The Israeli Periphery from Stratfor

The Israeli  Periphery is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

By Reva Bhalla Vice President of Global  Affairs

The state of Israel has a basic,  inescapable geopolitical dilemma: Its national security requirements  outstrip its military capabilities, making it dependent on an outside power. Not  only must that power have significant military capabilities but it also must  have enough common ground with Israel to align its foreign policy toward the  Arab world with that of Israel’s. These are rather heavy requirements for such a  small nation.

Security, in the Israeli sense, is thus often characterized in terms of  survival. And for Israel to survive, it needs just the right blend of  geopolitical circumstance, complex diplomatic arrangements and military  preparedness to respond to potential threats nearby. Over the past 33 years, a  sense of complacency settled over Israel and gave rise to various theories that  it could finally overcome its dependency on outside powers. But a familiar sense  of unease crept back into the Israeli psyche before any of those arguments could  take root. A survey of the Israeli periphery in Egypt, Syria and Jordan explains  why.

Maintaining the Sinai Buffer

To Israel’s southwest lies the Sinai Desert. This land is economically  useless; only hardened Bedouins who sparsely populate the desert expanse  consider the terrain suitable for living. This makes the Sinai an ideal buffer.  Its economic lifelessness gives it extraordinary strategic importance in keeping  the largest Arab army — Egypt’s — at a safe distance from Israeli population  centers. It is the maintenance of this buffer that forms the foundation of the 1979  peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

The question percolating in Israeli policy circles is whether an Islamist  Egypt will give the same level of importance to this strategic buffer. The  answer to that question rests with the military, an institution that has formed  the backbone of the Egyptian state since the rise of Gamel  Abdul Nasser in 1952.

Achieving National Security in the Periphery

Over the past month, the  military’s role in this new Muslim Brotherhood-run Egypt quietly revealed  itself. The first test came in the form of the Gaza crisis, when the military  quietly negotiated security guarantees with Israel while the Muslim Brotherhood  basked in the diplomatic spotlight. The second test came when Egypt’s Islamist  president, Mohammed Morsi, attempted a unilateral push on a constitutional draft  to institutionalize the  Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on power.

 

The military bided its time, waiting for the protests to escalate to the  point that rioters began targeting the presidential palace. By then, it was  apparent that the police were not to be fully relied on to secure the streets.  Morsi had no choice but to turn to the military for help, and that request  revealed how indispensable the military is for Egyptian stability.

There will be plenty of noise and confusion in the lead-up to the Dec. 15  referendum as the  secular, anti-Muslim Brotherhood civilian opposition continues its protests  against Morsi. But filter through that noise, and one can see that the military  and the Muslim Brotherhood appear to be adjusting slowly to a new order of  Nasserite-Islamist rule. Unlike the 1979 peace treaty, this working arrangement  between the military and the Islamists is alive and temperamental. Israel can  find some comfort in seeing that the military remains central to the stability  of the Egyptian state and will thus likely play a major role in protecting the  Sinai buffer. However, merely observing this dance between the military and the  Islamists from across the desert is enough to unnerve Israel and justify a more  pre-emptive military posture on the border.

Defending Galilee

Israel lacks a good buffer to its north. The most natural, albeit imperfect,  line of defense is the Litani River in modern-day Lebanon, with a second line of  defense between Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee. Modern-day Israel  encompasses this second barrier, a hilly area that has been the target of  sporadic mortar shelling from Syrian government forces in pursuit of Sunni  rebels.

Israel does not face a conventional military threat to its north, nor will it  for some time. But the descent of the northern Levant into sectarian-driven,  clan-based warfare presents a different kind of threat on Israel’s northern  frontier.

It is only a matter of time before Alawite forces will have to retreat from  Damascus and defend themselves against a Sunni majority from their coastal  enclave. The conflict will necessarily subsume Lebanon, and the framework that  Israel has relied on for decades to manage more sizable, unconventional threats  like Hezbollah will come undone.

Somewhere along the way, there will be an internationally endorsed attempt to  prop up a provisional government and maintain as much of the state machinery as  possible to avoid the scenario of a post-U.S. invasion Iraq. But when  decades-old, sectarian-driven vendettas are concerned, there is cause for  pessimism in judging the viability of those plans. Israel cannot avoid thinking  in terms of worst-case scenarios, so it will continue to reinforce its northern  defenses ahead of more instability.

Neutralizing the Jordan River Valley

The status of the Jordan River Valley is essential to Israel’s sense of  security to the east. So long as Israel can dominate the west bank of the river  (the biblical area of Judea and Samaria, or the modern-day West Bank) then it  can overwhelm indigenous forces from the desert farther east. To keep this  arrangement intact, Israel will somehow attempt to politically neutralize  whichever power controls the east bank of the Jordan River. In the post-Ottoman  Middle East, this power takes the form of the Hashemite monarchs, who were  transplanted from Arabia by the British.

The vulnerability that the Hashemites felt as a foreign entity in charge of  economically lackluster terrain created ideal conditions for Israel to protect  its eastern approach. The Hashemites had to devise complex political  arrangements at home to sustain the monarchy in the face of left-wing Nasserist,  Palestinian separatist and Islamist militant threats. The key to Hashemite  survival was in aligning with the rural East Bank tribes, co-opting the  Palestinians and cooperating with Israel in security issues to keep its western  frontier calm. In short, the Hashemites were vulnerable enough for Israel to be  considered a useful security partner but not so vulnerable that Israel couldn’t  rely on the regime to protect its eastern approach. There was a level of tension  that was necessary to maintain the strategic partnership, but that level of  tension had to remain within a certain band.

That arrangement is now under considerable stress. The  Hashemites are facing outright calls for deposition from the same tribal  East Bankers, Palestinians and Islamists that for decades formed the foundation  of the state. That is because the state itself is weakening under the pressure  of high oil prices, now sapping at the subsidies that have been relied on to  tame the population.

One could assume that Jordan’s oil-rich Gulf Arab neighbors would step in to  defend one of the region’s remaining monarchies of the post-Ottoman order  against a rising tide of Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamism with heavily subsidized  energy sales. However, a still-bitter, age-old geopolitical rivalry between the  Hejaz-hailing Hashemite dynasty and the Nejd-hailing Saudi dynasty over  supremacy in Arabia is getting in the way. From across the Gulf, an emboldened  Iran is already trying to exploit this Arab tension by cozying up to the  Hashemites with subsidized energy sales to extend Tehran’s reach into the West  Bank and eventually threaten Israel. Jordan has publicly warded off Iran’s  offer, and significant logistical challenges may inhibit such cooperation. But  ongoing negotiations between Iran’s allies in Baghdad and the Jordanian regime  bear close watching as Jordan’s vulnerabilities continue to rise at home.

Powerful Partners Abroad

In this fluctuating strategic environment, Israel cannot afford to be  isolated politically. Its need for a power patron will grow alongside its  insecurities in its periphery. Israel’s current patron, the United States, is  also grappling with the emerging Islamist order in the region. But in this new  regional dynamic, the United States will eventually look past ideology in search  of partners to help manage the region. As U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years  and the United States’ recent interactions with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood  reveal, it will be an awkward and bumpy experience while Washington tries to  figure out who holds the reins of power and which brand of Islamists it can  negotiate with amid messy power transitions. This is much harder for Israel to  do independently by virtue of ideology, size and location.

Israel’s range of maneuver in foreign policy will narrow considerably as it  becomes more dependent on external powers and as its interests clash with those  of its patrons. Israel is in store for more discomfort in its decision-making  and more creativity in its diplomacy. The irony is that while Israel is a  western-style democracy, it was most secure in an age of Arab dictatorships. As  those dictatorships give way to weak and in some cases crumbling states, Israeli  survival instincts will again be put to the test.

Read more:  The Israeli Periphery | Stratfor

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