Hard Questions, Tough Answers: 2021 Strategic Summary II: the Middle East (December 27, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: What major strategic departures or innovations in the Greater Middle East in 2021 could directly affect Israel?

A: The American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover there--simultaneous and coordinated processes that culminated in mid-August--have potentially far-reaching ramifications for Israel and the region. The impression formed by a wide variety of Middle East actors as well as global actors like Russia and China is of American weakness and Islamist resurgence. Only time will tell how accurate this assessment is.

The United States, according to this widespread narrative, is preoccupied with China and with near-crippling domestic issues. It is accordingly less likely to intervene in Middle East conflict situations than in years past. The still-emerging upshot has been a major reordering of priorities on the part of a host of actors.

Islamists like Iran and the Islamic State can take heart from the Taliban’s achievement. Insurgency works. Iran can redouble its efforts to project power westward toward Israel and can present intransigent positions in the Vienna talks concerning a renewed JCPOA nuclear agreement. IS and its affiliates can expand virtually unhindered throughout the African Sahel. Russia can prepare to invade Ukraine. Even Islamists that confront Israel--Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad--claim inspiration from the Taliban’s 20-year struggle: if they just persevere, they will prevail.

Perhaps most significantly from Israel’s standpoint, it is contemplating acting alone. It has already had to take up the slack in Syria by attacking the chemical weapons sites that previous US administrations (Obama, Trump) at least tried to deal with. Israel’s military is advertising its decision to prepare to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure on its own.

On the other hand, Israel’s potential Gulf allies against Iran feel obliged to hedge their bets by, at one and the same time, talking to Iran (Saudi Arabia, UAE) and renewing relations with Syria (UAE), while still engaging Israel in joint maneuvers. As America is seen to be pulling back, these actors are welcoming requests by France and Turkey to establish bases in the Gulf region. And when turned down by Washington, they are purchasing advanced weaponry from a host of suppliers.


Q: Yet beyond reordering of priorities, wasn’t it basically ‘more of the same’ for Israel in 2021 with regard to Iran and Abraham Accords normalization?

A: The confrontation with Iran and expansion of relations with the Arab world were undoubtedly Israel’s highest Middle East priorities in 2021. And there was little by way of innovation during the past year. For the most part, the Bennett government that took office in June proceeded with strategic policies similar to those invoked under Netanyahu.

In other words, Israel’s confrontation with Iran did not begin in 2021 and will continue well into the future. Confrontation with Iran in Syria, by cyber and on the high seas, is not new. If on December 22 Iranian Armed Forces Spokesman Abolfazi Shekarchi declared, “The annihilation of the regime occupying Jerusalem is the greatest ideal that we see before our eyes”, this was only the latest in a long list of hundreds of such statements by high-level Iranians dating back to the birth of the Islamist Republic in 1979.

(Notably, these authoritative statements of Iranian intentions toward Israel, which are quite unique on the international scene, are generally ignored by analysts and commentators who tend to portray the Iran-Israel confrontation as just another tit-for-tat conflict.)

The only new, or renewed development of 2021 in the Iran context has been the reconvening of the Iran-nuclear (JCPOA) talks in Vienna. At the time of writing, the outcome of those negotiations was unclear. On a broader level, the Bennet government introduced greater tranquility (if not agreement) to Israel-US strategic coordination regarding Iran.

Then, too, Israel’s normalization breakthrough with three Arab countries, which began formally in August 2020 and is rooted in decades of quiet cooperation, moved forward in 2021, particularly with Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and featured high-level visits and even military cooperation. In contrast, normalization efforts with Sudan, the fourth Arab member of the Abraham Accords, appear to have ceased during 2021 due to unrest and a military takeover in Khartoum.


Q: And Arab state involvement in Palestinian-related issues: anything new here in 2021?

A: Here we take note of the Bennett government’s dramatic success in repairing relations with Jordan--relations that were badly damaged by Netanyahu and that are highly relevant to the state of affairs in the West Bank. The high point in the past year was the signing of a joint agreement with the UAE to finance solar power generation in Jordan, which in turn will fuel desalination along Israel’s Mediterranean coast, to produce water for Jordan and the Palestinians. If this UAE-Jordan-Israel deal reaches fruition, it will indeed be a major regional strategic departure for Israel.

 Against this backdrop of improved ties with Jordan, Israel’s relations with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority were essentially static in 2021. They look to stay that way as long as the aging Mahmoud Abbas clings to power in Ramallah and Israel is ruled by a coalition so heterogeneous that it is paralyzed regarding this issue. Relations with the Hamas regime in Gaza were punctuated by the mid-May Operation Guardian of the Walls that we discussed last week, but then also returned essentially to business as usual. Egypt, Qatar and the UAE have helped out with mediation and money, but this dynamic cannot be dignified with the title ‘normalization’.


Q: Looking a bit further afield, was Israel affected by more distant trends in 2021?

A: The year 2021 witnessed an important innovation in warfare that Israel both contributed to and is likely to confront in the future: the use of attack drones, remote-controlled, that crash and detonate on pinpoint targets. These weapons are credited with delivering a decisive victory for Azerbaijan against Armenia (in September-October 2020, but tactical and strategic lessons were not apparent until some months later). More recently, the Houthis in Yemen have deployed attack drones successfully against Saudi and Yemeni government forces. And Ethiopia has used them in recent months to turn the tide against Tigrayan forces in their civil war.

Israel, Turkey and Iran all produce and export these attack drones. Israel has reportedly itself used them against Hamas and against Iran and its proxies in Syria. We can expect to see them on both sides of any future fighting between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah on Israel’s northern front. Hamas is sure to obtain them. Russia and Ukraine will use them if war breaks out in the Donbass region.

All this may be good for Israeli arms sales. But the decisive impact of the attack drones we observed in the course of 2021 offers food for thought regarding future warfighting by Israel’s enemies.


Q: How about two more generalized but important strategic trends in 2021: Middle East climate change, and the emergence of a second phase of the Arab Spring?

A: The year 2021 certainly witnessed decisive and painful evidence of climate change in the region. It emerged that temperatures in the Middle East are rising faster than anywhere else in the world. Drought in Iran, exacerbated by decades of regime mismanagement of water resources, brought masses of people out to demonstrate in protest over dried-up wells and river beds. Ongoing drought in Syria, which the Assad regime is apparently still incapable of dealing with, heightened conflict in the northwest and southwest of the country. We have already noted the UAE-Jordan-Israel deal to provide more water to Jordan, where the water deficit is growing at an alarming pace.

Drought was a decisive factor in the outbreak of Arab Spring unrest and violence in Syria and Yemen back in 2011. Small wonder that these conflicts still fester. This year, a second phase of the Arab Spring led to setbacks for democracy or democratization processes in Lebanon, Tunisia, Sudan and most recently Libya. In some ways, this was part of a general process of global democratic deterioration that manifested itself in places as far afield as India under Modi and the United States under Trump.

As for democratic deterioration in the Middle East, only Israel (by replacing Netanyahu) and Iraq (electoral defeat for Islamist militia parties) were the exception in 2021.


Q: Bottom line?

A: The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover there have, more than any other factor, introduced a reshuffling of priorities on the part of multiple actors. This could have far-reaching consequences for the region. In particular, this dynamic appears to have energized Iran and Islamist actors like Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel feels impelled to consider acting alone against the threats it perceives.