The Geopolitical Picture 2022 Israel in the Shadow of Great Power Competition
Geopolitical uncertainty has deepened in the last year, with implications for Israel and the Jewish people. The challenges facing Israel are becoming more demanding against the background of great power rivalry, which intensified in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the time this report was completed, a struggle was still underway to decide the fate of the negotiations aimed at signing a renewed nuclear agreement between the major powers and Iran. Whether such an agreement is reached – to Israel’s dismay – or not, Israel will be forced to face the Iranian threat in an intricate geopolitical arena that complicates its maneuverability. If negotiations fail to result in an agreement, Iran will likely accelerate its efforts to equip itself with nuclear weapons. At the same time, Israel will intensify its countermeasures and a worsening of the conflict can be expected.
This reality impacts the challenges faced by Israel, which has been mired in an ongoing political crisis that makes it difficult to establish a stable government. The Naftali Bennet (Yamina)-Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) government collapsed a year into its term, and Israeli citizens are being called to the polling booths for the fifth time in three and a half years.
The political instability, and the government’s inability to plan and implement medium- and long-term plans, harms Israel’s capacity to function optimally in the geopolitical arena. Moreover, because the outgoing government was based on a tiny parliamentary majority and supported by an ideologically polarized coalition, its ability to make foreign policy decisions was limited from the outset. In the past year, the government faced daunting domestic tasks, chief among them recovery from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, however, the geopolitical arena has posed equally vexing external challenges: chronic instability of the Middle East, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony, the Hezbollah threat, the danger of terrorism and the fragility of the Palestinian situation, recently exemplified by “Operation Breaking Dawn” against the Islamic Jihad. Added to these are the question marks concerning U.S. policy in areas that affect Israel’s resilience and the strength of the strategic triangular relationship: Jerusalem-Washington-American Jewry.
Alongside these challenges, the past year also reflected Israel’s strength as a regional power with a robust economy, whose neighbors are seeking to cooperate with it in an unprecedented way.
The International Arena and Great Power Competition
The world is rife with challenges that feed off one another: the war in Ukraine, the effects of the pandemic, the Iranian nuclear program, the Chinese threat to Taiwan, signs of a looming worldwide depression, inflation, using energy as a weapon, uncertainties in the global food market, problems of climate and drought. The poorer countries are the first to pay the price of these crises, which deepen poverty and threaten to intensify the spread of famine and malnourishment. The great power competition raises fears of a return to the atmosphere of the Cold War, and even to violent confrontation driven by the fighting in Ukraine and tensions that have recently worsened over the Taiwan situation. It also reasserts the importance of the Middle East in the calculus of the superpowers.
The Ukraine crisis – The United States and Europe are working to thwart the moves of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, though cautiously for fear of being drawn into direct combat. They have pledged $36 billion in military aid to Ukraine and are presenting a united economic front against Moscow, including comprehensive sanctions. The shock that gripped Europe in the face of the invasion, and the implied Russian threat of using nuclear weapons, breathed new life into NATO and stimulated its willingness to defend Western values. The requests of Finland and Sweden to join the alliance reflect this reawakening. However, the ability to mount a united global front against Russia is limited. China is not interested in a Russian diminution that would bolster the standing of its American competitor and is helping Moscow by integrating it into an alternative financial system.
The Ukraine situation and other crises have in recent months revealed that the world is polarized in a number of dimensions, which makes it difficult to maintain effective alliances that cover the full range of challenges. For example, the “Quad” strategic security dialogue (the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan), which was designed impede Chinese efforts to take control of the South China Sea, is not united in relation to Moscow. India, like many other countries the U.S. is trying to mobilize for this campaign, is not a partner in the sanctions regime against Russia, from which it imports 20% of its oil supply.
The United States – The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a change of emphasis in American foreign policy discourse. At the beginning of his term, President Joe Biden defined the great power competition as struggle between democracy and autocracy and promised that American diplomacy would promote the values of freedom and human rights. The need to address aggressive Russian and Chinese behavior forced the U.S. to change its approach and to cooperate with regimes that are far from democratic. Policy inspired by the liberal-democratic ethos with its “soft power” emphasis in international relations has given way to realpolitik. The most striking expression of this was President Biden’s “pilgrimage” to Saudi Arabia – his handshake with Mohammad bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden had branded bin Salman a “pariah” during his election campaign.
The main motif of the new American policy is that of a “rules-based international order.” Countries not seeking to undermine this order are eligible for membership in the Western camp. Regarding the Middle East, President Biden explained: “As the world grows more competitive and the challenges we face more complex, it is only becoming clearer to me how closely interwoven America’s interests are with the successes of the Middle East.” The American view is that a boost in Mideast oil production will reduce Russia’s capacity for extortion, and moderate rising energy prices. Accordingly, Biden promised that the U.S. “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” The president announced a new American policy approach to the Middle East, detailing its logic and principles in five clusters. The main points are as follows:
1. The U.S. will support and stand behind countries that respect the rules-based international order.
2. The U.S. will not allow freedom of navigation of Mideast sea lanes to be jeopardized, or one country to dominate another in the region.
3. The U.S. will work to reduce tensions and resolve conflicts. It is committed to ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.
4. The U.S. will foster political, economic, and security connections with countries in the region, while respecting their sovereignty.
5. The U.S. will promote human rights and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter.
The countries of the Middle East are not enthusiastic about taking sides in the great power rivalry. Biden’s announcement of a change in foreign policy left them under a double question mark.
The first concerns the ability of the American president to fulfill his promises. A July 2022 opinion poll found that nearly 60% of American citizens are dissatisfied with Biden’s performance. There are increasing calls for the aging leader not to seek a second term in the 2024 election cycle (Biden will soon celebrate his 80th birthday).
The second question mark concerns the credibility of the announced policy change. Until recently, the U.S. was portrayed as preferring to limit its focus to domestic challenges and its rivalry with China while reducing its involvement in other arenas. It was seen as downplaying the importance of the Middle East, leaving a geopolitical vacuum that draws in its rivals. By contrast, Russia and China seem determined to become more involved in shaping the world order and expanding their regional influence. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exemplifies Moscow’s strategic appetite, the abrupt American withdrawal from Afghanistan points to strategic laxity. (This, despite the successful targeted killings of terrorist leaders by the U.S., as in the air strike on Ayman al-Zawahiri). As a result, doubts have arisen about whether the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid if China does not content itself with military exercises and attacks the neighboring island.
Russia – Russia has been stung by the sanctions imposed on it, and its economy will contract by 6% this year. In the long term, the damage will be much heavier, due to the withdrawal of about a thousand international companies, the loss of markets, brain drain, and more. In the near term, however, Russia appears to have enough resources to manage, even escalate, the war in Ukraine. President Putin has responded to the sanctions with economic warfare and using energy as a weapon. For example, when the approval of Turkey’s President Erdoğan was needed in order for Sweden and Finland to join NATO, the Russian energy giant Gazprom announced the cessation of gas flows to Turkey due to a sudden need for maintenance work on the pipeline.
The coming winter will be a test of Europe’s endurance, which, after experiencing extreme heat waves and a severe drought during the summer, will have to deal with the consequences of the steep increase in gas prices. The price of gas on the continent is now ten times higher than the average over the last decade.
In the Middle East arena, where the U.S. is pushing for the creation of a regional alliance against the Iranian threat, Putin is strengthening his country’s ties with Teheran. During his visit there this past July, he advanced a deal in which Russia would invest 40 billion dollars in the development of Iran’s oil and gas fields. At the same time, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, helped launch an Iranian satellite with espionage capabilities into space. In the U.S. it was revealed that Russia is considering the purchase of Iranian-made attack drones.
China – To date, 146 countries have joined the Belt and Road Initiative, reflecting global recognition of China’s economic power and the desire to do business with it. In terms of gross domestic product (GDP), China is the world’s second-largest economy and is expected to overtake the United States in 2028. China is imposing its will on Hong Kong, defying its South China Sea neighbors to the south and east, threatening Taiwan, violating human rights, and abusing its Muslim minority. China is also steadily working to penetrate further into the Middle East, which constitutes an energy source, a developing market for its products, and a transit station to European markets. The Belt and Road Initiative has over 20 Arab member states. Over the last decade, Beijing has signed strategic agreements with most of them, through which it has obtained huge contracts for infrastructure construction and energy supply. In 2021, trade between China and the Arab world amounted to 330 billion dollars, a third higher than the previous year. The U.S.-China tensions energizes Beijing to bolster its ties with Iran and to extricate Iran from the isolation and sanctions imposed on it. One proof of this is the strategic agreement signed in March 2021, in which China pledged to invest 400 billion dollars over 25 years in Iranian infrastructure, in exchange for oil at a discounted price (it’s no surprise that Iran was one of the countries that denounced Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan).
The great powers and Israel – Tension between the superpowers requires Israel to navigate carefully in order to protect its interests, but along with the challenges it also brings advantages and opportunities. If the U.S. does curb its withdrawal from the region, as President Biden promised, it will be an achievement for Israel. Without an American presence, the region attracts Russia and China, whose considerations are not informed by pro-Israel sentiment.
The war in Ukraine poses a strategic dilemma: to what extent should Israel stand behind the U.S. flag, participate in the struggle against Russia and China, and endanger security and economic interests that require cultivating ties with U.S. rivals? This question is also joined by a moral dilemma: Should Israeli foreign policy give greater weight to ethical considerations, even if this comes at a security or economic cost? After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israel was wary of making sweeping gestures in support of Ukraine. The mediation attempts of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Ukraine-Russia talks helped Israel walk a fine line – safeguarding the welfare of Russian and Ukrainian Jews while maintaining coordination with the Russian forces in Syria to ensure continued freedom of action for the Israeli Air Force against Iranian targets.
Russia does not hesitate to convey discouraging messages when dissatisfied with Israeli actions or the statements of its leaders. This was the case when Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the killing of civilians in the town of Bucha last April a “war crime.” When Israel struck the Damascus airport in June, the Israeli ambassador was summoned for reprimand and Moscow pushed for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel. A similar interpretation could also be applied to the crisis between Russia and the Jewish Agency. The Russian authorities declared Jewish Agency activity illegal (because it collects data on Russian citizens), and Prime Minister Lapid announced in response that a Jewish Agency shutdown would be “a serious matter with ramifications for relations” (the phone conversation held as these lines were being written between President Herzog and President Putin, described as positive, appears to be a milestone on the way to resolving the crisis).
As expected, the great powers rivalry also has implications for Israel’s relations with China, its third-biggest trade partner in the world. The U.S. is pressing to moderate Chinese involvement in infrastructure construction in Israel and for restrictions on the transfer of advanced Israeli technologies into Chinese hands. As the conflict between U.S.-China worsens, Israel’s identification with the U.S. may provoke Chinese hostility toward it. At the same time, Jerusalem will have to be more attentive to Washington’s demands on various issues, such as the involvement of a Chinese company in the management of the Port of Haifa (the U.S. has warned that its Sixth Fleet ships would not enter the port for fear of espionage and cyberwarfare).
The Iranian Threat
The fate of the negotiations for the signing of a renewed nuclear agreement with Iran is close to being decided. Meanwhile, the punishing sanctions imposed on Iran, the problematic economic situation there (severe water shortages, power outages, demonstrations), and various countermeasures attributed to Israel have not halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear project or thwarted its regional subversion. Iran continues building its attack architecture against Israel, supplying advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, and working via proxy militias to suppress the remaining American regional presence. Iran boasts of having established armies under its control throughout the region: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, militias in Iraq and Syria, and sympathetic Palestinian organizations (especially the Islamic Jihad). There is no dispute among assessment bodies in Israel and abroad that Teheran is closer to a nuclear bomb than ever before. Defense Minister Benny Gantz estimates that Iran has already enriched 50 kg of uranium to 60% (one nuclear bomb requires 25 kg enriched to 90%). Brigadier General Amit Sa’ar, head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Research Division, explained in April that in addition to enriched uranium, Iran still needs to develop a detonating mechanism and a ballistic missile capable of carrying the bomb: “The Iranians, in our estimation, are two years away from the final stage,” he said.
The Israeli-American dialogue on the nuclear issue was conducted over the past year without the public confrontations that erupted during the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration. However, this does not mean that Washington will accede to Israel’s demands if and when a new nuclear deal with Iran is signed. Israel objects to a deal that, upon its expiration, would allow Iran to progress toward nuclear bomb production – a deal lacking effective supervision that would not halt the development of ballistic missiles or quell Iran’s regional subversion. Israel would prefer a return to the “maximum pressure” policy, to more stringent sanctions and Iran’s increased isolation – while also formulating a military containment plan. To Israel’s dismay, the United States, which does not wish to be drawn into a military confrontation with Iran, is delaying the effort to obtain the amendments demanded by Israel until after the agreement is signed. It is worth noting that within Israel’s senior ranks there are also some who support renewing the agreement. They do not feel that this will be enough to remove the Iranian nuclear threat, but they hope to buy precious time to prepare for what will come.
Teheran clings to former President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA to explain why it is not bound by the deal’s restrictions. Iran is developing and operating advanced centrifuges, enriching uranium to 60% (the JCPOA allowed a level of 3.67%) and is even producing metallic uranium (a crucial material in the core production process of nuclear weapons). The Iranians have deactivated the surveillance cameras installed by the UN at Iran’s nuclear sites “until the signing of a new agreement,” and have refused to provide the explanation demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the “open cases” in which remains of enriched uranium have been found at some sites. During negotiations, Iran demanded that the Revolutionary Guards be removed from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, but under pressure from Israel, President Biden committed to opposing such a move “even if it means giving up on a renewal of the nuclear agreement.”
The rhetoric surrounding the nuclear crisis is also escalating. Kamal Kharrazi, president of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, boasted in July that Iran has the technical ability to manufacture a nuclear bomb should it so desire, and Prime Minister Lapid – in what the media took to be a response – said at the inauguration ceremony for the new head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission in August that Israel’s other capabilities “keep us alive.”
Both scenarios – signing a nuclear deal or not – leave the Iran issue open. If an agreement is signed, it is expected to be flawed. It will enable Iran to surreptitiously move forward in producing nuclear weapons, will not impede its subversive activity and, once the sanctions are lifted, will make tens of billions of dollars available to it for increased aggression.
The head of the Mossad, David Barnea, labeled the apparent agreement a “fraud.” According to him, Iran will not fulfill its part and the West will not withdraw from the agreement as a result.
At the same time, Israel could face American pressure not to act against Iran, so as not to jeopardize the agreement’s sustainability. On the other hand, should it turn out that an agreement is not achievable, Iran may accelerate its efforts to equip itself with a nuclear arsenal, and a stepping up of Israel’s countermeasures can be expected. In a June 2022 interview with the British weekly The Economist, then-Prime Minister Bennett stated that Israel is “implementing the Octopus Doctrine. We no longer play with the tentacles, [we are] going for the head.” Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi clarified in July that the IDF’s preparations against Iran’s nuclear program are its main focus.
The worsening of the military conflict between Israel and Iran (which over the past year included an escalation of the cyber war) could lead to tensions between Jerusalem and Washington due to American reservations about being dragged into a military confrontation with Iran. Israel thus faces a wrenching dilemma: how to repel the Iranian nuclear threat without sliding into a crisis with its sole ally. In the “Jerusalem Declaration” signed during President Biden’s visit to Israel in July, the president pledged “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” and stated that the U.S. “is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” In an interview, Biden clarified that he would use force “as a last resort.” The question that remains open is the degree of credibility of this statement, as the point in time at which the use of force “as a last resort” would indeed be required is subject to more than one interpretation.
The Middle East – Threats and Opportunities
The Middle East’s chronic instability places Israel in constant danger of sliding into violent confrontation with Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The level of volatility was in evidence during Operation Breaking Dawn in early August when Israel struck Palestinian Islamic Jihad bases and eliminated senior officials from its ranks. Approximately one thousand rockets were fired at Israel during the operation (about 300 were intercepted by Iron Dome batteries, with a success rate of 97%). Other evidence of the region’s instability could be found in the IDF’s 2021 annual report, which noted a rise in its offensive activity in the “War Between the Wars” – over a thousand strikes in various arenas.
The region is rife with conflict and with social and political trends that undermine its stability. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic added to the region’s deeply rooted afflictions: wars, terrorism, waves of refugees, humanitarian crises, faltering economies, corruption, unemployment, and failed governmental systems. In a region-wide poll conducted by the BBC in the first half of 2022, most respondents agreed that “the economy is weak under a democracy.” Indeed, even the citizens of Tunisia, the last of the countries on which the democratic mark of the Arab Spring held, gave its president dictatorial powers in a July 2022 referendum.
The global economic crisis and uncertainties in the global food market are raising the region’s poverty rates and threatening its stability. According to the World Bank, a one percent increase in food prices moves another 10 million people into extreme poverty. This terrible arithmetic applies to the population of the Middle East, as a region where the amount of basic goods consumed exceeds the quantity it produces (around 70 million suffer from malnutrition).
From Israel’s perspective, this complex data field is rife with threats, but also opportunities. The Iranian threat pushes the Arab world to cooperate with Israel. Palestinian weakness and world fatigue from dealing with their affairs have made rapprochement with Israel easier for Arab rulers. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in August 2020, ties have been developed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. Half a million Israelis have visited the Gulf as of this writing. Saudi Arabia, which has conditioned normalization with Israel on the resolution of the Palestinian problem, has opened its skies to Israeli flights. The Negev Summit of March 2022, which saw U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain gather in Israel, reflected the new regional spirit. Senior Israeli officials have made frequent visits to Arab capitals.
The U.S. is working to deepen regional cooperation in preparing for aerial defense against Iranian missiles and drones. Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed that these efforts have already “thwarted Iranian attempts to challenge Israel and other countries in the Middle East.” Iran, for its part, is working to deter the Gulf states and openly threatening them with harm should they strengthen their ties with Israel. Israeli defense exports to Gulf state signatories to the Abraham Accords grew by 30% in 2021 over the previous year. Israel’s gas fields have strengthened its position in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea and constitute a basis for cooperation with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and even Turkey. At a June meeting of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in Cairo, Israel’s Minister of Energy, Karine Elharrar, signed a tripartite memorandum of understanding with Egypt and the European Union for the supply of Israeli gas to Europe via Egypt.
Here are a number of developments over the past year in the Middle East that have an impact on Israel’s resilience:
Syria – President Bashar al-Assad controls about two-thirds of his country’s original territory. Most of the Arab states have reconciled themselves to his continued rule and have renewed ties with his regime at various levels. Syrian territory is being used by Iran to build a military infrastructure against Israel. Iran trains local militias subject to its authority and transfers advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is waging a continuous struggle against this activity, but the intensifying great power rivalry, which has sharpened tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem, could make it difficult for the Israeli air force operate in Syrian airspace.
Lebanon – The country is in a particularly deep economic crisis. Lebanese currency has lost 90% of its value; 80% of the country’s citizens have sunk into poverty, its infrastructure has collapsed and there are shortages of food, medication, fuel, and other essential goods. The government has not been able to meet World Bank conditions for the 3-billion-dollar loan it has requested. Lebanon desperately needs revenue and for this reason returned in early 2022, under U.S. auspices, to negotiations with Israel over the maritime border between the two countries, so that it can start developing the gas fields along its coast.
Although Hezbollah and its allies lost their majority in Lebanon’s May 2022 parliamentary elections, the organization’s influence has not eroded significantly. Hezbollah continues to build its military capabilities and, with Iranian assistance, is focusing on its precision guided missile project. It appears that the organization has no interest in another war with Israel, but given Lebanon’s state of collapse, an unplanned slide into confrontation could occur. In such a situation, Israel would face a well-trained army with 140,000 rockets and missiles, some of which have a high degree of accuracy, at its disposal. Hezbollah signaled its intentions and capabilities in July when it launched four drones (which were intercepted) at the Karish gas field’s drilling platform. The Lebanese government denounced the action, but Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah was undeterred, threatening that all of Israel’s gas fields lie within the organization’s reach. The IDF is preparing for a deterioration and also for the deployment of ground forces deep in Lebanese territory. In an ongoing war exercise, a scenario was played out in which 1,500 rockets and missiles are fired into Israel per day.
Jordan – The Bennett-Lapid government worked to strengthen relations with Jordan, whose economy is in a state of ongoing crisis. Over the past year several meetings were held between Israeli leaders and King Abdullah II, but the violent incidents triggered by Hamas on the Temple Mount during Ramadan reignited tensions between the countries. The Jordanian prime minister praised “those throwing their stones at all of those Zionists who desecrate Al Aqsa Mosque with the protection of the Israeli occupation government.” The events showed that Israel-Jordan relations are still sensitive to the Palestinian issue (over half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin). In order to ease the tensions, Prime Minister Lapid met with the king at his palace in July, after which the Israeli government decided to advance plans for the “Jordan Gateway” joint industrial park that is expected to employ about 10,000 Jordanian workers.
Saudi Arabia – Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, scored a significant achievement when President Biden visited Riyadh, demonstrating renewed American recognition of the country’s importance in an era of great power competition. It turned out that the U.S. cannot leave the kingdom, which possesses 16% of the world’s oil reserves, subject to Russian and Chinese influence. However, Saudi Arabia is in no hurry to align itself with the U.S. and is skeptical about Washington’s willingness to come to its defense when put to the test. Riyadh has no intention of weakening its ties with China, which purchases a quarter of all Saudi oil output, nor will it weaken ties with Moscow. The crown prince explained that acceding to Biden’s request for increased oil production would necessitate coordination with the OPEC+ group, of which Russia is a member. After the American president’s visit, MBS spoke by phone with Putin to show that coordination with Russia had not eroded. Indeed, the slight oil production increase decided on by OPEC+ was far from Biden’s expectations. MBS has ambitious plans to develop the kingdom, and he wants to ensure the security of its oil facilities. He has chosen to maneuver between the great powers, and is even engaged in dialogue with Teheran, which could rupture the regional front against Iranian aggression that Israel wishes to maintain. U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia to publicly acknowledge its secret ties with Israel was rejected, apart from permission to all civilian flights (including, though without specifying, Israeli air carriers) to fly in Saudi airspace. The Saudi foreign minister clarified his country’s demands of Israel: implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative and a commitment to establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Egypt – The Egyptian economy continues to grow (6% over the past year). However, it suffers from a shortage of foreign currency reserves, which has recently raised fears that Egypt may have difficulty repaying debts.
It was negatively affected by the Ukraine war and the rise in oil and grain prices. The agreement reached in July to allow the export of grain from the Black Sea ports eased the situation. (Ukraine and Russia are Egypt’s main source of wheat and also a source of tourism.) The failure to resolve the dispute over the Renaissance Dam, whose construction is being completed by Ethiopia and which has already begun filling with water, raises Egyptian fears about reduced Nile flow into its territory. President Sisi warned in June that “no one will touch Egypt’s water.” Ethiopia may be surprised by his tough resolve. Sisi spares no means to suppress the regime’s opposition. Human rights organizations claim that 60,000 political prisoners are being held in Egyptian prisons.
The Egyptian president sees Israel as an effective partner, allowing security cooperation with it and helping maintain calm in Gaza. Following Egypt’s assistance in achieving a ceasefire in the last round of Israel’s battle against Islamic Jihad in early August, tensions rose between Cairo and Jerusalem as a result of its claim that Israel is not meeting the terms of the deal.
Iraq – Its position as a possible buffer against Iran and its possession of the fifth largest oil reserve in the world testify to the geopolitical importance of Iraq, but the country is in severe internal crisis. Since the October 2021 elections, the various factions have been unable to reach an agreement on the appointment of a president and a prime minister. The political power struggles, which increasingly deteriorate into violence, allow pro-Iranian elements a leg up in strengthening their influence despite not having succeeded in the elections.
Turkey – Erdoğan’s aggressive policies in the international arena have not relieved challenges looming at home: an economic crisis with 80% inflation, and the presence of 3.6 million refugees from Syria who strain the country’s resources. Concern over the expected results of the elections on the horizon (June 2023) drives Erdoğan to deviate from his usual conflict-seeking approach in the international arena. (Although he threatened Greece recently: “we may surprise you one night.”)
He, most of the time, has taken a conciliatory tone toward Israel this year and has his eye on integrating his country into the regional gas export system.
A breakthrough in relations between the two countries was marked by President Herzog’s visit to Ankara in March – the highest-level visit since 2008. Later, in a telephone conversation Erdoğan and Prime Minister Lapid agreed upon the mutual return of ambassadors.
Trade between Israel and Turkey, which remained steady despite the political tensions and amounted this past year to seven billion dollars, may grow further thanks to the diplomatic thaw. The strengthening of ties was also evident when security personnel from both countries cooperated this past June to thwart an attempt by Iranian intelligence agents to abduct and harm Israelis visiting Istanbul.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The deepening great power rivalry contributes to pushing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the global agenda. In the absence of a path to political solution, Israel risks falling into the reality of a binational state that would threaten its Jewish character. Events of the past year, however, highlight the lack of ripeness for progress toward a permanent resolution of the conflict.
The situation in the West Bank and Gaza is unstable. Corruption, lack of governance, the ongoing failures at reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the eroded status of 87-year-old Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen, and the evolving internal confrontation over his succession – all contribute to this state of affairs. The Palestinian Authority is having trouble imposing its authority, and incidents of violence and lawlessness are increasing, including attacks against Israel involving Palestinian security personnel. (The diplomatic paralysis motivates organizations such as Amnesty International to deem Israel an apartheid state.)
President Biden’s visit to Ramallah did not herald a breakthrough, although he reiterated his country’s commitment to a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with agreed-upon land swaps. Biden made it clear that conditions were not ripe for promoting a permanent settlement and, contrary to Palestinian expectations, did not reverse Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. embassy there. The president left the PLO mission in Washington closed and, under Israeli pressure, did not order the reopening of the American Consulate in Jerusalem that had managed relations with the Palestinian Authority. Against the background of Palestinian frustration with the U.S. position with respect to its plight, the PA announced sweeping support for China in the wake of Speaker of the House Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Furthermore, there have been threats that the September session of the UN General Assembly will be used to advance a “dramatic” measure, such as nullifying the mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel and demanding full recognition of the State of Palestine.
A reminder of the risk of slipping into a binational reality appears in the findings of a poll commissioned by the Washington Institute, indicating a “moderation” trend among East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents. Sixty-three percent of the respondents agreed with the statement: “It would be better for us if we were part of Israel, rather than in Palestinian Authority or Hamas ruled lands.” Likewise, there are signs of initial organizational activity in East Jerusalem to promote participation in the municipal elections slated for October 2023. Senior Fatah officials have harshly condemned these developments, but the decision, which could have dramatic implications for the Jewish character of Israel’s capital city, is in Palestinian hands.
Operation Breaking Dawn against Islamic Jihad, outbreaks of violence on the Temple Mount, and a number of terror attacks over the past year attest to a potential flareup in the Palestinian arena. During the first half of 2022, 61 planned terror attacks and another 36 combat incidents in response to IDF activity were documented. Hamas, with the encouragement of Egypt, is mostly observing the ceasefire on the Gaza border, and chose not to join in the Operation Breaking Dawn hostilities. However, the organization continues to build its military capabilities, and its leaders openly encourage violent actions and terrorism in the West Bank, while focusing on the Temple Mount.
The Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, suffers from a lack of infrastructure, water and electricity shortages, unemployment (50%), and severe poverty. The current global food market uncertainties and rising energy prices could worsen the economic situation and cause the security situation to deteriorate. Granting permission for laborers to enter Israeli territory, and the intention to increase their number to 30,000 per day, has provided some relief and an incentive to keep the peace. (It will soon become clear how Operation Breaking Dawn has affected this initiative.)
The Triangular Relationship: Jerusalem-Washington-American Jewry
The continued resilience of the “triangle,” a decisive force multiplier for the strength of Israel and the Jewish people, is an ongoing challenge for the Israeli government. It requires maintaining both bipartisan American sympathy for Israel, and American Jewry’s attachment to Israel (American Jewry accounts for a third of the Jewish people). Security threats to Israel require strict maintenance of irreplicable U.S. support. American Jewry holds power and influence and therefore comprises an important element of the strategic triangle.
Maintaining the triangular relationship’s robustness is not a simple task given current trends that threaten to weaken it. Due to differences in perception and values, Israel faces difficulty in holding the sympathy of young American Jews. The situation has been exacerbated in the light of the ideological polarization underway in the United States, which has made the subject of Israel “party-dependent” and strains the preservation bipartisan support.
In Congress, harsh voices against Israel are more common than ever before, and the president is under pressure from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing to condition support for Israel on significant policy change regarding the Palestinian issue. Before Biden’s trip to the Middle East, 80 Congressional Democrats called for him to act against measures that endanger the two-state solution. The fear in Israel is that this critical trend buzzing in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – which is still a minority, albeit a loud and assertive one – will seep into the mainstream.
Although the Bennett-Lapid government indeed stated its intention of addressing some of the issues that have clouded relations between Israel and American Jewry, declarations of goodwill cannot bridge the opinion gap on fundamental issues, chief among them the Palestinian question. Seventy percent of U.S. Jews are Democrats, and most have also expressed support for the policies of Presidents Obama and Biden on the Iranian nuclear issue. Their loyalty to President Biden is clear (63% support, much higher than among the general public). Therefore, their willingness to promote policies on which – in the view of the American Jewish leadership – Israeli and American interests overlap is critically important. In-depth dialogue with Jewish Democrats, which has been neglected for years, is essential to rekindling the interest American Jewry in the challenges facing Israel.
1. July 16, 2022, at the Gulf Cooperation Council
2. China held large-scale military exercises in the wake of a visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, August 2022.
3. Prime Minister Bennett met with the King of Bahrain in Manama (February, 15, 2022) and with the UAE president in Abu Dhabi (June 9, 2022); IDF Chief of General Staff Kochavi visited Morocco (July 18, 2022), and according to the Wall Street Journal met in March 2022 at Sharm el-Sheikh with his military counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to coordinate action in the face of the Iranian threat.