Written by María Melina Vinueza Vásquez, edited by Giulia Lob

On February 2, French President Emmanuel Macron and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reunited in Paris to discuss the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program. The discovery of Iranian drones on Ukrainian soil set the alarm to analyse the extent of the conflict within Europe and Israel’s borders. The meeting, held during rough political and social times for both countries, calls for the study of possible scenarios for France, Israel, and Europe’s engagement in the Russia-Ukraine war. The power dynamics behind the encounter foremost suggest considering the reproduction of a Middle Eastern Shadow War on Ukraine–and indirect style conflict– for which both Israel and Iran have not only shown interest but expertise. 

In order to address such concerns, this article exposes the possible grounds and scenarios allowing the reproduction of a Middle Eastern Shadow War model in Ukraine. For such ends, Israel’s proximity with the EU and France will be evaluated along with a brief introduction about the Shadow war practice in the Middle East and Europe’s weak security diplomacy preventing its arrival to the continent. The uncertainty of the event, plus final suppositions about its realisation, can be found at the end of the article with other general conclusions.

A Particular Partnership

As this article suggests, a drastic change of circumstances seems unlikely, given the history of Israel’s and the EU’s diplomatic relations. Both parties established a stable partnership shortly after World War II. The European Union even acted as the key promoter of the formation of the Jewish Republic back in 1949 (Du Plessix, 2011).

After the block’s political recognition, industrial and economic interdependence flourished in 1959, while relations based on security strategies started in the early 2000s, a sensible moment for the Western world due to the several terrorist attacks taking place in Europe and elsewhere. Recognising Israel’s important role in Europe’s fight against terrorism, the introduction of the Neighbourhood Policy in 2004 reinforced Israel’s association with the block, upgraded its status and encouraged the creation of committees that strengthened the pre-existing bonds– especially those related to security (Du Plessix, 2011).

Despite the continued reinforcement of the partnership, the parties’ conceptions of security differed from one another. Israel’s upgraded status did not prevent its security vision from being doomed by the EU’s approach to Palestine. Which, rooting for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, clashed with Israel’s self-defence security policy (Du Plessix, 2011). 

Such contradictory positions created an ambiguous and mistrustful environment seen through the suspension of several agreements and common projects later on. In 2009 after Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead” engaging several offensive air strikes towards Gaza, Brussels restrained Israel’s plans to take part in the Security and Politics Committee (Du Plessix, 2011). Nowadays, even though the partnership remains intact, this ambivalence on a security basis keeps delaying common projects beneficial for both parties. As Israel’s escalation of violence in Gaza has not ceased and has become even more intense with the eruption of the West Bank crisis–characterised by civil upheavals following Israel’s invasion of neighbouring Palestinian households– the terms of the partnership seem to be crumbling once again, this time with a dangerous turn.

Recognised as one of the most extreme Israeli Prime Ministers, Netanyahu’s willingness to support Ukraine and reach out to strategic partners to secure the country’s integrity makes Europe wonder about its integrity having a war developing at the continent’s eastern confines. The French president’s decreasing popularity and strong historical bonds with Israel can eventually construct a new front in the Ukrainian conflict to counter a common enemy: Iran. 

A Win-Win Alliance.

If one speaks of commonalities between Israel and France, the first one that comes to mind is the historical bonds shared by both countries. For instance, the French presence in Israeli territories goes as far as the crusades (Miles, 2015).

Beyond such first signs of proximity and bringing the discussion to more present times, the arrival of French-speaking immigrants to Israel during the second half of the 20th century transformed Israel into a focal point for the spread of the French language (Miles, 2015). France and Israel’s diplomatic closeness can not be conceived without French foreign policy focused on establishing and reinforcing a significant francophone community in Israel– already considered as the largest foreign population in the country (Kershner, 2015). 

The French presence in the country demanded the establishment of several language and research institutions, whose fields of study extended over the years to scientific domains like security and military strategy (Ministère de L’Europe et des Affairs Étrangères,n.d.). Supposedly, the developments in this field encouraged both countries to work together on Israel’s nuclear capacity since the 1950s (Peres & Bergman, 2018).

Though this fact is not yet confirmed, Israel and France’s brotherhood continues to be strengthened. The discovery of Iranian drones on Russian defensive lines (Bertrand, 2023), plus both heads of state’ unfortunate political and social circumstances –decreasing popularity and active social rejection–gave both heads of state substantial reasons to hold the meeting. However, setting the reunion’s political value aside, we notice that Israel’s long-lasting rivalry with Iran may give the “Parisian date” a dangerous geopolitical and nuclear turn. Macron’s lack of response to an eventual Russian nuclear attack (De Lagausie, 2022), and Netanyahu’s willingness to provide military support to Ukraine (The Times of Israel, 2023) incited unnoticed belligerent repercussions from the Eastern bloc, recently reinforced by nuclear powers like Iran.

The importance of a nuclear power discussion at this stage resides in France’s autonomy in the management of nuclear capacity. Contrary to other EU members, France has the option of taking nuclear decisions escaping NATO’S nuclear umbrella-members agreement to take joint decisions on contentious matters (De Lagausie, 2022). Considering Iran’s latest moves on Ukraine a provocation to the West and Israel, French nuclear autonomy is then Israel’s shortcut from the European Union’s “pax democratica” security policy. Israel can effectively use France as an ally to counteract Iranian bad-faith intentions. Thus, Macron’s and Netanyahu’s “hand-shaking” is a convincing declaration of power that can be seen by Iran as an invitation to dispute under the shadow of Ukraine. 

Shadow War And EU Connections

To be able to depict the consequences of such probable force demonstrations in Ukraine, exploring what a shadow war entails must come first. Centred on indirectly fought conflicts, the Middle Eastern region’s balance of power depends on Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to control the region. Also referred to as the Arabic Cold War by Gregory Gause III, this centenary practice perpetuates the countries’ rivalry, which stems from conflict on religions and natural resources. 

The art of shadow warring –as described by Gause–depends on the acquisition of non-governmental allies to destabilise the opponent’s domestic affairs. The Islamic brotherhood and Al-Qaeda, are just two of the so-called “proxies” created to pursue such ends. 

Connecting the topic with Macron’s and Netanyahu’s “friendship” demonstration, the author recognises a brand-new phase transforming the shadow war culture in the Middle East. More specifically, Gause states that “The regional Cold War can only be understood by  appreciating the links between domestic conflicts, transnational affinities and regional state ambitions” (Gause, 2014, p. 4). As conveyed by Gause, the inclusion of foreign powers whose interests are aligned with those of the regional players, demonstrates the conflict’s current state of nature, making France or even Europe potential proxies candidates. For Gause, however,  the Middle Eastern shadow war discards Israel as a player because of the lack of religious and ideological affinities with the regional powers. Even though there is material evidence suggesting that the country somehow participated– during 1981, when Israel invaded Lebanon and fought against the Iran-funded Hezbollah– this is the only moment both parties entered into conflict with each other.  

The improvement of Israel’s image in the region, nonetheless, opens new doors for the latter argument. The young Abraham Accords, signed in 2021, are one key example of the advancements of the Israeli presence in the region. The Iranian proximity to Russia, with whom countering the West is the only shared interest, also demonstrates that Gause’s observations on Israel are not applicable anymore. The intensity with which Tehran and Tel-aviv have been managing their differences over the last couple of years increases the probability of a shadow war between the two. The use of Iranian drones in Ukraine is just the tip of the iceberg, considering the number of Israeli airstrikes towards Iranian nuclear centres during 2021 and the suspicious deaths of Iranian nuclear agents apparently assassinated by Israeli secret forces (Kaye.D, 2023). Their proximity to Europe and the escalation of violence between the two preoccupies the Western world, completely unprepared for an eventual nuclear confrontation throughout the Ukrainian conflict. 

 Dealing With Uncertainty.

Despite the apparent escalation of violence, no evidence has been found of nuclear capacity either in Teheran or Jerusalem. As Israel is under the United States’ wings and is morally obliged to be loyal to Russia (due to the presence of a great quantity of Jews in the country), Israel’s input in the Ukrainian war on such means is still uncertain (Rakov, 2023). As for Iran, the country’s complex context following the assassination of Mahsa Amini might also restrain Tehran from pursuing further continental shadow conflicts. 

The country’s current state tends to disregard the world’s normalisation of nuclear deterrence, increasing the chances of such a dispute. Looking into the porcupine theory, Louis Renè Beres explains that decisions undertaken on military matters are normally as independent and irrational as the activation of a porcupine defence mechanism (Beres, 2022, pp,72). Acknowledging that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict can relate to such an ideal, a nuclear war anytime soon is to be considered. When asked about the probabilities of a nuclear dispute in Ukraine, Joseph Nye agreed with Beres, explaining that there is no such thing as pacific deterrence if nuclear capability is conceived to be unusable (Nye, 2022). Both agree that although a future prohibition of nuclear arms and knowledge is unsuitable, the construction of a nuclear avoidance culture may prove to be feasible. For that reason, the reinforcement of international instruments by Europe and elsewhere is needed. 

Looking into the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we note that it lacks commitment and is missing important ratifications (like Israel’s). Moreover, the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (the most ambitious agreement in nuclear matters with Iran supported by the US and the EU+3) is unpredictable after the Trump presidency withdrew from the treaty. The ambiguous conversations with current US President Joe Biden are allowing Iran to keep provoking the West and ignoring international obligations (Alcaro,2021). We believe that the EU’s protection under NATO’s nuclear umbrella, through the guarantee of a joint response under a nuclear attack to one of its members, is insufficient. France, the major European nuclear power,–is reluctant to take part in the NATO response and is willing to take decisions based only on national interests (De Lagausie, 2022). It is for this reason that we believe that European nuclear diplomacy must insist on the return of the United States to the JCPOA to control and prevent further Iran-Israel shadow wars.

Are There Places For Suppositions?

Having analysed Macron’s and Netanyahu’s mobiles to hold the meeting and its impact on Ukraine and Europe, we can argue that suppositions regarding a Middle Eastern-style shadow war on the West is not a current potential threat but is for sure envisioned in the near future considering the process and advancement of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict.

Although it seems that there is no foreign intervention in the offensive actions between Ukraine and Russia apart from the official parties of the conflict, the continuous nature of military operations discards a ceasefire during the present year. Secret US documents on the war have been disclosed,  highlighting the unwillingness of the participants to cooperate for a diplomatic solution. The concerns about Ukraine’s situation remain the same, as Zelesnsky hopes to continue draining Russia’s resources by keeping them engaged in the ongoing conflict. To do so, the Ukrainian president must keep asking for special air military aid to partners, which, according to analysts, beholds the deployment of airstrike techniques of great proportions (Hudson,2023). 

The Israeli expertise on sophisticated airstrikes operations in Iran during the past two years might eventually catch Zelensky’s attention given Netanyahu’s willingness to participate–as it was publicly announced. Supposing it does, Iranian power will retail increasing the military support to Russian troops as it already did last year. The acceptance of Finland and Sweden’s accession process in NATO makes this scenario even more probable, as Putin is now surrounded by Western enemies. We believe that the United States’ role, once again, keeps being the most useful tool to limit Israel and Iran’s warring tendencies. However, this can only be achieved under the renewal of a JCPOA, which is as uncertain as the end of the Ukrainian war.


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