Despite the potential for change that the novel coronavirus pandemic creates, it seems that most players in the Middle East view it as just an imposed break. Their official reports assert only limited damage so far, regardless of the continuing spread of the disease. Pandemic or no, they keep promoting their interests.
Tensions between rival camps in the region and their attitudes toward Israel have not changed and are not expected to change. The main clash is between the pragmatic Sunni camp and the three radical elements–Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Turkey, Qatar, and the Gaza Strip; the Iran-led axis; and Islamic State followers. These factions continue to fight each other in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, with some involvement of the major foreign powers. Israel is aligned with the pragmatists and is considered an enemy by most radicals.
The country in the region most affected thus far is Iran. Many in Iran believe that the dangerous reality of the coronavirus is the result of the conduct of the clerical regime. Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tried, with very limited success, to turn the battle against the disease into a tool to coalesce public support and solidarity behind him. He blamed the United States for his government’s shortcomings and presented Tehran’s support for terrorist elements such as Hamas (Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) as useful in the fight against the pandemic.
The ongoing American “maximum pressure campaign” has created economic difficulties for the mullahs’ regime, forced it to cut expenditures slightly on their proxies in Lebanon and Iraq, and make some changes in the characteristics of Iran’s military presence in Syria. This allowed their opponents in these arenas, including Israel in Syria, to put more pressure on Iran and its surrogates. In Iraq, the new prime minister seems to somewhat limit Iran’s control of the government and in Lebanon anti-Hezbollah demonstrations keep their momentum.
But the mounting pressure has not forced Iran to change its goals and the strategy it plans to achieve them. It continues its effort to gain hegemony in the Middle East and beyond and export its messianic radical version of Islam, and it is committed to confronting the U.S. and annihilating Israel. In order to promote its strategy, Iran is arming itself to the teeth with advanced missiles of all ranges, drones, and naval capabilities. It is moving forward with its military nuclear project, ignoring all its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA, or “Iran deal”), keeps trying to strengthen its ability to operate against Israel from Syria, and to provide Hezbollah in Lebanon with precise guided missiles. Iran is also trying to strengthen its ability to confront the U.S. by improving its relations with Venezuela and China.
The End of the Embargo?
As bad as relations have been between the U.S. and Iran, they may become even more strained in the coming months, especially if Washington manages to delay the expiration in October 2020 of the JCPOA clause preventing Iran from buying and exporting weapons. Such a step within a month of the U.S. elections, especially if it is performed by a snapback of the UN sanctions on Iran, may cause escalation. In this context Israel may be faced with growing tensions with Iran and its proxies along its northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, either as a consequence of the growing need to act against Iran’s efforts to strengthen its capabilities there or as a response to Iranian provocation. Such provocation may also take the form of cyber-attacks, like the attempt to harm several Israeli water supply systems in April 2020. This comes in addition to Hezbollah’s arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets, drones, and other advanced weaponry, and its intention to carry out an offensive maneuver inside Israel. Hezbollah’s intentions have become more concrete, despite Israel destroying its assault tunnels, based on the experience its activists gained from fighting in Syria and on a show of feasibility by cutting the security fence in three different locations simultaneously in April.
The possibility of entering negotiations with the U.S. on a new nuclear agreement from the point of weakness in which the regime currently finds itself is not on the agenda at this point. The regime will do its best to wait until after the American presidential elections, hoping for former Vice President Joe Biden to win and reenter the JCPOA. That way, Iran would again have a safe path toward a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles on which to mount them. Yet if it becomes clear to the regime that all other avenues of action have failed and public anger threatens to explode, it may have no choice but to consider even the negotiation option.
Closer to Home
The Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip have thus far handled the disease with great success and prevented its spread in the territories they control. Both have enjoyed vast Israeli support in their struggle against Covid-19 and its economic repercussions. Some terror attacks were conducted but in general relative calm has prevailed. In spite of generous Israeli assistance (including a loan of $230 million), the PA and Hamas have kept spreading libels against Israel and gone on with their legal and political activities against it, including their complaint at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In the meantime, Israel has managed at long last to form a unity government that is determined to extend its sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria and the Jordan valley in accordance with the U.S. peace plan if the administration agrees to the details. The Palestinians are focusing their efforts on pressuring Israel and the U.S. to refrain from implementing this step and on preparation for an escalation including diplomatic, legal and economic measures, riots and terror attacks, including launching rockets if Israel goes ahead. Palestinian moves are supposed to be accompanied by Jordanian steps and a negative reaction from the European community.
Preparation for the extension of sovereignty has brought the Palestinian issue back to the Arab agenda, but throughout the coronavirus crisis, relations between Israel and the pragmatic Arab states have kept improving. The first direct flights from the UAE to Israel, the first Israeli flight to Argentina over Sudan, and the new attitude toward Israel expressed on social media and in a Saudi Arabian Ramadan television series attest to this reality.
Responding to the Crisis
The enormous economic damage and the blow to the idea of globalization as an organizing principle of the international system has deepened the responsibility of each country to deal with the virus and later with the need for economic revival by itself. It likely will take time, but in the meantime the situation proved again how deceptive the term “the Arab world” can be. The economic recession, the potential for growing tension between the U.S. and China and the impact of the results of the U.S. elections may affect the stability of some of the states of the region and affect Israel’s national security interests both directly and indirectly.
The tension between the need to invest in the military or in health care to guarantee national security and the international economic crisis may put pressure on the military budget and affect Israel’s ability to implement long-term military buildup plans.
On the other hand, the Covid-19 crisis serves also as an opportunity for further improving the relations between Israel and its neighbors, based – among other components – on Israel’s ability to assist them in the medical domain. If Israel manages to contribute to the advancement of responses to the virus and to thereby expedite its contribution as a center of scientific research to the security of the entire world it may ease the normalization of its relations with its Arab neighbors.
BG Yossi Kuperwasser, IDF (Res.) is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Research Division and director general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.