A Changing Middle East: The View from Israel
A Conversation with Chuck Freilich
Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel
Israel’s position in the Middle East is changing. The UAE’s announcement in August 2020 that it would normalize relations with Israel—formalized the following month in the Abraham Accords Declaration—sparked a series of similar agreements between Israel and several Arab states. The perception of U.S. disengagement with the region has led countries to reconsider alliances and rivalries. And the election of new leaders in the U.S. and Israel heralds a possible reset in relations between those states. In this Crown Conversation, we spoke with Chuck Freilich—Goldman Visiting Senior Fellow at the Crown Center and a former deputy national security adviser in Israel—about what these changes mean for Israel’s security and role in the Middle East. Freilich is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy (Cornell University Press, 2012); Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change (Oxford University Press, 2018); and Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Cyber Power (forthcoming 2022).
What has been the significance of the Abraham Accords and subsequent normalization agreements? Israel already had a range of relations with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco; what difference—if any—did public normalization make?
An enormous difference. The Abraham Accords will go down as a turning point in Middle East history.
First, there has been a dramatic expansion in ties between Israel and these countries, especially the UAE—arguably the trendsetter in the Arab world today. The UAE made a historic decision not just to normalize relations, but to do so big time and warmly. Agreements have been signed with all three countries in a variety of areas, including energy, tourism, medicine, cyber, and more. Israeli tourists travel to the UAE in droves. And an Emirati logistics firm, DP World, is a contender to buy the port in Haifa.
Moreover, it is unlikely that the Accords would have been signed without Saudi approval, and even the Saudis are slowly establishing ties with Israel. Remember the dramatic statement in 2018 by Mohammad bin Salman (colloquially known as MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Normalization with the Saudis awaits either his ascent to the throne or possibly still a breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians, but informal Israeli-Saudi ties are already a fact of life.
With the other countries, the breakthrough took place even without progress with the Palestinians, a change of historic importance. For decades, the Palestinians had a lock hold on regional normalization beyond Egypt and Jordan; no one could go ahead without them. Even strong supporters of a two-state solution (like myself), who believe nothing is more important for Israel’s future, are thrilled to see incremental peace with the Arab world wherever possible.
Actually, the Accords have already had a critical impact on the Palestinian issue as well. Normalization provided Netanyahu with a pretext to back out of the corner he had painted himself into and “postpone” annexation indefinitely, probably permanently. It puts ongoing pressure on Israel to take Arab positions on this and other issues into account. The fear of simply being left behind may incentivize greater Palestinian moderation in future negotiations. It will take time, but the opening to the Arab world embodied in the Abraham Accords will shape attitudes on all sides.
More fundamentally, the Accords are an important step in the decades-long process of Arab acceptance of Israel’s existence.
Many analysts describe a de facto alliance developing between Israel and Gulf Arab states to balance against rising Iranian influence in the region. Is there a basis for such an alliance?
“Alliance” is a strong word. A shared fear of Iran was undoubtedly a critical motivation behind the normalization with the UAE and Bahrain and the de facto ties with the Saudis. It is also a factor for Egypt and Jordan, though not quite as critical.
Strategic cooperation is probably a more appropriate term. Think of policy coordination, of the Gulf states’ proximity to Iran, of the challenges of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Think of refueling, airspace, operating bases, interoperability of weapon systems. Much of this will undoubtedly remain fanciful because the Gulf states do not want to expose themselves to Iranian retaliation, but maybe not all of it. The very fact that we can speculate about Gulf states cooperating with Israel militarily and even a joint strike is a further reflection of the dramatic change wrought by the Abraham Accords.
There has, however, been a major change in regional dynamics. If the shared fear of Iran, with much prodding by the Trump administration, was what led to the Abraham Accords, fear of American disengagement from the region may now be driving the players apart. The Biden administration’s denials notwithstanding, neither the Gulf states nor Israel are convinced that the U.S. truly has their backs anymore when it comes to Iran. Justified or not, the regional perception is that the current U.S. administration is hell-bent on a deal with Iran, at nearly all costs.
The result is two conflicting trends. On the one hand, the Gulf states’ lack of confidence in the traditional American security guarantee leaves Israel as their most likely ally of significance. On the other hand, Israel is not a substitute for the U.S., and Gulf states have begun to hedge their bets and seek détente with Iran. The diminishing U.S. role is not good news for regional normalization and security.
You just finished a book on cyber threats to Israel. How does that developing challenge fit into Israel’s overall national security strategy?
Not just threats, but opportunities. The cyber realm certainly poses major threats to Israel, but it could also not be better suited to Israel’s national strengths. Despite its size, Israel has become one of the world’s top commercial and military cyber powers.
The bad news, from Israel’s perspective, is that Israel is one of the primary targets of cyber attacks—mostly from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas—but Russia and China are growing sources of concern too. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and defense establishment are reasonably well defended, as are most critical public institutions, and we know of no major successful attacks against them to date. But the Iranians are a sophisticated and resourceful adversary. In 2020–2021, they pivoted from attacks against these targets to a series of attacks against a variety of less well protected private firms that imposed significant economic and reputational effects. Some of these firms also have important ties with the IDF and defense establishment, and, in one or two cases, the Iranians were able to gain important intelligence. We have, however, yet to see a devastating attack, whether because Israel’s defenses are sufficiently robust or because its adversaries are waiting for the “right” circumstances. Either way, cyber is a growing threat for Israel, economically and militarily.
The good news is that Israel is thought to have sophisticated offensive cyber capabilities, drawing on a unique “cyber ecosystem.” Cyber education in Israel begins in elementary school and continues throughout high school and university. The IDF is one of the greatest cyber training centers and incubators in the world, generating a “cyber force” comparable to a superpower, not only in quality, but remarkably also in absolute numbers. The number of Israeli cyber firms is astonishing. It is a fascinating story that I discuss in my book, which will be out in the fall.
The Netanyahu and Trump administrations worked closely together. How has the election of new leaders in both Israel and the U.S. affected the bilateral relationship?
The new government in Israel represents a potentially dramatic change in Israeli politics. The hard left and hard right formed a coalition, together with an Islamist Arab party but no Jewish religious parties. The glue that led to the coalition’s establishment was, and remains, the desire to ensure that Netanyahu does not return to power. But it is more than that: It is a recognition that the overwhelming non-orthodox majority—mostly secular Jews but also those who follow some degree of tradition—has more in common than not and, with the important exception of the Palestinian issue, can work together.
It is premature to conclude that this will become the new normal, but the potential is there. Demographic and political trends are such that the left and center-left would have been hard-pressed to form a government for the foreseeable future. Together with the moderate right, however, there is a chance for more effective and accountable governance.
I think Biden is a true friend of Israel’s: one of those who gets it viscerally, from the “kishkes” (gut). But he is also a liberal Democrat, a party with an increasingly strident left-wing that is critical of policy towards Israel. Bipartisan support for Israel was always the basis for the unusually strong relationship. The leaders of the new government in Israel, both Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, are clearly deeply concerned by the downturn in relations with the U.S. in recent years and have made a concerted effort to improve matters. The Biden administration, which is interested in the new Israeli government’s longevity, has similarly done its part.
On the Iranian issue Bennett’s approach is not fundamentally different from his predecessor’s, although Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have taken a more nuanced approach in public. Like the Netanyahu government, but unlike what appears to be a majority position within the defense establishment, the new government views Iran as an existential threat and a return to the old nuclear deal as a dangerous mistake. It has, however, conducted the dialogue with the U.S. responsibly, not hiding the differences, but doing so in an appropriate manner and while offering constructive inputs. The extreme positions Iran has taken in the negotiations—such as the removal of all sanctions, not just those related to the nuclear program, and a guarantee that no future U.S. administration will withdraw again from the agreement—made the Biden administration more receptive to Israel’s concerns, even as it pressed ahead for a deal.
On the Palestinian issue, the new Israeli government is more of a coalition of national paralysis than of national unity and is explicitly based on agreement not to go forward. The potential for friction with the U.S. is thus there. If on the Iranian issue the U.S. and Israel share the same strategic objectives but differ on some important means of achieving them, the differences on the Palestinian issue may be more fundamental, at least with that part of the Israeli ruling coalition that is not committed to a two-state solution. For now, at least, the Biden administration is focused on other issues, is skeptical of the prospects for progress on the two-state issue, and does not wish to undermine the fragile new coalition in Israel, especially before Lapid takes over as prime minister in 2023 and has a chance to establish himself as a future leader. Instead, it will probably focus on low-hanging fruit, such as renewed funding for UNRWA and the reopening of the consulate in Jerusalem or at least the PLO office in Washington.
Netanyahu was an outlier, in many ways, but in regard to the U.S. too. There is no doubt that he fully understood the critical importance of the relationship with the U.S. There is also no doubt that he is smart and a leader of rare ability. At the same time, his thinking and leadership were corrupted by too many years in power, which deteriorated into a desperate, no-holds barred attempt to stay in power (and out of jail). It is one thing to express disagreement with the U.S.—Israel’s overarching strategic ally—over an issue that Israel views as an existential threat. It is quite another to use tensions with the U.S. as a means of bolstering one’s political base. The new government is fully cognizant of the damage caused and is doing its best, within the confines of political realities, to begin the healing process.
We’ve discussed systemic, regional, domestic, and individual factors that are shaping the Middle East. From a strategic perspective, what characterizes the current period for Israel and what distinguishes it from previous periods?
An unusual mixture of both great potential and grave danger.
Israel’s economy has rebounded strongly from the COVID crisis, driven by its extraordinary high-tech sector, and Israel has never been stronger militarily and more secure. Israel no longer faces existential threats and won’t—unless Iran develops a nuclear weapon. There are no major conventional threats either. Israel won its existence. If one looks at it from a historical perspective, Israel’s national security strategy has been a resounding success. It is also a dramatic success of American policy: The “special relationship” was explicitly designed to ensure Israel’s security and enable it to defend itself, by itself, against any combination of threats.
The Abraham Accords ushered in a period of historic change, in terms of Israel’s regional acceptance and the possibilities for cooperation in nearly all areas. Israel’s international standing is certainly a source of considerable concern, but Israel has relations today with more states than ever before, including military relations. The alliance with the U.S. remains strong.
Conversely, Iran may be the first adversary that is too big, too powerful, and too far away for Israel to be able to defeat it. Israel can defend itself effectively and has already shown that it can impede Iranian entrenchment efforts in Syria. But it is an uphill battle. Iran is a regional superpower. If it is willing to pay the international price, its regional influence will grow and it will cross the nuclear threshold.
I greatly hope that the nuclear issue can be resolved diplomatically. A return to the nuclear deal, with some necessary adjustments, still remains the best of the bad options. I believe that all options short of direct military action must be exhausted, but the consensus in Israel is that Iran simply cannot be allowed to go nuclear. Most decision-makers and experts believe that the primary danger is not of Iran actually using a nuke against Israel: That would be totally irrational on Iran’s part, and they understand the consequences. The more realistic danger is the influence that a nuclear capability would give Iran in every limited future confrontation, but the mere presence of nuclear weapons poses a risk of escalation to the nuclear—and therefore existential level—and fundamentally changes conflict dynamics. That is something Israel cannot afford.
If and when the crunch comes, as Iran is about to cross the nuclear threshold, Israel may very well stand alone, as it did in 1981 and 2007 when American inaction left it with little choice but to attack the Iraqi and Syrian reactors, respectively. An Israeli attack can likely achieve no more than a comparatively short delay in the Iranian nuclear program, and the Israeli home front will be hit as never before. This is a truly dire scenario, but the only worse one would be a nuclear Iran. So, I believe Israel will have no choice but to attack, to gain some limited delay in the program and mostly to create a situation in which the international community, led by the U.S., will be constrained to finally intervene decisively. There will be a heavy price for Israel to pay—the U.S. may demand some of it in terms of concessions to the Palestinians and on other issues—but Israel will have to act and let the pieces fall as they may.
Iran is a sophisticated and carefully calculating actor. Back in the 1990s, Iran astutely concluded that Israel had gained overwhelming conventional superiority over its enemies, but that Israel’s home front was its weak point. It thus adopted a decades-long strategy of “attrition until destruction” (i.e., long-term, asymmetric warfare designed to gradually weaken Israel and bring about its ultimate destruction). Since then, Iran has been focused on Israel’s home front, including the mammoth arsenal of some 150,000 rockets it provided Hezbollah, the smaller arsenals of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or Iran’s own large and growing stockpiles of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones. Even the nuclear program is designed primarily as a threat to Israel’s home front and as a deterrent, rather than for war-fighting purposes. A big change is Hezbollah’s growing arsenal of precision rockets, which provide it with the capability that no Arab actor has ever had: to disrupt Israel’s mobilization processes, offensive operations, rocket defenses, command-and-control, and even to cause significant damage to its critical national infrastructure.
A critical challenge for Israel in the coming years will be to maintain the “special relationship” with the U.S. at a time when the prospects for progress with the Palestinians grow even dimmer and significant differences may emerge over Iran. The American Left is increasingly hostile towards Israel. Parts of the Jewish community, which is overwhelmingly on the Democratic Left, are also distancing themselves. Moreover, important demographic trends in the U.S. that are totally unrelated to Israel will negatively impact the relationship in the future. Little is more crucial to Israel’s national security than the relationship with the U.S.
Somehow, Israel will handle all of the above. What really worries me is that we are rapidly approaching the point of no return for a two-state solution. The Palestinians are very close to missing their historic opportunity to achieve an independent state, and Israel is similarly close to risking its future as a predominantly Jewish state. That’s what really worries me.
The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.