As diplomats, rebel leaders and other officials meet in Switzerland to try to find a way to end the war in Syria and instability continues to plague countries including Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, people around the world could be forgiven for assuming the entire Middle East is consumed by violence and chaos. But there is one startling exception: Israel, whose current security situation is arguably as good as it has been for years. Far and near — north, south, east and west — analysts both inside and outside government say things are going very well for Israel lately. So well, in fact, that the run of positive developments is creating pressure on the country’s leaders to spend some capital by taking a bold risk to solidify Israel’s security, perhaps in the ongoing talks with the Palestinians.
“Things are good,” says Joshua Teitelbaum, a historian at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. Adds Max Singer, co-founder of the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. and a colleague at the Begin-Sadat Center: “All the enemies are busy fighting among themselves.”
Far: The major strategic threat facing Israel remains the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. But it’s a threat nearly the entire world has joined forces to prevent, and appears to have successfully put on hold for the time being. The pressure from outside powers may have helped encourage Iranians to vote for a president who ran on a platform of moderation and a commitment to freeze portions of Tehran’s nuclear program while talks proceed toward an agreement. And while the odds of reaching a final pact may be long, the interim accord has value if it’s enforced, according to Anthony H. Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. After studying the annex to the agreement detailing its implementation, Cordesman wrote.: “Iran will not be able to develop and deploy functioning uranium nuclear weapons.”
Near: Syria’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons — though used against rebels in the country’s horrific civil war — were assembled with Israel in mind. After Israeli forces repeatedly defeated Syria’s conventional forces over the years, the Assad regime invested massively in unconventional weapons, placing banned munitions at the core of its military doctrine. Their orderly destruction by U.N. inspectors, which followed President Obama’s threat of airstrikes, is the most significant gain for Israeli security in years, if not decades, according to analysts. Already Israel’s home-front command is moving to end the distribution of gas masks. “Huge, huge, huge,” says Teitelbaum.
North: The war in Syria has also severely degraded the regime’s conventional military, which had been the most formidable facing Israel. At the same time, the sectarian nature of the fighting erodes the credibility of what Israeli intelligence calls “the pro-Iranian Axis.” The Shi’ite militia Hizballah, created by Iran to fight Israel in Lebanon, now has to explain to the Muslim world why it is heavily deployed in Syria fighting Sunnis. “Iran and its proxies lost a lot of points for their involvement inside Syria,” says a senior officer in Israeli military intelligence, speaking on condition of anonymity.
South: Saudi Arabia, long numbered among the more moderate Arab states where Israel is concerned, has grown more so since Washington engaged with Iran, Riyadh’s primary rival in the region. “A situation has been created in which Israel’s interests greatly overlap with those Arab states that belong to the moderate Sunni world, particularly the Persian Gulf states,” former chief of military intelligence Amos Yadlin wrote in an overview published earlier this month in the weekly newspaper Sof Hashavua. Analysts describe the alignment as tectonic — below the surface, but extremely significant.
West: The coup of July 3 that deposed the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt removed an unfriendly (albeit democratically elected) government in the Arab world’s most populous nation. It also restored the Egyptian security state that Israel knows and likes. The generals trained their guns on jihadists roaming the Sinai peninsula that borders Israel and — even more significantly — abruptly sealed off the powerful Hamas movement that governs the Gaza Strip, home to 1.6 million Palestinians. Hamas now faces a level of hostility from Egypt even longtime President Hosni Mubarak never dared: “Gaza is next,” Reuters quoted a senior Egyptian security official as saying last week. “We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders.” Even before that turn of events, Hamas had been chastened by Israel’s last sustained assault on the enclave, in November 2012. The 12 months that followed were the quietest there in more than a decade.
East: The Cairo coup also revived the fortunes of the Palestinian moderates who rule the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who also heads the secular Fatah party, keeps Israel’s eastern flank quiet by coordinating anti-terror efforts with Jerusalem. Also strengthened was King Abdullah of Jordan, whose regime ended up being stabilized by events beyond its borders, including the discrediting of the Brotherhood as a political force. “The monarchy is quite stable,” says the Israeli intelligence officer, admiringly. “The Jordanian regime is quite sophisticated in adjusting itself to the challenges.”
Israel’s situation, though, is certainly not serene. However distracted Hizballah may be in Syria, it still has perhaps 100,000 missiles on Israel’s northern border, some capable of reaching Tel Aviv. In Gaza, Hamas has 10,000 rockets of its own. And of the approximately 100,000 rebels fighting in Syria, a third are thought to be jihadis affiliated to al-Qaeda.
But analysts say all those threats are manageable. On balance so many developments moved Israel’s way in recent months that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming under pressure to exploit Israel’s strong position. Yadlin, who as military intelligence chief advised Netnayahu, ended his published assessment of Israel’s security by declaring: “The price of refraining from decisions is higher than the risk of making them. The regional conditions, which improved the balance of power between [Israel] and its neighbors, enable it to take risks that it did not take in the past.”
What sort of risks? Analysts say the logical move is in the ongoing peace talks with the Palestinians, where any kind of agreement would relieve international diplomatic pressure on Israel over its 46-year occupation of Palestinian territories. “I think over time, Israel’s presence in the West Bank makes things harder for Israel,” says Teitelbaum, the historian. Singer blames the continued occupation on what he considers Palestinian intransigence but says the occupation fuels the effort to “de-legitimize” Israel as a state, a campaign he calls the country’s most serious long-term threat.
This could be where the Saudis come in. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is using Riyadh’s 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which promises Israel recognition from every Muslim country, as a guide in the current talks. Its introduction was essentially sabotaged by Iran-funded Hamas, which took responsibility for one of the most notorious suicide bombings of the Second Intifada on the day the initiative was unveiled. Thus would a diplomatic breakthrough shared with the Saudis serve to boost everyone except Iran and its allies. “Are there going to be a series of quiet understandings between Israel and the Saudis? That’s the big question,” says Gabriel Ben-Dor, who heads the national security studies center at the University of Haifa.
“I think the historical moment is here in a sense,” Ben-Dor says. “As the commonality of interests between Israel and the Gulf States and Egypt grows greater, it might be worth taking steps on the Palestinian front that otherwise wouldn’t be justified, in order to cultivate and cement relationships that are crucial to Israeli national security. I think this is what John Kerry is pushing.”
Netanyahu, who would have to make the leadership decision on any pact, says he’s taking the Kerry talks seriously. “I’m committed to achieving this peace,” he told foreign reporters at a belated New Year’s gathering on Jan. 16. “And I’m committed to keeping Israel safe, and free and innovative. And I hope that when we meet next year, I’ll have some good news for you.”