In the midst of the tragic events of recent weeks in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke at a conference titled “In the Absence of Progress toward a Final Status Agreement: Options for Israel” held by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) on June 29. In his speech he outlined the challenges Israel faces in a region overcome by instability and turmoil.
Netanyahu’s analysis is noteworthy because the regional realities in the Middle East are all too often overlooked, as attention is given to the constant flow of local incidents and events. However, discussion of everyday news in isolation from broader analysis is, at best, partial and lacking context.
In his speech, Netanyahu first described the changing regional reality in the Middle East, the shifts in power between the regional actors as result of the civil wars and Arab revolutions, the fluctuation in power centres and, potentially, borders. Netanyahu went on to outline four main issues which he sees as the main threats and challenges to Israel’s security, with their regional and international implications.
The first challenge mentioned by Netanyahu is the protection of Israel’s borders given the spread of the forces of radical Islam in the region:
“In Lebanon and Syria, Hezbollah and Iran’s Shi’ite forces are arming themselves in preparation for a future confrontation with Israel, and they also test us from time to time. In Syria and in the Sinai, their Sunni and jihadist enemies are joining the attacks against us, and in Gaza, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements are operating against us.”
In order to deal with this challenge, Netanyahu emphasised the need to establish a physical barrier, a security fence to prevent infiltration into Israel from the east, from Eilat to the Golan Heights, as Israel’s northern border (along the borders with Lebanon and Syria) and southern border (along the border with Egypt) are already protected by fences.
Netanyahu also stated that the security risks posed by radical groups in the region are the impetus for his call to maintain Israeli security control along the border with Jordan:
“Now you can understand why I keep insisting that Israel’s eastern security border will remain along the Jordan River. Who knows what the future holds? The ISIS wave could very quickly be directed against Jordan… we must have the capacity to stop the waves of terror and fanaticism that can come from the east along the Jordan River rather than on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.”
Following this logic, the second challenge Netanyahu outlined was the need to stabilise the area west of the Jordan River security line – the West Bank, and put in place security arrangements that would allow the Israeli Defence Forces to act against terrorist activity and potential radicalisation in that territory:
“In this area of the West Bank no force can guarantee Israel’s security other than the IDF and our security services…We must understand that in any future settlement with the Palestinians, Israel will have to maintain long-term security control of the territory along the Jordan River.”
He also reaffirmed his commitment to the two state solution, in which he has been consistent since his Bar Ilan speech in 2009, and explained his views regarding the obstacles to this vision:
“As for settlements, this is one of the issues that should and I believe can be resolved in a final status agreement. However, this is not the root of our conflict with the Palestinians. The root of the conflict is the refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any boundary. Until we resolve this issue, no settlement evacuation will make any difference, as we witnessed following our withdrawal from Gaza.”
Netanyahu then called on Abbas to “break his pact with Hamas, an organisation which continues to champion kidnappings, terror and more importantly – the eradication of the State of Israel.”
Perhaps the most important comment made by Netanyahu in his INSS speech was regarding his third challenge – building an axis of regional cooperation. In Netanyahu’s view, given the developments in the region, Israel is faced not only with new threats, but also opportunities. The fighting between Sunni radicals, led by al-Qaeda and ISIS, and Shiite radicals, led by Iran, creates an opportunity to enhance and bolster regional cooperation among moderate actors in the region – especially Jordan and the Kurds:
“We can and should minimize the possible damage radical Islam poses to us and others, support the international efforts to strengthen Jordan and support the Kurds’ aspirations for independence. Jordan is a stable, moderate country with a strong military that can defend itself, and the international efforts to support it are appropriate. So too is the support for the Kurds, who are a fighting people that has shown political commitment and moderation and deserves political independence. I believe we must also cooperate with Egypt and other countries to block the spread of radical Shi’ite or Sunni forces in their territories…”
Jordan is facing an increasing threat from ISIS and Jihadi groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, and even King Abdullah II has recently expressed his fears over potential spill-over. While security cooperation between Israel and Jordan is largely covert, one of Netanyahu’s former senior security advisers, Yaakov Amidror, recently suggested that Israel help bolster Jordan’s defence against ISIS and al-Qaeda militants nearing their borders:
“If Jordan asks for assistance, we should help. We need to help with whatever they may need in order to overcome the problems developing on their eastern borders.”
Netanyahu’s support of Kurdish independence made headlines around the world, especially because his analysis might imply that the turmoil in Iraq could lead to the redrawing of countries’ borders in the Middle East. Dr. Ofra Bengio of Tel-Aviv University, an expert on the Kurdish issue, seems to support Netanyahu’s views:
“The Obama administration still believes it is possible to keep Iraq unified and integrated, and reality tells a different story,” she said. “Israel is aware of this reality.”
In a recent op-ed she concluded that “the whole world is aware of the fact that Kurdistan is already a de facto state. And for all the talk about the integrity of the Iraqi state it will be impossible to turn back the clock to the so-called Iraqi unitary state of the 20th century.” (For Bengio’s full analysis of the Kurdish moment and their opportunity to declare independence, see here and here)
She further explained that the Kurdish entity has emerged as a stable and secure, pro-Western and mostly secular entity. When confronted with threats from ISIS combatants, the Kurds proved themselves as an effective “bulwark against the jihadist onslaught on Iraq and the entire region.”
Meanwhile, Israel also bought the first delivery of oil directly from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, after the Kurds took control of oil-rich territory in the region of Kirkuk in Iraq and started to export oil independently of Baghdad.
In the past, Israel and the Kurds have covertly cooperated, for example when Israel helped train Kurdish rebels in the 1960s, and during the Gulf War in 1991, when the Jewish- Kurdish community organised relief to the Kurds. This cooperation was based on mutual interests and a sense of commonality among minorities in an Arab region, as Bengio explained:
“We are both small nations, and we are both de-legitimised in the region. I think there’s an affinity between our two people. And we think the Kurds are a force of stability. … And if you add now oil, it also adds economic benefits as well.”
Members of Kurdish communities around the world took to social media to express their thanks to Netanyahu for his supportive statements, with many posting the Israeli flag and Netanyahu’s photo on Facebook in an expression of appreciation. Arif Bawecani, head of the Kurdistan Independent Party (Parti Serbesti Kurdistan, PSK), in an interview with the Israeli Jerusalem Post, thanked Israel’s leaders for their support for an independent Kurdistan, saying:
“I would like to send my thanks, from myself and every Kurd to President Shimon Peres and [Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu and the whole nation of Israel for supporting Kurdish rights and independence.” He added, “The Kurdish people will never forget these statements.”
The fourth challenge outlined by Netanyahu is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. This concern, he noted, is shared by many other countries in the Middle East, especially given the growing tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite forces:
“We must not allow one of the sides in this bloody conflict in our region to arm itself with weapons of mass destruction. The arming of radical forces with nuclear weapons will endanger the entire world. In this sense, no deal is better than a bad deal,” he stated, referring to the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 regarding its nuclear facilities.
“Iran insists not on dismantling and removing [its nuclear facilities], but on keeping and inspecting. Not dismantling of capabilities, but inspection of capabilities… However, the inspection regime cannot prevent the enrichment of uranium for a bomb.”
Netanyahu expressed concern that the position of the international community might be too lenient toward Iran, and that the deal might endanger the security of the region:
“We have been following with concern the willingness of the P5+1 to reduce Iran’s breakout time from ‘years’ to ‘a year’. If Iran maintains thousands of mothballed centrifuges, the breakout time will effectively be reduced to only several months or several weeks. If the world powers agree to such an arrangement, they will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state that will threaten Israel and the region and quickly spark a nuclear arms race in other countries in the Middle East. Such an arrangement will endanger the entire world.”
Netanyahu concluded by stressing that Israel remains an anchor of stability and security in the region, yet that stability depends on Israel’s capability to protect itself:
“For the sake of Israel’s security, for the sake of peace and stability in the region, for the sake of our future – and objectively speaking, not only ours – we must continue to strengthen our country and our military. There never was and there never will be any substitute.”