The Danger of Failed States Surrounding Israel

by February 2024

Four months into the war in Gaza and the cafés in Tel Aviv are full. It’s nearly impossible to find a spot in trendy restaurants on weekends. Yet no one should be mistaken. Israel is not back to normal. 

A radio or television plays in the background of nearly every café and shop, and when it signals a news update is forthcoming, everybody falls silent. The anchor reads the names of the fallen soldiers in Gaza, then an update about Hizbullah rocket fire that destroyed houses in the north, followed by information about drones shot down near the southern city of Eilat by either Yemeni or Iraqi pro-Iranian militias. This short news bulletin is a precise description of reality: Israel is now fighting for its future on multiple fronts, some as far as 2,000 kilometers away from its borders, for the first time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Fifty years ago Israel fought against state actors – Egypt and Syria – but today the enemy is a variety of militias and terrorist organizations that thrive within weak or failed states. While not so long ago Israel was celebrating the decline of pan-Arabism and the disintegration of once powerful Arab regimes in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, today it realizes that the critical weakness of Arab states and the Arab system in general is nothing less than a mortal danger.

The Risks of Asymmetrical War in Lebanon

Today Israel borders two failed states, Lebanon and Syria, while Gaza is a part of a failed autonomy. Further away from Israel lie Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and Libya – all torn by internal wars and insurrections. Each has a different degree of “failure.” However, all have lost control of the most important feature of a sovereign state – a monopoly on the use of military force – and have in the process become playgrounds for others.

One such state is Lebanon where Hizbullah, a pro-Iranian militia, has created a state within a state. Since October 7, when Hizbullah started shelling Israeli territory and Israel retaliated, more than 100,000 Lebanese have left their villages in the south and escaped up north. According to the Lebanese minister of agriculture, the country has lost a fortune owing to farmers’ inability to tend to their crops. The Lebanese head of state constantly warns against war and desperately seeks some kind of diplomatic solution. And yet, Hizbullah leaders promise to continue shelling Israel until the end of the war in Gaza. The risk of a full-blown military conflict between Israel and Lebanon keeps growing. 

If Lebanon were a functioning state, it would not tolerate such a breach of its sovereignty and threat to its national security. But Lebanon was born weak and fragmented into sectarian and ethnic communities. Some of its militias were sponsored by Syria, others were funded by Iraq and Libya, and trained by the USSR. Israel supported the Christian Falangists, and later the Army of Southern Lebanon. In 1982 Iran helped in establishing Hizbullah. After the end of the civil war in Lebanon, when Taif agreements were signed in Saudi Arabia, Hizbullah emerged as the only powerful militia that wasn’t disarmed, since it fought the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon. It refused to put down its weapons also when Israel decided to pull out from Lebanon in 2000, and there was little that the Lebanese state could do then or now.

Today, if war breaks out between Israel and Lebanon, Israel will find itself – again – fighting an asymmetric war, like in Gaza. Hizbullah, like Hamas, hasn’t bothered to prepare shelters or air-defense for its citizens. During the war it will be hiding amongst them, like it did during the war in 2006. And just like Hamas, Hizbullah has benefited from advances in technology. Given its proximity to Israeli territory and precision guided missiles, Hizbullah can inflict significant damage on the Israeli civilian population. Yet it will still be seen as the weaker player and even a victim in the Middle East and in the world. 

After October 7, the Israeli leadership swore to eradicate Hamas in Gaza. Achieving this goal requires more than military measures. Unless capable and adequate leadership in Gaza and West Bank emerges to take charge of security and governance, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and possibly other militant groups will simply re-emerge. 

The same is true for Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Military activity of stronger states like Israel and the US against militias can weaken or deter them temporarily, yet these asymmetrical battles often increase the popular support of these groups and eventually just perpetuate their control of the failed states.

Supporters of Lebanon’s Hizbullah during a rally, February 16, 2024. Photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

Fighting Terror, Stabilizing States

Regional and international powers must address the issue of Middle Eastern failed states that sponsor and facilitate terrorism. Fighting terror and providing economic aid are not sufficient. After World War II, the Allied powers aimed not only to reconstruct economies but also to reorganize the political systems of Germany and Japan. 

Is the free world today capable of tackling endemic poor governance, corruption, and political violence in failed states? The American-led attempt to create a democratic regime in Iraq was poorly executed and the results were disappointing, but that doesn’t mean that the world should give up on the problem of failed states worldwide. Different models might be implemented with different countries: from governance assistance to transitional delegation of governance authorities to multinational bodies. The case study of Cambodia in the 1990s should be revisited. The United States has attempted to reform its programs that address this set of issues in the Global Fragility Act of 2019 but much more needs to be done.

The international community and regional powers must address the internal governance problems of weak states that are in the process of failing. Once they become hospitable platforms for terrorists and criminals, they threaten the security of both neighboring countries and the global order. Today, America and its European allies are contemplating unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. It’s important for its neighbors – and the world – to ensure that a Palestinian state would not be born failed, just like many others in the Middle East.

Ksenia Svetlova
Ksenia Svetlova is the Executive Director of ROPES (The Regional Organization for Peace, Economics & Security) and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. She is a former member of the Knesset.
Read the
print issue
Get the latest from JST
How often would you like to hear from us?
Thank you! Your request was successfully submitted.