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Israel sees risks, opportunities in Bab el-Mandeb

The effort by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels to impede oil shipping through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait threatens Israeli interests and raises unpleasant memories. However, it may also present Israel with a significant opportunity to tighten relations with Saudi Arabia.

In late July, rebels from the Houthi movement attacked Saudi shipping in the strait from the Yemeni side. Riyadh accuses rival Tehran of providing the Houthis with arms. Iran has consistently denied the allegations.

Bab el-Mandeb is only 29 km (18 miles) wide, rendering it relatively easy to target ships traversing it.

Bab-el-Mandeb-map

The Israeli Prime Minister, not known for his subtlety, threatened that “if Iran tries to block the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, I am certain that it will find itself confronting an international coalition that will be determined to prevent this, and this coalition will also include all of Israel’s military branches.”

The Houthi insurgents are not an immediate threat to Israel due to the distances involved.

However, the Jewish state has twice gone to war when its shipping access came under threat.

Both the 1956 and 1967 War were the results of tensions arising from Egyptian efforts to block Israeli shipping. At the time, Israel brought the vast majority of its oil (mostly from Iran) through the Straits of Tiran and into the port of Eilat.

For this reason, the Israeli territorial conception before 1973 stressed the importance of maintaining control over the gateway port of Sharm el-Sheikh, crucial to protecting its southern shipping lanes.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan famously said “better Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.”

In the 1973 War, the Egyptian navy, through cooperation with Sudan and Yemen, closed the Red Sea to Israeli shipping by blockading Bab el-Mandeb – 3,200 km south of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Israeli military was incapable of lifting the blockade for logistical reasons.

Overnight, the Israeli defensive naval approach became obsolete.

Protecting trade with China

The interests at stake now are not as significant as they were pre-1967.

Israel obtains its strategic resources from a wider array of sources and the Houthi rebels cannot seal the strait. Direct Iranian involvement is unlikely since a direct provocation could involve Iran in a direct war with Israel, the Sunni states and the United States.

However, there are important interests at stake which Israel cannot ignore. The total trade in goods traversing the Bab el-Mandeb Strait last year amounted to $130 billion.

Attacks on shipping could mean a rise in insurance costs or the need to divert shipping around the Cape of Good Hope, either would make trade with Israel less profitable and limit the scope of activity.

This is an unwelcome scenario, as Israel wants to protect its economic interests in the Pacific Ocean, which is today the center of the international trade system.

A particularly sensitive point is the threat to trade relations with China. China is already the main source of Israeli imports and will soon surpass the United States as the main single nation market for its exports.

Courting Saudi Arabia

Developments in Bab el-Mandeb may also present coveted opportunities for Israel.

In an effort to cultivate an anti-Iranian alliance and alleviate its regional isolation, Israel has attempted to forge a strategic partnership with the Sunni Arab states.

Although there has been a general thaw in relations with Saudi Arabia and other states, they publicly keep Israel at arms length.

The Yemeni civil war, in which Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in 2015 to roll back gains by Iran’s proxies, may present Israel with an opportunity to advance regional security integration.

Over the course of the conflict, the Houthis have targeted vessels off Yemen’s coast. Last month, Riyadh announced it was temporarily suspending shipping through Bab el-Mandeb after the attacks.

Tehran has also threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz in response to US President Donald Trump’s threat to stop Iranian oil exports through the critical waterway.

For Saudi Arabia the effort to keep Iranian proxies away from strategic choke-points is paramount. While it has attempted to diversify in recent years, Riyadh remains reliant on oil exports.

An Israeli contribution to the struggle could go a long way towards cementing a long-sought alliance with the oil-producing state.

The Debate in Israel

The issue has yet to be debated seriously in Israel as operational steps in the direction of military action have yet to be taken.

However, Israeli strategic analysts have already voiced disagreement on how to respond to developments in Bab el-Mandeb.

Shaul Shay, head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya wrote that despite the many threats Israel faces elsewhere, it must focus attention on the Red Sea due to the strategic importance of its shipping interests.

Shmuel Tamir, a strategic studies analyst at Tel Aviv University argues that the threat is overblown and Netanyahu is engaging in war-mongering.

He pointed out that Iran has never actually threatened to close Bab el-Mandeb and the extent of the Iranian control over the Houthi rebels is unclear. Therefore, sabre rattling is probably premature and may force Iran to focus on an area it currently considers to be peripheral.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one to automatically support the Prime Minister, agrees that the threat is serious and told a crowd of naval cadets that the Israeli military is ready to act on different fronts both on land and in the Red Sea.

However, this boast lays bare the problem. Israel has security issues on too many fronts and may be hard-pressed to constantly police Gaza on its northern border and keep an eye on the Red Sea.

It is clear that the threats and opportunities presented by developments in Bab el-Mandeb cannot be ignored. However, Israel must weigh its steps carefully.

While the Middle East has changed dramatically since the 1960s, some elements remain constant. The area continues to be rocked by the struggle for dominance between regional powers.

And then as now, narrow strategic passageways such as the Bab el-Mandeb contain the seeds of open warfare and far-reaching regional upheaval.

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