Arab-Israeli Conflict

Five years after the start of the Madrid peace process in October 1991, the Arab-Israeli conflict is at a turning point. Despite its notable accomplishments, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords of September 1993 and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of October 1994, a series of bloody suicide bombings carried out in February­March 1996 by Palestinian Islamic extremists in Israel has put the process on hold. These events shook Israelis' confidence in the ability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to halt terrorist attacks and prompted Tel Aviv to break off negotiations with Syria. (Damascus supports the groups that carried out the bombings.) These events also contributed to the May 1996 election in Israel of a Likud government, which rejects the concept of "land for peace," that underpinned the Madrid process. Consequently, it is unclear whether the next decade will see the consummation of the Madrid peace process or a new cycle of violence and perhaps war.

This chapter discusses the potential for conflicts among states or involving the PA. (For analysis of radical movements that could destabilize individual states or the PA, see the chapter on Middle East Radicalism in the Troubled States section.)

Background and Trends

There is a heightened potential for renewed Arab-Israeli violence in the late 1990s, owing to several factors: the wide gap separating the basic positions of the two sides, Israeli frustration over continued terrorism, Palestinian frustration with the lack of progress in negotiations, and Syria's continued support for anti-Israel terrorism. Moreover, the indirect, covert efforts of nations like Iran, Iraq and Libya to scuttle the peace process by supporting rejectionist groups opposed to peace heightens regional tensions and could increase the possibility of a confrontation with Israel. Even if a comprehensive peace could somehow be reached, however,
ongoing competition for influence and lingering resentment on both sides over the terms of a settlement would create friction between Israel and most, if not all, of its Arab neighbors.

The Middle East Military Balance


Sources: INSS estimate based on data from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Note: The amounts shown are only for equipment thought to be operational, which in some cases is significantly less than total inventories. Also, the figure for warships excludes patrol boats and similar small ships.

Continuing Differences between Israelis and Palestinians

The Oslo I (September 1993), Gaza-Jericho (May 1994), and Oslo II accords (September 1995) established a roadmap for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians. These agreements provide a timetable for transferring authority over parts of the West Bank and Gaza to the PA, and for conducting final-status negotiations regarding borders, security arrangements, settlements, refugees, water issues, and Jerusalem that will determine the final contours of a settlement between Israel and the PA.

For Israel, these agreements provide a mechanism for ending its rule over nearly two million Palestinians and for creating the basis for peaceful coexistence between the two peoples, though the final outcome of the process--autonomy, confederation with Jordan, or statehood--remains unclear. For Palestinians, the agreements provide a means to achieve the Palestinian leadership's declared objective of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

West Bank

The Oslo II accords fleshed out commitments made in earlier agreements and called for both sides to take several steps before the start of final-status negotiations:

Relations between Israel and the PA will remain tense and difficult, and a violent confrontation between Israel and the PA will remain a possibility. Numerous factors make for a volatile situation that could lead to an explosion if both sides do not demonstrate flexibility in accommodating the concerns of the other:

Mixed Progress toward Peace between Israel and the Arab States

In five years of negotiation, Israel and Syria have made little progress bridging gaps in their positions regarding the four main issues under negotiation:

In 1996, the suspension of negotiations, Syria's continued support for the Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist groups opposed to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the election of a Likud government committed to fight terror as its first priority all increase the likelihood of a major Israeli military operation in Lebanon in the late 1990s along the lines of the Litani Operation (1978), Operation Peace for Galilee (1982), Operation Accountability (1993), or Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996).


The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty divides the Sinai into three zones: in Zone A, Egypt is permitted one mechanized infantry division; in Zone B, four lightly armed border battalions; and in Zone C, only civilian police to supplement the three battalions of the U.S.-led MFO peacekeeping force. Before the treaty came into full effect, several buffer zones were set up to separate Egyptian and Israeli forces.

Relations between Israel and Egypt remain cool. Egypt--seeing Israel as a potential rival for influence in the region, conscious of the growing weight of domestic opinion critical of its peace treaty with Israel, and fearing the loss of its pivotal role in the Arab world--has further slowed the pace of normalization with Israel and tried to reestablish itself as a key player on the inter-Arab stage. Specifically, it has spearheaded efforts to build an Arab consensus concerning the peace process and Israel that reflects Egyptian priorities, and it has tried to bring international pressure to bear on Israel to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), raising tensions with Israel and the United States. Egypt has also tentatively raised the possibility of terminating the mission of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai--mainly for financial reasons. This could become another source of friction with Israel.

By contrast, Israel and Jordan have succeeded in creating a relatively warm peace between governments, based on the close personal ties between the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein and a shared interest in containing Palestinian nationalism. However, Palestinian-Israeli tensions in the fall of 1996 led to a cooling of ties. A small but symbolically important tourist trade has emerged between the two countries and there are plans for joint development of the Jordan Valley, increased trade, and joint business ventures. Moreover, military and security cooperation--which predated the peace treaty--has moved forward without fanfare. The warmth of Israeli-Jordanian relations, however, will be tied to the quality of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. It will be hard for Jordan to embrace Israel openly if the latter's relationship with the Palestinians remains strained, although Israel and Jordan are likely to continue to cooperate quietly in dealing with potential security threats emanating from the West Bank and Gaza. The closeness of Israel's relationship with the Arab states of North Africa and the Gulf will likewise be more or less linked to the quality of its relations with the Palestinians and, to a lesser degree, progress in negotiations with Syria and Lebanon.

Palestinian-Israeli clashes following the opening of an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem in September 1996 brought a chill to Israel's relations with Jordan and the Arab states of North Africa and the Gulf.

Continuing Hostility between Israel and Rogue Regimes

Throughout the next decade, Israel will probably remain in a state of war with the three "outer-ring" states--Libya, Iraq, and Iran--whether or not it makes progress toward resolving its conflicts with its immediate neighbors. All three of these states oppose the Arab-Israeli peace process and are likely to continue providing political, military, and economic support to terrorist groups working to undermine it. Moreover, all three states have acquired and are developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Given the hostility of these states to Israel and their radical policies, it is possible that one of them (or one of their surrogates) may attack Israel or the U.S. with WMD. For this reason, these states could become the target of an Israeli preventive strike (with possible U.S. support) on WMD production and storage facilities or delivery means.

Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 4, 1996 after a suicide bomb. At least 10 people were killed and 40 wounded in the fourth terror attack in Israel in nine days.

The proliferation of WMD is more advanced in the Middle East than in any other region of the world (for more details, see the chapter on proliferation). For this reason, a future Arab-Israeli war could involve the use of these weapons, with horrible implications for the region. Moreover, stemming the proliferation of WMD is growing increasingly difficult. In particular, countries are becoming more skilled at concealing their WMD activities. This will make it more difficult to identify new programs, identify potential WMD production and support sites, assess the maturity of programs underway, and ascertain the scope of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons proliferation in the region. This will make preventive and preemptive strikes more difficult to accomplish and increase the relative importance of deterrence and defensive measures in confronting the threat posed by WMD proliferation.

Potential Flashpoints

Escalating Israeli-Palestinian Violence

In 1996, terrorism by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad succeeded, at least temporarily, in disrupting implementation of the Oslo I and II accords. Terrorism by opponents of the peace process and perhaps a new intifada are likely. (For analysis of the potential for terrorism that disrupts the peace process, see the chapter on Middle East Radicalism.) Palestinian frustrations concern restrictions on employment in Israel, the slow pace of negotiations, as well as the progress of final-status talks. If the situation deteriorates, Israel could close off the West Bank and Gaza and send its forces into areas currently controlled by the PA (zones A and B of the Oslo II accords). The range of Israeli responses might vary from covert operations (to abduct or assassinate wanted men) and reprisal raids of varying size, to large-scale cordon and search operations. Likewise, the participation of Israeli Arabs in a new intifada could prompt Israel to send troops into PA-controlled areas, although other measures, such as the punitive closure of the territories, seem a more likely response.

In all of these cases, U.S. military involvement is unlikely. Israel would probably have better operational intelligence regarding the whereabouts of wanted men and the structure of terror cells and would therefore have little need for U.S. help in this area. Moreover, the context of Israeli military intervention in the West Bank or Gaza might, for political reasons, preclude the U.S. from providing military assistance.

Israeli Intervention in an Unstable Jordan

The radicalization of the Palestinian community in Jordan, brought about by a renewed and more violent intifada or greater contact with Palestinians living in PA-controlled areas, could produce unrest and instability in that country. In such circumstances, Syria or Iraq may be tempted to intervene covertly or overtly on the side of domestic opponents of the Hashemite regime, repeating Syria's military intervention in Jordan during the civil war of 1970. In response, Israel might threaten to intervene, to preserve Hashemite rule as it did during the 1970 Syrian intervention, and it would probably act on these threats if they failed to deter. In such a situation, the U.S. would probably provide Israel with intelligence to facilitate its intervention. The U.S. might also intervene on its own, using air and naval assets located in the region, ground forces from outside the region, pre-positioned equipment located in Israel, and perhaps staging areas in Israel and Saudi Arabia.


In accordance with the May 1974 disengagement agreement, Israeli and Syrian forces are separated by 1,250 UN observers located between lines A and B. In addition, two 10-km wide force limitation zones are located on both sides of the border.

Violation or Abrogation of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty

Though unlikely, instability in Egypt--driven by political extremism, rapid population growth, and seemingly insoluble economic problems--could lead to a change of government, a coup, or a revolution. A new government or regime (whether Islamist or secular nationalist in orientation) might decide to violate Egypt's peace treaty with Israel by exceeding permitted force levels in the Sinai, or it might abrogate the treaty outright. Either step would raise tensions and could spark a major crisis with Israel, prompting a withdrawal of the U.S.-led peacekeeping force--the 2,700-man MFO--that has monitored implementation of the treaty in the Sinai since 1982. In such circumstances, the MFO might have to withdraw from the Sinai under chaotic and possibly hazardous conditions. Such an operation would resemble noncombatant evacuation operations undertaken elsewhere in the past, and would require naval, amphibious, and air forces large enough to cover the removal of a lightly armed brigade-size force to neighboring countries or to ships offshore. Beyond the immediate implications for the safety of U.S. personnel serving in the MFO, such a contingency--entailing the failure of one of America's most successful peacekeeping operations--could undermine popular support for potential peacekeeping operations elsewhere, particularly in the Golan.

Syrian-Israeli Confrontation

Continued Israeli-Hizballah violence in Lebanon, Syrian support for Hizballah and Palestinian attacks on Israel, and the lack of progress in negotiations have the potential to spark a Syria- Israel confrontation in Lebanon, or even a war.

Operation Grapes of Wrath, launched by Israel in April 1996 in an effort to halt Hizballah attacks against Israel's self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon and northern Israel, demonstrated the fragile nature of the status quo in Lebanon. Should Tel Aviv launch a major ground operation against Hizballah (something it avoided in Operation Grapes of Wrath), Israel could be drawn into an open confrontation with Syria, which maintains 35,000 troops in Lebanon (including a mechanized division, an airborne division, and several special forces regiments). Moreover, Israel might be tempted to attack Syrian forces there in order to punish the regime of Hafez al-Asad for its support for Hizballah. In either case, Israel and Syria would probably try to limit the conflict to Lebanon (as they did in 1982) and avoid the spread of hostilities to the Golan.

Conversely, if negotiations between Israel and Syria remain deadlocked, Syria might try to retake the Golan by force, or at least seize a symbolic toe-hold there in order to facilitate the resumption of talks from a position of strength. In an attempt to limit the scope and duration of the conflict, Syria would try to mobilize international support for a quick cease-fire and threaten to launch SCUD missiles against Israeli cities if fighting continued. Israel would, at the very least, try to restore the pre-war status quo and punish Syria by threatening Damascus and inflicting heavy losses on the Syrian military--the principal pillar of the regime.

Despite its relative political isolation, Syria could expect some help from several other countries in the event of a war with Israel. For instance, Iraq and Iran might dispatch token expeditionary forces, consisting of small ground and air contingents. Iraq, moreover, might allow Syria to launch SCUD missiles from its territory, thereby complicating Israeli efforts to find and suppress missile launchers. Iran, likewise, might replace Syrian SCUD missiles expended or lost in combat; Tehran might even launch missiles against Israel from its own territory in support of the Syrian war effort (assuming it eventually acquires missiles capable of reaching Israel). It is even possible that Libya and Iran might also try to interdict merchant ships or civilian aircraft bringing war materiel to Israel from the United States or elsewhere.

When Iraq attacked Israel with SCUD missiles during
the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. deployed
Patriot missiles to Israel.

While Israel is more than strong enough to go it alone in a war with Syria, it might still benefit from U.S. assistance in several areas, including:

Rogue Use of WMD and Israeli Preventive Strikes on Rogue WMD Capabilities

While a Libyan, Iraqi, or Iranian attack on Israel or the U.S. using WMD currently seems unlikely, it is not implausible. Such an attack would most probably occur within the context of a regional conflict, such as Operation Desert Storm, in which Israel or other U.S. allies are targeted in order to deter U.S. intervention. Moreover, if deniability could be ensured through the use of covert delivery means (such as terrorist saboteurs), the inhibitions against the use of WMD could be greatly reduced.

Chemical and biological weapons would probably be the weapons of choice for a covert attack. Even small amounts of a biological agent could cause thousands of casualties and would probably be detected only after the fact, making it difficult--if not impossible--to determine responsibility.

Such an attack might be launched simply to inflict casualties, though Iraq and Iran are more likely to threaten Israel in order to attain particular objectives (as Iraq did during the Gulf War). Furthermore, such an attack might aim to provoke a war between Israel and one of its other enemies (i.e., Iraq might covertly attack Israel in the hope that it would retaliate against Iran). Iraq or Iran might also attack the United States with WMD in the event of a regional conflict involving Israel.

In the event of a WMD attack against Israel, the United States may be called on to provide:

Given the danger posed by the proliferation of WMD in the region and the potentially horrific consequences of their use, Israel--perhaps with U.S. support--might take preventive action (including sabotage or air strikes) against WMD research, development, and production sites and facilities associated with WMD delivery systems, such as airfields and missile bases.

The Israeli attack on the Iraqi Osiraq reactor in June 1981 provided a model for future operations of this type. Since then, Israeli officials have suggested on several occasions that they would, if necessary, attack WMD-related facilities in the region again. Israel's Air Force has a proven long-range strike capability, and its acquisition of twenty-four F­151 strike aircraft in the late 1990s will greatly enhance its capabilities in this area.

For both political and military reasons, Israel might not consult with the United States before attacking the WMD facilities of rogue regimes. If it were to consult, however, Israel might ask for help in a variety of areas, including information (targeting data); hardware (penetrator or other specialized munitions); and operational support (in-flight refueling).

U.S. Interests and Approach

Net Assessment

In the late 1990s, the U.S. will face difficult challenges ensuring the viability of Arab-Israeli peace agreements concluded thus far, maintaining the momentum of the Arab-Israeli negotiations, and defusing potential conflicts between Israel, the Palestinians, and Syria. Low-level Israeli-Palestinian violence is likely to continue and a Syrian-Israeli confrontation in Lebanon is possible in the period under consideration. Syria might, moreover, initiate a limited action in the Golan to obtain a foothold there and spur a renewal of negotiation from a position of strength. On the other hand, though the potential for widespread unrest in Egypt and Jordan is low, political instability in either could have severe consequences for the durability of the peace both countries have forged with Israel--and thus for U.S. interests in the region.

Libya, Iraq, and Iran will remain at war with Israel, and barring a change in regimes, opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process and broader U.S. interests in the region will remain a key feature of the policies of these countries. Given their continued hostility to the U.S. and Israel, the risk posed by rogue regimes' possession of WMD will be among the most difficult and dangerous challenges the United States and its friends in the region will confront in the late 1990s. For this reason, an Israeli preventive strike against WMD-related facilities in the Arab world or Iran will remain a possibility during the period under consideration Moreover, the possibility of WMD use against U.S. troops, allied countries, or even against population centers in the continental U.S. will increase, particularly in the event of a war between any one of these countries and the U.S. or its allies in the region.

Finally, while the U.S. may be called upon to provide military assistance to its friends in the region, it is unlikely to be necessary (as it was in the past) to intervene militarily, or to threaten to do so, to secure its interests in the Arab-Israeli arena.

U.S. Interests

Ensuring the Survival of Israel and Moderate Arab Governments

The U.S. has a historic commitment to Israel, based on such shared values as democracy. The state of Israel has had great difficulty securing recognition from its neighbors, some of which spent decades challenging Israel's very right to exist as a nation. The U.S. has a long-standing commitment to defend that right. Similarly, the U.S. has a strong interest in upholding moderate Arab governments to ensure that the region is not overwhelmed by anti-Western radicalism that could unleash a wave of terror and threaten the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf.

Preventing a Violent Arab-Israeli Conflict

The end of the Cold War eliminated, at least temporarily, the possibility that an Arab-Israeli conflict could spark a superpower confrontation. Continued Arab-Israeli violence, however, threatens the integrity of existing peace treaties and the stability of governments friendly to the U.S., and provides ammunition for radical Islamists and radical regimes such as Iraq and Iran. The Middle East, moreover, could reemerge as a focal point of conflict and competition between the U.S. and Russia were the latter to assert itself overseas and reclaim the role once played by the Soviet Union. Moreover, because the proliferation of WMD is more advanced in the Middle East than in any other region of the world, a future Arab-Israeli war could very well involve the use of these weapons on the battlefield or against civilian population centers--with horrible implications for the region. Averting this possibility will be a key U.S. interest in the Middle East in coming years.

U.S. Approach

In the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the United States will face an environment in the Middle East that is more complex and challenging than ever before. And more than ever before, U.S. policymakers will need to integrate political, economic, and military instruments to achieve their objectives in the region.

Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a priority for the U.S. Thus, the U.S., co-sponsor (with Russia) of the Madrid peace process, will continue its efforts to broker an Arab-Israeli peace; to promote economic development to bolster friendly governments and create for the peoples of the region a stake in peace and stability; and to ensure that allies (including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) are able to defend themselves against potential regional threats, while ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative edge. Peace, however, is unlikely to yield a significant dividend in the form of a reduction in defense spending, though it may alter spending priorities (e.g., more money for counter-terror forces and long-range strike and missile defense systems, and less for conventional ground forces). Accordingly, Washington will be asked to maintain current levels of security assistance to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan to ensure that these allies possess the means to defend themselves and thereby keep the peace.

Furthermore, U.S. efforts to broker an Israeli-Syrian peace--if successful--could create additional military requirements for the United States. Specifically, the U.S. might be asked to help monitor implementation of an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty and participate in peacekeeping operations on the Golan. Thus, even if a comprehensive peace is achieved, the U.S. will retain important military commitments in the area.

The U.S. will also continue its efforts to limit the troublemaking potential of both Iran and Iraq in order to prevent them from undermining the Arab-Israeli peace process or creating a new rejectionist bloc opposed to the peace process and U.S. interests in the region. (For more discussion of this issue, see the chapter on the Persian Gulf.)

Lastly, though there are few situations that would require direct and massive U.S. military intervention, U.S. forces and personnel could be indirectly involved in future conflicts, or be targeted by hostile terrorist groups or states. As a result, the U.S. will need to enhance its ability to deal with terrorism and WMD, the threats that pose the greatest danger to its personnel and interests. In particular, the greatest challenges are preventing the delivery of WMD by nontraditional means (such as terrorist-driven trucks), destroying hardened and buried targets and mobile missile launchers, and protecting U.S. and allied civilian populations against attacks by WMD.

| Return to Top | Return to Contents | Next Chapter | Previous Chapter |