Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line.
Israeli leaders perceive Iran as the greatest threat to Israel in more than two decades – a perception that successive governments, as well as many important figures in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli intelligence community, all share.
Israeli analysts generally view the Iranian threat as comprising nuclear weapons development, sponsorship of terrorism, subversion of governments and policies in the region, missiles and warheads programmes, and ideological and theological influence. In line with traditional strategic thinking on severity and probability, Israel’s military planners have calculated that measures to address Iranian nuclear ambitions should take precedence over all others. Although he later obfuscated or even denied it, Binyamin Netanyahu was fully aware that the negotiations that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would not deal with Iran’s missile programme, sponsorship of terrorism, or regional subversion.
At the time the JCPOA was signed, the Israeli defence establishment perceived the deal as granting Israel the strategic space to address the remaining threats from Iran, including its regional behaviour. Yet, today, there is growing consensus across the establishment that Iran has since expanded its activities in the region, not least in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. For Israel, events in Syria – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political and military gambit there, coupled with Iran’s and Hezbollah’s highly effective combat operations in support of the Assad regime – have created a complex national security threat of the first order.
Israeli intelligence and political leaders once shared the assessment that the Syrian war would rage on for many years, and that Israel’s stated policy of non-intervention in the conflict – which was, in effect, surgical intervention targeting certain types of arms shipments across the Syria-Lebanon border, and key figures in Hezbollah’s apparatus in Syria – was bearing fruit. As long as the war was confined to Syria, degrading the Syrian army and sapping Iran’s and Hezbollah’s resources, it seemed beneficial for Israel.
But the Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah alliance fundamentally changed the war on the ground, including in areas of particular concern for Israel: between Damascus and the Golan Heights, and along the Syria-Lebanon border. Suddenly, Israel effectively had two more powers, Russia and Iran, at its borders. These developments exposed initial Israeli policy on the war as short-sighted and inadequate.
Beset with strategic confusion and lacking viable alternatives, Israel refocused its policy on Syria to centre on tactical airstrikes, as well as the provision of humanitarian aid and, allegedly, military cross-border assistance for Sunni fighters in the Golan. Having distanced itself from the war, Israel has been excluded from diplomatic negotiations on Syria’s future.
Meanwhile, a quieter strategic shift has been taking place in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo revealing key components of a potential new regional security architecture. In light of the United States’ perceived withdrawal from the region and pivot to Asia in the Obama era, and of Iran’s success with its regional strategy, Sunni states have increased their covert security cooperation with Israel. What used to be occasional intelligence-sharing and low-level military contact across the Israel-Egypt border has grown to joint airstrikes on the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group. The Saudi military campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, and exposure of Iranian support for the group on the international stage, has provided further evidence of the like-mindedness of Israel and major Sunni Gulf states. In line with this, there have been reports that Saudi forces are using Israeli-made drones.
When combined with the Trump administration’s hostility towards Iran, the emergence of an Israeli-Sunni Gulf accord centred on security cooperation may provide Israel with a unique opportunity to both address the Iranian threat and move towards normalising its relationships with Sunni Gulf states. Yitzhak Rabin – who arguably had greater strategic foresight than any Israeli leader other than David Ben Gurion – sought to pre-empt what he saw as Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions through the establishment of a regional alliance comprising major Arab powers and Israel, under an American umbrella. Rabin saw the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace as a necessary means to that end. Netanyahu’s strategy is not entirely dissimilar from Rabin’s: he seeks the same regional coalition, and the same American umbrella, against the same Iranian threat. Yet Netanyahu views the Palestinians as an obstacle to be neutralised.
Israel’s plans fall within several overarching trends in the Mashreq region: an overall American retreat from the region, with the expected winding down of the military campaign against the Islamic State group, as well as the White House’s adoption of an “America First” agenda; Russia’s re-entry into the region, principally through its bridgehead in Syria; and a massive Iranian effort to construct a “land bridge” through Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean, entrenching its so-called “Shia axis”. For Tehran, the accomplishment of this age-old strategic objective has never been closer. It would provide Iran with unfettered access to the region, by land and air, as it moved arms, military personnel, and commercial goods. Critically, it would also give Tehran access to the Mediterranean.
In response, the Israelis and Sunni Gulf states are attempting to construct their own land bridge, designed to confront Iran’s regional ambitions and compensate for the reduction of the US presence in the region. In this, Israel aims to push back against Iranian-Hezbollah gains in Syria and Lebanon; encourage the US to impose further sanctions on Iran; and improve its relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and other Sunni-majority states. All of this while continuing to sideline the Palestinian issue.
In the past, this approach would have been utterly unfeasible, as no Arab leader would dare to publicly dismiss the Palestinian cause. But the situation has changed. Both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seem sufficiently alarmed by Iran’s actions and the US retreat that they may be willing to break taboos vis-à-vis Israel. Nevertheless, there are considerable impediments to Israel’s strategy.
Israel’s stated goal of “denying Iran any and all military entrenchment in Syria” is unachievable. Firstly, it runs against facts on the ground. Iran has deployed to Syria around 60,000 militia fighters – more than Israel currently has the capacity to drive out. Moreover, even if it comes under attack from Israel, Iran is unlikely to give up on its historic mission of creating a land bridge. In recent weeks, Israeli officials have broadened and escalated their public threats against Iran to include eliminating the Assad regime. They have also declared that Israel will “pay any price” to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. Iranian officials have responded by threatening to “destroy Israel”, invoking the latter’s lack of “strategic depth”.
It is becoming more difficult to separate rhetoric from facts and real intentions. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA has contributed to this trend. An Israeli-Iranian armed conflict in Syria could negate Moscow’s hard-earned achievements in the country. Yet Russia has the military, economic, and diplomatic power to force its positions on Israel. Indeed, it has attempted to deter Israel by stating that it will provide the Syrian government with advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. Having limited the February 2018 skirmish between Israel and Iran – the first of its kind – Moscow has probably constrained Israeli intervention in Syria and imposed what it calls an “iron ceiling” designed to prevent future escalation between the sides. Without renewed, direct, and specific US backing for its policy on Syria, Israel cannot afford a direct confrontation with Russia (even if its combative, Russian-speaking defence minister publicly states otherwise).
The unpredictability of the US administration may therefore prompt Israel to act cautiously. Israeli leaders hope that interventionists will prevail in the ongoing debate in Washington on US action in Syria. However, the Trump administration has a political interest in avoiding intervention. More broadly, relations between the US and Russia are bound to create further complications for Israel and its Gulf Arab partners. And then there is the “Trump Peace Initiative”, which is probably dead on arrival but could create another roadblock. There is no telling whether the Trump administration will implement this declared project, but there can be no Israel-Palestine peace accord as long as Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas lead the sides. Both figures are unable – and unwilling – to build the necessary domestic support for serious negotiations. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s careless approach and blunt favouritism all but guarantee that any peace process would fail. However, by launching a peace initiative, the US might further reduce Arab states’ capacity to improve their relations with Israel, lest they anger domestic constituencies.
The danger of domestic instability in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with competing domestic and regional demands on these countries, suggest that Israel would take a significant risk in relying on their current leaders. In Sunni Arab states, the public still sympathises with the Palestinians. A strategy built on sidelining the Palestinian issue is at constant risk of running against these strong popular undercurrents, which will probably prevent a substantial breakthrough in Israeli-Sunni relations. However, even if Sunni Gulf states are unable to ally with Israel in a broad regional struggle against Iran, they can still provide valuable diplomatic, and even financial, backing for the effort. Iran – the most successful regional actor of recent times – is acutely aware of its enemies’ plans and has a long record of foiling them.
Ultimately, Israel will probably have to limit its goals in Syria. It will need to recalibrate and prioritise the components of its strategy using a complex array of overt and covert military capabilities, smart diplomacy with the Russians and regional actors, careful coordination with the US, and effective public diplomacy. If it cannot or will not employ these means, Israel risks uncontrolled escalation into a kind of inter-state war unseen in the Middle East since 1973. But, this time, Israel would face the strongest regional power – a non-Arab state that it does not border and that controls powerful proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Such a war would almost certainly have unpredictable, far-reaching consequences.
Eran Etzion currently serves as the executive director of the Forum of Strategic Dialogue, an NGO dedicated to enhancing Israeli-European strategic relations. A former diplomat, Etzion held senior positions including as head of policy planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel and deputy head of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office.