Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Nimrod Barkan, spoke to a Toronto audience on Israel’s standing in the current geopolitical climate in the Middle East on Nov. 29, in a rare public briefing on the subject since he took the job in 2016.
Barkan spoke at a lunch hosted by Cassels Brock Lawyers and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), following a talk by FSWC CEO Avi Benlolo about combating anti-Semitism.
Barkan’s first point was that the traditional Middle Eastern divides of Jewish-Arab and Sunni-Shiite no longer define the region’s main dispute. Those old animosities still exist, Barkan acknowledged, but they are not the battle lines along which the major conflict in the region is taking place.
Now, there is a Jewish-Sunni coalition on one side and a Shiite-Sunni Muslim Brotherhood coalition on the other. The former coalition includes Israel, of course, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; the latter coalition is comprised of Iran and Turkey, as well as Qatar, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Although this new balance of power doesn’t mean Israel is safe, Barkan was clear that it is in a relatively secure position compared to the recent past.
“The disappearance of the conventional military threat to Israel should be underlined several times,” he said.
Yes, Israel is still threatened by terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and Iran. “Threats of Iran to eliminate Israel are … very significant,” said Barkan. But Israel’s closest neighbours no longer pose a ubiquitous and immediate threat. For example, Syria used to have 300,000 soldiers stationed in the Golan Heights, on Israel’s northern border. That threat has all but evaporated into thin air, to use Barkan’s phrase. “There is no longer a Syrian army,” he said.
Between the disappearance of the Syrian threat and the neutralization of Hezbollah in Lebanon since 2006, Israel’s north has been able to flourish, said Barkan. To be clear, he said that the neutralization of Hezbollah does not mean the terrorist organization has been defeated; only that it has been deterred from attacking Israel for the past 12 years.
According to Barkan, deterrence is a powerful strategy in the Middle East. He said it is predicated upon three pillars. The first is military strength, which makes Israel’s enemies fear its response. The second is a supportive international environment that will assist the Jewish state in times of crisis. And the third is the support of the civilian Arab world, to help stop conflicts from starting.
But deterrence represents a tenuous balance that could easily be upset. Recent news that Iran is sending precision-guided munitions to Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon, might accomplish that.
“The worst thing is one side believes that he can win. One of the principles of Israeli deterrence is to make sure that nobody believes that he can win in any conflict with Israel,” said Barkan.
Hezbollah currently has around 100,000 rockets, Barkan said. Without precision technology, they are what he calls “stupid rockets,” since they can’t target specific locations. But with that technology, they can target airports and military installations.
There is no longer a Syrian army.
– Nimrod Barkan
“They can completely change the nature of war if there is one, a northern front war between us and Iran and Hezbollah,” said Barkan. “They can make us pay a very high price and, worse than that, increase the temptation for them to start a war.”
Barkan stressed that Turkey also represents a potential threat to Israel. Turkey’s problematic behaviour includes violating sanctions against Iran and supporting Hamas.
Barkan said both Hamas and its “mortal enemy,” the Palestinian Authority (PA), are against the existence of the Jewish state, but Hamas believes in using violence to accomplish that goal. He also said that he considers a peace agreement with the PA unlikely in the short term, because of its stance on Israel, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any work to be done.
“So negotiations for final status, I believe, are unrealistic. That does not mean that we all have to stand in place and wait until Armageddon comes. There are ways to reduce the conflict,” he said.