Shifts and challenges: Diplomatic and military arenas in the Middle East
Saudi Arabia is expected to host the 32nd summit of the League of Arab States in Riyadh on May 19, 2023. In preparation, Saudi Arabia has taken on a new leading role in Middle East diplomacy.
In the past, Saudi Arabia was embroiled in controversies with Iran and Arab states. Now, having solved many of those problems, the Saudis are positioning themselves, once again, to lead the Arab world. The recent Saudi rapprochement with Iran, brokered by China, has kicked off a series of diplomatic advances. The Saudi’s hosted U.S Senator Lindsey Graham before his visit to Israel. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently met with Jordanian King Abdullah in Jeddah. The Saudi foreign minister met with Syrian officials in Damascus. There have also been official meetings with Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Riyadh. The Saudis continue in their relationship with Abraham Accords countries, without a public hand extended to Israel. And, the latest report is that Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in holding talks with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
It would not be surprising to see a new Saudi Peace Initiative come forth, next month, at the Arab League summit, considering that the Saudi Peace Initiative of 2002 is outdated, and was a non-starter for Israel to begin with. What the Saudis may introduce at the May summit could have the backing of most of the Arab world, due to their new rapprochement with Arab states. This presents a problem for the current Israeli government, especially for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants to make peace with Saudi Arabia, but not at the expense of giving up land for peace with the Palestinians.
The Saudis have already declared that to enter into a peace agreement with Israel, certain demands must be met. One of those is Israel’s acceptance of a two-state solution based on a full withdrawal to the 1967 borders. The current U.S. Biden Administration has been pushing for a restart in negotiations, as has Jordan’s King Abdullah. Several Arab states have also been looking for a way to relaunch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Chinese are willing to broker this deal, as well.
All players, however, including the U.S. and Arab states, could try and push Israel into a future peace conference in order to establish an Arab route to peace with the Palestinians, that would pass through Saudi Arabia, with the full support of the Abraham Accords nations. Yet, if it comes to that, Israel does not do well at peace conferences. The 1991 Madrid peace conference was considered a gain for the Palestinians and a loss for Israel.
Meanwhile, the new Arab diplomatic track seems to be a distraction from Israel’s military concerns which involve getting nations on-board to help defend Israel, if Iran is soon able to build a nuclear weapon. The window of opportunity to stop Iran, with the full backing of the United States, is closing fast.
Israel’s Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen traveled, recently, to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan — two countries closest, geographically, to Iran. Israel set up a new embassy in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, located only 17 km from the Iranian border. It sent a strong message to Iran in its chess game with Israel, that Israel has new friends who can take substantive action against the regime in Tehran, if needed.
While Iran is looking for new allies in the Arab world, Israel is finding new allies in Central Asia. The question is: What is causing this continued reshuffling of regional alliances?
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, an analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), spoke to this writer, about new diplomatic initiatives coming from Israel’s neighbors. “This is all in the context of what is happening with the Iranian nuclear project. If the Iranians will behave in a way that would force Israel to do something about the project; or force the Americans to do something about the project; then, everybody wants to be best prepared for that eventuality.”
Kuperwasser suggests that there is a change in the balance of the architecture in the Middle East, especially in how these powers communicate with each other. “The architecture has changed. They were enemies and foes. All of a sudden, they became friendly.”
In the short term, and perhaps the long term, Kuperwasser believes that it pacifies all kinds of potential confrontations and conflicts in the region. “It makes it look as if there are going to be more difficulties in promoting the former change in the architecture, which was favorable to Israel — the Abraham Accords.”
Now, that the Saudis have moved in this direction towards Iran, while settling disputes with other regional players, it seems that it is going to be a harder road for Israel, especially if the Saudi’s engage in negotiations with Hezbollah – Iran’s proxy and Israel’s formidable enemy.
Speaking of the Iranians, Kuperwasser admits, “They can get what they want which is regional hegemony, even before they get the nuclear project finished.”
Meanwhile, the military landscape is shifting. A direct military assault on Israel during Passover week, involved multiple fronts – Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, where rockets were launched against the Jewish State. Kuperwasser said this was a test by Israel’s enemies. “What we are witnessing is an attempt to check the possibility of changing the rules of the game.”
In the past, the rules of the game in the north have been that Israel does not attack targets in Lebanon, and Lebanon does not attack targets in Israel. In Syria, these same rules have been recognized — that Iran and Hezbollah may try to deliver weapons to Lebanon, but Israel can attack convoys on the way. Israel’s enemies only occasionally try to retaliate.
The rules of the game in regard to the Palestinians have been that Israel fights Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza when they launch rockets from Gaza. Furthermore, Israel fights Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) because they continue to carry out terror attacks against Israel from there. Israel will not allow the Palestinians to dictate where the IDF will retaliate, and against which groups.
Kuperwasser says that some of Israel’s enemies have not been happy with these rules. “We managed to hit them very hard in Syria. They cannot retaliate. We can take all kinds of actions against the terror groups in Judea and Samaria. They find it hard to have the impact they want through terrorism.”
In attempting to change the rules of the game, last month, a Hezbollah terrorist breached Israel’s border with Lebanon, and got as far as the Megiddo junction where he set off an explosion, and then was neutralized by Israel. This was a bold attempt by Hezbollah to change the rules using Lebanese territory to carry out attacks inside Israel.
According to Kuperwasser, “What we are saying is, no change in the rules of the game.” After Israel was attacked on several fronts, the IDF responded by choosing which front and which terrorists to go after.
Kuperwasser acknowledged that Israel did not have enough targets of terrorists in Lebanon that the IDF wanted to pinpoint, so they went after Hamas in Gaza. Israel also confronted Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well.
While analysts indicate that Israel’s deterrence may have been challenged in these recent border attacks, its military strengths have not been damaged. The greatest concern is the impression of Israel’s enemies… that the nation is not as strong as it could be, mainly because of internal strife.
How Israel handles the government protests, while maintaining its qualitative military edge, is an increased challenge. Iran reportedly flew weapons into Aleppo under the cover of earthquake relief. Iran is now focused on a new proxy presence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Iran is looking to keep Israel in a defensive posture, expecting to bring a future conflict onto Israeli soil. Iran has a new strategy to unify its various proxies in a new multi-front force for Israel to contend with.
Israel needs to focus its diplomatic and military energies on not allowing Iran to take over the Middle East, while, also limiting the distractions of Israel’s current domestic conflict over judicial reform.