Israel has a deep-rooted military culture that is mostly land-centric but has not identified itself as a nation with maritime culture. Over the years it has become highly reliant on the sea routes for its trade. Its ports, Haifa, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Eitan and Hadera, have found great importance in its maritime trade and communication. Moreover, as the Middle East is witnessing a growing number of incidents of maritime terrorism, the call for a long-term plan of action to manage Israel’s maritime security is relevant than ever.
The discourse on maritime security policies of Israel is primarily focused on the Mediterranean Sea where its stakes are high mostly due to the offshore Natural Gas rigs, coastal energy plants and its substantial trade with the European, African and American countries. Of late, Israel’s trade with the fast-developing economies like China and India have been growing.
Israel can be a suitable intersection along with the Suez, for countries of the East, to move their goods to the West. China has already been investing in the Israeli port of Haifa and this will eventually favour its trade interests with Europe. Though the stakes for Israel in the maritime domain are high, a comprehensive maritime strategy doctrine has not yet been framed.
As Israel’s neighbourhood has been posing a threat to the security of its land borders, in turn lowering the possibility of trade through land, the maritime domain has always turned out to be more reliant concerning Israel’s trade and commerce. The seas also give Israel the strategic depth that is in dearth on the land front and provides a broader canvas of operation. The shipping vessels from Israel to the countries of the East and vice-versa, pass through the Bab el Mandeb Strait which lies close to the hotbed of instability, the Persian Gulf.
In recent years, several oil tankers and ships came under attack by terrorists who are sometimes backed by state actors in the international sea lines leading up to the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, right up to the Suez and Eilat at the northern end of the Red Sea. These international sea lines are of immense strategic importance for Israel, which demands doctrinal astuteness and shapes toward securing its maritime security. Maritime security is a key component of every country’s overall maritime interests. Even landlocked states are concerned about securing their relationship with neighbouring states that have coastal borders.
While the Israeli navy has kept pace with the technological advancements, the marshalling of the capability of these naval forces to realize the larger maritime interests, including establishing maritime cooperation with countries of interest, will and can be achieved only with an erudite maritime strategy.
India and Israel are engaged in developing naval assets such as the Barak 8 missiles and testing them in the Indian Ocean. According to media reports, initial talks to jointly developing new-age technologies like Unmanned Underwater Vehicles to facilitate various maritime purposes are underway. Their naval cooperation also includes occasional bilateral exercises and port visits. Since both countries have deep interests in the Indian Ocean Region, establishing symbiotic maritime collaboration would be at the best interests of both.
India has already developed a maritime doctrine that projects its willingness to partner with countries of the Indian Ocean for cooperative security management of the region. As Israel is also a part of the broader Indian Ocean region, the prospects of this maritime cooperation to confront threats such as piracy and maritime terrorism can be very high. Such maritime cooperation can also envisage a joint maritime doctrine in the long run as the convergence of interests between the two countries far outweighs the constraints.
Iran has been perceived by many in the Israeli policy-making circles as a credible threat in the Western Indian Ocean through which the shipping routes from the East traverse toward the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. Tension regarding this has soared after the attack on the Omani tankers in the Persian Gulf. In the subsequent chain of events, Iran has warned against Israel joining the US in security patrols in its maritime neighbourhood citing national security implications.
While ad-hoc participation can attract condemnation and create suspicion and insecurity to countries like Iran, cooperating in regular joint missions such as anti-piracy operations with countries like India can provide Israel with a platform to ensure safety and security at the seas and to protect and promote its maritime interests. It can also enable it to be an Indian Ocean stakeholder whose presence contributes to the overall wellbeing of the region maritime security architecture.
While the Israeli navy’s strength and force projection are commendable, a maritime security strategy will guard its interests in its Western seaboard, the Mediterranean, as well as in its Eastern Seaboard, the Red Sea and extending to the Indian Ocean. A maritime security doctrine will help Israel to achieve standardized visualization, which is needed for any country to drive its pursuit towards its national interests. Such a doctrine will also provide clarity for Israel that seeks to protect its maritime space, to cooperate with friendly countries like India, which has an overlapping maritime area of interest.