Several years ago, before the onset of the Arab Spring, the eminent historian Bernard Lewis suggested that Israel’s future in the Middle East was more secure than many assumed. In measurable ways, the nearer Arab and Muslim states were sinking into ever deeper political, social and economic dysfunction and despair, while Israel, for all its innate tensions and divisive culture wars, was politically and economically sound and socially cohesive.
It was an argument about the way these nations conduct themselves: By conscious choice, the wealthiest Middle Eastern economies rely on oil for their prosperity, whereas Israel relies on technological innovation as its single largest export. As technological advances slowly but surely sideline Middle Eastern oil as a keystone of the global economy, economies that rely on little else will sink further, he argued, while Israel, which has transformed itself into an engine for those very advances, will only rise.
The history of the past few years has largely borne out this assessment.
Israel’s strength set against an imploding Arab state system – indeed, Israel’s strangely separate life in a region that is increasingly seen as an exporter primarily of its own social and religious imbalances – is quietly but decisively transforming the Jewish state’s place in the calculations of both friend and foe.
It has turned some erstwhile enemies into allies in potentia, and forced Israel’s most bitter foes, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, to develop a new apologetic discourse that seeks to explain to ordinary Lebanese or Gazans why the ideology of permanent war against the Zionists justifies their current and future suffering.
Meanwhile, regional and global actors with less emotional investment in Zionism — countries like Greece, India, Russia, Cyprus, China, and even distant Honduras — have all taken dramatic steps to upgrade economic and defense ties with Israel, in no small part out of a clear sense of these growing disparities in power and prosperity in the region.
And, of course, America noticed.
The United States is a strange actor in this sense. For a country like Israel, the US is not just an ally, it is a world order. Its navy serves as the de facto global coordinating and enforcement institution that ensures the security and safety of maritime commerce – a fact of overwhelming significance to a country like Israel, which carries on almost no trade across its land borders and transports 99% of its foreign trade by volume via the sea. The US financial system, too, still largely sets the terms for global finance, a fact of no less importance to a country as susceptible as Israel to the vicissitudes of foreign investment or currency fluctuations.
And on a more profound level, it is no accident that some 80% of the Jewish diaspora outside Israel lives in the United States. For many Israeli Jews, the American-led world order represents the desirable alternative not, as is imagined within the confines of American or European politics, to post-war European social democracy, but to something far more brutal: the still-living memory of expulsion, flight and mass-murder faced by Jews in the last century.
Israelis’ fondness for America is thus not rooted in any particular president’s relationship with any specific prime minister – which were as often as not antagonistic rather than friendly – but in the palpable sense that the world they wish to live in is the one forged by American blood, ideas and commerce over the past century.
It is this America, the Atlas holding up a world that for all its tragedies is nevertheless freer, more prosperous and safer than at any previous period humanity has known, an America as celebrated by Israel’s socialist founding father David Ben-Gurion as by his ideological nemesis Ze’ev Jabotinsky, by Meretz’s Zehava Galon as by Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, that Israelis now see returning to the peculiarly American brand of pox-on-both-their-houses isolationism.
And it is this America, too, as it reassesses its capacity and desire to bear so many of the world’s burdens, that is increasingly turning to Israel as an anchor of stability and prosperity that can help mitigate, at least in the limited scope of its regional reach, the fallout from US disentanglement.
Can Israel shoulder a larger share of the burden of upholding the global order on which its own safety and prosperity relies?
On Friday, a group of six Americans and four Israelis published a startlingly ambitious report that tries to imagine what this new role might mean for both sides.
Noting the chaos roiling the region – the Arab collapse; Russia’s entry into the Syria conflict; Iran’s growing assertiveness on land and sea; China’s first-ever permanent overseas naval base in Djibouti; the growth of Islamic State and Hezbollah with their state-like capabilities but guerrilla-like lack of responsibility; the massive new gas (and possibly oil) finds in the maritime waters of Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and others – the report warns that Israel cannot secure its future unless it turns, as America did far earlier in its own history, to the sea.
The group bills itself the “Commission on the Eastern Mediterranean” and explains its goal bluntly: “to help lay the foundation for the formulation of Israel’s maritime strategy.”
Its roster bears eloquent testimony to this focus on naval matters: three admirals — former US chief of naval operations Gary Roughead, former Israel Navy commander Ami Ayalon and former deputy commander of Israel’s navy Shaul Chorev — former US undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith; former US senator and chair of the Senate Energy Committee, Mary Landrieu; former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general and subsequently the envoy to the UN and London, Ron Prosor; former CEO of Noble Energy, the largest foreign company drilling in Israel’s natural gas fields, Charles Davidson; former deputy undersecretary of the navy Seth Cropsey; eminent Israeli economist who headed a government commission examining Israel’s natural gas policy, Eytan Sheshinski; and the military historian Arthur Herman.
“We consciously created a commission that would include people who don’t agree with each other on policy, a politically and philosophically diverse group of people,” Douglas Feith told The Times of Israel in an interview this week.
The report “represents the commissioners’ consensus,” it assures readers early on. And that’s no mean feat. The group includes a prominent Democrat (Landrieu) and a well-known Republican (Feith), Israelis considered right of center (Prosor) and left of it (Ayalon), and negotiators from both sides of the natural gas talks between the Netanyahu government and Noble Energy (Sheshinski and Davidson).
“We’re not trying to make points pro or con on the Obama administration or the Netanyahu government,” Feith says. “That wasn’t the point. The conscious idea was to create a group that will agree at the level of strategy but not at the level of policy.”
The report it produced is a fast read. It lays out its case in simple terms early on. Israel, it says, has always looked to the land and air for its security and prosperity. This is no longer enough. “Israel is an economic island” that “recently discovered offshore gas fields” destined to transform it into “an energy-independent nation and even a potential energy exporter.”
At the same time, Israel’s non-state foes, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, “are expanding their [naval] arsenals to enable them to threaten Israel’s offshore infrastructure.” And, indeed, Israel is small enough and densely populated enough to “tempt an enemy to use weapons of mass destruction in the expectation that they would have strategic effect.”
The sea “gives Israel strategic depth, more area from which to operate militarily than is afforded by Israel’s landmass…. Use of the sea for ships, submarines and other equipment helps Israel to deter and defend against WMD, ballistic missiles and heavy rockets.”
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean is only gaining in strategic importance. The report explains: “Despite – or perhaps because of – America’s disengagement, the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Mediterranean are growing in political, economic and security significance. Three choke points to and from the Indian Ocean are located there: the Hormuz straits, the Suez Canal, and the Bab el-Mandeb straits…. Iran, China, Russia and India are building capabilities to influence events there.”
Technology, too, is changing the nature of seaborne threats. “Since the end of the Cold War,” the report notes, “the number of active submarines in the world has fallen, largely because of large-scale decommissioning of former Soviet vessels, but the number of countries operating submarines has increased. Regional tensions in the Middle East have been a principal driver of submarine procurement.”
“Submarines,” the report emphasizes, “have unique operational capabilities and their proliferation” – for example in the hands of Iran, Russia-allied Syria, or even established, land-holding terror groups – “undermines regional stability.”
All these factors – major new energy resources, increasing interest from distant powers, and growing non-conventional threats – make it “impossible to overstate Israel’s interests in maritime security.
“Yet, surprisingly, the maritime domain is almost absent from public discourse in Israel, a nation not known for its maritime culture or history.”
A maritime power
There is a difference, explains former Israeli Navy no. 2 Chorev, between mere naval strategy and a broader maritime one.
“A naval strategy asks, ‘How do I ensure open routes to Israel, or the supremacy of the Israeli fleet against potential enemy fleets?'” Chorev said in an interview this week with The Times of Israel.
“But a maritime strategy is much larger: How do I secure the [natural gas] installations? What legal regime do I need? Do I want to export the maritime gas to Turkey, or to Egypt? Which navies do I establish close alliances with? Israel has almost no merchant marine fleet. Can the Israeli government’s controlling share in [shipping company] ZIM ensure that ships continue to sail to Israel in an emergency? Our trade with China and India is growing larger than with Europe. Does Israel have a strategic interest in its Indian Ocean trade? And if it does, does it need to have naval assets there?”
And, he might have added, should Israel continue to rely on a single easily-disrupted pipeline from the Tamar gas field as its main source of energy?
It is this sweeping mix of issues and challenges, and a careful examination of how they interconnect, that transforms a country with a more or less straightforward naval presence into a more attentive and powerful maritime power.
The paper, not accidentally, dwells at length on the recent gas finds in Israeli waters. “Not all countries with large resources manage to benefit from them,” it warns. “The key is being able to attract investment continually. Where laws and policies make resource development too hard, the resources, however valuable, remain undeveloped.”
At first glance, the report’s conclusions on the gas question are unsurprising given the number of Americans in the group, including Noble Energy’s immediate past CEO. But the more one reads about the “regulatory hurdles” that have stymied development of Israel’s largest known gas field, Leviathan, or considers the sheer surprise with which the government received the High Court’s strike-down of its promise to energy companies of a decade of regulatory “stability” – during which the rules for drilling Israeli gas cannot be changed by successive governments – the more one begins to grasp the difference between Israel as it functions today and the Israel envisioned by these retired admirals and former policymakers.
Israel’s gas debate has been almost entirely a domestic fight: how gas exports might affect Israelis’ electricity bills, how much tax to impose, questions about monopolies and price controls, about whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been sufficiently transparent or the Knesset sufficiently assertive. When Netanyahu has occasionally warned over the past two years that further delays would scare away foreign investors, or that swift development of the gas fields, even at the cost of less advantageous terms from foreign energy companies such as Noble, was in Israel’s immediate geopolitical interest, he was mocked mercilessly by media, opposition politicians and even, more quietly, within his own party.
“Israel has not traditionally thought of itself as an energy exporting country,” noted Feith. “It doesn’t have a culture of an energy exporting country. Developing that culture – thinking about opportunities and not just vulnerabilities, thinking about attracting international energy investors – those are brand new ideas for Israel. Cultures change slowly, it’s a process.”
The report acknowledges, too, the overpowering influence of domestic politics in a democracy, but argues that Israel must forge an institutional culture that turns its attention outward. A maritime power is by definition an extroverted one, a state that takes a keen interest, shared across the broad swath of its financial, military and legal institutions, in goings-on beyond its shores. And that means inculcating in the public mind and among officials and politicians a new set of commitments. Maritime powers conduct their domestic politics with the same urgency and tendentiousness as their landlubber neighbors, but without losing sight of the responsibilities they have undertaken in the global commons.
The report urges action on several fronts: that Israel rethink its naval capabilities in the face of new threats from the sea, that it put in place the kind of legal and regulatory regime possessed by other successful energy-producing countries, and that it adopt a new mental image of itself as a nation with responsibilities to secure its near abroad, especially the gas fields and strategic sea lanes nearby.
Israel’s navy is thought to be very good at what it does, but what it does is extremely limited: patrols, coastal defense, a small commando force, an alleged (as reported by foreign media, of course) submarine nuclear strike capability.
In practical terms, how does this small force, and this narrow vision of Israel’s seafaring requirements, transform into the more expansive fleet and broader commitment envisioned by the report?
The group’s answer is simple: America is here to help.
“How can Israel ensure that it has the capabilities, force structure and organization needed to implement the [maritime] strategy? Draw on expertise at America’s Naval War College and Naval Postgraduate School,” it urges.
And Israelis don’t just need to go to America; America can come to them.
‘US ships in Haifa could include increased presence, deterrence of Benghazi-style attacks, assistance with non-combatant evacuations, and security for drilling rigs’
“Of particular interest are options for US forward deployment in the Mediterranean, including in Israel. What would be the net contribution to American security and to Israel? Benefits from US ships homeported in Haifa, for example, could include increased (and stabilizing) presence, deterrence of Benghazi-style attacks, assistance with non-combatant evacuations, and security for drilling rigs, liquefaction plants, and pipeline terminals.”
An upgraded Israeli maritime presence would act as a force multiplier for such an American deployment, and vice versa. And that means the two navies must learn to work together far better than they have in the past.
“How could US and Israeli forces improve their interoperability?” the report asks. “Consider bilateral and multilateral fleet drills, better intelligence sharing and more extensive military-to-military cooperation.”
It is worth remembering that this idea is being raised by a group that includes three admirals, including a former head and deputy head of Israel’s navy and a former chief of US naval operations.
Pirates in the east
The benefits of such a strategy for Israel are obvious. For one thing, ensuring the security of the gas fields gives Israel unprecedented energy independence.
China and India may seem out of reach of Israel’s current navy, but these two eastern powers are quickly becoming vital to Israel’s future prosperity. Last year marked the first time that Israel’s combined exports to Asia (at 24.9% of total value of exports that year) surpassed the share that went to the US (at 23.8%). Yet maritime routes eastward pass within striking distance of an increasingly assertive Iran, not to mention Somali pirates and other potential pitfalls for Israeli shipping. If Israel’s economy comes to depend on eastward commerce, it does not stretch the imagination very much to believe that Israel could find itself deploying a meaningful naval force, as Chorev imagined, to the Indian Ocean.
And in an age where advanced Russian rockets might easily find their way to Hezbollah, and Islamic State has proven its capacity to take and hold land in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and thus, perhaps, to deploy naval forces that would act as de facto pirates in adjacent Mediterranean waters, even Israel’s western and northern maritime approaches seem less secure than in the past.
Meanwhile, the permanent US naval presence in the Mediterranean, the report notes, has shrunk drastically since the end of the Cold War. “The Sixth Fleet’s permanent naval presence is now a single command ship in Italy and four Aegis destroyers equipped for ballistic missile defense, all based in Rota, Spain, just outside the Mediterranean.”
Israel may have to face these challenges by itself.
In other words, there is more at stake here for Israel than mere strategic clarity. The world is changing, and the ability to secure the sea is becoming increasingly vital to maintaining Israel’s safety and prosperity.
But that’s only half the story told by the report. America, too, stands to gain from Israeli maritime power.
The commission dwells in passing on the benefit to the world of Israel becoming a more serious player in energy development. Trigger warning: the term “startup nation” figures prominently.
“Building a domestic energy industry…[could] stimulate Israelis to promote innovation in an important global industry that would be new to them…. US companies could help foster…growing experience in energy exploration, development, and production – all capitalizing on Israel’s ‘Start Up Nation’ innovation skills.”
But this is a mere quip. For American members of the commission, something far more important is at stake in the potential for Israel to step up and take on these responsibilities.
America, the report warns in its most strident passages, is leaving behind a dangerous vacuum.
“The desire to disengage from the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean is an especially strong element of the general American isolationist impulse. After decades of leading the democratic world in the Cold War and more than a decade of multiple wars since 9/11, many Americans…would prefer to have nothing to do with foreign wars, with lands that breed jihadists or stagnate in corruption, or have populations that reject modernity or hate the United States,” the report notes in its conclusion.
“The preference is easy to understand, but it’s not realistic,” it declares. “The issue is not whether isolationism is desirable; it is whether it’s possible.”
“Isolation is not an option. The region’s wealth will necessarily influence interests around the world; and so will its pathologies…. Imagine if ISIS or al-Qaeda were to take power in Saudi Arabia and control its bank accounts; no amount of ‘homeland security’ could then neutralize the resulting terrorist danger. Similarly, even though America and other Western countries tried to stay out of Syria’s civil war, the conflict’s ill effects reached them in the form of terrorist murders and millions of refugees.”
Regions cannot be “quarantined. Nuclear or biological weapons developed there could strike anywhere and cyber attacks launched from there can infect computers anywhere.” Then there’s “the question of who will protect freedom of navigation on the seas? Since the sun set on the British Empire, the United States has been instrumental in keeping the world’s seas open to commerce. No other country or alliance is ready and able to substitute. Without open sea lines of communication, much of the world’s trade would cease to flow. If, in hopes of disengaging from the Middle East or cutting its defense budget, the United States were to relinquish this essential role, the harm to the global economy, including America’s economy, would be catastrophic.”
Disengagement from the Mideast ‘simply forfeits America’s ability to shape events.’
Disengagement from the region “does not actually isolate the United States; it simply forfeits America’s ability to shape events.”
It is here, in the depths of this anxiety, that the American side of the commission finds in Israel a kind of answer, perhaps a prototype for a new sort of relationship with regional powers that allows immense America to withdraw without leaving behind it an equally immense vacuum.
The US has vital interests in the region: “Upholding freedom of navigation on the seas; preventing WMD proliferation; countering radical Islamist ideology; preserving the international state system and the principle of national sovereignty; promoting international commerce; and protecting (from terrorists and others) the free and open nature of its society.”
“Founded on liberal democratic ideas similar to those that America embodies, Israel has shared those interests wholeheartedly. No other country in the region has greater capability or willingness to contribute to their advancement through ‘hard’ means, such as military, intelligence and cyber, and ‘soft’ means, such as technology, culture and alliance-building.”
This is something more than an ally, but less than a client. It is akin to the American relationship with Britain or Australia, who share the stewardship of the American-led world order in their more limited spheres of influence, and in deep coordination with American institutions.
Could such a relationship be replicated with regional powers in East Asia in the face of Chinese assertiveness, developing complimentary capabilities and mutual commitments that can compensate for American fatigue?
In the introduction, one learns about what Israel stands to gain as an emboldened maritime power. In the conclusion, it is America that benefits, and perhaps, if this experiment succeeds, also nations and regions in all the far-flung corners of the world.
Can Israel do it? Can its competing institutions come together to forge such a vast, shared new vision of Israel’s maritime mission?
“It’s the very reason we established in Haifa a center for maritime strategy,” says Chorev. The institute strives to jump-start that process by bringing together expertise from across the many disciplines required to forge a comprehensive maritime strategy. It is now home to a former Transportation Ministry official who was the director of Israel’s seaports, as well as an expert on southeast Asia and others.
For some of the Israelis, it is also, simply, an idea whose time has come.
In the report one hears echoes of an old complaint by Israel’s admirals. The Israel Navy has long believed it was undervalued in the state’s strategic posture and underappreciated by generations of defense planners and cabinet ministers.
Israeli planners spent decades constructing an IDF built to withstand the onslaught of conventional Arab armies. The Arabs bought Soviet and American tanks, so Israel built its own extensive armored corps. The Arabs fielded air forces; Israel responded in kind.
For all the complexity involved in forging the IDF’s force structure, the fundamental strategy behind it was once straightforward – and delivered when it counted. But in the past 20 years, those conditions have changed. The case for an upgraded navy is now so compelling that the commission has reason to believe its advice will not fall on deaf ears.
The economist John Maynard Keynes once reflected on the role of the “scribbler” whose ideas percolate unnoticed through the zeitgeist until they become so obvious and widely accepted that political leaders believe they came up with the ideas themselves.
“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence,” said Keynes, “are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
In a similar vein, Feith insists that the most important part of the report is the simple act of beginning to think aloud about the question. The discussion itself has strategic implications.
“For a country to have a strategy requires more than the prime minister or chief of staff to be a strategic thinker,” he says. “One of the purposes of strategy, as I understand it, is when you have a large set of institutions, how do you get all of those various institutions pointing in the same direction and not undercutting each other? One of the purposes of strategy” – of the mere act of developing that strategy – “is to accomplish that.”
Both Feith and Chorev recognize the institutional obstacles that lie in the path of so significant a shift in Israel’s vision of itself. But the major obstacle, and the easiest to overcome, is that the discussion itself isn’t taking place.
That, at least, they can change without delay.
One tiny country has led the world in COVID vaccination. If Israel’s achievement makes you proud, there’s something you should know. Huge audiences have flocked to The Times of Israel recently from countries where Israel normally makes the news only because of its conflicts.
They’ve been coming here to read a very different kind of article. We’ve been the go-to site for everyone intrigued by the success story of the “Vaccination Nation.”
As ToI's Health and Science correspondent, I’ve written much of this coverage - and it’s been exhilarating to see its impact. Our journalism has inspired many articles in media outlets worldwide. I know this because international journalists have often contacted me for input.
Your support, through The Times of Israel Community, helps us to continue providing surprising, impressive stories from this small state to readers around the world. Will you join our Community today?
Nathan Jeffay, Health & Science Correspondent
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
- Israel & the Region
- Israel Inside
- Israel Navy
- US Navy
- US Navy 6th Fleet
- Ami Ayalon
- Shaul Chorev
- Douglas Feith
- Mary Landrieu
- Ron Prosor
- Eytan Sheshinksi
- nuclear submarines
- Israel-Russia relations
- Eastern Mediterranean Gas
- Mediterranean Sea
- Editor's picks
- Islamic State
- Israel-US relations