Israel’s uncertain future in the wake of Great Power conflict
Mohamad Hasan Sweidan, The Cradle, March 21 2023 —
As global power dynamics continue to shift, Israel’s close western alignment could limit its ability to engage with emerging powers in the east. Arch-rival Iran, which has established ties with Russia and China, will be better positioned to gain from the shifting geopolitical landscape.
Great-power competition has the potential to significantly impact the future of Israel. As a key player in West Asia, Israel is likely to be affected by the actions and strategies of major powers such as the US, China, and Russia.
The US has historically been a strong ally of Israel, providing significant military and economic aid. However, Washington’s current strategy of thwarting growing Chinese and Russian political and economic influence around the world may lead to increased pressure on Israel, a western-creation, to align with US interests in the region.
At the same time, China and Russia are rapidly expanding their stakes in West Asia, which may set back Israel’s recent rapprochement progress with neighboring states. In the past few years, Tel Aviv has offered itself to Arab states as a strong regional replacement for waning US presence, and a buffer against Iran’s rise.
But Beijing’s key role in brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is likely to impact Israel’s dealings with both of those countries – and other Arab states. Will they need that Israeli military buffer if global power China – or Russia – can troubleshoot conflict and usher in peace?
Furthermore, as great-power competition intensifies, Israel, like other small states, will come under pressure to align with one side. This could impact Israel’s ability to maintain its independence and pursue its own interests in the region.
Great Power competition: a heavy burden on Israel
In recent years, Israel has developed multifaceted relationships with both China and Russia, which have reaped both economic and political benefits for Tel Aviv. China has been one of the top global investors in West Asia and North Africa, with Israel ranking eighth on the list of beneficiary states since 2005 and receiving just over $12 billion in Chinese investments since 2010. In the past, Washington has given Israel some leeway in its foreign policy initiatives, but since the Ukraine conflict, US flexibility has been abruptly halted
Senior analyst on Israeli affairs at Al-Akhbar newspaper, Ali Haidar, told The Cradle that “Israel has a specific margin to preserve its interests. This is something that the United States understands and considers.”
“At the same time, there are red lines that Israel cannot cross, but it can, through its relations and contacts with the US administration and influential parties, contribute to adapting and circumventing them to some extent.”
As the competition between the US, on the one hand, and Moscow and Beijing on the other, intensifies, Israel’s ability to maneuver is becoming increasingly limited, and Washington’s pressure is mounting. This pressure demands that Tel Aviv take positions more aligned with US interests, which in turn constrain cooperation between Israel and Russia, and China.
According to Manuel Trajtenberg, director of Israel’s National Security Institute:
“The increasing pressure on Israel to pivot in this context presents it with weighty dilemmas, and a policy change in the wake of that could significantly reduce its space for political-security maneuvering.”
This was exemplified by Israel’s attempts to mediate the conflict in Ukraine, which were quickly abandoned under coercion from Washington to take a clear position in support of the west and against Moscow.
This US pressure was also reflected in Israel’s military aggressions against Syria. In March 2022, the number of Israeli strikes targeting Syria decreased to only one strike from four the month before, suggesting that Tel Aviv was apprehensive of a Russian reaction. As a result, any imbalance in the relationship between Israel and Russia may have direct consequences for Israel’s interests – if Moscow decides to take action.
China’s presence in West Asia and North Africa
In the early 2010s, China began to expand its presence in the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) regions. One of the major milestones of China’s modern foreign policy was the announcement of its ambitious, multi-continent Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. To date, at least 17 countries from the region have joined the initiative:
China also signed bilateral partnership agreements with 13 countries in the region between 2014 and 2022. Notably, Israel has not entered into any association agreement with China and has not joined the BRI.
By brokering the Iran-Saudi deal in the aftermath of high-profile visits to Tehran and Riyadh by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has now signaled that it intends to play a more active role in resolving conflicts and disputes in the region, much to Washington’s alarm. US reaction to this game-changing agreement has been hyper-focused on the geopolitical ramifications of China bringing the two parties to the table, rather than discussion about the agreement itself.
As China’s influence in the region continues to grow, Israel remains constrained by “American concerns,” preventing it from deepening its relations with China, while other regional states are lining up to strike deals with Beijing.
Analyst Haidar has noted that “the US’s obstruction of Israeli engagement with China will limit Tel Aviv’s ability to forge strong economic and political ties with Beijing,” adding, “This is a practical example of Israel’s commitment to what the United States regards as its vital interests, which Israel is prohibited from crossing.”
In 2019, in order to protect Washington’s interests, the Israeli government established a committee to evaluate the national security implications of foreign investments – with a specific focus on China.
Furthermore, the US and Israel have agreed to tighten control over the export of advanced technologies to China. That noose will further tighten as the economic competition between Washington and Beijing intensifies, and Israel – a major recipient of US technologies – may well be forced into this confrontation with China.
Iranian cooperation with Russia and China
One significant consequence of the intensifying competition between great powers is China and Russia’s efforts to strengthen their cooperation with key states, particularly those that oppose aggressive western hegemony.
Their alignment of interests has led to a palpable warming in relations between Iran, Russia, and China, and some concrete steps forward. The three states are more frequently engaging in joint military exercises, and military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran has thrived over the broader Eurasian-Atlanticist conflict in Ukraine.
Hostile US policies aimed at Russia and China have encouraged them to seek out and establish supportive multilateral institutions such as the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Tehran has, in turn, applied for membership in both organizations, which led to Iran’s formal ascension to the SCO last year – making it the organization’s ninth member state and its first West Asian participant.
In this context, Haidar points out that “One of the most important concepts that resonate on the tongues of officials and experts in Israel is the seriousness of the repercussions of the intensification of the international conflict on the region and Israel.” This, he argued, is “centered on Iran’s openness to Asian powers and the implications of that.”
He also contends that “rapid international changes” could present new opportunities for Iran, which is currently facing an economic assault from the west. These changes, Haidar explains, may enable Iran to counter the sanctions pressures, which undermines Israel’s multi-pronged strategy for confronting Iran.
Today, Israel’s position in the western axis limits its ability to keep up with Iran’s geopolitical expansion eastward. As the Global Power conflict intensifies and the opposing poles become more defined, Israel’s maneuvering room will shrink, while the Islamic Republic – never reliant on the west – will have a wider range of options available to it.
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, argued that Iran occupies an important place in the process of reshaping the axis of countries hostile to the US and the west:
“The Iranian regime is positioning itself as an active player in the confrontation with the liberal democratic camp led by the US. It identifies the West’s weakness and is exploiting it as far as possible.”
Israel’s shrinking geopolitics
According to the latest annual intelligence estimate of the Israeli military’s Intelligence Directorate, global trends, the Iranian and Palestinian theaters form Tel Aviv’s 2023 threat triangle.
“At the center of this triangle will be the international tendencies that affect Israel and its security; the global instability that stems mainly from the conflict between the United States and China will continue and intensify.”
Today, Israel faces some momentous challenges to its future, not only from extreme domestic polarization but particularly from the intensification of global conflict and the decline of western hegemony. Iran’s growing international engagement, and the solidification of its relations with Asian powers, are unfolding as Tel Aviv’s options are shrinking.
There is also a correlation between the strength of US deterrence and influence in the region and Israel’s ability to exercise its own deterrence capabilities. As US power weakens, it is likely to have a negative impact on Israel’s ability to deter its enemies.
Moreover, the growing number of states “oscillating” between east and west, and maneuvering to take advantage of great-power competition, is another challenge for Israel. Even staunch US allies in the Persian Gulf – once scrambling to normalize relations with Israel – are looking for room to maneuver with the rising east, as seen with Riyadh’s readiness for Chinese mediation in negotiations with Iran.
While Israel may have some margin to distance itself from direct confrontation with China and Russia, the repercussions of the Great Power conflict are likely to buoy the fortunes of the region’s Axis of Resistance – in Iran, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq – with any balance of power shift away from US and Israeli hegemony.
In short, Israel’s ability to leverage its western connections for geopolitical gain has shrunk considerably while its rivals race ahead to establish themselves comfortably in West Asia’s new multipolarity.