It’s the balance of power, stupid!

Israel may be afraid that Iran is acquiring a nuclear bomb, but what its leadership is even more afraid of is the changing Balance of Power in the Middle East.

When the Middle East erupted into chaos in the Spring of 2011, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu warned the world to curb its enthusiasm, predicting that the Arab revolutions would most likely turn out to mirror the one in Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would be Islamic, anti-Western and most importantly, anti-Israel. Since that time, Netanyahu continues to remind the world that he was right and that his warnings have been fulfilled. The Arab transitions, he claims, are neither democratic nor peaceful and the Arab spring has turned into an “Arab winter.” While the recent anti-Western violence across the Arab and Muslim world may have partially confirmed Netanyahu’s gravest predictions, it is far from clear what kind of long-run impact the possible failure of Arab democracies would have on the region in general, and on Israel in particular.

I would like to argue that neither the rogue violence coming from the Arab world, nor Iran’s possible acquiring of nuclear weapons present much of a threat to Israel’s ability to defend itself. Even if Israel has a lot to lose if Islamic regimes that are openly hostile to Israel continue replace the “stable” dictators, what really threatens Israel’s long-term security is the changing balance of power in the region and the possible decline of U.S. power. Such a decline and subsequent retreat would reduce Israel’s maneuverability and hurt its ability to project a credible deterrence capacity in its neighborhood. Much of Israel’s foreign policy at the moment could in fact be explained by a desperate attempt to halt or even reverse such a U.S. decline.

The current balance of power in the Middle East is a remnant of the bipolar superpower rivalry during the Cold war. The two superpowers provided enough arms and support to their allies to maintain a credible deterrence that kept the balance stable. For Israel, such an arrangement was both comforting and practical; at the end of the day, U.S. support was guaranteed, not just because the U.S. was a long-time ally but rather, because maintaining the power balance in the Middle East was in the U.S. interest. It could be argued that initially not much changed with the fall of the Soviet Union. Realpolitik lived on with the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East because it provided a good excuse for the Arab leaderships to keep the people in check and the Islamists at bay. For the West and for Israel, such a system was predictable and convenient. With the rise of people’s power that predictability has gone; something that is all too evident with the current anti-western violent outbursts.

Israel’s reaction to the Arab spring as well as to the more recent developments in the region has been almost entirely skeptical. Initially, as protesters filled Tahrir square in January 2011, Netanyahu called his Western Ambassador’s together and told them to emphasize the stability of the old regimes. As the Obama administration eventually came out in support of the protesters, Israeli right-wing leaders and intellectuals could not hide their disappointment, explaining that it was a big mistake for the U.S. to “abandon their friends,” proving only that the U.S. was losing power and could no longer stand up for its “allies.” The most recent attempts of Israel to get the U.S. to commit to red lines with respect to the Iranian nuclear issue has elicited criticism from U.S. policymakers who have accused Israel of saber rattling and “crying wolf.”

For the United States its power is a tool in the pursuit of its national interest which, regardless of whether or not its power is in decline, is changing. The end of the dictators means the end of predictable distrust among Middle Eastern regimes and the need for the West to open up multiple tracks of diplomacy with Arab societies. The emerging regional structure, where power alignments are still taking shape, looks a little like a micro-cosmos of Waltz’s famous pool-table scenario albeit potentially much messier and more volatile than that between the superpowers during the Cold War. Because while the Arab states are still militarily strong, they are far from unitary, and they are also far from the only actors on the scene. The fact that the U.S. now needs to normalize its relationship with a number of Middle Eastern political and religious groups simultaneously may thus not be a sign of impending weakness, but rather, an indication that the U.S. recognizes that the Middle Eastern landscape has changed and that it would be a tactical mistake to categorize all actors in black or white terms.

In order to understand why the projection of U.S. strength is so crucial for Israel at this time, you have to put yourself in Israel’s shoes; there are many things in the immediate neighborhood that could still get a lot worse. A number of Arab states in the region have not yet been affected by populist uprisings, most markedly two that are crucial for both regional stability and Israel’s security; Jordan and Saudi-Arabia. Should violence spread to those two states, Israel’s security situation may change overnight. While an overthrow of the Saudi Arabian regime would have wide-ranging implications for the entire world, a fall of the Hashemite Kingdom may have direct implications for Israel’s domestic situation due to Jordan’s large Palestinian population. While the Syrian situation has remained largely peripheral for Israeli policy makers thus far, Israel’s non-involvement would drastically change should there be signs that the chemical weapons depots in Syria risk falling into the hands of the Hezbollah. Most likely, such a development would spark an Israeli intervention for which they would seek U.S. and international support.

On the Southern front, Egyptian democracy is far from guaranteed and the Muslim brotherhood is struggling to contain anti-Israel violence and keep the Sinai free from terrorists. In the long run however, what may be even more worrying to Israel with regard to Egypt is the classical Persian-Arab rivalry and the fear that Egypt will begin arming itself with more destructive weaponry to match those of Tehran. Although the Egyptian military still seems to be firmly in control, Egypt is a very volatile place and the Arab street is both anti-Israel and anti-Western.

For Israel, if all of these scenarios combine into some kind of giant nightmare, the most important thing is that the U.S. still has its back. Israeli leaders understand the need for the U.S. administration to reach out to Arab leaders in order to protect its own interests (such as the need to keep a steady oil supply), and they are afraid that in the future, saving Israel will not be prioritized over a plethora of other important future American foreign policy goals, especially at the cost of another overseas military engagement. Thus, for the Israeli leadership, one way to guarantee continued U.S. investment in future Israeli defense would be to force the American administration into a war against Iran. The calls for red lines are therefore attempts by Israeli leaders to get the Obama administration to commit to an ultimatum against Iran that it will be unable to walk away from. Ideally for Israel, the U.S. would attack first, leaving Israel to play a supporting role.

Some interpreted Bibi’s United Nations speech as a sign that Israeli leaders have reconciled themselves with focusing on sanctions rather than military strike for the most immediate future. However, it is easy to see Israel’s dilemma. Even the worst case scenario, where a military strike would fail to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity and result in disastrous retaliations against Israeli population centers, would be better for Israel than a weakening US-Israeli alliance.

The U.S. is hopefully once and for all moving away from the time when alliances could be vested solely in corrupt friendly dictators, and we would like to think that such a choice comes not only because of a loss of American power but also because of a better understanding of the consequences of its past mistakes. However, for Israel, a more diverse and multi-faceted U.S. policy towards the Middle East means less ability to count on American support on all matters on the Israeli foreign policy—and domestic—agenda. In order to stave off long-term disaster, Israel may thus need to do some strategic and tactical thinking that includes changing its image within its own neighborhood. While there are many things Israel is unable to change given the present climate in the Middle East, dealing with one issue in particular—the Palestinian issue—could set Israel on the right path and possibly lower the toxicity of its image in the Arab world.

About the Author
Tova Norlen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, Switzerland, working on issues relating to international security, Middle East/Israel, conflict management and US foreign policy. She has a PhD in international relations and conflict management from the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies in Washington DC, and has worked for several years teaching International relations and related subjects in Southern California.
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