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Israel and Its Middle East Neighbors

With Amos Harel, Steven Cook, and Grant Rumley

In this episode of the Foreign Affairs’ podcast, we provide an intimate look at the changing dynamics of Israel’s relationships with its Middle East neighbors, as many of them go through a period of intense conflict and turmoil. Featuring interviews with Middle East Experts Amos Harel, Steven Cook, and Grant Rumley and hosted by Foreign Affairs Deputy Web Editor Rebecca Chao.  

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This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

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CHAO: This is Foreign Affairs Unedited, and I’m Rebecca Chao.

This week, we provide an intimate look at the changing dynamics of Israel’s relationships with its Middle East neighbors, as many of them go through a period of intense conflict and turmoil. We speak to some of the world’s top Middle East Experts. And first we have Amos Harel. He’s a journalist at the Israeli daily, Haaretz, and he’s reported on defense issues for over a decade. He starts by giving us a picture of the security challenges Israel’s facing today.

HAREL: Israel is in a middle of a huge storm, at the eye of the storm if you'd like, but it's not really affected by most of the implications. Our region at the middle East is going through terrible turmoil, it's disintegrating in front of our eyes for the last five and a half years, and there's devastation, and destruction and fighting almost everywhere

CHAO: But, says Amos, Israel’s not really affected by it

HAREL: It's a sort of a security bubble if you'd like, Israel does not get too much involved in the inner fighting among Muslims, among different Arab of forces in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and so on.

CHAO: There’s also more to it than Israel simply staying out of the mess in the Middle East. Amos explains what’s happening at Israel’s north east border with Syria.

HAREL: If you travel along the Israeli-Syrian border, you will not meet even one Syrian soldier on the other side, and when I talked to those soldiers on Mt Hermon, they said the last time they saw Syrian Commandos on the other side, was I think, 18 months ago. By now, all those soldiers were pushed back, either deployed else where by the regime or threaten out by different rebel groups.

CHAO: That doesn’t mean that the borders aren’t defended.

HAREL: And in fact, our next door neighbors are no longer the Syrian divisions and brigade but all kinds of local groups. Some of them very, very radical Soonie-Chia had these groups even affiliated to ISIS, others are local militias which are against the Assad regime, but on the other hand, keep maintain some sort of contact with the Israelis.

CHAO: This puts Israel’s defense forces, which has trained for decades against conventional armies like Syria’s, in a tough spot.

HAREL: Guerrilla and terrorist organizations are something else, and they're usually not considered an existential threat to Israel. On the other hand, it's harder to figure out what these groups are up to, it's harder to gain information, it's harder to differ, because some of them are very very radical, and are not really playing this game if you'd like by the ancient rules.

CHAO: Still, Israel’s main threat right now lies to its north west, in Lebanon.

HAREL: At this time, Israel is more concerned about Hezbollah. It has an arsenal of close to 130,000 rockets and missiles which could hit every spot in Israel. Some of its weapons are rather accurate. And in the last three or four years since it's been so busy fighting the civil war in Syria, it's commanders and fighters gained very important combat experience. So this a much more serious enemy than those local militias on the other side of the Syrian border. On the other hand, at this moment, Hezbollah is both occupied by fighting the war in Syria and at least to some extent, deterred by the fact that Israel has better military capabilities and Hezbollah is perfectly aware of the fact that if another war breaks out in Lebanon, then there will a price to pay for the Lebanon at large but also for the Shiite community.

CHAO: Now we move south to Egypt. Even though things have been stable between Israel and Egypt for decades now, it was never a very warm relationship. That’s also changing. Here’s Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations to explain why.

COOK: Well, the relationship has certainly improved since General Sisi took power in July 2013 in what's widely regarded as a coup d'etat, though you can't really say that in Egypt. There is a considerable cooperation on the security and intelligence front because the insurgency in the Sinai peninsula. There's a group in the Sinai peninsula, they're called 'Wilayat Sinai', the Sinai province of the Islamic State that has indicated and pledged it's allegiance to the Islamic State and is waging insurgency against the Egyptian state. That is a problem both for Egypt and Israel and given these security concerns, the Israelis and the Egyptians have deepened their security and intelligence cooperation. I think it goes without saying that the Israelis did not shed a tear for Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, had been the president of Egypt who Sisi toppled in July 2013.

CHAO: Not only is this relationship improving, as Steven says, but it’s also different under Sisi than it was under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former leader who was ousted during the 2011 Arab Spring.

COOK: Well, there was security cooperation between Egypt and Israel before the uprising, before Mubarak fell. That security cooperation increased significantly in 2005 coinciding with Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, but I think given the real threat that the insurgency in the Sinai peninsula represents to both countries, you're seeing a new level of security cooperation. Neither the Egyptians nor the Israelis are willing to talk specifically about what's going on. I think in Egypt there had been rumors of actual Israeli operations in the Sinai peninsula. I don't think that that's true. I think well more likely is that the Israelis are sharing real time intelligence with their Egyptian counterparts to help the Egyptians target the insurgents in the Sinai. There's no doubt that there's ongoing talks between senior leadership of both countries, military leadership of both countries, the intelligence leadership of both countries. So this is... It's a newer relationship but it's not new.

CHAO: Even if Egypt and Israel’s relationship is old news, what might be new is the dynamic between Israel and Saudi Arabia. A few months ago, in April, Egypt gave Saudi Arabia two islands called Sanafir and Tiran. These islands are significant to Israel because they can be used to block Israel’s access to the Red Sea, to trade routes to Africa and Asia. In 1967, Egypt did just that, using those islands to form a blockade and it sparked the Six Day war. Steven explains the significance of this transfer and its implications for Israel.

COOK: One of the issues related to peace between Egypt and Israel is an Egyptian... A commitment to maintain freedom in navigation through what's called the 'Straits of Tiran'. With the Egyptians ceding control of those islands back to Saudi Arabia, now of course this is a subject of incredible controversy in Egypt right now and in fact an Egyptian court has nullified the agreement.

The Saudis, of course don't actually recognize the court's jurisdiction in this area and the Egyptian government's gonna appeal the decision, and so on and so forth. But nevertheless, ceding control of the islands to the Saudis would then suggest that the Saudis are implicitly recognizing the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and the commitment to maintain freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran, which would by association, implicitly recognize Israel's right to exist. The fact of the matter is, the Saudis and the Israelis have maintained communications over a long period of time. It's never been public. There was a change in the Israeli-Saudi relationship more recently, given their common interest in confronting Iranian influence around the region, and their common interest in supporting President Sisi in Egypt. So that relationship is being slowly becoming somewhat more public, although both countries would like to keep it, the details of their relationship under the radar screen. But there is no doubt that the Saudis and the Israelis have a confluence of interest, both on Iran as well as Egypt.

CHAO: Even if Israel seems to have a relatively calm relationship with former foes like Syria and Egypt, there’s still Palestine. There’s been a handful of lone wolf knife attacks by angry Palestinian youths in Israel since last fall. Dozens have died at this point—both Israelis and Palestinians. Grant Rumley from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies talks about a recent international meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that took place in Paris on June 3.

RUMLEY: So the Paris talks happened earlier this month. It was a meeting of EU and select Air partner foreign ministers. Foreign ministers from Germany, Russia and Britain did not attend however. Secretary of State John Kerry did. And the conference took along a lot of different shapes before it was actually held, but in it's final form it was basically a five-hour meeting where the foreign ministers reiterated their support for the two-states solution.

CHAO: That doesn’t sound too thrilling or effective, and on top of that, Israel and Palestine weren’t invited.

RUMLEY: So it was just a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss their support for the peace process. The plans now are for them to sort of galvanize EU and Arab support for the peace process, to try to jilt something back to life, and then hold another conference near the end of the year that would then include both Israelis and Palestinians.

CHAO: But the meeting may serve as an effective bridge to more important discussions in the future.

RUMLEY: I think the reasoning for the French was that they wanted to sort of galvanize the international bodies and rally them around a set of parameters that would then jilt start the peace process back. Obviously for the Israelis this is disconcerting. They're not in favor of multilateral initiatives. For the Palestinians, anything that is organized outside of the traditional parameters of the peace process is a win for them. So the first meeting was scheduled without Israeli and Palestinian participation. The second meeting, if the French have their way would then bring the parties to the table. So I think the French are looking to kind of pick up the mantle of mediator of the conflict. And so they're hoping some type of conference in the form of the P5+1 for the Iran deal last year will be their model on the way forward. Obviously for the Israelis this is a sort of a nightmare scenario. And they view this multilateral initiative as not in their best interest. But I think the French view, the next six to seven months here, as a window of opportunity. The Obama administration is not looking to sort of relaunch any type of large scale peace process attempt. So the French think that the game is ripe for the taking.

CHAO: That’s all for this week. To find out more about Israel’s new challenges, read our new issue, The Struggle for Israel. And to hear more, join us in two weeks for part two of this podcast, which will focus on Israel’s internal struggles. Until then, go to ForeignAffairs.com for more, and tell us what you think of the show on iTunes.

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