Analysis

A Strategic Crisis Could Set the Middle East Alight

Israel's intelligence assessment sees the chances of war as low, but the danger a local eruption in the region could spiral into a strategic crisis has grown considerably

Israeli soldiers near the West Bank city of Ramallah July 19, 2017.
MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

An individual who, for purposes on this column will be called a senior Israeli defense official, appeared a bit worried. There are a lot of balls in the air in the Middle East, but no one is capable of really assessing where things are going, which crisis will ebb and what element could pose the risk of an explosion in the region.

The Americans are preoccupied with the North Korea crisis while their president regularly and deliberately sparks controversy on Twitter, with the latest incident involving star football and basketball players. U.S. President Donald Trump has also been trading warnings with Tehran against the backdrop of American deliberation over whether to pull out of the Iranian nuclear agreement. Meanwhile, Russia is dictating the tone in Syria and opening the door to greater Iranian involvement in the country.

Saudi Arabia is confused and having a hard time solidifying a Sunni Muslim coalition to block Tehran’s growing influence. Egypt is continuing to advance its efforts at bringing about reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but a possible failure could spur Hamas to again consider escalation vis-à-vis Israel, as the infrastructure in Gaza continues to deteriorate. For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is combative, frenetic and unpredictable.

My source implies that in recent months, the entire region mirrors the elderly Palestinian leader's conduct. The Middle East hasn't known a moment of quiet, certainly not since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in December 2010, but the current instability and uncertainty appear even greater than the past. The assessment of the Israeli army's intelligence corps remains unchanged: The chances of a war initiated against Israel are low. However, the danger that a local eruption could spiral from a tactical event to a strategic crisis has grown considerably.

History never exactly repeats itself, but it appears that these matters carry greater weight when you consider the calendar. September 29 is not only the 17th anniversary of the outbreak of the second intifada, which began as a violent Palestinian protest in Jerusalem the day after former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount. And according to the Hebrew calendar, Yom Kippur, which starts on Friday night, will mark the 44th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In other years, too, the fall Jewish holidays have been a particularly sensitive time between Israelis and Palestinians.

As I spoke to the senior official on Wednesday, the final touches were being put on a so-called state event marking the 50th anniversary of the settlement enterprise in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The political system was in a tumult over a decision by Supreme Court President Miriam Naor not to send a representative of the judiciary branch to the ceremony.

Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot wisely chose to stay away, sufficing with sending the head of IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, as the representative of the sovereign in the territories. (Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who himself is a Gush Etzion resident, was absent for technical reasons. He was returning from a visit to Croatia, where he discussed the sale of an antiquated F-16 squadron that the Israel Air Force is seeking to retire in preparation for additional F-35s).

Somehow the pompous speeches at Gush Etzion prompted memories of a Labor Party ad on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1973, which resurfaced a few weeks ago on Twitter. The ad, which was put out a month before the Knesset election (it was ultimately pushed back to late December of 1973 due to the war) boasted about the existence of the Bar-Lev line, a reference to Israeli fortifications along the Suez Canal – a term that later would cease having a positive connotation a few days.

“Quiet prevails at the edge of the Suez Canal,” the ad read. “And the same holds for Sinai, the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and the Golan. The secure lines, the open bridges, united Jerusalem; the settlements are being established and our diplomatic standing is strong. This is the result of level-headed, courageous and farsighted policy.”