From Fall 2016 Print Edition, “Transitions”
If you’ve been following the news in the Middle East, you have probably noticed a popular trend in the region — instability. Since the 2010 eruption of the Arab spring in Tunisia, political unrest has shaken most of the countries of the Middle East. Currently four countries — Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya — are caught in bloody civil wars, which have created a ripple effect of instability across the region. As the conflicts wear on, the Arab world has become increasingly divided along sectarian lines. The Arab nationalism that once had a uniting element within the region has now given way to an “us vs them” mentality. More and more Arabs now see the conflicts through the lens of a Sunni-Shia rivalry, with Saudi Arabia leading the Sunni faction and Iran leading the Shia. This increased tension within the Arab world will have both positive and negative consequences for Israel.
When the Arab Spring first erupted, most Israelis were quite optimistic. Like many others in the world community, they believed that the movement, which called for increased political freedom, would surely lead to a more liberal Middle East, as authoritarian regimes would give way to democratic ones through revolution. However, the Arab Spring has not yielded democratic fruit in any of the countries it has affected, except perhaps in Tunisia. For the most part, Arab regimes have managed to suppress the movement through military force and propaganda.
It is debatable whether the failure of the Arab Spring and the survival of the dictatorships will have positive or negative consequences for Israel. On the one hand, the birth of democratic regimes in the region could have been beneficial to Israel because of what is known as the Democratic Peace Theory — the belief that democracies do not go to war or are much more hesitant to go to war with one another. On the other hand, becoming a democracy does not necessarily make countries more peaceful. It is often the case that traditional societies that transition to democracy will become more belligerent than countries run by dictators, caused mainly by a lack of liberal values and institutions. When I speak of liberalism, I am speaking about basic values such as women rights, acceptance of LGBT, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and promotion of education.
An example of the consequences of a culture that traditionally lacks liberal values adopting democracy would be Hamas’ rise to power in Gaza. Hamas is a terrorist organization that, in 2005, was democratically elected by the Palestinian people in Gaza. Instead of working to improve the lives of the Palestinians under its control, Hamas has made the destruction of Israel its sole mission, rendering any future peace impossible. Since 2005, Israel has had to fight three wars against its democratically elected enemy. It is possible that the rise of more democracies in the region could lead to more conflicts, not less. It is true that dictatorships do not place high value on the welfare of their people and therefore do not care if many of their citizens die in wars; however, at the same time, they will be hesitant to go to war if they believe that a conflict will threaten their hold on power.
A more disturbing trend in the Middle East, however, is the increasing sectarian divide in the region, which has been exacerbated by Saudi Arabia and Iran’s funding and arming of different militant proxy groups. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni Gulf states have seen Iran as a threatening force. They believe that Iran aspires to spread a movement of revolution across the countries of the Middle East, aiming to topple their authoritarian regimes. In order to secure holds on their countries, Sunni regimes have worked on alienating Iran and keeping it weak. However, they feel that the balance of power in the region is shifting away from them and moving toward an increasingly powerful Shia Iran.
Sunni leaders’ fears, in their eyes, have been affirmed by a number of recent developments. The Iranian nuclear deal has lifted the sanctions off of Iran and provided the Shia power with a great deal of capital that it can use to grow its economy and military. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran, was expected to be overthrown by Sunni rebel groups. Instead, he has not only maintained power but is now winning back land with the help of Iranian and Hezbollah troops along with the Russian air force. Iraq has transitioned from being ruled by an anti-Iran Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, to a Shia-dominated democracy, which is accused by many of being another Iranian proxy. In Lebanon, the power of Christians and Sunnis has continued to slip as Hezbollah (an Iranian Shia proxy group) increases its dominance in the country. In response, Saudi Arabia has canceled billions of dollars in military aid.
But arguably the most devastating development for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni neighbors is the American disengagement from the region. Since Obama took office, he made it his policy to bring back as many troops from the Middle East as possible. He has attempted to shrink American dominance and influence in the area — instead focusing more on the politics of the South China Sea. This is bad for Saudi Arabia since for decades they have seen American power as security against the growing aspirations of Iran. As the U.S. moves away from them and improves its ties with Iran, the Saudis will continue to feel less and less safe. Additionally, the Sunni Arab world is not going to feel any better now that the American people have elected Donald Trump as president. Although he is a Republican, his foreign policy is isolationist, which means that he wants to limit American intervention abroad as much as possible.
So what does this increasing insecurity in the Sunni countries of the region mean for Israel? For one, we can expect Sunni governments to become more and more pragmatic and thus cooperative with Israel, as they now see Iran as their biggest enemy — not Israel. Israel and Saudi Arabia now share intelligence with each other on a consistent basis. A new report even suggests that Saudi Arabia offered Israel airspace from which to attack Iranian nuclear installments. However, while the governments are slowly warming up to Israel, we should not expect major changes to occur in the mindsets of the regimes’ citizens. Students in the Arab world are still being educated in anti-Semitic propaganda, and that is not expected to change anytime soon. Mein Kampf and Protocols of the Elders of Zion are both popular in the region, and they are even bestsellers in some of the countries.
The last and most publicized development in the region is the rise of extremism. Currently, Israel’s most dangerous border is with Syria, where al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda, is currently fighting the combined forces of Assad and Hezbollah in the Syrian Civil War. Although the al-Nusra militants are dangerously close to Israel’s border, they have for the most part left Israel alone. In fact, Israel’s only intervention in the Syrian war has been to destroy shipments of arms that were being transported to Hezbollah. It is hard to predict the future actions of terrorist groups because their ambitions and abilities continually shift, but as long as they are under attack from the U.S., Russia, Syria, Iran and the Kurds, you can expect them to leave Israel alone for the most part. They prefer to attack areas that are either experiencing a power vacuum, which makes it easy to establish themselves, or countries that are playing an active role in militarily targeting the terrorist group in question. Neither applies to Israel.
The Middle East is in a state of turmoil as different Saudi and Iranian proxy groups battle it out in an attempt to change the balance of power in their favor. Israel’s current, biggest threat is Iran and its proxy group Hezbollah. Currently, they are preoccupied with keeping their ally Assad in power. If the Shia coalition does achieve this goal, and the Sunni world continues to lose its power — partly due to the drop in the price of oil — Iran and Hezbollah will have more flexibility in pursuing an offensive against their main enemy, Israel. Ironically, it is in Israel’s best interest that their Gulf state frenemies remain in power to keep Iran and its proxies preoccupied.
For now, however, the biggest factor in deciding on how the next decade will play out for Israel is the involvement of the U.S. in the region. Will America restore its dominance in the Middle East, or will it slowly leave that part of the world to its own demise?