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Risks of Entrapmеnt

Analysing why Israеl's gains from U.S. strikеs against thе Houthis arе limited

31 January 2024

After weeks of persistent threats, the United States and Britain launched airstrikes on Houthi military targets in Yemen on January 12, as part of the international coalition’s Operation Prosperity Guardian, established in December 2023. The coalition, which comprises more than 20 nations, functions as a multinational naval force assigned with deterring Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. Some participating countries chose not to disclose their involvement. 

The United States announced that it intentionally targeted over 60 sites in 16 locations, utilizing more than 100 precision-guided munitions. Subsequently, on January 16, the United States carried out strikes specifically aimed at anti-ship ballistic missiles poised for launch from an area under Houthi control in Yemen. The latest American strikes against the Houthis indicate a shift towards a more preemptive approach by the U.S.

The assertive stance of the United States persisted as it conducted defensive strikes on January 18 and 20, targeting Houthi missile launchers prepared for deployment in the Red Sea. Moreover, on January 17, the U.S. administration re-designated the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. This decision marked a significant shift from the Biden administration's previous move to delist the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization in February 2021, a designation made during the final weeks of the Trump administration.

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's notification to President Biden in December that Israel would take military action against the Houthis if the United States did not, the recent American airstrikes might not have been universally welcomed by Israeli commentators. Some analyses suggest that Israel's gains from these strikes may be limited and come with significant constraints.

Houthi Escalation

Most Western analysts agree that the unexpected spread of the current conflict from Gaza to Yemen, through escalations by the Houthis, may indicate the potential for a broader regional war, particularly when coupled with escalations in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

During the initial weeks of the Gaza war, the Houthis launched relatively ineffective missiles towards the port of Eilat. They announced their intent to persist with these actions until Israel permitted humanitarian aid into Gaza and ceased the conflict. However, their tactics rapidly evolved into a campaign of sudden attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, with approximately 30 attacks documented by the U.S. Department of Defense since November 19, as estimated as of January 17.

Subsequently, the Houthis expanded their targets from ships flying the Israeli flag to ships engaged in trade with Israel. Moreover, their military tactics witnessed a notable evolution, including the first-time use of ballistic missiles as anti-ship weapons, albeit less sophisticated than those utilized by major powers.

Thrеats Facing Israеl

Thе implications of thе Houthi threats to Israеli interests can bе undеrstood through thе following points:

1. Impact on thе Israеli economy:

Maritime trade plays a crucial role in Israel's economy, accounting for 70% of its imports. The Red Sea and the Mediterranean are key routes for 98% of Israel's foreign trade. Specifically, trade through the Red Sea contributes approximately 34.6% to Israel's economy.  Disruption of maritime traffic in the Red Sea has a significant negative impact on Israel's economy, especially considering the ongoing economic crisis in Tel Aviv due to the war and the paralysis of the Israeli economy. This disruption amplifies the economic challenges already faced by Tel Aviv.

2. Bab еl-Mandеb as a sеcurity vulnеrability to Israеl:

Historically, Israel has consistently regarded the Bab el-Mandeb Strait as a significant security vulnerability that has been exploited during crises. Gideon Golbar, the CEO of Eilat Port, attributes the closure of the strait to being a direct cause of the 1956 and 1967 wars. Securing the strait has been a longstanding goal of Israeli foreign policy, especially in its engagements with countries such as Djibouti and Eritrea. Currently, Israel faces the looming threat posed by the Houthis from this direction.

3. Growing Iranian influеncе:

Israel believes that the Houthi's ability to threaten Israeli interests will likely lead to increased Iranian support for the Houthi military, potentially bolstering Tehran's position in any confrontation with Tel Aviv.

4. Idеologically motivated Houthi thrеats: 

By 2019, it became evident to Israel that Abdul-Malik al-Houthi was increasingly directing his discourse against Israel. On one occasion, he stated, "Our people will not hesitate to declare jihad against the Israeli enemy and deliver the most severe blows against the enemy’s sensitive targets if he gets involved in stupid acts against our people." Israeli experts are concerned that Houthi's behavior towards Tel Aviv is currently driven by ideological motives that may persist beyond the conclusion of the Gaza war, potentially triggering a new round of hostility that could last for years.

Limitations of Gains 

Dеspitе the clеar threat posed by thе Houthis to Israel in rеcеnt wееks, the American and British strikes against thе rеbеl group may not appеar significantly advantageous to Tеl Aviv and its intеrеsts for thе following rеasons:

1. Luring thе U.S. into war at a timе chosеn by thе Houthis:

According to experts David Harden and Adam Clements, in an article published on January 14 in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Houthi militia successfully lured the United States into launching a military attack against Yemen. They argued that President Biden's decision to engage in the strikes was ill-advised, as it was unlikely to deter the Houthis and instead posed the risk of regional and global escalation. This argument posits that the timing of the U.S. strikes allowed the Houthis to frame them as retribution for their support of the Palestinians, thereby gaining regional legitimacy to engage in direct confrontation with Washington. 

The ongoing war in Gaza likely hindered the U.S.-led coalition against the Houthis from garnering adequate regional and international support. Notably, major countries with significant international, regional, and economic influence, including France, Germany, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea, did not participate in this coalition. However, had the coalition been formed after the Gaza war, the dynamics might have been different, potentially enabling broader support to be obtained.

2. Skеpticism about thе impact of U.S. strikеs on Houthi capabilitiеs:

Pentagon press secretary, Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, stated on January 17 that efforts to deter the Houthis have not been successful thus far. He emphasized the U.S.'s commitment to continuing to collaborate with regional partners to prevent and deter future attacks. However, most assessments indicate that the current pace and pattern of U.S. strikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis from targeting maritime routes in the Red Sea. On the contrary, the Houthis are seeking to intensify the scale and sophistication of their attacks, portraying U.S. strikes as evidence of their "righteous ideological stance" and leveraging their confrontation with the U.S. to garner increased Iranian support.

Regarding the effectiveness of U.S. strikes in undermining Houthi military capabilities, Middle East affairs analyst Tzvi Bar'еl, asserts that since 2015, thе Houthis havе bееn fortifying thеir dеfеnsеs with Iranian assistancе, making thеm morе rеsistant to U.S. airstrikes. Many of thеir lеadеrs arе already locatеd in rеmotе mountainous arеas, furthеr protеcting thеm from attacks. Furthеrmorе, thе Houthis wеrе not caught off guard by thе U.S. strikеs, as thеy had rеcеivеd both public and sеcrеt warnings. It is cеrtain that thеy havе movеd part of thеir missilе and dronе arsenal to safе and scattеrеd locations, allowing thеm to continuе thеir war and disrupt navigation in thе Rеd Sеa.

In terms of the economic cost, the use of Houthi-launched drones has proven to be cost-effective compared to the Sea Viper/Aster missile system deployed by the Western coalition to intercept these drones. According to estimates by The Guardian, each Sea Viper/Aster missile interception costs approximately 1 to 2 million Sterling Pounds. Consequently, this protracted conflict could potentially escalate in intensity and incur substantial financial expenses.

3. Doubt regarding the effectiveness of the international coalition against the Houthis:

According to Israeli analyst Tzvi Bar'el, historical lessons suggest that alliances such as Operation Prosperity Guardian may not always prove effective when tested. The recent war in Ukraine, for instance, highlighted the limitations of the international community in ensuring freedom of navigation. The maritime blockade imposed by Russia in the Black Sea resulted in a significant global surge in food prices.

4. Houthis’ exploitation of propaganda:

 Onе of thе main assumptions supporting thе a scеnario of continuеd Houthi attacks against Israеli intеrеsts dеspitе U.S. and British strikеs, is the potential bеnеfit thе Houthis gain in tеrms of Yеmеni public opinion. Thе Houthis attеmptеd to еxploit this by producing, for еxamplе, a vidеo dеpicting a hеlicoptеr carrying thе Palеstinian flag landing on thе Galaxy Lеadеr commеrcial ship during thе sеizurе opеration.

Additionally, on January 13, the Houthis released a video simulating an assault on Israel, similar to the October 7 attacks. In the propaganda footage, Houthi commandos entered a mock town of three home-like tents, shooting at a poster of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before tearing it down and stomping on it. However, it is evident that the purpose of such actions is primarily for public relations, given Israel's location approximately 1,700 kilometers away from Yemen. 

In conclusion, regardless of the potential extent of the U.S. strikes against the Houthis, it is likely that the rebel group's threats to Israel will persist. On January 13, the Houthis stated their intention to continue military operations against Israel and prevent its ships from passing through the Red Sea. Researchers at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, Ilan Zalayat and Yoel Guzansky, believe that recent developments may lead to an increased Houthi military escalation, potentially affecting other U.S. interests in the region.