In less than three months, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their victory in the Six-Day War. As Israelis and Jews around the world reflect on the momentous achievement by the Israeli Defense Forces in 1967, it’s important to acknowledge less publicized conflicts in the Middle East outside Israel and the West Bank. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still remains unresolved, ultimately the rising instability in the Middle East is far more important than developing any agenda that brings an end to the everlasting conflict in the West Bank and Gaza.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a discussion by Ambassador Dennis Ross at Indiana University. Ross was invited by Indiana University Hillel to be the fifth speaker in the IU Hillel Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow speaker series. A former US State Department diplomat specializing in Middle East policy, Ross served as the chief negotiator between Israel and other Arab nations. He helped negotiate Oslo Accords I & II as well as the Camp David Summit in 2000. Ross is the top expert on Middle East negotiations, helping strengthen the special relationship between Israel, the United States and other allies in the region. His discussion was very informative given his expertise and firsthand knowledge of negotiations in the Middle East.
I believe that everyone in attendance, including me, expected Ross to speak about the highly-publicized Israel-Palestinian conflict for the majority of his discussion. However, he made it clear in his opening statement there are more pressing challenges at hand then jump-starting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Ross spoke about the Israel-Palestinian conflict for about 10 minutes, focusing a majority of his time on other conflicts in the region.
“President Trump faces a more daunting set of challenges in the Middle East compared to his predecessors” Ross claimed in his opening remarks. The ongoing Civil War in Syria, ISIS’ struggle for legitimacy in a power vacuum, and the potential for failing Arab states is much more important to Ross than establishing any agenda on resolving lasting issues in the West Bank. If the Israel-Palestinian conflict is almost 50 years old, little will change in the interim. The same cannot be said about the potential of Arab states around Israel failing, creating a power vacuum that could sideline negotiations with the Palestinians indefinitely.
In Syria, 13 out of 23 million people have been displaced. The United States is involved in two wars in Syria, one against Assad’s regime and the other against ISIS. The U.S administration is positioning itself in Syria supporting the Kurdish Army, who are also fighting Turkey as well as ISIS. Once the U.S military defeats ISIS, the U.S. State Department has to protect Syria so a “son of ISIS” does not arise once forces leave the country. That is, if Russia or Iran do not claim control over Syria after ISIS is eradicated.
Ross stated: “If this (the Civil War and ISIS in Syria) was the only challenge the Trump administration faced in the Middle East, it would be more than enough. It’s not.” It is unclear what Russia’s position is on Syria.
Russia has an alliance with Iran, however this relationship is being tested by the arguably pro-Russian Trump administration. It is widely believed that Iran helps support the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, just north of Israel. If Russia were to invade Syria no one is sure who would govern a failed Syrian state in a power vacuum. Ross wavered on predicting exactly what would happen in Syria after ISIS and/or Assad is defeated. He did claim the Russians will need Shia manpower to defeat the insurgency because Syria’s standing army is shrinking rapidly.
Shifting the focus to other countries in the Middle East, there are also proxy wars in Iraq between the Saudis, Yemen’s and Iranians. Six years later, Egypt is still suffering from the Arab Spring revolution. Ross stressed “we cannot afford Egypt to become a failed or failing state.”
Israel is literally and figuratively in the middle of all of these conflicts. For arguably the first time in their nation’s history, Israel’s location and presence in the region puts them at an advantage. In the past couple of months, we have heard reports of the Gulf States and other Arab nations in the Middle East having intense secret discussions with Israel. Publicly, every Arab nation will have a negative rhetoric against Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved. However, it makes sense that privately the Gulf States are working in conjunction with the Knesset and the IDF to protect themselves from instability.
Israel is the only free democratic nation in the Middle East. The Israeli Defense Force is the most powerful and professional military in the region. The Gulf States realize that Israel is the one country keeping the Middle East from fracturing into a multisided global war.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates thrive on the protection that Israel provides to the region. The two countries along with other Gulf States want to extract more oil, expanding their economies and influence in global politics.
A stable Middle East is essential for the continued success of the Gulf States. The oil rich countries need to protect their assets worth trillions of dollars, and the only way to do so is to support a powerful and non invasive Israeli military.
Despite what many think, Israel has crucial allies in the Middle East. Everyone, including a majority of Israelis, want to see the conflict in the West Bank be resolved peacefully for all parties involved. However, it’s important to realize that any negotiation promoting a two-state solution will need to be shelved until the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are resolved.
This is the first installment of Corey Gary’s coverage of Dennis Ross’ discussion at Indiana University on March 22, 2017.