Jonathan Meta

Biden’s proposal is a call to restore the balance of power

President Biden on his remarks on Middle East, on Friday, May 30th.
Picture: ABC7

On October 7th Hamas attacked Israel in a way that we’ve never seen before. Communities of southern Israel were infiltrated by terrorists, over 1200 civilians were killed and over 250 people were kidnapped to Gaza.

The reason for this attack is still unknown although most of the analysts agree that it was related to Israel’s sudden proximity with Saudi Arabia. According to this theory, Hamas -a terrorist group supported by Iran- was convinced that the steps taken by Israel to get closer to the Arab world were leaving out of the picture the Palestinian issue. This is the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people and the creation of their own State.

Prior to October 7th, most precisely in September 2020, Israel signed a series of understandings with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, mediated by the United States. These agreements normalized the diplomatic relationship between the States and recognized -historically- the sovereignty of Israel over its land.  These were the first agreements between Israel and an Arab State since 1994, when the peace with Jordan -that today is overlooked by the Israeli leadership- was signed. The main point though is that it wouldn’t be the last. On October 2020 and December 2020, two more States would enter into this frame agreement: Sudan, which in exchange got removed from the United States blacklist of States that sponsor terrorism, and Morrocco, which in exchange got the United States (and Israel) recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara. All this, although already revolutionary, was not close to enough to what Israel wanted to achieve: its normalization with Saudi Arabia.

It is difficult to say when the path for normalization between Israel and Arab states started, but one can pinpoint the obsession of Iran with nuclear weapons as a trigger and, to be more specific, the materialization of the path to this obsession since 2009. The threat that this pose is far greater than the idea of having another nuclear power in the world, and it is rooted in a longtime struggle in the Arab world between Sunnis -being represented mainly by Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia- and Shiites – represented mainly by Iran. Hence, it has been widely reported that cooperation behind the scenes between Saudi Arabia and Israel started back in the 2010s.

The reason why the United States needs a normalization between Israel and Sunnis -namely between Israel and Saudi Arabia- is because since the Obama Administration the western superpower understood that their problems are not in the Middle East but in China, and so many measures have been taken to complete what is called the pivot to Asia. This policy was actually one of the few on which there were many signs of consistency between the Obama and Trump Administrations.

The reason why Israel and Saudi Arabia need a normalization of diplomatic relations seems to be clearer: the threat of a nuclear Iran demands the union of the States that feel threatened by her. Although, this is only the tip of the iceberg, and the actual motivation lies in a change on the balance of power that happened in the Middle East so slowly that many leaders -even those involved in the efforts for the normalization- don’t seem to realize.

The principle of balance of power in international relations is basically -and very briefly said- the idea that no State should become too dominant. This balance is maintained through alliances and strategic policies to prevent hegemony, ensuring stability and preventing the concentration of power that could threaten peace. The idea is to achieve a state of equilibrium where power is distributed in such a way that no single state or coalition can impose its will on others. This helps to maintain international stability and peace. Both the existence of nuclear weapons and a Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons answers to this dynamic: the balance of power is not about not being powerful, but to balance the power of States so that they are deterred from threatening international peace.

The balance of power in the Middle East drastically changed after the end of the Cold War and when the clear predominance of the United States in the international arena came into effect. Nevertheless, with the coming of a new era, also new technology started to be more broadly available.

As such, between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Israel started receiving rocket attacks from both Palestinian terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip and the Hizballah terrorist group from southern Lebanon. The first missiles that hit Israel were short range ones that hit the closest Gaza area, but soon enough more complex missiles were developed and by mid 2000s we can see the first missiles reaching the cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod. Meanwhile, the same transformation was happening in the north: while all the conflicts that Israel had with Lebanon were over border disputes and with direct confrontation, in the mid 2000s -and more specifically in 2006- rockets started hitting Israel from the north. This, which today is widely accepted, meant a challenge to the balance of power. To be clearer: Since its foundation in 1948, Israel was attacked by mobilization of troops in its land. The use of missiles meant that: 1) further objectives could be targeted over less time, and 2) more and less powerful neighbors could join the efforts easily.

Israel understood that and, to restore the balance of power, developed one of the most revolutionary defense systems, called the Iron Dome. This system, which was initially deployed in March 2011, would neutralize any threat of rocket attacks by intercepting the missiles before they hit any populated area. The success rates of the Iron Dome are literally on the skies, but its commercial history explains its weaknesses: since it protects a range of 100 to 150 square kilometers, it is ideal for small territories like Israel and not so much for larger pieces of land. Even in Israel, batteries are moved in order to successfully repel attacks.

Since the Iron Dome system was so successful and prevented so many deaths among Israeli civilians, the idea was that the balance of power was again shifted for good and that the advantage was for Israel. Nevertheless, strong signs were sent in the last couple of years that the balance of power was being challenged again. Iran, whose army is not precisely a powerful one, started investing more and more in drone and missile research and development. As a matter of fact, in the summer of 2022 an escalation with Hezbollah almost took place when three drones were fired against Karish, Israel’s gas rig. All of the drones were shot down by the Israeli Air Force.

Since October 7th Israel is waging a war in Gaza that has had implications all over the region. Usually, Israel would expect Hezbollah to intervene and so since that day the Israeli army has been deployed to the northern border. The problem is that this time we saw other actors that decided to show its solidarity with Hamas’s cause: the Houthis in the south and even terrorist groups present in Syria and Irak. The summon of this reality took place on April 13th, when Iran directly attacked -for the first time- on Israeli soil. That day, over 170 drones, over 30 cruise missiles, and more than 120 ballistic missiles were launched towards Israel. This time, it wasn’t the Israeli Air Force the only to take care of it, but also the participation of American, British, French and even Jordanian forces was needed.

Then, it became obvious that a new shift on the balance of power occurred. This change was signaled by Israel’s response. It is not clear what was the logic behind Israel’s retaliation, but what became clear is that Israel -maybe not willingly- abandoned the Ben Gurion doctrine of 1957, according to which the defense strategy was based in two main pillars: transferring the battle to enemy territory and, more importantly, deter the enemy by retaliating much stronger than the threat that the attacked posed. This shift on a life-long policy of the State of Israel came -and again, maybe not willingly- because the balance of power changed.

The most important lessons of this war for Israel are that drones and missiles became much more complex even than what we thought, which allowed farther neighbors to participate in the struggle for power in this small area. Also, a strong cooperation between Iran, China  and Russia may bring in the future a new threat to which Israel is preparing for, but has still to be tested: cyberwarfare. We’ve seen the power of some of the elements that this instrument implies, but its development is not even near its potential.

Hence, the thin equilibrium in the region is threatened and you don’t need to be scholar to know that we are at the brink of a war that could have disastrous implications not only in the Middle East but in the world.

This brings us to this day. Since October 7th, the Biden Administration seemed to be set on the idea that there is no going back. The only solution to the conflict is, for them, the creation of a Palestinian State, which would bring the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This normalization would alleviate the presidential campaign of President Biden but also, would let him focus on the policy shift that has been postponed in the United States for 15 years: the pivot to Asia.

More importantly, the normalization would restore the balance of power in the Middle East, by conforming an alliance of the main powers of the region against the threats of -a probably nuclear- Iran. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, The United Arab Emirates and Israel, would stop looking at this worn area to start looking to the greater Middle East and its challenges. For that, just like the United States, they need first to solve what can only be described in this context as the small problem which is the creation of a Palestinian State.

As such, the creation of an independent Palestinian State is not only a matter of a right to self-determination, but also a need to repel Iran from the area, create a safe zone that can decisively respond to an attack -like it happened on April 13th– and thus, restore the balance of power in the Middle East.

Biden’s last proposal for a ceasefire is a consequence of this. Now, it is time for Israel to understand that, to make it in this neighborhood, it is time for a domestic and foreign policy change.

About the Author
Jonathan moved to Israel in 2018 (and so became Yoni). He is passionate about Justice, Democracy, and Human Rights, which has been a driving force behind his career path. Jonathan is an international criminal lawyer and Managing Partner at MHM Law Offices. He holds a J.D. from Buenos Aires University (2017) and an M.A in Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University (2021).
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