June 8, 2020 | Insight

Israeli and American Strategic Opportunities Amidst the COVID-19 Crisis

June 8, 2020 Insight

Israeli and American Strategic Opportunities Amidst the COVID-19 Crisis

Albert Einstein once said that in the middle of any difficulty lies an opportunity. The COVID-19 pandemic poses enormous challenges to the Middle East, but the strategic opportunities for the United States and Israel are coming into focus as Israel gets a handle on the virus.

Three months since the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, the Jewish state has successfully combatted the virus. After about 18,000 cases and 300 deaths, Israel has started to flatten the curve and reopen its businesses and schools. Admittedly, there are still outbreaks. But the public health system has proven capable of taming them in real time.

The situation in the West Bank and Gaza is also better than expected, with only 472 cases and three deaths officially reported. Those numbers may be higher, considering Gaza’s densely populated inhabitants and tight control by the authoritarian terrorist group Hamas. Still, behind the scenes, cooperation with Israel to battle the virus has been strong and effective – in both territories. Israel has organized the delivery of testing kits, disinfectant material, masks, ventilators, and medicine to the West Bank and Gaza, thereby reducing the number of infections.

Israel’s success stems from several key factors. The Jewish state has very few entry ports, a relatively young population, state-of-the-art hospitals, and extensive experience in quickly and effectively mobilizing its society for emergency situations.

By contrast, Israel’s neighbors – particularly the Islamic Republic of Iran – continue to face profound difficulties. Over the past several months, the coronavirus has ravaged Iran, with almost 174,000 infections and over 8,000 deaths, according to official government statistics. However, in light of Tehran’s efforts to downplay the virus’ impact, coupled with poor reporting and even poorer treatment among the country’s remote provinces, the true numbers are likely much higher. Meanwhile, amidst continued U.S. sanctions pressure, Iran’s economy continues its downward spiral.

The impact of COVID-19 on Lebanon is significant as well. While the official numbers are low, with about 1,350 cases and 30 deaths, the actual number is probably much greater due to insufficient testing and the government’s efforts to conceal the scale of the problem. At the same time, Lebanon faces a crippling economic crisis. The government has defaulted on its debt. The country is reeling from massive inflation, growing unemployment, and a banking system that is restricting withdrawals. The International Monetary Fund or World Bank would normally offer a lifeline to a country such as Lebanon, but the dominance of the terrorist group Hezbollah, with its accompanying corruption and illicit financial activity, makes that all but impossible.

In Syria, only 144 COVID-19 cases have been officially reported. This is because Syria is a failed state after nearly nine years of devastating civil war. The country’s public health sector is virtually nonexistent. Moreover, the regime is adopting a policy of concealment. At present, the regime’s top priority is to stay in power and to enable Iran to facilitate the transfer of weapons through Syria to arm Tehran’s regional proxies. This is undoubtedly exacerbating the virus’ spread.

The chaos in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria – coupled with Israel’s contrasting stability – presents Jerusalem and Washington with strategic opportunities to advance their interests in the region.

First, Israel should explore the possibility of reaching a more formal and enduring ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza. The terrorist group, like Israel, has an interest in ensuring that the coronavirus proliferates no further. Hamas has dangled the possibility of prisoner swaps, which could be an incentive for a longer term understanding between the parties. The question now is whether this cooperation can be formalized and leveraged to stabilize the region further. Israel’s proposed unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank could jeopardize any such arrangement.

Second, Israel, with U.S. backing, should increase the tempo and scope of its military strikes against Iranian assets in Syria. In recent weeks, U.S. and Israeli officials have stated that Tehran has already begun to withdraw some of its forces in the war-torn country. It is still unclear how significant this retreat may be. But one thing is clear: Iran’s drawdown is to some extent the result of Israel’s pressure. With the worst of the pandemic behind it, Israel can capitalize on Iran’s partial retreat by intensifying its strikes against remaining Iranian targets, particularly forces harboring precision-guided munitions, or PGMs – advanced weapons that could evade Israel’s missile defense systems and strike within a few yards of their intended target. To ensure that Israel can continue to neutralize these weapons and maintain its deterrence and military edge, Jerusalem and Washington should consider certain U.S. military sales to Israel. This would mark the first significant sale of U.S. weapons to Israel under the 2016 U.S.-Israel memorandum of understanding, and would support both Israel’s security needs and the U.S. economy.

Third, Washington and Jerusalem should work to turn the crisis in Lebanon into an opportunity. Both countries should indicate that they support international aid to Lebanon, but only on the condition that the government and the Lebanese Armed Forces block the flow of weapons to the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah. Washington and Jerusalem should also demand the removal of PGMs from the country. In so doing, the United States and Israel can make clear that Hezbollah’s domination of the government lies at the heart of Lebanon’s problems, and that only defanging Hezbollah can spur the improvement of the country’s economy.

Fourth, Washington should continue to intensify economic pressure on Iran. U.S. sanctions continue to erode the regime’s legitimacy, particularly as it spends money on military aggression beyond its borders while poorly managing its health crisis at home. The United States and Israel should continue to expose this fact to counter Tehran’s misleading campaign to receive sanctions relief. The Islamic Republic continues to falsely assert that U.S. sanctions prevent Iran from obtaining medical supplies to combat the coronavirus. In reality, U.S. sanctions provide significant exemptions for humanitarian goods. Tehran seeks cash to finance its regional aggression and to preserve its grip on power. This must be prevented.

Finally, COVID-19 offers an opportunity to foster a new level of cooperation between Israel and the region’s pragmatic Arab countries, including the Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan. Washington and Jerusalem should promote new regional cooperation initiatives on issues such as water security, food, and medical supplies. Regional initiatives focused on national resiliency should be defined and jointly promoted.

Pursuing these steps would demonstrate that Israel and the United States have not allowed the coronavirus to weaken their determination to advance their core interests in the region. At the same time, these steps would exploit their adversaries’ contrasting weakness in the face of the virus. Washington and Jerusalem should seize these opportunities.

Brigadier General Yakov Shaharabani (Ret.) is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). He is a former head of intelligence for the Israeli Air Force and a former Israeli Air Force attaché to the United States. For more analysis from Yakov, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

COVID-19 Egypt Gulf States Hezbollah Iran Iran Politics and Economy Iran Sanctions Israel Jordan Lebanon Military and Political Power Palestinian Politics Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria