Israel’s Place in the New Order: A Practitioner’s Perspective

by July 2021
Israel must continue to build up its own strength. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The world Israel lives in is dramatically different from the one in which our elders grew up, amid Cold War tensions and with large Arab armies at Israel’s borders. Within the last decade we witnessed the rise of China, America’s announced intention to reduce its presence in the Middle East, the aggressiveness of a weakened but assertive Russia, and the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East. We are faced with multiple threats, including a shifting balance of power in Asia and an increasingly lawless global system—scarred by the failure of globalization during the COVID-19 crisis. Amid all this, it is imperative that Israel sustain its own strength, while working hard to restore bipartisan support in the United States and making good use of the new alignments in the Eastern Mediterranean and with like-minded Sunni Arab nations.

A World of Difference

How different is the world we live in from that which we have been raised to expect? To answer this question we need to define the relevant timeframe discussed in this essay. Clearly this is a world radically different from the one in which I came of age and learned my trade as an intelligence officer—the post-1945 world in which two overly armed nuclear powers, the US and the Soviet Union, faced each other in deadly competition across the globe (with a block of the “non-aligned” trying, not always successfully, to stay on the sidelines); and the post-1948 world in which Israel faced the threat of enemy Arab states surrounding it with a million armed men, thousands of tanks, and hundreds of fighter aircraft.

Since then, the Soviet Union has fallen apart and in our region, no Arab army (other than the Egyptian military) is large or significant enough to constitute a threat. But to better understand the world in which Israel must function, the changes—globally as well as regionally—within the last decade provide the relevant frame of analysis. This has been a decade in which the global distribution of power became much more evident, in light of several developments:

  • Eight years of rule—now set to be extended indefinitely—by Xi Jinping in China, under whose leadership the People’s Republic of China pursues a strategy of aggressive growth. It is already America’s peer rival, as it seeks a revision of the global order; this, in turn, has set in motion drastic changes in the global alignments and alliances.
  • The return of the Democrats to power in both branches of government in the US and the ensuing debate (and internal fissures) on aspects of policy—including the “special relationship” with Israel—amid signs of radical polarization, leading the US away from the traditional role it is expected to play in the region and beyond.
  • The willingness and ability of Russia, despite demographic decline and severe economic limitations, to play an outsized role due to its readiness to use force, led by an assertive president and backed by an impressive and intimidating nuclear arsenal.
  • The dramatic and confusing events of the so-called Arab Spring, which brought about the disintegration of several states. It is now evident that the non-Arab powers—Iran, Turkey, and Israel—are the tone-setters in a region once viewed as the heartland of Arab nationalism.

Looking toward the future, five key cycles of dynamic changes seem to have a transformative role and need to be addressed by policy makers.

The Chinese Challenge

China is fast becoming the dynamic revisionist power in the global order—deliberately and rather aggressively expanding its circle of influence. It does not fear competing with the US; rather, it seeks to pose the Chinese model as an alternative to Western democracy and pushes for structural change in any international organization and forum it is part of, or uses existing organizations to implement its own interests. It has become more centralized and utilizes modern technology to tighten its grip on its citizens; hence, its overt self-confidence is evident as Xi rewrites the rules that have held for the last 30 years.

Additionally, the People’s Republic of China did not recoil from the use of force to impose its will on Hong Kong and integrate it within the Chinese system, in breach of the understanding reached with the United Kingdom as to the rights of the former colony. Nor did it hesitate to threaten Australia, to take over atolls and uninhabited islands within the so-called Nine-Dash Map, build military bases, and revive nationalist claims from the 1930s, and to do so in dangerous proximity to other nations in the South China Sea, which have competing claims over the same locations.

Chinese Navy members at Iran's port city of Chahbahar, during joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman. Photo credit: WANA via REUTERS
For the first time since the Soviet collapse, the US feels a power breathing down its neck.
Chinese Navy members at Iran’s port city of Chahbahar, during joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman. Photo credit: WANA via REUTERS

For the first time since the Soviet collapse, the US feels a power breathing down its neck. China is acting out of a profound impulse and a sense of redress after years of exploitation and disdain. Aware of its role, power, and historical and cultural importance, it feels obliged and destined to take center stage and present its worldview as an alternative to that of the West. It is using its rapidly growing and increasingly modern armed forces to dominate nearby areas, such as the South China Sea and Taiwan. It is also using its massive economic clout to establish a hold further afield, such as in Africa. The Communist Party coordinates all these efforts, including the use of nominally “private” enterprises as players in the international economic arena.

Facing the rise of China, a complex system is taking shape: The most significant element therein is “the Quad,” which has begun to establish frameworks for cooperation among its constituent powers and might prove to have an impressive capacity for containment. It unites the US with India, Japan, and Australia, which share similar concerns regarding Chinese ambitions. This aggressive competition is bound to have a formative impact on the world at large; it may well confront Israel, which has so far managed to avoid choosing and strives to benefit from productive relations with the two colliding powers. At the end of the day, it is clear that if put to the test, Israel would place the special relationship with the US above all other alternatives.

To some extent, this drift toward confrontation has been forecast in Huntington’s seminal essay, and later in his book on the clash of civilizations. More specifically, Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War uses Thucydides’ insight as to origins of the Peloponnesian War to examine the clash of a dominant status quo power with a rising power seeking to overturn the global order. Allison’s sobering and alarming conclusion is that such competition does not inevitably lead to war—but that this is the most likely outcome.

The Growing International Disorder

Another dynamic factor, reshaping the global system for years to come, is the disintegration of international governance as a functional system. Due to this dysfunction, the world lacks a problem-solving instrument, with the United Nations effectively neutralized. The Russian leadership never faced real retribution for the annexation of Crimea, or for taking over parts of Ukraine. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in August 2016 in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China over territorial demarcations in the South China Sea, Beijing showed no inclination to comply, although it is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and nominally subject to the court’s authority. Furthermore, China is never going to accept Tibet’s independence, regardless of what the international community may think.

In Syria, a civil war has been raging for 10 years, claiming the lives of more than half a million people—mostly civilians—and turning half of the population, about 12 million, into refugees or internally displaced persons—all within a two-hour flying distance from Europe. No international agency has intervened to end this catastrophe and certainly not after Russia began to overtly deploy there, using massive air power.

The world lacks a problem-solving instrument, with the United Nations effectively neutralized.

The COVID-19 pandemic reversed the level of confidence that the global supply chains can actually withstand the present disruption. These chains have become a dominant part of the modern economic system and a distinct aspect of the globalization that engulfed (almost) the entire world within the last generation. The return to the old concept of self-reliance in production (and of import-substitute industries) constitutes a return to nationalism. Moreover, these populist tendencies have been manifested repeatedly across the democratic world in other contexts, particularly in the resistance to immigration.

The often-heard claim—from the left and right alike—is that the alternative model offered by globalization, mainly in business but also in other fields, failed miserably the test of the pandemic. This is all the more pronounced in Europe, which did not succeed in acting as a unitary body in the face of the challenge of vaccination, and as a result suffered more than many other less advanced nations. It was also evident that Donald Trump’s decision—which his successor, President Joe Biden, did not reverse—to make the US less dependent on external supply was an overt vote of no confidence in the future of globalization, writ large.

This involves critical materials for various uses, including the defense industries. As it turns out, the Chinese control their sources of production not only in China but also in other regions (mainly Africa), as well as producing rare earth metals, which the entire US electronics industry cannot function without. The sense in America that others (again, mainly China) have utilized globalization to gain unfair advantages at its expense, in addition to the equally acute frustration in Europe over the poor management of the COVID-19 crisis, has fed grave doubts about the benefits of globalization, as opposed to societies and nations around the world “falling inward.”

The reality of each nation caring only for itself, while vast parts of the world’s population, especially in poorer countries, were not even considered amid the grand drama of the vaccination drive, has left its mark. It will greatly reduce the will to restore globalization in general and, more specifically, the international supply chains as if nothing happened. In a world built around the fierce competition between a rising and a well-established power, globalization is not dead, but it has been badly wounded and will take long to heal. The world has become less connected, and competition overcomes the need for cooperation.

Technological Acceleration

One of the factors reshaping Israel’s environment we have been familiar since the dawn of humanity, but its intensity and impact have grown exponentially in the last generation. Technological changes are driving worldwide transformations—both in our lives and in the realms of society, national economy, and security—and hence their immense importance. They are reflected everywhere and in almost all aspects of life. The virtual world has become real enough; it is an indispensable part of the life of all in the developed countries. (Those who did not understand this beforehand were up for a rude awakening on Zoom…) We are wired to the web at all times and in all places and have come to depend upon this.

Around the corner we shall soon meet the world based on the Internet of Things, in which every product in the world—including our own household items—will be connected to everything else. There will be no choice but to live permanently and deeply within the realm of the cyberworld. Thus, the negative effect of cyber now looms as a real threat—ranging from the ability to undermine our sense of what is “true” (or fake) and what is “reality,” to the capacity to obliterate our privacy by collecting extensive information we have unwittingly and uncontrollably dispensed in various applications. Today, personal secret can be leaked or exposed by a determined pursuer, and this will only grow worse when our homes get “smart” and all products carry a chip.

The integrated technology led to a revolution of knowledge. Experts know more and more about less and less. Seemingly, we all have the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips—just ask Professor Google. But there is little to screen us from falsehoods, distortions, and mistakes that flood the web. The purported availability of all knowledge is no guarantee that we would understand reality and the challenges it poses. Moreover, in cyberspace it has become possible to launch an attack against a nation or a business rival at the speed of light and without leaving a fingerprint pointing at the perpetrators. This is already widely used for criminal purposes, as well as for national intelligence operations and the illicit acquisition of intellectual property. The world is fast becoming an exposed and endangered domain.

Regional Perspectives

This is the harsh and complex global reality that we face—aggressive competition in which might could become right; reduced commitment to cooperation and to agreements between nations; and technology that makes daily chores easier but undermines decision making and makes us vulnerable to harm by invisible, unidentifiable hands.

All this applies to the world at large. But there are also phenomena singular to Israel’s own environment—the Middle East. In general, it can be said that the Middle East is no longer the Arabs’ domain. Years ago, the head of Egyptian intelligence made the point, when we met, of explaining that there are only four real states in the region: Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. As to the other Arab countries, he dismissed them as “families with flags,” and no more. He may have been right about most Arab countries, and today, even Egypt’s future seems uncertain.

Today, even Egypt’s future seems uncertain.
Anti-government protesters in Cairo, in 2016. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The basics have not changed. The Middle East, from the Atlantic Ocean to the gates of India, is largely composed of dictatorships that rule over fragmented tribes, confessional groups, clans, and sects—which often command greater loyalty to them and to the traditions they stand for than any allegiance to the state, perceived as a modern invention.

The gradual departure of the US from the region reflects the reduced need for imported energy, as well as the unwillingness to keep on sacrificing American soldiers in interminable wars that solve nothing, no matter what the price has been over time. This conjunction of the changing needs and the powerful domestic sentiment is redefining the regional balance and even the world order. This continues a transformational chain of events that goes back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region for precisely 400 years (1517–1917) and sustained a relative peace, even as internal tensions remained unresolved. The colonial powers, Britain and France, redrew the map of the region and kept the order as they expanded their rule from the first footholds in the 1830s (Algeria, Aden) to total control by the end of World War II. As their empires faded and collapsed, it was the US (and the Soviet Union in parts, for a while) that came in their stead.

Perhaps, ironically, it would be America’s wish to reduce its presence in the region that would enhance Israel’s importance as a key strategic ally.

Now, for the first time in hundreds of years, the peoples of the region face each other without an Ottoman sovereign and without an external Western framework, within which they have hitherto found a degree of security and order (albeit imposed from outside). The events of the so-called Arab Spring, and more recently the inadequate response to the COVID-19 challenge, have pointed to dysfunctional government systems and widespread incapacity, of almost all rulers, to fulfill the obligation of a state toward its citizens. The hopes for change have faded away in light of these events and the region’s denizens came to understand that salvation is not at hand, and the lives of the younger generation would not be better. As a distraught Kuwaiti academic told me, the loss of dignity and of the prospects for a better future for their children has left Arab societies in deep despair.

The two Muslim non-Arab countries—Iran and Turkey, central to the history of the region and to the present powers struggle—are now trying to make use of the regional vacuum and advance their national interests and the ideologies to which their leaders adhere. Turkey under Erdoğan promotes the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, with an added layer of revived Ottoman pretensions, which had vanished since the aftermath of World War I. Meanwhile, Iran puts forward the proposition that the era of Shiite dominance in Islam could finally be at hand throughout the entire region. Its actions are steeped in strong Iranian colors, given that the Iranians’ hidden dream is to restore Iran’s hegemony as in the days of their empire. As for the Arabs, they detest the Ottoman dream—and the Turks—and while they admire the Persians and their ancient culture, they also fear their power and understand that a Shiite era would represent the end of Sunni power, even though they constitute 85% of all Muslims worldwide.

In the face of Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and obtain nuclear weapons and Turkey’s attempts to extend its authority from the Caucasus to Libya, the Arabs have no good answers. There is no acceptable Sunni Arab leadership and no Arab state leads the pack. All this comes against the background of a gradual American retreat from the region. When the leaders of the Arab states look around, they see no steady anchor to latch onto.

Israel’s Place in the Regional Equation

In this violent, chaotic space, dotted with local and extensive wars, one local power stands out. With an advanced economy (having a GNP of nearly $400 billion, more than $42,800 per capita, in 2019), a modern and capable military, high technology, and a broad range of international connections, the State of Israel—small in territory and with a population of only 9 million—has proven so far that it is a stable democracy, in a region where few, if any, can meet this description. In a world marked, as noted above, by the rising importance of IT and cyber, Israeli start-ups and corporations—in remarkable synergy with military effort—are punching way above the country’s weight. Despite Israel’s recent and ongoing political turmoil, characterized by recurrent elections and a highly divided parliamentary system, its achievements are all the more striking when compared with the record of others in the region. Bitter exchanges notwithstanding, at the end of the day, the recent political transition was impressively smooth, once a new government was approved by the Israeli parliament.

The result of this established Israeli position came as a surprise to those who grew accustomed to the notion that the protracted Israeli–Palestinian conflict is the key to change in the Middle East and a solution to the region’s problems. A dramatic shift has come about in terms of Israel’s standing in the eyes of Arab and Sunni states in the region and beyond. Facing the regional and global situation, many among the Sunni Arab (and some non-Arab) states seek to improve their relations with Israel and are doing so openly, without reference to resolving the Palestinian question. For the first time since the establishment of Jewish independence in 1948, the relations between Israel and Arab states are as important to the latter as they are to Israel, and these states understand that the real problems and solutions in the Middle East are not connected to the Palestinian problem. In this respect, a dramatic change has taken place in the regional dynamics.

Israel is a stable democracy, in a region where few, if any, can meet this description.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israel’s troubles, however, are far from over, despite the change in its regional standing. The two greatest national security challenges that any leader in Israel faces are:

  1. The aggressiveness of Iran, which is busy building impressive military capabilities and seeks to surround Israel with a “ring of fire,” and ultimately plans to obtain nuclear weapons. The meaning of this menace derives from the ideological commitment to destroy Israel, which for Iran is not a mere form of words but an active goal and aspiration. Tehran’s efforts are evident in several countries in the region, where the Iranians are putting together independent capabilities, under the control of local militias, for the launching of accurate missiles in numbers that might put Israel at risk. All this is ultimately designed to deter Israel from using force to foil the Iranian nuclear weapon project;
  2. The erosion of the traditional bipartisan support for Israel, which US Jewry had been able to secure in the wake of World War II and up until the presidency of Barack Obama. This may well be the result of an inevitable historical trajectory, which led to the emergence of two increasingly different and distant perspectives: a Jewish minority community that looks upon itself as an integral part of the liberal world and finds a home in America, and a sovereign state that makes decisions based on the needs of security and survival and in pursuit of national interests, in a manner that often contradicts the liberal sensibilities of the American Jewish community. As the memory of the Holocaust and of the 1948 and 1967 wars fades, and Israel is perceived as a strong state that does not face an existential threat, the solidarity of the Jewish minority with other liberal groups at home is liable to take precedence over Israel’s perceived needs, feeding an increasingly bitter debate within the Democratic Party.

A Sobering but Not Hopeless Perspective

The global outlook described here is hardly optimistic. Still, in the Middle East the landscape is more varied and may offer Israel better options looking toward the future, alongside a daunting list of dangers.

This sobering perspective leads to an unambiguous conclusion: Israel must continue to build up its own strength, militarily, economically, and technologically. It must continue to maintain and expand its networks of cooperation worldwide. The success in creating a Mediterranean bloc or alignment, alongside Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt, and the related breakthrough in normalizing relations with Sunni Arab states far from Israel’s borders are both object lessons in the utility of this approach in recent years.

It is of immense importance to sustain and shore up the special relationship with the US despite all difficulties. Perhaps, ironically, it would be America’s wish to reduce its presence in the region that would enhance Israel’s importance as a key strategic ally, which the US—as it pulls away—should strengthen in this conflict-ridden region.

At the end of the day, only a militarily strong Israel, ready to preserve the basic principle of its old and present national defense doctrine—namely, of defending itself by itself against any coalition of enemies—can sustain its regional position and thus retain its attraction as a partner to other significant international players.

Yaakov Amidror
Major General Yaakov Amidror served as Israel’s national security adviser (2011–2013) and in senior IDF positions. He is a distinguished fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center and the Rosshandler Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and has published three books on intelligence and military strategy.
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