Elephants in the Room
Will the U.S. Embassy’s Move to Jerusalem Matter?
Israel currently sits athwart two countervailing strategic trends.
The White House’s announcement today that the United States will be recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and potentially moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is commanding headlines and provoking consternation from some Middle Eastern leaders (for a balanced articulation of the many nuances and ramifications of this issue, see this insightful assessment by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky). As newsworthy as the Jerusalem announcement may be, will it be strategically significant, either in the immediate or long term?
I have just returned from a brief trip to Israel as part of a small bipartisan delegation of former American policymakers, ably organized and sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) American Israel Education Foundation. We met with a broad array of current and former Israeli officials and scholars. As others who have visited Israel know, discussions with Israeli policymakers, military and intelligence leaders, journalists, and scholars are often illuminating not just about dynamics within the country but also about the broader region. Israelis are among the most perceptive and insightful observers of trends in the Middle East. Of course, for them knowing what is going on in their neighborhood is not just a matter of intellectual curiosity but of national security and even survival.
My principle takeaway from our many interlocutors is that Israel currently sits athwart two countervailing strategic trends. Which of these trends becomes more dominant will do much to shape Israel’s future, and in turn will be a leading indicator of the ramifications of President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision. On one hand, Israel stands at its strongest position ever in the broader region. Its rapprochement with Sunni Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates is being translated into deep military, intelligence, and diplomatic cooperation, primarily directed against their shared enemies of Iran and militant jihadi groups such as the Islamic State. There are even whispered speculations that de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman might take a page from former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic playbook and make his most audacious gambit yet by visiting Israel. In short, Israel appears to be in the midst of a diplomatic revolution in which its previous mortal enemies now stand as friends. The proverbial ancient, intractable religious and cultural hatreds that have been so tiresomely invoked to explain (and sometimes rationalize) Arab hostility to Israel turn out to be rather tractable and even transient in the face of geopolitical interests and security concerns.
Meanwhile, Israel’s global position is quietly but measurably improving as well. A combination of diplomatic outreach, converging economic values, and the growing ideological exhaustion of the developing world’s endemic hostility to Israel is leading to substantially improved relations with nations such as Mexico, India, South Africa, and numerous other African and Latin American countries. Against this backdrop, Israel’s perennial diplomatic isolation within the United Nations might be giving way to a few more friends. If such regional and global trends continue, the potential negative fallout of the Jerusalem announcement will be minimal, especially as Israel’s new partners among the Arab states take a more strategic perspective on their shared interests.
The other trend is more ominous. The threats at Israel’s immediate borders are acute and growing. In the south, Gaza appears to be in the midst of a burgeoning humanitarian and security crisis, with massive electricity and water shortages, and an almost complete breakdown in the already strained utilities and services. The potential for a social implosion and accompanying outbreak of Hamas attacks on Israel is real and worrisome. Those holding the primary leverage over Gaza’s plight appear to be Egypt and the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank, both of whom want to apply maximal pressure on Hamas but appear less concerned about the humanitarian costs of this squeeze. In the north, Israel’s small borders with Lebanon and Syria contain large threats. On the Lebanon side, Hezbollah has substantially expanded its rocket and missile arsenal to some 120,000 projectiles while continuing its vile practice of hiding its weaponry in residences and using civilians as human shields. On the Syria side, the continuing fallout from the Syrian civil war poses multiple threats, especially the prospect of Iran establishing a permanent military and intelligence presence from which to terrorize Israel. Finally, to Israel’s east in the West Bank, a major concern is the political uncertainty of the Palestinian Authority leadership, with the octogenarian Mahmoud Abbas now in the eleventh year of a four-year term and no designated successor in sight. As precarious as these fronts are, a failure to deftly manage the announcement on Jerusalem could further inflame existing tensions.
Looming over Israel’s security in the region, and looming over virtually all of our meetings, was Iran. Notwithstanding the Iran nuclear deal’s temporary slowing of the Iranian nuclear program, Tehran has been emboldened by its windfall of unfrozen assets and new commercial investments. It has stepped up its malevolent activities in other domains, including terrorism, ballistic missiles, and covert and overt campaigns to destabilize numerous governments in the region and bring them into Iran’s orbit. All of these activities pose considerable risks for Israel. And Tehran’s steady stream of threats and fulminations against Israel makes clear that the Islamic Republic remains committed to Israel’s destruction.
The other consistent theme we heard concerned Russia’s re-emergence as a dominant power in the region. After Sadat expelled Russian forces from Egypt in 1973, Russia had not had a significant presence in the Middle East until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power. Just as Putin hoped, Russia’s gambit has reshaped perceptions well beyond Syria, and we heard consistently how Russia is now perceived in the region as an agenda setter and power player. This may turn out to be one of those strategic shifts that was rather underappreciated at the time but in history will appear of profound consequence. In terms of diplomatic prowess, military power, and intelligence footprint, the United States is still the most influential outside power in the region, and across all of those domains U.S. presence outstrips Russia. But in the Middle East, perceptions matter as much as material power metrics, and the perceptions are of Moscow’s ascendance. This is an unhappy legacy of the Obama administration, and one that thus far the Trump administration shows little sign of reversing.
Finally, in this centenary of the Balfour Declaration and 70th anniversary of the United Nations resolution establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, it bears noting again what an astonishing achievement the Israelis have wrought in the ensuing years. Few countries could have survived the obstacles that Israel faced, let alone thrived to become such an influential and capable nation. From a small and relatively barren strip of land, threatened and not infrequently attacked for decades from every direction by enemies sworn to its destruction, perennially besieged in multilateral fora, the Israelis have forged a vibrant, multiethnic democracy and flourishing economy, with a capable military and intelligence services that are the envy of the region. Some seven decades after its nativity, Israel remains a valuable and worthy ally for the United States, and a nation to admire in its own right.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.