US President Donald Trump’s March 29 declaration that he is leaving the crisis in Syria to “other people,” and the summit of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani just a few days later, on April 4, vividly demonstrate the grave changes taking place in the region — for Israel as for others.
Following the new situation in Syria and the American inclination to withdraw from the region, Israel needs to take in the very near future several security steps. With or without American backing, Israel must prevent at all cost Iranian entrenchment in Syria: no bases for the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, for Hezbollah or for Shiite militias, and the zone west of the Suwayda-Damascus highway should be strictly demilitarized.
Indeed, these necessary military steps by Israel may bring about escalation. But past experience teaches us that acquiescence to Iran’s presence will bring far more costly results.
A war on Israel’s northern fronts may inflict heavy damage on its civilian population. That's why it is better to prevent such an escalation. This could be achieved only by abandoning the old, inefficient equation, in favor of a new deterrence equation. Israel's warnings that it would destroy Lebanese infrastructure if Hezbollah rains down missiles on its cities do not deter anyone in Tehran. No one in the ayatollah regime cares if Lebanese Sunnis, Christians or even Shiites go without water or electricity. Hence, Israel must make it clear that if its cities are attacked, it will retaliate by targeting Iran’s oil export installations. There are ways to give this equation credibility. Hollow deterrence does not work.
The roots of Washington’s inclination for withdrawal from the Middle East run far deeper than the anti-intervention mood at home, or the US tendency to focus on internal problems. Oil shale extraction turned the United States from oil importer to exporter, and by 2020 it is even expected to become the No. 1 oil producer globally. And so its fundamental interest in the Middle East — securing the free flow of oil — no longer exists.
Apparently, the alliance between Israel and the United States is as tight and intimate as ever. However, it is a political-religious alliance, not a strategic one — between the religious Christian right wing of American politics and the religious Jewish right wing of Israeli politics. A political bridge is solid but very narrow. Unfortunately, Israel is losing the sympathy and support of the younger and more liberal America, and the bipartisanship that once cemented US-Israel friendship tragically dissipated during the end-of-term of President Barack Obama.
Moreover, Israel’s excellent relations with the Trump administration do not mitigate Israel's diplomatic isolation. No matter how much they admire our technological and scientific innovation, our friends abroad do not accept our occupation of the West Bank, our control over the lives of 5 million Palestinians or our thwarting of the two-state solution by constantly establishing and expanding settlements. The massive majority of the international community rejects Israel’s occupation policy. Only nine United Nations members voted for Trump's Dec. 6 declaration on Jerusalem; 128 opposed it despite the blunt US threat to cut American aid to them.
In any future military conflict in the Gaza Strip or on Israel’s northern front, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will need time to attain the objectives of the campaign. But it would be mainly the UN Security Council that would determine the length of such a campaign, by deciding when a cease-fire is declared. Even the current US administration will not be able to give Israel carte blanche to act without a time limit, and its UN Ambassador Nikki Haley would probably not veto such a resolution but join a broad international decision. Consequently, the IDF could be stopped before completing its mission. Simply put, Israel cannot win the wars it has to fight while carrying the burden of occupation.
But the gravest change in the region is not the withdrawal of the United States per se, but who replaces it. Russia’s might, which filled the vacuum left by Trump, does not stem from net military strength in the region. Rather, Russia’s power derives from lack of any inhibition to brutally use it. This is the essence of Russia's threat.
Russia really does not consider Israel an enemy. But Moscow made a strategic decision to prefer Iranian interests in Syria over Israeli ones. When the fate of Syria is decided in Sochi, and Israel, Syria's strongest neighbor, is not at the table, Israel gets weaker. The most dangerous event manifesting this weakness is the Trump-Putin agreement on Syria, which legitimized Iran's military presence in Syria. No responsible government in Jerusalem can accept this presence of Iranian strategic installations, plus three Shiite militias, an Iran-Lebanon corridor and Iran’s access to the Jordanian border.
To guarantee Israel’s security in this changing environment, Israel must adopt several measures.
Most important is to establish a new regional alliance, based on the Arab Peace Initiative first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 that is still valid until today. It would actually be a defense treaty between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Israel. Its strategic goal would be building a military and technological shield against Iran. It would develop and produce a Star Wars-like project much like President Ronald Reagan's to forestall and pre-empt the Iranian ballistic nuclear arsenal; this would be the result of scientific and financial cooperation among the member states. This new alliance will have additional defensive tasks in thwarting terrorism and subversion in the Middle East.
To be clear, this indispensable alliance will never be built if the two-state solution is not fully implemented. A clear conclusion from all my meetings across the region in recent years is that there is no Arab leader — no matter how fearful of Iran — who would agree to stand under a defense umbrella with Israel absent this solution, thereby abandoning the Palestinian cause. The solution is a Palestinian sovereign state, in the approximate 1967 borders, demilitarized, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This solution has a price known to all, but we need to remind ourselves of it again. The territory west of the Jordan River should be divided: 78% for Israel, 22% for Palestine. Some 120,000 Israeli settlers would have to move to those settlements that would be annexed to Israel (where the majority of settlers already live), or to other parts of Israel. There cannot be a final agreement without it.
But the economic rewards and benefits to Israel would be enormous. The integration with the Gulf economies would give the Israeli economy a giant leap forward. All costs of settlements evacuation and their resettlement would be covered by these benefits.
This new alliance has to be coupled with another regional one in the eastern Mediterranean. A partnership of the three democracies — Greece, Cyprus and Israel — would offer a huge potential for economic and energetic cooperation, linked to Europe and Egypt.
Integration with our Arab neighbors, a joint resistance to Iranian aggression and peace with the Palestinians — this is how Israel could react to the regional changes. Then Israel could build an economy that would keep its society cohesive and remain the strongest power between the Caspian Sea and Gibraltar. Without such superiority, Israel has no existence.