News and Commentary

FLEISHER: The Much-Needed Israeli Defense Umbrella
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with the US secretary of state in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 18, 2019.

The recent attack on Saudi Arabian oil is a watershed moment in the Middle East balance of power. It is also an opportunity.

It is yet unclear what exactly happened. A combination of drones and missiles coming directly from Iran or from their associates — the Houth rebels in Yemen — struck at the Khurais oil field and the al-Abqaiq facility, Saudi Arabia’s largest oil processing plant. The strike may have knocked out potentially half of the Saudi oil production, and has already affected global crude oil prices.

Sword Dancing is Not Enough

The danger of the Persian war machine, about which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton have repeatedly warned, is once again rearing its ugly head. No longer content with small attacks against Israel from proxies in Gaza and Southern Lebanon, Iran is now brazenly striking the strategic installations of its most hated foe — Saudi Arabia.

The greatest ire of Iran’s Shiite leaders is not reserved for the Jewish state. Rather, the mullahs crave control of the Arabian peninsula’s Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in order to prove that their interpretation of Islam has Allah’s mandate. The Sunni House of Saud is thus the Iranian mullahs’ ultimate target.

Indeed, the Saudis know all too well how serious the Iranian threat is — and they understand the brilliant way in which Iran has learned to use proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel. Now, with the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula being infiltrated by the Houthis, the Saudis feel the Iranian noose tightening around their necks. And while the Saudis are the world’s third largest military spenders and are pretty good at doing the proverbial sword dance with dignitaries, the truth is that the Kingdom is just not that good at actually fighting.

Filling the American Power Vacuum

For years, the American defense umbrella has been the real protection of the Saudi kingdom. The deal was straightforward: The Saudis provide steady oil and buy expensive military hardware and America provides defense. But now things are changing. America’s shale oil revolution has transformed the U.S. into a leading oil producer and, consequently, Saudi oil reserves are simply less critical to the U.S. than they have been in the past. Coupled with the Trump administration’s “America First” mantra and a concomitant disinclination to be the world’s police force, a reality has emerged in which U.S. forces may be less likely to come to Saudi aid.

For the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, and denizens of other smaller Sunni states, the Iranian attack on the Saudi oil installations — and the thus-far weak American response — is a harbinger of a horrific and not-so-distant future. If left unchecked, it could mean a historic change in the regional balance of power with the aggressive Shiite movement overshadowing historic Sunni regional domination.

The West, the Sunni Arab states, and Israel cannot allow Iran to fill the regional power vacuum that may be left in America’s wake. The solution to the crisis may be an Israeli defense umbrella.

Israel is the natural candidate to become the regional power broker, peacekeeper, and defense provider for Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states. Israel has the intelligence capability, the firepower, the air force, and even the naval capacity to contain the Iranian regime and help maintain a healthy regional balance.

Instead of the U.S. global policing model, Israel would take its place locally as a regional power that is closely allied with the U.S.

A Change in Arab Thinking

To achieve an Israeli defense umbrella, the Saudis are going to have to swallow their religious and nationalistic pride and accept the Jews as, well, their de facto saviors.

This is not such a stretch, since the House of Saud was able to stomach American (Christian) military defense. Israeli (Jewish) power may therefore not be all that different. Moreover, Israel is a better bet for Saudi defense, considering that it is closer and more nimble in dealing with Iran.

The change in Saudi attitudes toward Israel, furthermore, is already taking place with bloggers and broadcasters making overt comments of acceptance towards the Jewish state.

A Change in Jewish Thinking

Israel has long self-identified as a small, defensive minority in the Middle East. The Jewish state would have to mentally adjust to a more robust and muscular disposition in order for regional realignment to work.

Israel possesses the military might and has already engaged Iran in various ways, including bombings of secret Iranian weapons shipments to Syria. However, the mindset of the big boy on the block — the regional leader, the keeper of the peace — is not yet fully developed in Israel.

The Cost of Israeli Protection

Israel has a self-interest in pushing Iran back. But still, saving the House of Saud is not a foregone conclusion. If Israel is to spread its defense umbrella over the Sunni states, it should demand payment in kind.

The price for Israeli protection? Getting rid of the Palestinian-Arab problem.

The Saudis must commit to ending support for the “two-state solution,” which calls for an independent Palestinian-Arab state on Jewish land. Among other alternatives, the Saudis can force their own Jordanian Hashemite family to give back to Palestinians the Jordanian citizenship that was taken away from them in 1988 by Jordan’s King Abdullah. Under this approach, Palestinians can continue to live in the Israeli territories as Israeli residents, but would exercise their right to vote in the nearby Jordanian kingdom.

And obviously, if the Saudis want Israeli defense, they must dry up all remaining funding for jihadist education throughout the Arab world and abroad.

In the end, an Israeli defense umbrella would allow for steady oil flow, would mitigate the Iranian threat, and would lead to a Middle East that is more stable, more prosperous, and more cooperative. However, the Arabs, the Jews, and the Americans alike would have to break out of calcified notions of the past in order to make room for an advantageous regional realignment of the future.

Yishai Fleisher is the International Spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron.

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