Though recent regional developments have offered some pleasant surprises for Israel in its improved cooperation with several Sunni Arab governments, the changing Middle East has also yielded a reality in which Israel is no longer as useful to the U.S. as it once was. While Israel was a strategic buffer against Soviet-backed Arab forces in the Cold War era, the collapse of the Soviet Union has drastically altered the political landscape. The current fault line in the Middle East is not East versus West but Sunni versus Shia, and after years of fighting Sunni radicals while cooperating with governments that promote that very same extremism, the U.S. seems to be shifting towards the Shia camp. This change in policy could have serious ramifications for its relationships with Israel and Iran.
Israel’s strategic value to the U.S. was traditionally based on its positioning in the Arab Middle East as the natural enemy of the Soviet-backed Arab states during the Cold War as well as its access to Soviet technology captured from Arab adversaries. Retired Air Force intelligence chief Gen. George F. Keegan said of the information that Israel provided, ”I could not have procured the intelligence . . . with five CIAs.”
As the U.S. tried to counter communist influence in the Middle East, Israel served as a crucial buffer state against Soviet-backed forces and governments such as the PLO, Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Iraq. According to a U.S. government report on Egypt:
Between 1955 and 1975, the Egyptian armed forces depended heavily on the Soviet Union…The Soviets initially supplied outmoded equipment from surplus stocks to help Egypt replenish its forces after the 1956 War, but in the early 1960s, the Soviet Union began furnishing up-to-date MiG-21 fighter aircraft, SA-2 SAMs, and T-54 tanks…By the early 1970s, the number of Soviet personnel in Egypt had risen to nearly 20,000. They participated in operational decisions and served at the battalion and sometimes even company levels.
Likewise, a May 1987 CIA report on Soviet Foreign Military Assistance notes that the Soviets had delivered more military aid to countries in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf “than to all other regions combined.” By the late 1980s, having lost much of their influence over Iraq and Egypt due to poor diplomatic maneuvering, the Soviets’ most important Arab allies were Syria and Libya. In addition, the USSR supported various Palestinian factions in their struggle against Israel.
As America’s general foreign policy goal was the containment of communist influence, Israel, the stated enemy of the Soviet client states in the Middle East, was America’s natural ally. Yet, the idea that the U.S. staunchly supported Israel financially, militarily, and politically since the state’s inception in 1948 based on shared values is not supported by the historical facts. According to a 2014 congressional report, the U.S. gave Israel a $100 million loan in 1949 but “for the next two decades, U.S. aid to Israel was modest and was far less than in later years.” In fact, it was the increasing Soviet investment in the region and the desire to counterbalance that which led America into Israel’s arms. Israel now receives over $3.1 billion in foreign assistance from the U.S., most of which is military.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Israel continued to be a potential conduit of American influence in the Middle East in the 1990s and early 2000s while the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ran its course. The ability to solve one of the region’s most burning conflicts would undoubtedly increase U.S. prestige and soft power in the region. Yet as the peace talks sputtered and then died, this potential venue for increasing American influence was closed.
Despite the fact that it took place over two decades ago, several consequences of the end of the Cold War continue to reshape the Middle East. The first is the reshuffling of alliances. For example, traditional Soviet client states like Iraq and Syria were looking for new patrons as a result of the decreasing Soviet/Russian involvement in the region—within the past fifteen years they have both found that need met by Iran. Second, the Soviet versus the West proxy war paradigm has been replaced in the Middle East by a fault-line that is sectarian in nature. This sectarian dynamic, which pits Shias (and Alawis) against Sunnis, was ushered into the region, or at least severely agitated, by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the suppression of the Arab Spring.
However violent the consequences, increasing levels of sectarianism have created a space for Israel to befriend Arab governments with anti-Shia/anti-Iran agendas such as the Gulf States. While Israel does not fall into either the Sunni or Shia camp in this fight, it is more opposed to the spread of Shia influence because the greatest threat to its security emanates from Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces perched on Israel’s northern border. Furthermore, Israel is not interested in overcommitting itself and getting entangled in issues that don’t directly concern its survival, such as the expansion of Sunni jihadi groups far from its borders—its main focuses are the threats posed by Hamas, Hezbollah, and a nuclear-armed Iran.
Many of the very same Gulf States that are reaching out to Israel, generally a step that would promote friendship with America as seen through the examples of Egypt and Jordan, have a short-term interest in supporting fundamentalist Sunni militants committed to fighting the spread of Iranian influence in the region. This, however, runs counter to the interest of their longtime patron, the U.S., which views the radical Sunni groups as one of the primary threat to U.S. national security—having surpassed, according to some, the threat of Iran’s state-sponsored terror. This perception may be due to al-Qaeda’s attacks on Western targets and the rise of the Islamic State. Additionally, the potential appeal of Sunni groups is broader, as Sunnis outnumber Shias about 7:1 among the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. Regardless of the reason, the brutal sectarian fighting has placed Iran in a unique position in which its interests in expanding its influence align with those perceived interests of the Obama administration in fighting terror.
The only regional government that prioritizes and has proven competent in fighting Sunni jihadi groups like al-Qaeda and IS is the Shia government of Iran, which is currently working to solidify its sphere of influence stretching from Teheran to Beirut. Meanwhile, Israel is taking a much less prominent role on the stage of Middle East events, as the central conflict is no longer the Arab states versus the Jewish state but Muslim versus Muslim and the occasional escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hardly seen as a crisis when compared with events in Syria and Iraq. As America positions itself to warm up to Iran, Hezbollah’s primary backer, Israel needs to ask itself how to stay relevant as a valued U.S. ally in a Middle East that has drastically shifted focus.