Unintended consequences: The Sinai withdrawal and Iran

by Maskil on April 29, 2008

The Reuters website carried a feature on the recently published Israeli thriller, “Undersea Diplomacy”, by Shlomo Erell. According to the article, “he’s an ex-admiral with experience in Israel’s most sensitive military planning”. (Significantly, retired Admiral Erell was Chief of the Navy in Israel in June 1967.)

The article quoted Erell as saying “it’s pure fiction, but it’s informed fiction”. On that basis, I have a major concern with one of the assumptions of the plot, which centres around if and how Israel may make use of its Dolphin-class submarines, in the event of a showdown with an Iran on the brink of achieving the means to carry out its threat of wiping Israel off the map.

According to the article, the assumption is as follows:

Israel also has access to the Red Sea through Eilat port. But navy sources said there was no plan to dock submarines there because the narrow Red Sea, which is shared with several Arab states, is vulnerable to blockades at the Straits of Tiran.

In 1956 and 1967, Egypt’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran to vessels bound for Eilat was a casus belli for Israel and a catalyst for war on both occasions. I also recall that one of Israel’s last actions during the 1948 War of Independence was to establish a presence in Eilat, to secure Israel’s access to the Red Sea.

Unless there’s something I’ve missed here, I therefore find it disturbing and disheartening that Eilat’s vulnerability to blockade is simply taken for granted, based on which a possible route through the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba) is taken out of the equation without any further deliberation. Previous generations of Israeli military strategists would have drawn up plans to smash any such blockade; the present generation appears to be content to accept the situation and plan around it. (Note also that none of the countries with which Israel shares a Red Sea “frontage” has even given the slightest hint that any such blockade is being contemplated.)

The other item that concerned me was the statement that

Israel is assumed to have ballistic missiles, yet its small size may make surprise launches impossible: an unannounced missile test in January became news within minutes as the startled residents of nearby towns reported the roaring takeoff.

So, within the context of Iran’s threats to inflict a nuclear holocaust on Israel, we appear to have two unintended consequences of Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai, both of which serve to hamper Israel’s ability to deter Iran’s genocidal intentions:

  • The abandonment of Eilat as a strategic naval asset and gateway to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
  • The lack of suitable areas (away from population centres) from which unannounced or secret missile or rocket launches can take place. The vast expanses (by Israeli standards) of the Sinai peninsula would have been ideal for this purpose.

Menachem Begin OBM, who led Israel when a previous nuclear threat (from Iraq) was pre-empted, must be turning in his grave at the thought of the unintended consequences of the withdrawal from Sinai, which formed part of his peace deal with Sadat’s Egypt!

Can anything be done to address this hypothetical situation?

  • Assuming that the novel does actually reflect Israeli strategy, the planning assumptions around Eilat, the Straits of Tiran and the Red Sea need to change, with Israel asserting its right to freedom of navigation in times of both peace and war.
  • Israel’s naval facilities in Eilat should be upgraded to accommodate an expanded Israeli naval presence in the Red Sea, in addition to that in the Mediterranean.
  • Israeli strategic and military planning should be updated to reflect scenarios in the event of regime change in Egypt (or Jordan), with either or both becoming part of the radical Islamist camp. This should include plans to retake the Sinai Peninsula and an understanding of what areas (if any) should be retained irrespective, e.g. the Straits of Tiran and the islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
  • In any planning to reconquer the Sinai, it should be assumed that the western-most limit should be the Sinai passes (Khatmia, Gidi, and Mitla) rather than the canal itself, i.e. the entire length of both banks of the Suez Canal would remain in Egyptian hands and could continue to operate.

(As a youngster, poring over newspapers, books and maps of the region in the late 60s and early 70s, I was convinced that Israel would need to eventually conquer the Saudi Arabian shore of the Straits of Tiran and also establish an air and naval base somewhere in the Bab-el-Mandeb (where the Red Sea and Indian Ocean meet). While I’ve outgrown those daydreams, I do still believe Israel has assets and national interests in the Red Sea region and should not allow itself to be squeezed out by its own strategic assumptions!)

Since the withdrawal from Sinai, and especially since the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel has had to learn some harsh lessons about the real long-term costs of (particularly) unilateral withdrawal from territories. Let’s hope that some of these lessons will be applied to Israel’s future political and military thinking.

Or am I reading too much into what is just the plot of a novel?

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