As Israel enters yet another round of peace negotiations with Palestinians, the fundamental concern that will guide its decision-making is security. And that’s one issue that creates a quandary unique to this moment in history.
Israel has arguably never been safer than today. At the same time, the country’s strategic position beyond this moment looks hazier than ever.
Israel’s enemies have, for the moment, set aside the obsessive attention they normally expend on the Jewish state and have focused on more urgent matters of revolution and civil war. For its foes, Israel is a secondary issue right now. That provides a measure of security, however temporary.
Today, the Arab Middle East, Israel’s neighborhood, is in turmoil, distracted from its anti-Israel sentiment. Iran, meanwhile, has seen its principal allies, Syria and Hezbollah, coming under enormous pressure. but Hamas is weaker than ever. Syria is self-destructing. The Muslim Brotherhood is on its heels. As a result, Israel is the quietest, most stable, safest country in the region. But in the region more broadly, the only certainty is change.
The extent of Israel’s willingness to compromise with Palestinians will be determined in part by how its leaders perceive the state’s strategic position in the midst of this paradox. If Israel is safer than ever, and they believe this is a relatively long term condition, the idea of withdrawing Israeli forces from the West Bank and letting the territory come under the control of a new country, the not particularly friendly or strong Arab country of Palestine, will seem a more tolerable risk. If, on the other hand, Israeli leaders view the country as encircled by an increasingly threatening maelstrom, they and the Israeli population — which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises will have a vote on any deal — will become more resistant to risky withdrawals.
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From the day of its founding, the Jewish state has faced complicated security challenges. Every major political, diplomatic and military move has been viewed as potentially life-and-death decision. A mistake, Israelis believe, could lead to the end of their country. For decades polls have shown a majority of Israelis support the creation of Palestinian state. Underneath that support, however, lies a gnawing fear about whether a Palestinian state would become a base of operations against Israel, and potentially a key player if a major war breaks out, or if Iran attacks.
Israel’s strategic position has already been transformed. On the northern border — Syria, a country with which Israel has fought several wars and is still technically at war — President Bashar al-Assad is in the midst of a brutal civil war. The conflict has left more than 100,000 Syrians dead. It has also torn the country apart, decimating Assad’s military machine. Assad’s forces obviously measure up to the opposition, but undoubtedly two years of fighting has degraded the Syrian army, with countless losses of armament and personnel.
The decision by Lebanon’s Iran-backed militia Hezbollah — one of Israel’s most bitter foes — to jump into the Syrian fray on Assad’s side has also exacted an enormous cost. Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah concluded that Assad’s fall would be catastrophic for his organization. By openly siding with Assad, he destroyed the group’s once-mighty reputation in the Arab world. His participation has helped Assad stop rebel advances in Syria, but it is killing scores of Hezbollah fighters, using up their weapons stockpiles, and sharply eroding their support in and out of Lebanon.
Another militia that has fought open warfare with Israel, the Palestinian group Hamas, which rules the Gaza strip, has seen its strategic position crumble as a side-effect of the Arab uprisings.
Hamas is a Palestinian outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Muslim Brotherhood parties started winning the first wave of post-uprising elections, Hamas greeted the development with jubilation. But practically everything has gone wrong for Hamas since then.
Hamas expected that the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his replacement with a Brotherhood-dominated government would bring an open border between Gaza and Egypt. Instead, the Egyptian military, even under the now-deposed Mohammed Morsi, flooded the smuggling tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai desert. When Egyptian soldiers started getting killed in the Sinai, the pressure on Gaza and Hamas increased.
Things have only gotten worse for Hamas from there. Now Egypt is under the rule of the profoundly anti-Brotherhood army. A large segment of the population shares the sentiment, and many blame Hamas at least partly for Egypt’s troubles.
Making matters worse, Hamas’s decision to move away from Syria’s Assad when it looked like he was about to fall cost the group the vital support of Damascus and Tehran. Hamas is now left without a patron and has greater difficulties rearming. Israelis worried about the rise of the Brotherhood, but for now that fear has generally abated. The Brotherhood is fighting for its life in Egypt and is under pressure elsewhere in the region.
The shape, the attitude, and the ideology of the Arab states that will emerge in the coming years, unknowable today, will go a long way in determining Israel’s security situation, creating a particular challenge for military and political strategists — and for peace negotiations.
Syria, which holds massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, may come apart. It could become a failed state, with jihadi enclaves dominated by ideologues with sharply anti-Western, anti-Israel views, just across the border from Israel. Assad’s fall could bring a moderate democracy, but it could just as easily bring something much more ominous.
Egypt is still in play, and the only other Arab country with which Israel has a peace treaty, Jordan, is hardly a sea of tranquility.
Israel’s greatest security worry, however, lies further East, in Iran. President Hassan Rouhani has raised hopes in some quarters that a deal with the West could at last be reached ending nuclear enrichment. But, in fact, Iran may have just bought itself more time to move ahead with the banned program. The outrageous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has moved off the scene, bringing an end to the most incendiary rhetoric, but the real power in Iran rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose viscerally anti-Israel views remain unchanged.
The relationship between uranium-enriching Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, just across the border from Israel, is as close as ever, and Hezbollah continues to desire Israel’s destruction.
As they scan the horizon and consider their choices in talks with Palestinians, Israeli strategists will have to weight countless unknowns and decide how to make the most of this period during which Israel is, in fact, safer than it has ever been. Even if the future looks unclear, there is no better place from which to negotiate than from a position of maximum strength. The real goal is finding the best way to make security permanent.