When an ally declines
The relative decline of US influence in the Arab region following the Arab Spring has changed the strategic environment completely for Israel, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak was clear in expressing his feelings of bitterness and concern about Israel's "national security" because of the serious repercussions of a decline in the US role in the region. Barak even suggested rethinking Israel's security doctrine to take into consideration this strategic transformation. Israeli strategic experts point to some features that reflect a retreat in the US's standing. Professor Efriam Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, highlighted the US's inability to prop up its allied Arab regimes that contributed to achieving US-Israeli interests in the region, especially the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
Among the signs of US weakness listed by retired General Ron Tira, senior researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, is that the US administration was forced to hold official talks with representatives from Islamist movements who came to power or are on their way into power in Arab Spring countries. The Americans view dialogue with Islamists as an attempt to contain some of the damage resulting from the fall or weakening of its allied regimes. Although Israel has officially expressed its concern about these talks, because they add international legitimacy to Islamists taking over power, which constitutes a serious transformation in Israel's strategic environment, the Americans have made it clear that changing this course is not an option.
Aloni Lael, former undersecretary of Israel's Foreign Ministry, believes that the blow to pro-Western military leaders in Turkey by the government of Tayyip Recep Erdogan and Washington's inability to intercede to defend them is another manifestation of US weakness. What annoys Israelis the most is that Erdogan's standing was boosted to a large extent after the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. Even US President Barack Obama recently said that Erdogan is one of the few world leaders whom he is keen to stay in close touch with.
Israelis view the success of Hizbullah and its allies in forming a government in Lebanon and Fatah and Hamas reaching agreement to end divisions, despite US objections, as another two signs that the US's role is retreating. Retired General Danny Rothschild, director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, emphasises that one cannot ignore the economic factors that distracted Obama's administration from focussing on the Middle East. Rothschild added that the incumbent US administration has become very sensitive to any developments that could negatively affect the US economy.
He added that the US is also apprehensive about China's capability of increasing its influence in Southeast Asia, and its attempts to dictate specific formulae in the region that threaten US economic interests. Obama has decided that the US's vital interests are under threat in that region, which is why he transferred his attention from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.
An alliance with a world superpower has always been one of the pillars of Israel's security outlook, and the relationship with the US was a top strategic asset. Strategic experts in Israel largely believe that the drop in the US's stature and role will undermine Israel's deterrence capabilities since third parties recognised the special relationship between Israel and the US, and would seriously reconsider any decision to attack Israel because this could result in direct or indirect US intervention to guarantee Israel's victory in any battle.
At the same time, a retreat in the US's status in the Middle East has actually resulted in Israel's isolation in the region. While some countries in the region were keen on improving relations with Israel as the best path to curry favour with Washington, a decline in US standing in the region has increased the strategic burdens on Israel and reduced its ability to manoeuvre. Israel was able to launch a war and military strikes against Arab parties because Arab states created regional conditions that allowed this, in order to appease the US. The best examples of this were the wars on Lebanon in 2006 and on Gaza in 2008.
Thus, a retreat in the US's appeal will negatively affect Israel's strategic environment and its ability to take action against its enemies. What makes this even more burdensome for Israel is that public opinion has become an influential factor in Arab decision making after the Arab revolutions. Israel now feels that before any military action it must take into consideration the response of Arab public opinion to it.
At the same time, the drop in Washington's influence in the region has jettisoned the assumption that Tel Aviv and its allies in the West tried to promote, in that Israel is a strategic asset for the West, especially the US. It has become abundantly clear that the opposite is true since Israel is the party that has been harmed the most by the US's diminishing role. This is the argument of both Omer Gendler, an expert on Israeli strategic affairs, and Ron Ben-Yishai, senior military analyst at Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
The debate inside Israel demonstrates that Tel Aviv is preparing to deal with the repercussions of the US's retreat in the region through a number of mechanisms. Strategic experts in Israel believe that there must be a push towards a strategic partnership with emerging world powers, especially Russia, China and India. They also believe that Israel will soon join the ranks of gas exporting countries after it discovered large gas reserves near its Mediterranean coast, and therefore it should invest this in buttressing its status with emerging powers.
At the same time strategic analysts believe that once Israel becomes a gas exporting country, this will raise its standing with China and India as Iran's influence retreats as the key exporter of gas to these two countries. Some Israelis are also calling for expanding Israel's high-tech exports to world powers to boost the country's stature on the world stage. Meanwhile, Israel has already started to expand its alliances with Balkan states in reaction to its deteriorating relations with Turkey. Developing relations with these countries have become even more critical in light of the drop in the US's influence in the region.
Many Israelis also believe that secret deals must be made with Arab parties that were harmed by the drop in Washington's influence in the region, in order to convince them that their joint interests with Israel could be the basis for regional cooperation, especially in confronting the rise of Islamist rule in the region after the Arab Spring. Decision-makers in Tel Aviv know full well that a number of Arab states, including key countries, are not entirely comfortable with Islamists coming to power and are keen on making them fail -- just like Israel.
For example, Israel's Institute for National Security Studies called for an international effort to convince wealthy Arab states not to assist countries where Islamists come to power. Needless to say, the Israelis also believe that there is a common desire by Israel and some Arab countries to contain Iran's influence in the region. In order to counter the effects of the US's retreat in the region, there has been a clear trend inside the Israeli cabinet, one led by Barak, that believes that relations with Turkey must be restored even at the price of agreeing to Ankara's demand that Tel Aviv apologise for attacking the Freedom Flotilla in May 2010. Such a move would mitigate the consequences of the decline in US influence.
Barak is calling for intense efforts to repair ties with Turkey and worries that the challenges that will confront Israel if it does not make amends with Turkey will increase. He also realises that it is unlikely that relations with Turkey will be restored to where they were before.
Israel knows the risks of a drop in US influence in the region and is seeking to curb the damage from this, but its success depends on more than its own schemes and efforts. There is no doubt that the Arab Spring allows the Arabs to retake the lead on initiatives, and could convince world powers of the dangers of putting all their eggs in the basket of Israel.