11/17/17 Israel and the Sunnis
Tel Aviv is a strange place at the moment. Earlier this week, it was announced that an Iron Dome anti-missile battery was being deployed near the city to defend against a possible missile attacks launched from Gaza. Meanwhile, the same Tel Aviv being safeguarded from rocket fire is the engine of growth for an economy that grew 4.1% this last quarter, in a country that actually had a $1billion budget surplus last month. Israel’s hotels are full — and not just from the record number of foreign tourists — but from the constant stream of business-related visitors, many from the world’s largest companies, coming to visit the over 300 R&D centers operated by multi-national corporations in Israel, or coming to check out the latest start-up they are considering for investment, or potential purchase.
While, at the moment, few expect a missile attack from Gaza directed here, Israel’s strategic situation has become considerably more complicated in the past few weeks, as the outcome of the Syrian Civil War becomes more clear. The new situation on the ground is full of both possibilities and dangers for Israel. On one hand, the war has ended with what is likely the second worst possible outcome for Israel — i.e. a clear victory for the forces supporting Assad. Of course, an ISIS victory might have been worse, but an Assad victory, achieved with the help of the Russians and fought with the blood of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, together with their Iranian sponsors, is a sub-optimal outcome for Israel, to say the least.
Israeli Army Chief of Staff, Gadi Eizenkot gave an interview Thursday to a Saudi Arabian news site, in which Eizenkot stated that Israel and Saudi Arabia have a common enemy and offered to provide intelligence cooperation on Iran (something most people assume is already taking place). In a speech, earlier in the week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed the Saudis extended an offer to Israel for tens of millions of dollars to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon. The idea was met with scorn in Israel, since — as noted above — the Israeli economy is doing just fine. Furthermore, certainly at present, no Israeli government would knowingly involve the country in a war with Hezbollah a non-governmental army, alleged to possess 100,000 missiles.
Despite not wanting to get into a war with Hezbollah — and assuredly, not as a proxy for the Saudis — the new Saudi attitude opens up new opportunities for Israel. Recently, the idea of making peace with Israel has been openly talked about in the Saudi media. TV commentator Achmud Alafrag said on Saudi TV this week: “Saddam said he would burn Israel … He is gone and Israel is stronger. Gadaffi said he would burn Israel … He is gone and Israel is stronger. Hundreds more have said the same thing, and Israel has only gotten stronger. It is time to make peace with Israel”.
The Sunni Arab world is feeling more and more endangered by the successes of Shiite Iran, who has emerged as the big winner from Syrian Civil War and from the defeat of ISIS. Ironically, over the past 15 years, it has been the United States that has turned Iran into a strong regional power. First, the US invaded Iraq and removed the Sunni ruling minority that had served as a strong counterweight to Iran in the region. Then, the US promoted Iraqi elections, which brought the Shiite majority to power (who had been heavily aided by Iran), without properly developing protection for the Sunnis, and to a lesser extent the Kurdish minorities. The US then failed to support the green revolution in Iran.
More recently, the US negotiated the nuclear arms deal with Iran, an agreement that while it may have been worth making, is clearly flawed and brought about the further strengthening of Iran. Finally, America mounted an all-out assault on ISIS, while again, clearly justified, was executed without developing a plan for the day after — a day in which Iran appears to be achieving its goal of developing a land bridge from their country, through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean and Lebanon, where its Lebanese proxy — Hezbollah — maintains control.
It is clear that parts of the Sunni world would very much like Israel’s help combating Iran. There is a growing realization in the Sunni world that although the Trump administration might make some welcome pronouncements regarding Iran, odds that the US will take real action are unlikely. That leaves Israel, which is, by far, the strongest military power in the region as a potential ally.
The question that remains unanswered is whether Israel would be able to make peace with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, without finding a solution to the Palestinian conflict. Past experience is clearly mixed. Israel does indeed have peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, both of which were attained without achieving peace with the Palestinians. Both Egypt and Jordan acted in their own interest to sign peace agreements, and despite repeated ups and downs in relations, this peace continues to stand the test of time. However, in the two countries, both the peace agreement, in specific and Israel, in general, are not popular. Nevertheless, surging concerns about Iran —i.e. anxiety Israel unquestionably shares — have for the moment may be overshadowing the fear of the potential domestic consequences that making peace with Israel might foment.
For Israel, the temptations to pursue peace with Saudi Arabia are high. Though some observers recommend a modicum of caution. While the revolutionary government in Teheran has been hostile to Israel since it took power in 1979, Israel and Iran have no disputes — other than a small commercial dispute and no inherent history of enmity. The Palestinians are Sunni and not Shiite. The more extreme versions of Islam, whether the Muslim brotherhood, Al-Qaeda or ISIS have all been Sunni. So is it really in Israel’s interest to officially align itself with the Sunnis in the Muslim civil war between Sunni and Shiites? Others contend that it would be a monumentally missed opportunity for Israel not to seize the moment when the Sunni world seems to need Israel’s assistance in mitigating their own struggles, in order to aid Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians; to arrive at an understanding the Sunni states could support, one that might be achieved on better terms for Israel, because of the Sunni states’ perceived need for Israel’s support.
Israel has always seen itself as an island alone in the Middle East. At no time has that been more true than today, especially here in Tel Aviv. Israel’s military headquarters and Google’s Tel Aviv campus are situated within a few hundred yards from each other, with the location for Amazon’s new Israeli research center right between them. On Thursday, at the military headquarters, the IDF Chief of Staff told a Saudi reporter that Israel would be happy to share intelligence regarding Iran. At the same time, a five minute walk away, Amazon was putting together its newest team to expand Amazon’s artificial intelligence efforts. On one side of the street Eizenkot and his staff sat contemplating the military and political future of Israel; while across the street a team from Amazon labors endeavoring to develop the future of technology for the world. Let’s hope that the those striving to deliver trend-setting technology will be the ones chronicled in the history books.