground of Al Aqsa with their combat boots…”24 This was the same Erdogan who justifying the rapprochement agreement to journalists argued the utility of normalized relations with Israel: “This normalization process has a lot to offer to us, to Israel, to Palestine and also to the region. The region needs this.”25
On the Israeli side, there are no illusions that relations will return fast, if at all, to the high levels of security and intelligence cooperation that existed before the crisis. Indeed, in the wake of this diminished cooperation with Ankara, and in light of the need to secure the gas fields and prepare for marketing their output, Israel has been working to strengthen relations with Greece and Cyprus.