Since 2011, the Middle East has been engulfed by a process of profound political change. Long-established regimes have been swept away. New political forces have risen and sometimes rapidly fallen.
This process has lapped up against Israel’s borders. To the south, Egypt has undergone an astonishing process in which the old military regime was replaced by a popular revolt in 2011, which gave way to an emergent Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2012, which was itself then replaced in a coup by the military in 2013. To the north, Israel’s long-time rival Syria has collapsed into bloody civil war.
So how do Israel’s relations with its immediate neighbors appear at present? Is Israel a net winner from the process of regional change? Or is it bringing new threats to the doorstep of the Jewish state? The answer is a complex combination of the two.
Let’s take a closer look, country by country.
Egypt For Israel, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt constituted a potential strategic disaster. The short-lived government of Mohamed Morsi reduced communication with Jerusalem to an absolute minimum.
While Morsi was not free to transform Egyptian regional policy overnight because of the continued strength of the army, there were widespread concerns that if Muslim Brotherhood rule persisted, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which forms the core and linchpin of Israeli regional policy, would gradually be eroded of content.
On a more immediate level, the security situation in Sinai rapidly deteriorated during the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule.
Arms flowed from Libya into the area and Islamist insurgents soon followed.
Morsi seemed uninterested in curbing this process, even when the jihadists turned their attention to Egyptian soldiers. Cairo’s relations with the Hamas authorities in Gaza also improved during this period, and smuggling from Sinai to Gaza intensified. Morsi belatedly sought to toughen his stance in this area.
But the coup against the Brotherhood has completely reversed the situation.
As of now, Israel’s relations with Egypt are at a level of unparalleled closeness. This derives not, of course, from any ideological commonalities between the Jewish state and the Egyptian generals, but rather from a pragmatic commonality of interests, and, in particular, common enemies.
Most importantly, the governments in Cairo and Jerusalem are both opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the movement, remains one of Israel’s most implacable enemies. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, meanwhile, is engaged in a process of severe repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt itself.
More broadly, Sisi is closely aligned with the conservative Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have emerged as major donors to Egypt since the military coup and the subsequent disappearance of funding from Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Qatar. These Gulf states do not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel – but they also have common enemies – above all, Iran.
The result has been the emergence of a sort of de facto regional alliance of states that oppose the regional ambitions of Iran and its allies, and of the Muslim Brotherhood/ Qatar. Sisi’s Egypt is a prominent member of this de facto alliance, and Israel is also an adjunct presence within it.
In a further development set to solidify relations between the two countries, an agreement reached in October with Dolphinus Holdings, which represents non-governmental industrial and commercial consumers in Egypt, will see Egyptian consumers receiving natural gas from Israel’s Tamar gas field.
The good relations between the governments have not, however, entirely solved the ongoing security problems in Sinai. There still remain matters of joint concern. In particular, the emergence of the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis organization in northern Sinai and its pledge of loyalty to Islamic State remain a major issue, but this in itself is likely to lead to continued close cooperation between Israel and Egypt.
Jordan Like Egypt, Jordan is a member of the de facto regional alliance of states opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and to the ambitions of Iran. Israel is committed to the survival of the Jordanian monarchy, and cooperation in the security and intelligence fields is ongoing and deep.
There is also a burgeoning economic relationship – with Israel signing a deal worth $15 billion to provide natural gas to Jordan.
Recently, however, relations have been complicated by claims that Israel is intending to change the status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jordan, as custodian of the mosques in this area, has responded strongly, withdrawing its ambassador to Israel in November.
But while the significance of the current tensions should not be underestimated, they are to a certain degree led by the public relations needs of the Jordanian monarchy rather than by anything more substantive. Israel, clearly, is not in fact trying to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount, and King Abdullah II is surely aware of this fact. At the same time, as in Egypt, there is a discrepancy between public opinion, which is hostile to Israel, and the stance of the ruling authorities, who for pragmatic reasons favor cooperation with the Jewish state.
Jordan currently faces a difficult situation – around 800,000 Syrian refugees have entered the country over the last three years. There are fears of possible terrorist infiltration from Syria or Iraq, and the Muslim Brotherhood remains the largest political movement in the country.
Israel is a de facto guarantor of Jordan’s security, and this is the core fact underlying the relationship between the two countries; Israel and the Hashemite monarchy have a shared interest in the latter’s survival.
Syria/Lebanon The effective collapse of Syria as a state has removed one problem for Israel while creating another. The problem that has disappeared is the threat of Syria’s large conventional army. The Assad regime has lost control of the Quneitra province, facing the Golan Heights, and controls only around 40 percent of the territory of Syria.
The problem that has emerged is that the strongest of the Sunni militia groups now controlling the Syria-Israel border area is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official franchise of al-Qaida in Syria. As of now, the organization is busy with its fight against Assad.
But there is deep concern in Israel at the prospect that in the future the Nusra Front could commence activity across the border. According to a number of reports, Israel has sought to develop discreet relations with non-Nusra Front rebels in order to keep the organization away from the border. Given the Nusra Front’s well-documented involvement in the capture of the Quneitra border crossing, however, it appears that these efforts have not met with success.
More broadly for Israel, the collapse of Syria has created an ungoverned space that is attracting jihadists from all over the world. The Islamic State organization has not managed to reach the southwest of Syria, bordering the Golan Heights, but the organization has attracted a number of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to its ranks.
Further north, Israel maintains a certain level of communication with the Kurdish PYD, the Syrian-Kurdish franchise of the PKK, which rules a section of northern Syria.
The Syrian war has also drawn in Israel’s most potent paramilitary adversary, the Lebanese pro-Iranian Hezbollah organization, on the side of the regime.
As of now, Hezbollah has lost around 1,000 fighters in the Syrian war. The organization has also not succeeded in keeping Lebanon safe from the war’s overspill. Both the Nusra Front and Islamic State have carried out recent incursions into the Lebanese Bekaa Valley area.
From Israel’s point of view, the losses that Hezbollah is taking and its current preoccupation with the Syria war are net positives. At the same time, there are also concerns about the experience that the movement is gaining in fighting far from home and in urban areas – both skills that might be put to use in a future conflict with Israel.
Of course, in Lebanon itself, Israel remains deeply concerned at Hezbollah’s massive missile arsenal, considered now to number more than 100,000 rockets and 5,000 long-range missiles.
The broader picture Israel considers the main regional security threat against it to come from the mainly Shi’ite regional alliance led by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which includes the Assad regime in Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad group among the Palestinians. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are seen by Israeli strategists as the single most significant danger.
However, two other regional phenomena also constitute a security danger to Israel. The first of these is the Muslim Brotherhood-associated bloc that includes Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel, which is supported by AKPruled Turkey and by Qatar.
The second is the Salafi jihadi trend, as represented by Islamic State, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Jabhat al-Nusra.
This trend is benefiting from the contraction of state authority in Syria and to a lesser extent in Sinai.
Yet alongside these threats, Israel also has allies. Two of its neighbors – Egypt and Jordan – are ruled by regimes engaged in quiet, de facto alliance with Israel. The others, Syria and Lebanon, are controlled by paramilitary organizations – Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra, which consider themselves at war with Israel, but which are currently mainly engaged in war against one another.
So while the threats remain real, Israel also has strong local allies, and the likelihood of a major security crisis in the immediate future remains reasonably low.