(MPN Op-ed) — On Wednesday, during a speech at a naval parade in Haifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to deploy the Israeli military to Yemen if the country’s resistance movement blocks the Bab al-Mandab Strait on Yemen’s western coast.
The strait, the geostrategic position of which was arguably the reason for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition war against Yemen in the first place, connects the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and has the potential to be used as a “chokepoint” on global oil trade. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, an average of 4.8 million barrels of oil pass through the strait every day.
Israel’s concern comes a week after Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended oil shipments through the strait after Yemen resistance fighters attacked two Saudi vessels in the waterway. The Saudis have asserted that the vessel were oil tankers while Yemen’s government has claimed that they were Saudi warships. Some analysts warned at the time that the temporary suspension, and the associated rise in oil prices, could provoke an escalation of the conflict by spurring increased involvement from foreign powers seeking to assist the Saudi-led coalition in the three-year-long conflict.
Netanyahu — falsely claiming that the Houthi rebels, who comprise a major part of the Yemeni resistance movement Ansarullah, are working at Iran’s behest — stated that:
“If Iran will try to block the straits of Bab al-Mandab, I am certain that it will find itself confronting an international coalition that will be determined to prevent this, and this coalition will also include all of Israel’s military branches.”
Netanyahu’s comments were echoed by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who, speaking at the same event, claimed to have “recently heard of threats to harm Israeli ships in the Red Sea,” though he gave no further details.
Using Iran as a Pretext to Quash Yemeni Resistance
However, there is a problem with the Israeli government’s assessment of the situation, as Iran has never threatened to block Bab al-Mandab, instead recently threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz and halt trade in the Persian Gulf were the U.S. to make good on its threat to prevent Iran from exporting its own oil. Furthermore, Iran has no control over what Yemeni rebels do with Bab al-Mandab largely because the Yemeni resistance fighters are not the “Iran proxy fighters” that international media so often claim them to be. Indeed, the U.S. State Department has even admitted, in leaked cables, that the Houthis were not an Iran proxy and that they received neither funding nor weapons from Iran.
Yet, given that both the Houthi movement and Iran are largely composed of Muslims from sects of Islam that have historically been oppressed by Sunni-majority governments — Zaydi and Shiite, respectively — international media and calculating politicians alike have since invoked that commonality to falsely claim that the Houthis are proxies of Iran, despite a lack of evidence showing that to be the case. In addition, the Houthi movement in Yemen has attracted a host of followers from many different sects of Islam — including Sunnis, Shiites and Yazidis — as the movement is more anti-colonial and grassroots in nature rather than being built upon the religious affiliations of its members.
Netanyahu’s new stance fits a pattern, as Israel has recently used claims of alleged Iranian military attachments in countries like Syria as justification for airstrikes and bombings against those nations despite evidence indicating that there are no Iranian soldiers present in the areas being targeted. Netanyahu, in making the same case for Israeli military involvement in Yemen, shows his willingness to use Iran’s fabled presence as a pretext for military action anywhere in the region, particularly when the true motives for military escalation would prove more difficult to justify.
In Joining the War, Israel Would Share Responsibility for a Worsening Crisis in Yemen
An international coalition has been fighting against the Yemeni resistance movement since 2015. That coalition is nominally comprised of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but receives assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom.
The resulting war that has been waged by the coalition against Yemen has led to the creation of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, resulting from the coalition’s de facto blockade of rebel-controlled Yemen and its bombing of key civilian infrastructure. Those measures have led to mass starvation and history’s largest cholera outbreak, among other dire consequences.
Netanyahu’s recent statements suggest that Israel would be joining the existing coalition were it to decide to involve itself in the Yemen conflict. Given Israel’s support for countries involved in genocidal wars in the past and its own treatment of Palestinians, it is unlikely that Israel’s government would feel constrained by any moral dilemmas if it chose to join the coalition’s war in Yemen despite the humanitarian crisis that war has provoked.
Furthermore, Israel’s entry into the Yemen conflict is made more likely by Israel’s increasingly close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the fact that the Saudis have been unable to win militarily against Yemen’s rebels, despite superior firepower and funding. Indeed, the coalition remains unable to wrest the strategic port city of Hodeidah from Yemen’s control, while Yemen’s rebels grow ever bolder, making increasingly frequent and deep incursions into Saudi territory and launching attacks on Saudi naval vessels.
From the Saudis’ perspective, Israel’s involvement in the war could be seen as the edge the coalition needs to start making tangible military gains.