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Israel and the geopolitics of the Middle East

israel

Israel is one of the most controversial countries in the world, and it is certainly difficult to talk about it without reference to war, religion or political conflict. However, beyond the partial and distorted image it presents of this country as part of a warlike confrontation perceived as unequal and unfair, we find a diverse, dynamic, supportive and complex society that maintains an unbreakable link with the past and tradition while firmly committed to the future; a society characterised by its creativity, its firm will to overcome, a vitality that is reflected in the enormous scientific and artistic production and by a firm commitment to democracy and respect for individual freedoms in line with the most ancient traditions.

Many are the Israeli inventions that are being incorporated into our daily lives, from computers to robotics, cyber security, aeronautics, agriculture, efficient water management, the search for alternative energies or medical research and biotechnology. In this respect, Israel is also beginning to be a point of reference for its Middle Eastern neighbours, who foresee that economic development and what is known as Economic Intelligence could be the key to the necessary change of paradigm in this troubled region. 

Las banderas nacionales de Bahrein, los Emiratos Árabes Unidos, Israel y los Estados Unidos se proyectan en los muros de la Ciudad Vieja de Jerusalén el 15 de septiembre de 2020
REUTERS/RONEN ZVULUN  The national flags of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and the United States are projected on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem on 15 

The Middle East, which has been a focus of rivalry and conflict for centuries, a meeting place for Europe, Africa and Asia and a passage for rapid access to its resources through the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, is facing political, economic, social and environmental challenges with no hope of change in the short term in most of the region. The sense of vulnerability is heightened in this area where history determines geopolitics, as we contemplate the nature of mutating relationships and increasingly liquid alliances between traditionally rival actors. Attempting to address the strategies that dominate in a region where political and religious aspects condition the reality of an environment in which centrifugal forces and parastatal actors also compete for regional hegemony is an ambitious task.

In this new geopolitical design of the Middle East that we are witnessing, which is still very volatile and unpredictable, Israel's role as a military power and its economic and technological model is awakening curiosity about the possibility of replicating its ecosystem in other geographical environments that seek to diversify their economies, bet on industrialization and want to bring a plus of quality to their country brand. Israel is a country which, despite being geographically anchored in the Middle East, has managed to interweave positively with the culture, education, sciences and economy of Western countries, which has enabled it to implement internal and external policies that have facilitated its inclusion in the dynamics of the global economy, especially in areas where Israelis in general, and Jews in particular, are more sensitive, such as high technology, scientific development and innovation. With a small territory - barely 22,072 sq km -, a population of nearly nine million, no natural resources and surrounded by a vulnerable geopolitical environment, this small state has had to concentrate on developing and enhancing its human talent if it is to survive.

And it is precisely the conviction of Israel's military strength, the collision of the Sunni-Chii axis precipitated by the Syrian war, concern about the threat of the global Jihad, the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the geopolitics of gas and hydrocarbons-particularly the reserves discovered in the eastern Mediterranean in 2009-that is changing a geopolitical trend of rapprochement that is strategic in principle, but which, beyond the deterrent and containment effect vis-à-vis Iran, may have a positive long-term impact in the area of 'soft power' and the change in mentality that is already being witnessed. In geopolitics, the gaps are quickly filled by another that seeks to position itself, whether this is state-owned or not. One factor that cannot be neglected is China's simultaneous advance in the face of the United States' backward step, which began after President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009. 

El presidente iraní Hassan Rouhani
PHOTO/PRSIDENCIA DE IRAN-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

Not only because the Sunni world and Israel, its natural allies, understood at the time that Washington was adjusting its foreign policy towards Iran, but also because the utopian goal of cooperation it was setting coincided with the reduction of its dependence on the hydrocarbon suppliers of the Middle East and Africa. It is estimated that by 2035 95% of oil and gas exports from the MENA region will flow to the emerging Asia-Pacific countries, led by China.

This trend implies a geopolitical change in Israel's status in the Middle East and in the Arab-Israeli conflict. China's rapprochement with Iran, embodied in the recent Integrated Strategic Partnership Agreement, in which China will invest $400 billion over 25 years, has an energy and military component in favourable economic conditions in the long term and will strengthen the regime of the ayatollahs by giving oxygen to their weak economy, but it could also indirectly join the United States in attempting to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East. China's presence in the short term is still far off, and its pragmatic nature makes it a player on the fringes of the strategic confrontation as it also has agreements with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

To understand what is happening now, you have to go back a few years. In mid-November 2017 the AFP news agency (France Press) reported on a significant piece of news of particular long-term significance to the Middle East region: the discreet visit that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is said to have paid to Israel in September. A visit that should not be perceived as abnormal on the international scene and would go unnoticed in any other diplomatic context were it not for the fact that these are two countries that have been officially at war since the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 and because it is a matter that is considered taboo in the region. The fact is that Israel, since its origin as a nation of the Jewish people, is a country in a permanent state of alert. 

El príncipe heredero saudí Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
PHOTO/AGENCIA DE PRENSA SAUDÍ- Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

 The hostility of its neighbours-translating into seven wars, two intifadas, four armed conflicts, over 12,000 rockets, missiles and mortars launched into its territory, over 170 suicide attacks, thousands of successful terrorist attacks and 22,993 soldiers and security personnel killed, not counting civilian casualties-who regard the Jewish state as a colonialist graft in the very heart of the lands of Islam, although it has relaxed in recent times-there are no longer any open wars-has not disappeared. Islamist terrorism, the non-recognition of the State of Israel, the Palestinian conflict and Iranian interference through Hamas and Hezbollah, together with deep anti-Semitism and the aggressive campaign of boycott, delegitimisation and sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel in the international institutions, which are preventing the full normalisation in their geographical area of the only democracy in the Middle East, continue to occupy and concern the political agenda of the successive Israeli cabinets, irrespective of the political colour of the party and coalition in power.  

In fact, the AFP journalist discovered nothing new; he only learned that the reality of the Middle East is complex, that nothing is as it seems and that the discourses that serve to exalt or appease internal public opinion are rather the result of personal leadership strategy calculations that have little to do with state affairs and the interests of a changing geopolitics that is currently being played out in five countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Egypt and Turkey. Silences in this region are as important as what is said and the tone in which it is said, and a self-respecting analyst must learn to interpret them. The religious and nationalist reasons traditionally put forward for opposing Israel and the existence of a Jewish state in the region-which are a factor of constant destabilisation-seem to be giving way to convergence between such radically antagonistic countries: the threat of a common enemy, Iran, and Prince Bin Salman's personal commitment to timidly opening up the Middle East, particularly the Gulf monarchies, to a controlled modernity, by banking on a diversification of its economy without completely renouncing the authoritarian stability particular to the Salafist vision of the world.    

 

: Esta imagen tomada de una transmisión de UNTV de las Naciones Unidas el 29 de septiembre de 2020 muestra al Primer Ministro de Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu,
AFP/ HO/UNTV-his image taken from a UN UNTV broadcast on 29 September 2020 shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a virtual meeting of the UN General Assembly

The Israeli press, which is regarded as one of the freest and most independent in the world, and also one of the most critical, has been sporadically gathering meetings and scores of high-ranking executives and officials from both countries and other Gulf monarchies, including Libya, Algeria, Morocco and other countries considered unfriendly, such as Sudan.

There has been an Israeli trade office in Qatar since 1999 and, before the formalisation of recognition between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain following the signing of the Abraham Agreements on 15 September 2020, it was not uncommon for tourism and business to be conducted between citizens of both countries. Indeed, the first contact with this slow process of normalisation took place in 2002 with the Comprehensive Peace Proposal for the region of Saudi Arabia, and although unfeasible owing to the maximalist terms with which it is presented, it accuses the Arab and Muslim world of being exhausted by the burden of the Palestinian cause.

The turning point in this change will come in 2006, the year of the height of the confrontation between Iran and the international community over the former's nuclear programme and the outbreak of Hezbollah's war against Israel. Implicitly, Egypt and Saudi Arabia aligned themselves with Israel, not out of sympathy but because they perceived, for the first time, the threat that the Shia regime of the ayatollahs posed to the integrity of Lebanon and the stability of the whole region.

The meetings at the highest level are increasing, to the extent that by 2015 the movements that were shaking up the Arab world and the strategies of the countries that aspire to expand their influence, such as Turkey and Iran, were already modifying the geopolitical scenario of the Middle East. Fear of Iran, which despite its economic difficulties was beginning to draw effectively on the Shia Crescent at the hands of General Qassem Soleimani-the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Force al-Quds, which is essential to the international projection of Iranian power abroad and was killed in a surgical attack ordered by the United States on 3 January 2020 near Baghdad airport, is greater than the aversion to Israel, which is why we are witnessing these tectonic movements of accommodation of simultaneous phenomena that converge in the current upheavals in the Arab world and have Israel as their epicentre.     

Una vista muestra el asentamiento israelí de Ariel en la Cisjordania ocupada, el 1 de julio de 2020
AFP/JACK GUEZ-Caption:A view shows the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the occupied West Bank on 1 July 2020

One of the main claims against the State of Israel is that its political presence on the territory of the land of Israel is unnatural, that it does not belong to the region and that it is the work of the colonial powers that redrew the political map of the former Ottoman Empire.

According to this conception, Palestine would always have been an independent Arab entity, showing a fairly simplistic, as well as inaccurate, image of the Middle East's own demography and socio-cultural dynamics. Throughout history, the land of Israel has undergone many changes in population. Campaigns of conquest and successive colonisations have left their demographic mark.

However, the only ethnic factor that has maintained a continuous footprint over time since its arrival 3,000 years ago is the Jewish people. This presence created the basic infrastructure for the Zionist movement to compete with the other nationalisms that, in the moments following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, yearned to establish their own national homes. Israel is not the only country with undefined borders and disputed territories that emerged under these conditions. Without going into the substance of this question, it is necessary to understand this moment because, following the collapse of the traditional colonial empires - Britain and France - after the Second World War, both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that control of the Levant was based on having Israel under its aegis.

Thus, we will see how during the 1948 War of Independence and thereafter, when Israel faced a simultaneous threat on several fronts, the Soviet Union, via Czechoslovakia, is to be Israel's main supplier of arms, in an attempt to penetrate the eastern Mediterranean. Aware that it could lose its autonomy and enter into the orbit of a political model that did not suit it, the Israeli leaders saw in France a sponsor that was not in a position at that time to reduce its strategic autonomy.

However, France's realignment with the Arab world after the Algerian war made Israel a liability and both countries ended their Alliance in 1967. It was the Six-Day War of 1967 that finally decided Israel's alliance with the United States. This alliance was in the interest of the United States, since its strategic imperative was to keep the Soviet navy out of the Mediterranean, or at least to block its access. This meant that Turkey, which controlled the Bosphorus, had to align itself with the United States, a circumstance that left it in a very precarious position: if the Soviets pressed from the north and Syria and Iraq from the south, its fate would be uncertain and the global balance would be at risk. 

In this game of interests, the United States used Iran to entertain Iraq and Israel was useful in dealing with Syria. As long as there was tension with Israel in the south, Syria would not move troops to the north and Turkey would be kept safe. The cost of aligning itself with the United States was not excessively heavy for Israel in those years because, although it felt some limitations, it maintained its total autonomy at home and freedom to pursue its strategic goals. After the 1967 War, Israel's survival would not be threatened again. Nor is the Palestinian uprising a problem from the geopolitical point of view, but rather a matter of internal security. The only serious concern for Israel would be if an external power were to take control of the Mediterranean basin or seek to control the region between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean. So far no power has contemplated such a possibility, though the movements of Turkey, China and Iran should be borne in mind in the future.  

The many conflicts in this region-identitarian, religious, sectarian or territorial-is encased in the bipolar division of the world during the Cold War and has exploded since 2003 with the disintegration of Iraq, the destruction of Syria, the socioeconomic changes that have led to upheavals in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the spread of Jihadism, the rivalry between the Gulf monarchies, the complicated relations with Iran and the entrenched Palestinian problem. The religious element, which is very much present in the discourses of the ideologists of the two main branches of Islam that are at odds with each other-Sunni and Shia-is merely a catalyst for the insecurity caused by the shifts in nationalism. In the Middle East, a strategic act can change all politics, and it is precisely the small states of the Emirates and Bahrain that have torn down the mental iron curtain. The cake-recognition by Saudi Arabians-is about to be served. The Sultanate of Oman, Kuwait and Sudan will be the next sour cherries to adorn it. 

The future of the Middle East, despite the pessimism it generally imprints on analysts in this area, if viewed with strategic and long-term vision, is moderately hopeful. This is not because we are moving towards a New Middle East; that would be to fail to understand the reality of a region in which relations are forged on the basis of tribal loyalties and, therefore, except in Israel, democracy as we know it in the West is unfeasible and impossible, but because we can build a different, pragmatic Middle East with a lasting "hudna".

El Primer Ministro israelí Benjamin Netanyahu, el Presidente de los Estados Unidos Donald Trump
AFP/SAUL LOEB-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan pose from Truman's balcony 

Despite the caution with which the international community must continue to monitor Iran's nuclear programme and the expansion of its regional influence through Hezbollah and the Muslim Brothers, the OPEC oil cartel-which still controls the price of oil but not natural gas-will eventually collapse and with it the political power of the Arab world. The Gulf monarchies know this and have therefore begun to diversify their economies. In view of the lack of water resources and replacement technology, they are looking to Israel for the skills that will enable them to address the transition to modernity without shedding their past, which is clearly perceived as anachronistic in an open world.

The implications are global, not just regional. The debate on whether or not the United States is dissociating itself as a result of its shift to Asia-Pacific is open. It is true that the Obama Administration's attitude of staying out of the region's problems has already altered the calculations of its traditional allies, arousing misgivings in countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and the small Gulf monarchies. According to some analysts, the vacuum left by the United States would be filled by Russia and Iran. Other analysts are convinced, however, that the confrontation between the United States and China over control of energy sources as part of their rivalry for global control is inevitable. I personally believe that the Middle East region will be rebalanced under the supervision of two world powers, the United States-which, despite reducing its military presence, will not leave the region-and China, which will locate its checkpoint in Iran, a strategic step towards the Pearl Collar and obliged in its design to build Eurasia. 

The Palestinian question, already dwarfed by global affairs, will lose its focus of interest owing to the backwardness and lack of political weight of Europe, its sole protector, and will be reduced to a question of Israel's internal security crisis. Its resolution is unlikely, bearing in mind the frontal opposition triggered by President Trump's ambitious Peace Plan of January 2020, a sort of Marshall Plan which, with an investment of $50 billion over ten years, was designed to settle once and for all a conflict that the Israelis understand to be territorial and the Palestinians of identity. It is a pity that they are still drowning in a victimistic narrative, because the benefits would have been mutual.

The establishment in Gaza of a port for oil exports would fit in well with the geopolitical trends described. The State of Israel has huge strategic potential created as a result of Chinese-US cooperation. It would allow Israel to reactivate the old oil and fuel flow lines: the oil pipeline built by the British from Iraq to Haifa and the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline, which connects Iran with Israel and is owned by the EAPC - Europe Asia Pipeline Co. - But as the former Israeli prime minister, Golda Mayer, said, the Palestinians do not miss an opportunity. This may have been their last chance to break out of the impasse in which they have been settled for generations. It is time for Israel to prepare for these changes.  

Marta González Isidoro is a journalist and political analyst