Amid the turmoil raging in the Middle East — multiple wars, competing terrorist groups, and a growing number of governments involved in the fighting — there is no question that the security situation for Israel has changed. What is less clear is whether Israel has become more or less secure as the result of the unrest.
At the moment, Israelis are experiencing a wave of attacks against civilians perpetrated mostly by young Palestinians. The consequences are tragic for the victims and their families and highly stressful for millions of Israelis. But as a largely leaderless and disorganized movement, the low-grade uprising does not pose an existential threat to the country.
More troubling is the continuing construction of tunnels by Hamas, which has shown it can use them to kidnap Israelis and infiltrate the country.
Beyond that, the picture is a mixed one.
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Syria and its war lie close to the heart of Israel. Israel’s third largest city, Haifa, is less than 90 miles away from the Syrian capital, Damascus. Thousands of Israelis can hear the Syrian shelling from their homes.
The fighting in Syria encapsulates just how complicated it is to assess the impact of Arab turmoil on Israeli security. That war has brought forces from Iran, Israel’s most dangerous and determined enemy, to the Syrian-Israeli border. In addition, it has spawned the Islamic State, or ISIS, a vicious terrorist group that has made it clear it intends to bring its Jihad to Israel and, in fact, has already made inroads in Gaza.
At the same time, the Syrian war has embroiled several of Israel’s enemies, not only distracting them from their goal of destroying the Jewish state, but inflicting heavy losses on their forces.
Hezbollah, the Iran-linked Lebanese militia, is fighting in Syria on the side of the government of Bashar Assad. Both Iran and Hezbollah are focused on saving Assad. Hezbollah, in particular, at Iran’s insistence, is paying a high price to defend the Syrian regime. By some estimates, thousands of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria. And Syria, still officially at war with Israel, is being devastated.
In addition, the rise of Iran is making Sunni regimes — who view Iran as the greatest threat to their security — reconsider their stance toward Israel. Quiet and not-so-quiet ties between Israel and Arab states are emerging out of shared concerns about Iran.
In the short term, the situation has made Israel more secure, mostly because some of Israel’s enemies are occupied in Syria and are using their arsenals there, and because the new regional calculus makes antipathy towards Israel a lower priority. I have personally spoken with many (non-Palestinian) Arabs in the past couple of years who have told me Israel is a problem for Palestinians, not for them. That is an important positive change from Israel’s perspective.
The security gains, however, quickly fade if one looks at a longer horizon.
Hezbollah, for example, is clearly in no position to attack Israel right now. But Israeli officials estimate that the group already has more than 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel. When the war in Syria ends, Iran and Hezbollah will redirect their gaze towards Israel. By then, Iran will have collected tens of billions of dollars from the end of sanctions against its nuclear program. Some of that money will go to rebuilding Hezbollah after its Syria losses, and to strengthening Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, also involved in Syria today.
Depending on exactly how the war ends, Israel could find a whole new series of challenges. If Assad survives, he will be even more beholden to Iran than before. And Iran will be stronger.
In addition to how Assad fares, the condition of ISIS when the war ends could have repercussions in Israel. The collapse of the peace process with Palestinians combined with the lack of support by Palestinians for their leaders could make the Palestinian areas fertile recruiting ground for ISIS and make the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian deal even more remote, presaging even more unrest.
And then there is the Iran nuclear deal, parts of which expire in 10 years, others in 15 years. Depending on what happens in and with the Islamic Republic by then, a nuclear Iran, viscerally anti-Israel, could become a reality.
The turmoil in the Arab Middle East gives Israel some security breathing space. Let’s hope Israeli leaders use it wisely, because it is only short term.