The possibility of closing the Bab al-Mandab and Hormuz straits pose a threat no less serious than others coming from Tehran and Hezbollah
Israel isn’t involved. That’s the official response to anyone who asks what the recent deterioration in relations between Iran and the United States means for Jerusalem. We’re not involved; we’re not addressing or responding to it. Ramifications? Potential harm to Israel’s maritime space? Our lips are sealed.
But on the informal level, behind the scenes, there is concern. Israel understands well that a possible escalation of tensions along the Tehran-Washington axis constitutes a different kind of strategic threat: harm to free passage in the shipping lanes to and from Israel.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and local intelligence officials are getting continuous updates about developments from the Americans and other countries. Three names apparently starring in these updates are the straits of Bab al-Mandab and Hormuz, and the Suez Canal. Iran is threatening to seal off these passages hermetically, with no entry to commercial vessels, and with anyone persisting in entering risking attack. This is a threat in every sense, no less serious than the others directed at Israel by Tehran and Hezbollah, which are perceived as more tangible. This time the warhead is not on a missile.
There are no alternatives to these shipping lanes; they are among the most important in the world: Approximately 20 percent of the world’s fuel passes through these straits every year. Bab al-Mandab is the gateway from Asia and Africa – through the Suez Canal – to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe, and one cannot exaggerate its importance. With regard to Israel, 90 percent of its imports and exports are transported by sea, and 12 percent of them pass through Bab al-Mandab. This includes all commerce between Israel and the East, particularly its imports from China. We’re talking about around $15 billion worth of goods a year.
Although it seems as though blockage of these straits (Hormuz being the only passageway from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean) is no more than a plan on paper, for now – there is apparently no alternative but to prepare for such an eventuality, whether it occurs in the near or distant future. In any case there will be a price to pay. At best it will be merely a (substantial) hike in the cost of shipping insurance. At worst, all maritime transportation via these strategic choke points will stop altogether. Israel’s economy will have a hard time dealing with such a situation, certainly if it lasts a long time.
This is where Israeli deterrence comes in – or, at least, is supposed to come in. The Iranian threats that have been so widely expressed in recent days are not the first. In the past Jerusalem has had some sharp verbal exchanges with Tehran over maritime issues. This happened when Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami declared a few months ago that “Tehran will destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa,” if the United States were to attack Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu hastened to respond the next day, while standing on an Israeli missile boat, declaring that “Our missiles can reach very far.” Hatami recently reiterated his threat.
As far back as last August, the Iranians threatened to close the straits, and Netanyahu responded: “If Iran will try to block the straits of Bab al-Mandab, it will find itself facing a determined international coalition that will include the State of Israel with all its weaponry.”
But there arises the question of what is behind these threats and that promise. Israel “has no overall maritime strategy,” says political scientist Shaul Horev, a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, who commanded a flotilla of submarines and missile boats and currently heads the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy.
In a strategic naval assessment published in January, the center wrote that Netanyahu’s responses to threats from Iran must be “backed by a comprehensive naval strategy that will deal with the issue by means of a maritime coalition of western forces operating in the region, or independently.”
Horev is not alone in thinking that Israel is lacking a vital strategy: Security and defense officials, past and present, as well as other researchers, agree with the professor. They have repeatedly warned that the way the Israel Navy is building its forces for the future won’t necessarily meet the challenges and missions it is expected to face in a changing arena.
Some say the navy is still thinking in terms of fighting enemy battleships and insists on participating in the fighting vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip despite the fact, as one source said, that the navy’s “influence on the fighting in such events is marginal to irrelevant.” In addition, there are those who believe that in the last 10 years, the IDF’s top brass and naval commanders have exploited the navy’s protection of offshore gas rigs to soak up budgets and pursue procurement the likes of which the navy has never seen before – while meanwhile neglecting other, equally important matters. Such as ongoing maintenance of security, for example.
The navies of Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and other countries, say these officials and researchers, have realized that they must change with the times. The Israel Navy hasn’t. It doesn’t accept the fact that it’s supposed to protect Israel’s economy too, for example, by guarding its maritime trade routes.