By George Friedman
Friedman is the founder of Stratfor, an organization for analysis of world strategic relationships.
September 8, 2008
The Russo-Georgian war continues to resonate, and it is time to expand our
view of it. The primary players in Georgia, apart from the Georgians,
were the Russians and Americans. On the margins were the Europeans,
providing advice and admonitions but carrying little weight. Another
player, carrying out a murkier role, was Israel. Israeli advisers were
present in Georgia alongside American advisers, and Israeli businessmen
were doing business there. The Israelis had a degree of influence but
were minor players compared to the Americans.
More interesting, perhaps, was the decision, publicly announced by the
Israelis, to end weapons sales to Georgia the week before the Georgians
attacked South Ossetia. Clearly the Israelis knew what was coming and
wanted no part of it. Afterward, unlike the Americans, the Israelis did
everything they could to placate the Russians, including having Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert travel to Moscow to offer reassurances.
Whatever the Israelis were doing in Georgia, they did not want a
confrontation with the Russians.
It is impossible to explain the Israeli reasoning for being in Georgia
outside the context of a careful review of Israeli strategy in general.
From that, we can begin to understand why the Israelis are involved in
affairs far outside their immediate area of responsibility, and why they
responded the way they did in Georgia.
We need to divide Israeli strategic interests into four separate but
1. The Palestinians living inside Israel’s post-1967 borders.
2. The so-called “confrontation states” that border Israel, including
Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and especially Egypt.
3. The Muslim world beyond this region.
4. The great powers able to influence and project power into these
first three regions.
THE PALESTINIAN ISSUE
The most important thing to understand about the first interest, the
Palestinian issue, is that the Palestinians do not represent a strategic
threat to the Israelis. Their ability to inflict casualties is an
irritant to the Israelis (if a tragedy to the victims and their families),
but they cannot threaten the existence of the Israeli state. The
Palestinians can impose a level of irritation that can affect Israeli
morale, inducing the Israelis to make concessions based on the realistic
assessment that the Palestinians by themselves cannot in any conceivable
time frame threaten Israel’s core interests, regardless of political
arrangements. At the same time, the argument goes, given that the
Palestinians cannot threaten Israeli interests, what is the value of
making concessions that will not change the threat of terrorist attacks?
Given the structure of Israeli politics, this matter is both substrategic
The matter is compounded by the fact that the Palestinians are deeply
divided among themselves. For Israel, this is a benefit, as it creates a
de facto civil war among Palestinians and reduces the threat from them.
But it also reduces pressure and opportunities to negotiate. There is no
one on the Palestinian side who speaks authoritatively for all
Palestinians. Any agreement reached with the Palestinians would, from the
Israeli point of view, have to include guarantees on the cessation of
terrorism. No one has ever been in a position to guarantee that -- and
certainly Fatah does not today speak for Hamas. Therefore, a settlement
on a Palestinian state remains gridlocked because it does not deliver any
meaningful advantages to the Israelis.
THE CONFRONTATION STATES
The second area involves the confrontation states. Israel has formal
peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It has had informal understandings
with Damascus on things like Lebanon, but Israel has no permanent
understanding with Syria. The Lebanese are too deeply divided to allow
state-to-state understandings, but Israel has had understandings with
different Lebanese factions at different times (and particularly close
relations with some of the Christian factions).
Jordan is effectively an ally of Israel. It has been hostile to the
Palestinians at least since 1970, when the Palestine Liberation
Organization attempted to overthrow the Hashemite regime, and the
Jordanians regard the Israelis and Americans as guarantors of their
national security. Israel’s relationship with Egypt is publicly cooler
but quite cooperative. The only group that poses any serious challenge to
the Egyptian state is the Muslim Brotherhood, and hence Cairo views Hamas
-- a derivative of that organization -- as a potential threat. The
Egyptians and Israelis have maintained peaceful relations for more than 30
years, regardless of the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The
Syrians by themselves cannot go to war with Israel and survive. Their
primary interest lies in Lebanon, and when they work against Israel, they
work with surrogates like Hezbollah. But their own view on an independent
Palestinian state is murky, since they claim all of Palestine as part of a
greater Syria -- a view not particularly relevant at the moment.
Therefore, Israel’s only threat on its border comes from Syria via
surrogates in Lebanon and the possibility of Syria’s acquiring weaponry
that would threaten Israel, such as chemical or nuclear weapons.
THE WIDER MUSLIM WORLD
As to the third area, Israel’s position in the Muslim world beyond the
confrontation states is much more secure than either it or its enemies
would like to admit. Israel has close, formal strategic relations with
Turkey as well as with Morocco. Turkey and Egypt are the giants of the
region, and being aligned with them provides Israel with the foundations
of regional security. But Israel also has excellent relations with
countries where formal relations do not exist, particularly in the Arabian
The conservative monarchies of the region deeply distrust the
Palestinians, particularly Fatah. As part of the Nasserite Pan-Arab
socialist movement, Fatah on several occasions directly threatened these
monarchies. Several times in the 1970s and 1980s, Israeli intelligence
provided these monarchies with information that prevented assassinations
Saudi Arabia, for one, has never engaged in anti-Israeli activities beyond
rhetoric. In the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Saudi
Arabia and Israel forged close behind-the-scenes relations, especially
because of an assertive Iran -- a common foe of both the Saudis and the
Israelis. Saudi Arabia has close relations with Hamas, but these have as
much to do with maintaining a defensive position -- keeping Hamas and its
Saudi backers off Riyadh’s back -- as they do with government policy. The
Saudis are cautious regarding Hamas, and the other monarchies are even
More to the point, Israel does extensive business with these regimes,
particularly in the defense area. Israeli companies, working formally
through American or European subsidiaries, carry out extensive business
throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The nature of these subsidiaries is
well-known on all sides, though no one is eager to trumpet this. The
governments of both Israel and the Arabian Peninsula would have internal
political problems if they publicized it, but a visit to Dubai, the
business capital of the region, would find many Israelis doing extensive
business under third-party passports. Add to this that the states of the
Arabian Peninsula are afraid of Iran, and the relationship becomes even
more important to all sides.
There is an interesting idea that if Israel were to withdraw from the
occupied territories and create an independent Palestinian state, then
perceptions of Israel in the Islamic world would shift. This is a
commonplace view in Europe. The fact is that we can divide the Muslim
world into three groups.
First, there are those countries that already have formal ties to Israel.
Second are those that have close working relations with Israel and where
formal ties would complicate rather than deepen relations. Pakistan and
Indonesia, among others, fit into this class. Third are those that are
absolutely hostile to Israel, such as Iran. It is very difficult to
identify a state that has no informal or formal relations with Israel but
would adopt these relations if there were a Palestinian state. Those
states that are hostile to Israel would remain hostile after a withdrawal
from the Palestinian territories, since their issue is with the existence
of Israel, not its borders.
The point of all this is that Israeli security is much better than it
might appear if one listened only to the rhetoric. The Palestinians are
divided and at war with each other. Under the best of circumstances, they
cannot threaten Israel’s survival. The only bordering countries with
which the Israelis have no formal agreements are Syria and Lebanon, and
neither can threaten Israel’s security. Israel has close ties to Turkey,
the most powerful Muslim country in the region. It also has much closer
commercial and intelligence ties with the Arabian Peninsula than is
generally acknowledged, although the degree of cooperation is well-known
in the region. From a security standpoint, Israel is doing well.
THE BROADER WORLD
Israel is also doing extremely well in the broader world, the fourth and
final area. Israel always has needed a foreign source of weapons and
technology, since its national security needs outstrip its domestic
industrial capacity. Its first patron was the Soviet Union, which hoped
to gain a foothold in the Middle East. This was quickly followed by
France, which saw Israel as an ally in Algeria and against Egypt.
Finally, after 1967, the United States came to support Israel. Washington
saw Israel as a threat to Syria, which could threaten Turkey from the rear
at a time when the Soviets were threatening Turkey from the north. Turkey
was the doorway to the Mediterranean, and Syria was a threat to Turkey.
Egypt was also aligned with the Soviets from 1956 onward, long before the
United States had developed a close working relationship with Israel.
That relationship has declined in importance for the Israelis. Over the
years the amount of U.S. aid -- roughly $2.5 billion annually -- has
remained relatively constant. It was never adjusted upward for inflation,
and so shrunk as a percentage of Israeli gross domestic product from
roughly 20 percent in 1974 to under 2 percent today. Israel’s dependence
on the United States has plummeted. The dependence that once existed has
become a marginal convenience. Israel holds onto the aid less for
economic reasons than to maintain the concept in the United States of
Israeli dependence and U.S. responsibility for Israeli security. In other
words, it is more psychological and political from Israel’s point of view
than an economic or security requirement.
Israel therefore has no threats or serious dependencies, save two. The
first is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a power that cannot be
deterred -- in other words, a nation prepared to commit suicide to destroy
Israel. Given Iranian rhetoric, Iran would appear at times to be such a
nation. But given that the Iranians are far from having a deliverable
weapon, and that in the Middle East no one’s rhetoric should be taken all
that seriously, the Iranian threat is not one the Israelis are compelled
to deal with right now.
The second threat would come from the emergence of a major power prepared
to intervene overtly or covertly in the region for its own interests, and
in the course of doing so, redefine the regional threat to Israel. The
major candidate for this role is Russia.
During the Cold War, the Soviets pursued a strategy to undermine American
interests in the region. In the course of this, the Soviets activated
states and groups that could directly threaten Israel. There is no
significant conventional military threat to Israel on its borders unless
Egypt is willing and well-armed. Since the mid-1970s, Egypt has been
neither. Even if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were to die and be
replaced by a regime hostile to Israel, Cairo could do nothing unless it
had a patron capable of training and arming its military. The same is
true of Syria and Iran to a great extent. Without access to outside
military technology, Iran is a nation merely of frightening press
conferences. With access, the entire regional equation shifts.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, no one was prepared to intervene in
the Middle East the way the Soviets had. The Chinese have absolutely no
interest in struggling with the United States in the Middle East, which
accounts for a similar percentage of Chinese and U.S. oil consumption. It
is far cheaper to buy oil in the Middle East than to engage in a
geopolitical struggle with China’s major trade partner, the United States.
Even if there was interest, no European powers can play this role given
their individual military weakness, and Europe as a whole is a
geopolitical myth. The only country that can threaten the balance of
power in the Israeli geopolitical firmament is Russia.
Israel fears that if Russia gets involved in a struggle with the United
States, Moscow will aid Middle Eastern regimes that are hostile to the
United States as one of its levers, beginning with Syria and Iran. Far
more frightening to the Israelis is the idea of the Russians once again
playing a covert role in Egypt, toppling the tired Mubarak regime,
installing one friendlier to their own interests, and arming it. Israel’s
fundamental fear is not Iran. It is a rearmed, motivated, and hostile
Egypt backed by a great power.
The Russians are not after Israel, which is a sideshow for them. But in
the course of finding ways to threaten American interests in the Middle
East -- seeking to force the Americans out of their desired sphere of
influence in the former Soviet region -- the Russians could undermine what
at the moment is a quite secure position in the Middle East for the United
This brings us back to what the Israelis were doing in Georgia. They were
not trying to acquire airbases from which to bomb Iran. That would take
thousands of Israeli personnel in Georgia for maintenance, munitions
management, air traffic control, and so on. And it would take Ankara
allowing the use of Turkish airspace, which isn’t very likely. Plus, if
that were the plan, then stopping the Georgians from attacking South
Ossetia would have been a logical move.
The Israelis were in Georgia in an attempt, in parallel with the United
States, to prevent Russia’s re-emergence as a great power. The nuts and
bolts of that effort involves shoring up states in the former Soviet
region that are hostile to Russia, as well as supporting individuals in
Russia who oppose Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s direction. The Israeli
presence in Georgia, like the American one, was designed to block the
re-emergence of Russia.
As soon as the Israelis got wind of a coming clash in South Ossetia, they
-- unlike the United States -- switched policies dramatically. Where the
United States increased its hostility toward Russia, the Israelis ended
weapons sales to Georgia before the war. After the war, the Israelis
initiated diplomacy designed to calm Russian fears. Indeed, at the moment
the Israelis have a greater interest in keeping the Russians from seeing
Israel as an enemy than they have in keeping the Americans happy. U.S.
Vice President Dick Cheney may be uttering vague threats to the Russians.
But Olmert was reassuring Moscow it has nothing to fear from Israel, and
therefore should not sell weapons to Syria, Iran, Hezbollah or anyone else
hostile to Israel.
Interestingly, the Americans have started pumping out information that the
Russians are selling weapons to Hezbollah and Syria. The Israelis have
avoided that issue carefully. They can live with some weapons in
Hezbollah’s hands a lot more easily than they can live with a coup in
Egypt followed by the introduction of Russian military advisers. One is a
nuisance; the other is an existential threat. Russia may not be in a
position to act yet, but the Israelis aren’t waiting for the situation to
get out of hand.
Israel is in control of the Palestinian situation and relations with the
countries along its borders. Its position in the wider Muslim world is
much better than it might appear. Its only enemy there is Iran, and that
threat is much less clear than the Israelis say publicly. But the threat
of Russia intervening in the Muslim world -- particularly in Syria and
Egypt -- is terrifying to the Israelis. It is a risk they won’t live with
if they don’t have to. So the Israelis switched their policy in Georgia
with lightning speed. This could create frictions with the United States,
but the Israeli-American relationship isn’t what it used to be.