What Israel can learn from the US-led coalition’s attacks on the Houthis

Dr. Ehud Eiran February 2024
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The Houthi attacks on maritime shipping since November 2023 are yet another chapter in decades of anti-Israel hostilities in the Red Sea, which even preceded the establishment of the state.

While Israel has generally provided effective military response to threats in its immediate maritime domain, such as curbing armed Palestinian terrorist activity in the Mediterranean in the 1970s, it has failed to provide a significant naval response in the distant areas of the Red Sea.

It did not resolve Egypt’s obstruction since 1947 of Israeli passage through the Suez Canal by maritime force, nor did it remove the Egyptian blockade of the Bab el-Mandeb Straits during the Yom Kippur War, although such options were examined, at least in 1973.

At the same time, Arab threats to these shipping lanes have created a rare opportunity for Israel to mobilize international support over the years. The blockade imposed on the passage of vessels or goods through the Suez Canal (1947-1967), and the current attacks on vessels in Bab-el-Mandeb threaten not only Israel but the fundamental international principle of freedom of navigation and, in the case of the Suez Canal, the specific international treaty anchoring its operations. Moreover, damage to vessels imposes an economic burden on all commercial maritime activity in the area, not only on shipping to and from Israel, due to increased insurance costs and circuitous shipping routes.

These circumstances generated international support for Israel whenever threats emerged in the Red Sea maritime space. In 1951, for example, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling on Egypt to allow the passage of goods and vessels to and from Israel through the Suez Canal. In 1957, president Dwight D. Eisenhower provided Israel with what it interpreted as a commitment to employ US naval assets to protect the freedom of navigation if the Egyptians once again blocked the Straits of Tiran from shipping to and from Israel.

However, these diplomatic achievements proved insufficient in the absence of international enforcement. The UN Security Council’s firm 1951 support for Israel did not prevent Egypt from hampering the passage of Israel-related shipping in subsequent years, with the issue ultimately resolved only by the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The 1957 American commitment regarding the Straits of Tiran did not translate into the use of international military force to open the waterway in the May 1967 crisis.

THE RENEWED threats and attacks on Israeli-linked vessels in the Red Sea, this time by the Houthis from Yemen, have prompted international concern at this violation of the international freedom of navigation, with a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on the rebels to stop the attacks, and condemnation by at least 40 countries. The two superpowers – the United States and China – appealed directly to Iran to exert its influence over the Houthis to end the attacks. Even Russia avoided imposing a veto on the Security Council resolution.

Hesitating to attack the Houthis

This time, the declarations were translated into action. In December 2023, the United States announced the launch of Operation Prosperity Guardian by an international coalition of forces to protect traffic in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The United States and Britain also attacked targets in Yemen in a bid to force an end to the Houthi attacks at sea.

But even the US-led coalition’s effort to defend freedom of navigation is being overshadowed by the same kind of international hesitation demonstrated in the past. Many Operation Prosperity Shield partners provide only symbolic assistance, which usually includes the deployment of a limited number of staff officers.

Most US allies in Western Europe did not join the coalition, translating their concern over the infringement of freedom of navigation into the dispatch of limited forces that would not operate under the US umbrella. Even Spain, an important NATO partner with a proud maritime heritage, refused to send troops, citing the need to avoid undermining “international peace.”

So far, the coalition has not achieved its objectives and the Houthi attacks continue. The escalation of the US response, which included a large-scale attack on Houthi targets together with UK forces, also failed to achieve its objective.

Nonetheless, over a month since the launch of the coalition’s activity, several insights can be gleaned with relevance for Israel.

FIRST, DEFENDING its interests requires increasing Israeli dependence on its allies, especially on the US, in addition to the dependence it has developed since the 1970s for the supply of weapons and political backing in the international arena. The current coalition includes, for the first time since 1991, the use of international, and particularly American, military force to defend Israeli interests (inter alia). The US naval force in the region, while trying to protect commercial shipping, is also intercepting missiles fired by the Houthis towards Israel. In fact, the Gaza war appears to have deepened the Israel-US military cooperation not only at sea, with Pentagon officials reportedly involved in top-level military discussions in Israel immediately after October 7.

Second, as was the case in 1991, such direct military dependence could be used by Washington as a lever to advance its preferences, for example on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Even if Israel’s incumbent prime minister seeks to repel such pressure and a different US president is elected in November, the potential for US leverage remains significant, given Israel’s reliance on US munitions.

Third, while Israel finds itself attacked in terms of its “international legitimacy” in arenas such as The Hague, it enjoys military protection from the international system in the Red Sea, and its interests are consistent with the Security Council’s resolution.

Moreover, China, which prides itself on good relations with all sides, implicitly holds Iran responsible for the infringement on freedom of navigation. The Chinese stance and Russia’s decision to refrain from vetoing the anti-Houthi Security Council resolution highlight the limitations of Iran’s strategy of confronting Israel on multiple fronts (its so-called “unity of arenas” strategy), for example by creating a potential wedge between Tehran and Beijing.

Planners in Jerusalem should examine the current Red Sea challenge in the broader context of chess with Tehran, and not only through the lens of a boxing match with Hamas in Gaza. Such a review could identify additional opportunities for Israel given the breadth, not to mention overload, of Iranian activity.

Fourth, coalition action is also significant in terms of Israeli force structure and its deployment. Israel is not a formal member of the maritime coalition, but it presumably coordinates with the US on certain aspects of the use of force in the Red Sea. The more this coalition (and perhaps similar ones in the future) contributes to protecting Israel, the better the conditions for Israeli participation in future coalition frameworks, including regional ones. This would require some adjustment to improve the suitability of Israeli forces to coalition action. Questions are also expected to re-emerge regarding Israeli military engagement in missions other than those for its own defense, such as the Western expectation in the 1950s that Israel would assist the coalition fighting in Korea at the time.

Finally, Israel’s adversaries clearly understand the harmful potential for Israel of a naval threat. The sea has traditionally been a secondary arena in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but recent developments in Bab-el-Mandeb have led Iran and the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq to declare that, under certain circumstances, they may threaten Israeli maritime interests in other areas as well, especially the Mediterranean Sea and Israeli ports.

The sea, therefore, may develop into an arena requiring greater Israeli effort, but could also create additional opportunities for international cooperation, and not only in the Red Sea.

The article was published in “The Jerusalem Post” on February 14.

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