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The Eastern Mediterranean in the New Era of Major-Power Competition: Prospects for U.S.-Israeli Cooperation

The Eastern Mediterranean in the New Era of Major-Power Competition: Prospects for U.S.-Israeli Cooperation

Douglas J. Feith

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Introduction and Framework of the Study

This is a study of Eastern Mediterranean security and how the United States and Israel can improve cooperation to protect their common interests. The study’s particular focus is the maritime domain.

Few things in world affairs survive for millennia. It’s also true that few are ever really new.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, what has endured for thousands of years is the strategic attention of great powers. The region retains it today, commanding interest not only from local and regional actors, but also from global players. As Iran works to extend its reach to the Mediterranean, Russia, as it has for centuries, strives to exert its influence across the Middle East. The United States, on the other hand, has been signaling a desire to reduce its involvement in the region.

Remarkably, China too has become a player. Its increasing presence in the Middle East reflects commercial and strategic motives and signifies its rise as a force competing for global economic and military predominance. China is at once a security challenge and a close economic partner. It is the world’s major rising and disruptive power and plays a huge role in global trade and investment.

In 2016, Hudson Institute formed a consortium with the newly created Haifa Research Center for Maritime Strategy to bring together Americans and Israelis to research Eastern Mediterranean energy and security matters.

Hudson Institute is a public-policy research organization – “think tank” – in Washington, DC founded in the 1960s by Herman Kahn and Max Singer. The University of Haifa plays the leading role in the Mediterranean Sea Research Center of Israel (MERCI), a team effort in Israel of seven universities, one college and two governmental research institutes to study an array of scientific, technological, economic, security and environmental challenges and opportunities.

The University of Haifa-Hudson Institute consortium’s first report appeared in September 2016. It set out a research agenda, which gave rise to several projects, including this study.

The United States has been reducing its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean since the end of the Cold War in 1991. For the last decade, U.S. officials publicly committed themselves to this reduction by announcing a “rebalancing” policy – that is, lowering the national security priority of the Middle East and raising that of Asia. This has created a power vacuum in the Eastern Mediterranean, which Russia is filling.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin exploits both America’s so-called pivot to Asia and the European Union’s economic and political disarray. Reprising the Great Game of the 19th century and the Cold War of the 20th, Russia has emerged as a counterweight to the West in Syria and beyond, playing significant military and diplomatic roles in the region.

Meanwhile, China is building itself into a world power capable of challenging America’s longstanding predominance. It is expanding its intelligence and armed forces into large, technologically sophisticated instruments with increasing geographic reach. Also, through its “belt and road” and “military-civilian fusion” initiatives, China is increasing its overseas economic clout, political influence and military capabilities, with serious attention to the Red Sea and Mediterranean. In Israel, China’s “belt and road” projects include construction and operation for twenty-five years of a shipping container facility at Haifa port.

The power vacuum in the Middle East has also encouraged Iran to intensify its efforts to expand its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the eyes of the Sunni Arab states and Israel, the Iranian threat has become the region’s dominant strategic reality.

The Syrian civil war has radically altered the region. It is a humanitarian catastrophe of over half a million deaths and millions of refugees that have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Europe and elsewhere. Iran invested heavily and successfully in preserving Syria’s Assad regime. This advanced its plan, forcefully opposed by Israel, to create a land bridge between Iran and the Mediterranean. Saudi officials see Iran’s activities in Syria as part of a strategy to encircle Saudi Arabia, which also includes aggressive Iranian military moves in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Yemen.

Russia likewise invested heavily in preserving the Assad regime. The Russian military has exploited its success in Syria to upgrade Russian air and naval bases on the Eastern Mediterranean coast.

Turkey entered the Syrian civil war to attack both ISIS and the Syrian Kurds. This is part of a significant transformation of Turkey’s domestic politics and foreign policy. In its first eight decades, the Republic of Turkey pursued integration into the West – a paramount goal of the republic’s founder Kemal Ataturk. Now, however, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the country’s Islamist party, Turkey is intent on reorienting itself toward the East. It is shedding democratic practices and institutions at home. Abroad, it pursues alignment with Russia, Iran, Qatar and Hamas, while estranging itself from NATO and confronting Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

ISIS took advantage of regional turmoil a few years back to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Though the caliphate has now lost its territory, ISIS remains a lethal and disruptive organization of thousands of terrorists with skills honed in battle in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

The United States entered the fight in Syria to disarm Syria of chemical weapons and to oppose ISIS. The United States is not working to counter the influence and capabilities of Russia in Syria. It has taken action to counter Iranian military threats in the region generally, but has not struck Iranian forces in Syria.

Despite domestic support for disengagement, the United States continues to have vital interests in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Nonetheless, President Trump says he wants to reduce U.S. forces there. He urges other countries to play a larger role in regional security. Indeed, he says he welcomes a larger role for rivals and enemies of the United States – Russia and Iran – in fighting ISIS.

President Trump has had mixed success in pressing U.S. allies and partners to do more to advance our common regional interests. Current U.S. policy may create opportunities for Israel, the most militarily capable power in the region and America’s most reliable partner, to intensify its defense cooperation with the United States, including in the maritime domain.

It is time for Israel to develop a proper maritime strategy and to increase parliamentary and public awareness of the maritime domain.

Since its birth Israel has focused far more on its land-based concerns, but Israel now has compelling economic, military and diplomatic maritime interests. These include the development of its Mediterranean gas fields, security concerns relating to Gaza and Israel’s maritime boundary dispute with Lebanon.

Related to all this is the broader question of how Israel might facilitate economic development among its neighbors. Relieving humanitarian distress is inherently worthwhile and contributing to its neighbors’ prosperity may, under the right circumstances, increase political stability and diminish the intensity of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The interests of the United States and Israel in the region largely align. Both countries aim to uphold Western democratic principles, counter Iran, oppose radical Islamism, prevent the further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and support freedom of navigation at sea and in the air. Both are committed to preserving Israel’s ability to defend itself.

This report offers policy recommendations for the United States and Israel:

  1. Collaboration on strategies for dealing with China – in particular, how to regulate commercial relations in light of China’s aggressive national security policies, including a way forward regarding the Chinese presence in Haifa port;
  2. Cooperation aimed at inducing Iran to remove its forces from Syria;
  3. Better understanding of Russia’s increased military and diplomatic influence in the region and the implications for U.S.-Israeli relations;
  4. Encouraging U.S. Central Command to make greater use of Israel’s capabilities in its operational plans;
  5. Heeding key points from the report of the U.S. National Defense Strategy Commission regarding repair of U.S. defenses;
  6. Weighing the pros and cons of varieties of a possible U.S.-Israeli defense treaty;
  7. Creating a new body under the U.S.-Israeli Defense Policy Advisory Group to explore bilateral development of key technologies specified in the U.S. National Defense Strategy; and
  8. Other ways to cooperate to serve their common security interests.

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