Analysis: Israel’s key Middle East concerns in 2021

The first months of 2021 have underlined the need for a robust, firm and decisive U.S. role in the Middle East, a senior Israeli defense official said in February. Israel’s policymakers are aware that the new U.S. administration is looking at shifting goals in the region, from how Washington approaches Saudi Arabia to possible new discussions with Iran.

The senior Israeli defense official laid out Israel’s approach in the region and Jerusalem’s hopes for U.S. approaches to various threats. The official’s comments can be construed to represent wider thinking about changing dynamics, threats and also opportunities that may arise this year and in the future. They are presented below in the first of several analysis of Israeli concerns.

Israel-Iran tensions continue to grow in the region in the wake of Israel alleging an Iranian attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman in late February. Iran has also accused Israel of attacking one of its tankers on the way to Syria on March 10. The discussion below with the Israeli official took place before these tensions at sea increased.

For Israel, a continuing priority is that Jerusalem views Iran’s threats as existential and Israel will work to prevent that threat.

“No security or political leadership will ever accept an existential threat,” says the senior official. In Feb. 2021, Iran threatened to enrich uranium to 60-percent, rejected talks with the U.S. in Europe, and sought to use nuclear inspections as bargaining chips with the IAEA.

“The presence of multiple uranium particles of anthropogenic origin, including isotopically altered particles, at a location which was not declared by Iran, is a clear indication that nuclear material and/or equipment contaminated by nuclear material has been present at this location,” said IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi to the IAEA Board of Governors, on March 1.

The track record of Iran’s enrichment, including installing advanced IR-6 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, puts Iran back on the course it pursued in 2012 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned about a red line on enrichment. Iran was warned in October 2012 about enrichment to 60 percent.

Second, the Israeli official noted how important U.S. commitment to the region is for stability. “There is no substitute for U.S. power and influence in the Middle East. There is never a vacuum in the Middle East, and any voids will eventually be filled.” He noted that Israel and U.S. have an unshakeable bond based on shared values and bipartisan support in the U.S., which is crucial to Israel’s security. The special relationship with U.S. is an essential part of Israel’s national security, alongside the peace with Egypt, Jordan, UAE and Bahrain.

Third, in the context of Iranian entrenchment and Iranian proxy threats, the U.S. and western allies can count on Israel. Israel and the U.S. have been in close contact since the new Biden administration came into office. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Israeli counterpart Gabi Asheknazi in late January and again in late February. The National Security Advisors Jake Sullivan and Meir Ben-Shabbat spoke on Jan. 23, and U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in mid-February.

At the same time, key U.S. Central Command head General Kenneth McKenzie and CENTCOM Air Component Commander Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot travelled to Israel in late January and late February respectively. During the Guillot visit, Israeli Air Force commander Amikam Norkin said that strategic cooperation with the U.S. continues to grow.

“We talked about aerial activity in the Middle East, combining 4th and 5th generation aircrafts, and future collaborations between the forces. We will continue to work closely with our American allies, in order to continue to learn and improve constantly,” Norkin said.

Israel is now in Central Command’s area of operations. This doesn’t change joint training on air defense, such as the Feb. 2021 Juniper Falcon air defense drill. Last year Israeli and US F-35 pilots conducted three joint drills with F-35s. The US F-35s flew from Al-Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, a symbolic series of drills that appeared to bookend the new Israeli peace deals with the Gulf last year and presage Israel’s move to Central Command. All of this adds up to the context of the Israeli defense official’s assertion that the US and western powers can count on Israel in the broader context of the region.

A fourth important issue for Israel is building on the Abraham Accords. This was the first peace deal for Israel in decades and makes public a more private convergence of interests between Israel and the Gulf in recent years. Particularly Israel sees the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and UAE ambassador in Washington Yousef al-Otaiba as key figures in this process, with MBZ described as a “courageous visionary.” The official said that “our Arab neighbors can finally see us as part of the region, as part of the solution to the issues of the region. Our relations are on a promising trajectory.” Saudi Arabia was also key to supporting the new peace deals. This is important because recent statements from the US indicate US support for Israel-Saudi ties and also talk of a wider Israel-Saudi Arabia-UAE-Bahrain defense memorandum. Israeli defense companies also took part in Abu Dhabi’s IDEX defense exhibition for the first time this year.

In the context of these four key points – Iranian enrichment, Iran’s proxies, the need for U.S. commitment to the region, and the importance of the Abraham Accords – it is important to look at other key elements of Israel’s view of the current trends and threats.

On Feb. 16, the Israeli Air Force announced that it had launched a surprise drill called “Galilee Rose” in which it practiced striking 3,000 targets over 24 hours. Using precise planning and dozens of aircraft the drill underpinned the posture that Israel has today in the region.

“The entire Air Force, including dozens of aircraft and hundreds of rapidly recruited reservists, took part in the exercise, during which they practiced intense fighting, air defense scenarios, command and control, precise planning, extensive and powerful offensive procedures, and practiced attacking thousands of targets and delivering multiple armaments, all to simulate war in the northern theater,” Israel’s IDF said.

Israel recognizes that the new U.S. administration has new priorities. It is focusing on a domestic Covid crisis, like many countries, and other domestic issues. U.S. National Defense Strategy sees near-peer threats at their highest point since the end of the Cold War. This need to confront Iran and China has sometimes lead to concerns that a U.S. tired of “endless wars” or counter-insurgency strategy focus, might seek to drawdown in the Middle East. This happened before in 2011 when the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. It also appeared to underpin some of the Obama and Trump administration’s goals. Israel is aware that the U.S. is considering its options in places like Afghanistan and this has larger repercussions because the same questions are posed about why the U.S. is in Iran and Iraq. The threats to U.S. forces in Iraq were highlighted by recent revelations about the potential lethality of Iran’s ballistic missile attack on US forces in Jan. 2020 on Al-Asad base.

US-China competition in the region has led to concerns about China’s role in the Gulf and about potential Israeli outreach to China, such as involving a port deal in Haifa. It would appear that the Abraham Accords and U.S. support for broadening them serve broader U.S. interests to keep partners from drifting towards China. The U.S. State Department said on March 1 it supports Saudi Arabia forging a historic peace with Israel. The statement came the same day that the UAE’s first ambassador to Israel presented his credentials in Jerusalem. This could shore up U.S. concerns about China’s inroads in the Gulf and also in other countries where the US has traditional relations, such as Egypt and Iraq.

On the Russian front the U.S. and Israel are working closely together in Syria where Russia is also present. Russia and Iran both support the Syrian regime but have diverging views on the future of Syria. The Jewish Institute for National Security of America held a talk with Distinguished Fellow former Israeli National Security Advisor and IDF Major Gen. Yaakov Amidror on March 1. Amidror noted that Israel’s actions in Syria against Iranian entrenchment works on the assumption that no Russians will be engendered and that Russian weapon systems will not be harmed.

“The Russian acceptance [of Israeli policy] is very interesting … There are some in Israel who believe at the end of the day that the Russians will be the solution for pushing the Iranians out of Syria,” he noted.

Passive agreement by the Russians and concerns over destabilizing the Assad regime might lead to Moscow preferring Iran drawdown its forces in Syria.

The senior defense official says that the U.S. knows Russia very well due to decades of past experience. Russia’s goal in Syria is a strong state and while Russia and Iran may be in the same places, such as the T-4 base, Russia wants an economic footprint and fruits from its investment. Iran may be eroding that investment.

Israel is confident that it has done a good job confronting Iran’s proxies and threats but it is also cognizant that Iran is playing the long game. Iran can wait many years or decades to obtain a nuclear weapon. It has shown how it uses enrichment and other methods to gain concessions through examples like the 2015 JCPOA. While its long-term goal may be a nuclear weapon, it uses the down time on enrichment to funnel resources to its IRGC-backed proxies in the region.

Seth J. Frantzman is Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and author of ‘After ISIS: The US, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.’ A contributor to Defense News and The Jerusalem Post, he is conducting research for a forthcoming book called ‘Drone Wars.’

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