The Arab revolts and an emboldened Iran have created the most precarious security situation for Israel since the end of the Cold War, according to a study released this week.
The report, “The 2011 Arab Uprisings and Israel’s National Security,” was released by Bar-Ilan University’s Begin- Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and authored by the center’s director, Prof.Efraim Inbar.
Israel’s security environment is “worse now than at any time in the last two decades,” Inbar told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. “What can we do about it? Not much. We have little influence over developments in the Middle East, and few ambitions to engage in political engineering there. All we can do is defend ourselves better.”
To weather the crisis, he said, Israel must significantly increase its military investment and above all, preserve its close ties with the United States.
“Israel has no choice but to continue to nurture its strategic partnership with the US,” Inbar wrote in the report. “The US is likely to remain the dominant global power for a long time, and its decline in the Middle East is probably temporary.”
Inbar’s study is part of a broader research project – supported by the US-based Tikvah Fund – bringing together half a dozen researchers to contribute to a book to be released this fall on the changing Middle East.
The report identifies a number of broad trends: the decline of US influence in the Middle East and the weakening of Western- allied states in the region, as well as a general diminution of Arab power in favor of non-Arab Turkey and Iran.
The new regional landscape, it says, brings with it myriad risks to Israel: greater uncertainty over the behavior of leaders of Israel’s neighbors, increased terrorist activity, reduced Israeli deterrence and growing regional isolation, as well as emerging threats in the eastern Mediterranean and the continuing Iranian nuclear challenge.
Inbar offers recommendations for Israeli policy-makers in coping with these changes. They include increasing defense outlays and the size of the standing army, as well investing more in missile defense, naval power and research and development.
Israel, he writes, should seek out new regional allies, maintain its special relationship with Washington and insist on defensible borders in any peace negotiations with Syria or the Palestinians.
The report portrays the United States as a former regional power broker now widely viewed as in decline. “In the Middle East, leaders have witnessed America’s retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, its engagement (or appeasement, in Middle Eastern eyes) of US enemies Iran and Syria, and the desertion of friendly rulers,” it says. “This strengthens the general perception of a weak and confused American foreign policy.”
Islamists have a greater presence in government in every Arab state to have experienced popular revolt, from Morocco to Tunisia, to Libya and Egypt. The report says that development could have been easily predicted: “Islam, ‘the heart and soul’ of the identity of most Middle Easterners, has always had great appeal in the region. This reality makes Islamic political forces the strongest alternative to the current dictators of the Arab states.”
The document describes the security situation in Israel’s immediate vicinity as dire.
Since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak a year ago, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has become a near-lawless enclave where terrorists easily find haven. The study calls for an increased Israeli security presence along the Egyptian border, and says that under certain circumstances, Israel may have to recapture parts of the peninsula.
Jordan is one of the few Arab states to be spared large-scale unrest over the past year.
Still, Inbar writes, the security situation of Jordan’s King Abdullah II is tenuous at best, with a restive majority-Palestinian population chafing under his rule.
Syria, on Israel’s northeastern border, is in the throes of a bloody year-long uprising that shows no signs of slowing. President Bashar Assad, the report warns, will not be removed quietly, and a replay of this summer’s diversionary tactics (sending Syrians of Palestinian descent to march on Israel’s border) is likely.
The Palestinian Authority, Inbar notes, is viewed by many of its own people as weak and illegitimate. Having already lost the 2006 elections to Hamas (but refusing to cede power), it is coming under increased pressure from its Islamist rivals. A Palestinian miscalculation leading to another round of violence, he writes, is a possibility Israel cannot ignore. Moreover, with Islamists enjoying a region-wide surge of support, the Hamas government in Gaza will likely be more brazen in confronting Israel both militarily and diplomatically.
The report paints a distressing portrait of Israel’s security situation, but ends on a confident – if still not optimistic – note.
“In the final analysis, the developments in Washington are much more important for Jerusalem than those in the region,” it says. “Regional isolation is bearable. After all, a modern, affluent, democratic and powerful Israel hardly wants to integrate into a region characterized by despotism, corruption, ignorance and poverty.
“While the changing security environment has deteriorated, Israel remains a strong state. The power differential between Israel and its neighbors is larger than ever, which allows Israel to meet most challenges on its own. It must spend more money on defense, however, and has to cultivate new relationships in the region,” the document adds.
“The US remains its only important ally, and the preservation of good relations with Washington is a central pillar in Israel’s national security. Israeli society has displayed great resilience in the past when faced with national security challenges,” the report concludes. “Most Israelis understand the reality of living in the Middle East, but they must recognize that this rough neighborhood may become even more brutish in the near future.”