Israel’s Internal Crisis as Seen in the Middle East (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- August 28, 2023)


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. Presumably different Middle East actors view Israel’s domestic turmoil differently. Start with the most dangerous actors in Israeli eyes: Iran and its Islamist proxies.

A. The Islamists look at Israel in the throes of the Netanyahu-Levin ‘judicial reform’ and see internal weakness, particularly in view of the mass withdrawal of pilots from reserve duty. Logically, this would encourage Iran and the Islamists to be more aggressive toward Israel. That this may not be the case can be attributed by Israel to fortunate circumstances.

Last week we quoted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stating that “In view of the political schism in Israel, the [IDF’s] current condition is the worst ever”. But luckily for Jerusalem, Nasrallah finds himself cornered in Lebanon. On the one hand, the country is so torn by corruption that it is incapable of choosing new leaders and is penniless. On the other hand, Lebanon’s only hope for financial redemption, a pilot gas-drilling platform in the Mediterranean, borders on Israeli waters and accordingly must be treated by Hezbollah with deference, avoiding conflict.

As for Iran, it has over the past year confronted its own domestic turmoil. It is currently negotiating a vague energy-, hostage- and nuclear-related modus vivendi with the United States. And it is patching up relations with countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that are not disposed to welcome conflict with Israel. 

Even Gaza-based Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad appear to be biding their time relatively quietly, awaiting the departure of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) from his leadership role in the Palestinian Authority. When that happens, we can expect them to launch a takeover attempt in the West Bank--an enterprise in which they have a better chance of success than in attacking Israel from the Gaza Strip. Lest we forget, Gaza-based Hamas now has a vested interest in some 20,000 Gazan laborers who commute daily to profitable work in Israel.

One possible exception to this relatively tame scenario for exploiting Israel’s domestic troubles is the Hamas official directing activities in the West Bank: Lebanon-based Salah al-Arouri. He responded on Sunday to a Netanyahu government decision to authorize renewal of targeted assassinations of Palestinian terrorist leaders responsible for West Bank attacks on settlers, by predicting “all-out war” in response. He presumably did not clear this threat with Iran and Hezbollah, his hosts in Lebanon.

Israel’s security community is keenly aware of the danger posed by domestic turmoil to its deterrent profile vis-à-vis Iran, Hezbollah and the Gaza-based Islamists. Whether making periodic threats against them actually enhances deterrence is another question. Defense Minister Yoav Galant’s August 9 threat against Hezbollah “to return Lebanon to the stone age” comes to mind as an example of mindless bluster.

Q. And Israel’s neighbors and putative allies against Iran and the Islamists: Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia? How are they interpreting Israel’s domestic turmoil?

A. First and foremost, they are watching closely and trying to understand. Interpreting the controversy over Israel’s High Court of Justice and the autonomous status of Israel’s Haredi community is not necessarily an easy task for non-democratic countries. Take for example the key decisions over ‘reasonableness’, the status of basic laws and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription anticipated in September. Indeed, even in Europe, the Far East and North America, democracies can be forgiven for finding these issues inscrutable. . . .

One key concern among neighbors and potential allies touches on Israel’s strategic reliability as the IDF and the economy are weakened by protest. Can Israel’s security-related and economic commitments still be counted on?

And while the course of Israeli-Palestinian relations has always been a concern, particularly for Jordan with its large Palestinian population, the blatant racism displayed by the radical religious members of Netanyahu’s coalition--toward Arab citizens of Israel as well as West Bank and Gazan Palestinians--can hardly be ignored by the leaders of Israel’s Arab neighbors. They may not be ruling liberal democracies, but they too must be sensitive to their public’s reaction to anti-Arab incitement.

Then too, in Arab eyes Israel is traditionally a reliable conduit to Washington, where an Israeli leader can put in a good word for, say, security aid for Jordan or reduced human rights pressure on Egypt. With Netanyahu unwelcome in Washington, this at least temporarily may not be the case.

On the other hand, there is also great interest among Israel’s Arab neighbors in the vicissitudes of its protest movement. Lest we forget, the Arab world is still emerging from the failed protests of the ‘Arab Spring’ that began in 2011. Some Arab human rights boosters seem inclined to ignore the many differences between Israeli and Arab society and pin hopes on the success of the emerging Israeli model. Yet by and large, Arab leaders are not shedding tears over Israel’s increasing cannibalization of its own democracy.

Q. Saudi Arabia appears to be a special case insofar as it is portrayed as yet another candidate for normalization with Israel.

A. The current negotiations regarding normalization between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel indeed present a special case with regard to both the already established normalization formula and the effects of Israel’s domestic crisis.

First, with regard to the Palestinians: the UAE in 2019 sufficed to normalize relations with Israel in return for Netanyahu’s commitment not to annex West Bank territories--a commitment that is being stealthily broken by Netanyahu’s right-messianic ministers. Presumably, both the Saudis and the Americans now must demand more in terms of advancing Palestinian rights if they are to even symbolically justify normalization with Israel to Saudi public opinion and the US Congress.

But can Netanyahu deliver while maintaining the integrity of his far-right, racist, anti-Palestinian coalition? Does he even want to? Will Riyadh, like Abu Dhabi before it, accept a face-saving empty Israeli gesture because the wealthy Gulf Arab states are simply fed-up with the Palestinians? And will Congress?

Second, with regard to Israeli security and the Saudi ambition to include nuclear recycling in the normalization package: recently Netanyahu’s most trusted emissary, Ron Dermer, was in Washington to discuss this. There, he reportedly intimated that Israel might be able to live with Saudi recycling, perhaps if balanced by an enhanced US security commitment to Israel.

If there is anything to this idea, it promises to be extremely problematic from Israel’s standpoint. Whereas Israeli concessions to the Palestinians are welcome virtually everywhere except among Israel’s West Bank settlers and their minister-supporters, security concessions to the Saudis and Americans may not be welcome at all in Israel.

Does Netanyahu plan to trumpet normalization with Riyadh at the expense of a potential military nuclear option for Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), a loose cannon if ever there was one, even as Israel threatens war with Iran if it takes the same route? Would Israel accept the inevitable US ‘nuclear striptease’ demands in return for American nuclear security guarantees? Would Israel’s angry anti-Bibi protest movement, which Netanyahu presumably hopes to tame in the glow of a Saudi success, buy any of this?

Meanwhile, the Saudis are still toying with the idea of buying Chinese or Korean rather than American reactors. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Biden’s point-man for the Saudi-Israeli-US file, has made clear that an early triangular deal is not likely.

Q. Still, let’s assume that Israel and Saudi Arabia succeed, with help from the United States, in normalizing relations. Surely this would strengthen Israel in the eyes of the region.

A. Obviously it would, in the same way that normalization with the United Arab Emirates and Morocco strengthened Israel a few years ago--particularly in the military, economic and high-tech spheres. But with Saudi Arabia there would be a difference. Unlike Abu Dhabi and Rabat, Riyadh under MbS has regional hegemonic ambitions. And these ambitions worry neighbors like Egypt and Jordan, whose stability is important to Israel.

Will Cairo step aside and let Riyadh become the dominant Arab power--clearly MbS’s end goal? Will the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, protector of Jerusalem’s Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount) mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, yield that role to MbS, who just ‘dropped a hint’ by appointing a consul general for Jerusalem?

Now--worst case scenario--throw in a Saudi military nuclear option under the leader whose henchmen literally butchered a mild Arab critic in Istanbul a few years ago and who regularly throws women in jail for twittering about their rights. True, MbS’s fellow rulers in Cairo and Amman are at times not much nicer toward their critics, but at least they are not going nuclear and are not hegemonic.

Q. Finally, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE and Egypt are joining BRICS, a global economic bloc spearheaded by China and Russia that aspires to compete with the US-led dollar bloc. How does this potentially affect Israel?

A. Israel is linked economically and strategically to the United States, whose superpower profile is in decline in the Middle East. Israel under the current right-messianic Netanyahu government has become estranged from the Biden administration. Yet, as illustrated by reports of an Israeli request for US security guarantees in the Saudi-normalization context, Jerusalem has no alternative but to adhere to an American orientation.

Accordingly, to the extent that joining BRICS distances Riyadh and Cairo from Washington, this may play to Israel’s detriment. Why should the Biden administration offer Saudi Arabia security guarantees and a nuclear project in return for normalization with Israel when Riyadh just announced a move toward Moscow and Beijing?