Major changes in the region have made it necessary to re-evaluate the geopolitics of Israel. The murder of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, the death of Oman’s longtime ruler Qaboos bin Said al Said and Turkey gaining patronage from the signing of the Libya deal render obligatory the re-analysis of the intertwined clusters of possible geopolitical actions from Tel Aviv.
The relevancy of these events can be recognized in the context of Israel’s politics in the region, though initially, they may seem unconnected. The three events serve as the signal flares of the beginning of a new conjuncture, as they occurred in a narrow time frame and turned the game upside down in the region. Undoubtedly, these three factors or elements can be considered "cornerstone events" for the redetermination of Israeli geopolitics.
The killing of Soleimani was an attempt to limit Iran’s capacity for regional access and expansionist moves. In addition, the death of Sultan Qaboos may determine the directions of projections regarding the Persian Gulf through Oman’s geostrategic location in the Strait of Hormuz, and may interrupt the initiatives taken by Oman as part of the Palestinian issue and the nuclear files of Iran. The Turkey-Libya deal may also be considered a deciding factor in the sharing of the energy fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. In this context, the geopolitics of Israel may constitute the basis of transformations in the Iran-Oman-Libya triangle.
The U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani can be considered one of the most critical developments for Israel in the region. Given his position, Soleimani was a dominant figure in implementation of Iran’s foreign policy at the regional level. His elimination could be read as a preventative move against Iran’s expansionist reflexes in its foreign policy. Yet a pure singular solution may not always strengthen the possibility of the interruption of certain structural processes.
Iranian foreign policy’s expansionist tendencies cannot be solely reduced to Soleimani’s personal traits. Soleimani is only one of many parts of the structure which had been growing since the first days of the revolution, based on the aforementioned expansionist motives. But the praise and acceptance he was able to acquire from higher ranks of the revolution makes him a critical figure.
Soleimani, who became an important organ of Iranian foreign policy by organizing and coordinating Shia militia groups, was certainly part of Israel’s calculations in the region as well. The presence of radical elements in the al-Quneitra region was a troubling development for Israel at the Syrian borders and it brought with it the potential for instability in the Golan Heights. Hezbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon and the experience and military capacity of the organization acquired in the Syrian civil war was disturbing for the national security elites in Israel. Israeli air forces repeatedly struck weapons convoys sent to Hezbollah. In addition, the radical elements deployed in the Sinai Peninsula -- at the Israeli-Egyptian border -- and Gaza left Israel surrounded by non-state actors. Soleimani was unquestionably a strategic target connecting all these dots.
The assassination of Soleimani should be interpreted as a development that will be written in the account of Israel, even though it was not “openly contracted” to the U.S.
The Trump administration, which is always ready to undertake the duty of a "battering ram" in the policy that Israel plans against Iran, blatantly carried out Soleimani’s assassination.
In addition, Israel owes the existence of the current limitations toward Iran -- due to its nuclear activities -- in the international arena to the lobbying power it has within the U.S.
Targeting the militia groups working for Iran in the region and their “coordinator”, the U.S. seemingly got on the field, which is, in a way, the manifestation of an Israel-focused positioning. On the Israeli side, decoding their role in the period following the assassination and “blurting out” the fact that they are a nuclear power via their prime minister, was Israel “showing their hand” against possible retaliations from Iran.
Iran carrying out expansionist policies at the regional level based on the Shia masses was perceived as a destabilizing factor on the northern borders of Israel. Iran acquired transnational terrestrial connections that go beyond the countries and borders in the region, all the way to Lebanon via the military operations conducted from the ashes of the Arab Spring. Thus, Israel started having neighborly relations with Iran and Soleimani was the face of this process. A military-political figure present both in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani became an individual who essentially represented the expansionist tendencies of Iranian foreign policy. In this context, the targeting of Soleimani should be seen as a reaction to Iran’s regional expansionism. This perception is, undoubtedly, completely compatible with Israel’s national security approach. While Iranian expansionism will not end after this event, it will certainly take a serious hit as long as the death of Soleimani is a matter of discussion.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said
The recent death of the former Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said, might have saddened the Israelis the most. Israel and Oman’s bilateral relations can be traced back to the 1970s, and the two countries owe that foundation to Sultan Qaboos’ foreign policy perspective. Sultan Qaboos based the progress of the relationship on the conditions of the Cold War.
A socialist intervention, which would arise from the rebellion that broke out in Yemen borders, was supported by the regional representatives of the capitalist bloc, as it would risk the stability of the kingdom.
Israel gave Oman intelligence and arms aid. Starting then, Oman-Israel relations were stabilized in a rather different spot than the revisionist Pan-Arabist Egypt-Syria axis.
Israel-Oman relations further deepened following the Iranian Revolution. Especially in the 1980s, the two countries’ relations developed strategically, and Israeli intelligence regularly visited Oman. In this process, the Iranian Revolution and “need for expansion” as well as the development potential of the Soviet influence in the region were accepted as threats by both nations. The Madrid Conference of 1991 and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, which was signed shortly after, removed Oman’s hesitations and allowed for the nations to openly continue their relations. The most significant point of contact was the Yitzhak Rabin-Sultan Qaboos meeting conducted two months after the Israel-Jordan treaty.
Similar contacts have been made in more recent times as well. The most significant was the one made near the end of 2018, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman. This meeting was particularly important for a number of reasons. Firstly, Oman did not officially recognize Israel, but Netanyahu’s visit carried official status. In addition, the main reason why that visit was meaningful was that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had also visited Oman only a few days earlier and spoke to Sultan Qaboos, which signaled that Netanyahu was in contact with the Palestinian regime through Oman and seeing how the land lies for the “Deal of the Century”. Led by Sultan Qaboos, Oman was functioning as a mediator between the two sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition, the Iran nuclear deal was also signed under the mediation of Oman in 2015. The “neutrality” status of Oman was a foreign policy practice that helped Oman for many years and allowed them to stay in contact with nearly any actor. Continuing their relations with Iran as well, Oman functioned as the ideal mediator in the said deal. Playing the strategic roles it has in the regional initiatives taken, Oman became very valuable for many regional and global actors.
The death of Sultan Qaboos and the foreign policies that his successor Sultan Haitham bin Tariq will be carrying out are of critical importance for many countries in the region and especially Israel. While signaling that he would be adopting Sultan Qaboos’ foreign policies, Sultan Haitham’s reign may still raise questions among other countries and might ‘naturally’ breed new developments regarding Israel’s policies.
Its exceptional location in the Strait of Hormuz brings Oman geostrategic value. The Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, the only way (sea lane) out from the Gulf, are very important spots for establishing global energy supply security. The energy security problems (which were in the background of the Iranian threats regarding the Strait of Hormuz) have been stabilized due to Oman’s neutral status until today. While there is no evidence that the new Sultan would change Oman’s foreign policies, it doesn’t seem very probable for him to make such an attempt either. This is mainly because the energy security problem is rather a global one and the great powers are directly involved in it. However, changes in “softer” topics might sabotage Israel’s political motives. For instance, Oman’s mediating role in the Palestinian conflict regressing might create unfavorable consequences for Israel. In addition, Iran’s influence on Oman might increase in this new period.
The deal that was signed between Turkey and the internationally recognized government of Fayez al-Sarraj in Libya seems to have disrupted the processes developed by countries looking to passivize Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. The agreement, which is based on the argument that Turkey and Libya are neighboring states through the Mediterranean Sea, seems to have blocked the EastMed pipeline, which has attracted the attention of the Greek Cypriot administration, Egypt, Greece and especially Israel.
The ‘crippling’ of the Israel-Greek Cypriot administration-Greece-Italy pipeline (also known as the EastMed) project via the Turkey-Libya deal seems to be very agitating for Israel. The said pipeline idea was essentially built for marketing Israeli natural gas to the worldwide market. The reserves that are claimed by Greece via the Greek Cypriot administration will get to have economic rationality for the relevant companies only if they are drilled alongside Israeli gas, and the disruption of the pipeline project is stretching Israel’s calculations. Moreover, it’s also possible to read this process as (mutual) bluffing.
Astronomical costs will be going into the said pipeline reaching Greece and Italy underwater through the Crete coastline, and the pipeline will create major security problems. Giving the project the appearance of a beginning seems to have been designed as a means to force Turkey into making a counter move. When Turkey’s counter move was realized with the Libya deal, objections started rising from the said states. This is because Turkey is blocking the exact pipeline planned and -- according to international law -- forces these states to get permission from Turkey before initiating projects such as the EastMed that go through the Turkish maritime zones. This development gives rise to political turmoil in Israel and brings with itself the necessity to reconsider Turkey both as an optimal transport route and a military/economic security threat.
According to a news article published in The Times of Israel on Jan. 14, Turkey is placed as a ‘menace’ (‘threat’) according to the national security structure of Israel. In this context, Turkey is essentially ‘stepping on Israel’ with the Libya deal. A similar interaction happened in the past with the Mavi Marmara massacre and there was blood between the two countries for the first time. Consequently, Israel too has expectations toward alternative authority centers in Libya. Remembering that General Haftar returned from Moscow without signing a cease-fire, it can be inferred that the reflections of the Eastern Mediterranean energy conflict partially shaped the domestic affairs of Libya as well. In this context, Israel is leaning on General Haftar’s status in Libya and designating corresponding policies. In case of the al-Sarraj government staying in power and solidifying its position, Israel will be the first state to come to the negotiating table with Turkey. However, the said dual structure in Libya opens alternative doors to Israel and its ‘gas allies’.
The need for making Turkey passive appears in many contexts for Israel. Bilateral relations in the 1990s, which were in their “golden ages,” were made possible by excluding the Greece-Greek Cypriot administration duo and even more, balancing them. Nowadays, however, the process is working in the exact opposite direction. For Israel, Greece being a NATO ally, an EU member and having an advantageous airspace for military training makes it easier for substituting Turkey out.
However, a fundamental matter that Israel is missing might weaken their hand in the regional equation after a while. There are obstacles to the solidification of Israel-Greece relations such as the fragile structure in Greece and especially the massive size of the economic crisis that broke out in 2008 and brought up the possibility of excluding Greece from the eurozone. Greece has an unproductive economy and cannot replace Turkey in terms of military power. The matter is that Turkey can, nearly single-handedly, take on the whole block of states mentioned if today’s EastMed picture is closely examined. This is related to the power capacity of Turkey. In this regard, Israel needs to take a pragmatic position and maintain their distance with the Greece-Greek Cypriot administration duo’s irrational pipeline projects and join the optimal Turkish options. New developments in Israeli domestic affairs might certainly trigger this process./aa
By: Ceyhun Cicekci
*The writer is an academic, the deputy manager of the Mediterranean Politics Research Center (APAM) at Bandirma Onyedi Eylul University in Turkey's western Balikesir province, and co-editor of the collected work (compilation) Middle East Policies of Global and Regional Powers: Arab Spring.