April 12, 2013 | Longitude

Israel Still Stable Amidst the Chaos

April 12, 2013 | Longitude

Israel Still Stable Amidst the Chaos

Israeli policymakers, much like diplomats, have never been fond of drastic change in their neighborhood. “Better the devil you know…” could be Israel’s foreign policy motto. European pundits have often associated neoconservative enthusiasts of regime change in the Middle East with Israel’s hawkish branches of the foreign policy and security establishments. Upon seeing the Muslim Brotherhood sweep into power on the heels of elections, they must have felt that Israel was getting its comeuppance.

In fact, Israel always took a fairly unsentimental view of the region and never endorsed the neoconservative aspiration to bring democracy to the Arab world. To be sure, dictators and autocratic rulers were never pleasant, but they offered a clear address – an answerable and responsible  leadership who controlled the armed forces and security services, who understood power and sought to defend strategic interests regardless of public rhetoric. Surrounded by hostile forces for all its existence, Israel had thus learned to live with the regional order and make the best out of it.

Peace treaties and acquiescence, multilateral frameworks and the continuation of David Ben Gurion’s periphery strategy – the notion that Israel should build alliances with non-Islamic and/or non-Arab states in the region to countenance the might of its adversaries – continued to guarantee Israel’s security, with small variations, until late 2010. Aside from a thriving trade with Europe, the United States and Asia, and a rock-solid strategic alliance with the US, Israel could then count on peace treatieswith Egypt and Jordan, a stable framework on the Syria-Israel border, subterranean relations with Gulf principalities and North African countries, and an eminently manageable containment strategy for the Palestinian problem.

But in the last three years, the confluence of the Arab Revolt, deterioration of relations with Turkey, a rising Iran and chaos along Israel’s borders is changing all that.

Israel confronts a dramatically changed regional landscape – one where the sands are so rapidly shifting that any adjustment is a slow, painful work in progress. Still, not all is bleak – this essay will seek to offer a balance sheet for Israel in this new environment, by using five different filters: changes within the Arab world; changes in the regional balance of power; peripheral alliances; conventional and unconventional threats; and strategic alliances. Each will offer a positive and a negative side of change.

The Arab revolt – radicals or chaos (or both). When it comes to regime change, Israel appears the biggest loser of the Arab Spring. With the single possible exception of Libya, every revolution in the Arab world seems to have ultimately empowered the Muslim Brotherhood in all its local manifestations – an-Nahda inTunisia, the Ikhwan in Egypt – or have given strength to even more radical forces, such as Salafist formations in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Even in Jordan, where no change has occurred yet, ill winds are blowing. Israel might find itself soon surrounded again by hostiler egimes that prefer to return to the path of resistance and confrontation rather than coexistence and peace – even in the very cold format formerly offered by Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.

In so far as Islamic parties consolidate their grip on power, especially in Egypt, it is abundantly clear that the Jewish state ismore vulnerable and has less room formaneuver. Israel’s response to incoming Gaza rockets last November would have elicited a much harsher response from Cairo, had Israel had to resort to ground operations to halt Hamas fire. The effectiveness of Israel’s short range missile defensive system, Iron Dome, avoided the risk of confronting this dilemma – but no doubt, a future Israeli ground operation in Gaza will trigger a much tougher response from Egypt. A crisis might escalate. Andwith Egypt’s internal situation in flux, the new regimemay be tempted to try a crowd pleasing but dangerous distraction. The Arab Spring, in other words, has exposed the principal weakness of a peace treaty signed by an authoritarian regime.While Israelis wholeheartedly embraced peace with Egypt, Egyptians gave the cold shoulder to their peacemaking leader, the late Anwar Sadat, and his successor, Hosni Mubarak. The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political force ideologically opposed to the peace treaty, clearly puts the president back in tune with Egypt’s public opinion – at least in so far as hating Israel is concerned.

But if this potentially dangerous development is unsettling – since for the first time in almost 35 years a conventional Arab-Israeli war has become possible once again – there are less obvious consequences of the Arab Revolt whichmay favor Israel. 

The Arab revolt – structural weakness and disintegration. One thing the Arab Revolt did was expose the weak level of cohesiveness of Arab societies, as well as to lay bare the myth of Arab unity. Arab nationalism claimed incessantly, for almost a century, that state divisions within the Arab world were a product of rapacious colonial powers and their partition of the spoils of theOttoman Empire.The behavior of Arab rulers did little to prove that narrative wrong – after all, even the Syrian Ba’ath party and Egypt’sGamal Abdel Nasser, the staunchest champions of Arab nationalism in its heyday in the 1960s, could not standmore than three years of putting their rhetoric into practice.The United Arab Republic – a fusion of Syria and Egypt – was short and turbulent. But Arab nationalism pretended that the people – if not their rulers –would eventually embrace each other and bring down political borders between the Persian Gulf and the Atlas Mountains.

The Arab Revolt showed instead how even relatively homogenous Arab societies like Egypt and Tunisia are beset by profound religious, geographic and ideological divisions. Countries like Libya, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Iraq, by contrast, have by now conclusively demonstrated how the idea of an Arab nation clashes violently with the reality of multiethnic societies where one group – usually a minority, rules over the others in an authoritarian fashion. Whether the clash is tribal – as in Libya – of Sunni versus Shia – like Bahrain, Iraq and to a certain extent in Syria – or Bedouin versus Palestinian, as is the case with Jordan, unity is cracking. Israel benefits fromthis because the collapse and disintegration of Arab societies precludes the possibility of these countries’ regrouping under a new leadership that is more hostile to Israel. Whoever comes on top, many Arab countries will be consumed with their own dramatic problems for months if not years to come.

Chaos is alsomitigating some other negative consequences of the Arab Revolt – Egypt, having virtually lost control of significant portions of Sinai, shares Israel’s desire to defeat the Islamic radical insurgents who have taken control of part of its sovereign territory and are using it to smuggle weapons to Gaza or carry out attacks against Israel. Whether Egypt succeeds is a different story – but its commitment stems from selfinterest – and coincides with Israel’s needs.

Finally, the gradual loss of control of Syria by its regime is, aside fromthe tragic human element for Israel, an opportunity to see Iran lose influence in the region. Syria remains Iran’smost prized asset in the Levant and Iran’s best guarantee of continued influence in Lebanon, which in turn offers Iran a frontline to continue its ideological fight against Israel. The collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, though slow, is coming, and with it a hard blow to Iran’s power in the region. Anything that were to replace Syria’s current regime would be better from Israel’s standpoint, as long as Syria does not disintegrate into a Mediterranean version of Somalia.

Terrorism, chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear threat. This means, of course, that not all that is chaos is good for Israel. The disintegration of states into sectarian factionalism is never good. A failed state does not control its borders – as we have seen with Libya, the flow of weapons southward to Mali is indirectly responsible for the takeover, in the north, by Islamist elements. Libyan weapons have flown freely in the region as far as Gaza. Syria presents an additional challenge – the regime’s chemical weapons’ arsenal, which Assad could lose to loose insurgents or transfer to Hezbollah. Eitherway, Israel would bemore threatened, as a result, than it was by Assad – a cruel dictator by all means, but a state actor who understood national interests and red lines in ways that no loose terrorist organization will ever be able to. Put simply, a state can be deterred – and Assad was repeatedly deterred in recent years. A loose gang of militias and terrorists, in possession of deadly non-conventional weapons, will not be.

Israel thus faces a big challenge, and one of the possible repercussions of the collapse of states all around it is that its security needs will be heightened, as well as the likelihood of Israeli preemptive action to mitigate the most nefarious consequences of failed states at its borders. 

Israel offered a taste of this dilemma when it attacked a convoy in Syria, near the Lebanese border, in late January. Though the event is still largely shrouded in silence, it appears Israel targeted a transfer of weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah – most likely orchestrated by Iran’s Qods Forces – which would have changed Hezbollah’s strategic posture. Such incidents are bound to repeat themselves, as rebels raid more and more weapons caches in Syria and amixture of greed, neglect and fanaticism converge to make such weapons available to Israel’s worst enemies.

Israel’s insistence on retaining fullmilitary control of the Jordan Valley will also no doubt get a boost from the current situation. The risk that Jordan’s monarchy might succumb to its own Arab Revolt, and that a weak and splintering Iraq could pave the way for an Iranian thrust westward is not so far fetched anymore. This, in turn, will make any peace with the Palestinian Authority even more remote, as the available territory for a demilitarized Palestinian state becomes smaller every day.

The periphery – gains and losses. Meanwhile, Syria’s descent into mayhem has forced Turkey to recalibrate its posture vis-à-vis Israel, Syria and Iran. The steady deterioration of relations between Israel and Syria – which began in 2006 with the newly elected Hamas leadership’s visit to Istanbul at the invitation of Turkish PrimeMinister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – may be slowing down. Turkey’s ruling party remains obsessed with its hatred for Israel and its hostility is still unrelenting. But Turkey’s budding friendship with Iran and Syria has taken a severe beating – with Syria, Turkey is in a de facto state of war. With Iran, tensions are rising due to Turkey’s staunch support for Syria’s Islamist opposition. That Turkey is once again at odds with Israel’s worst enemies cannot be bad for Israel – although Turkey’s support for the Syrian Brotherhood means that rapprochement is more than premature.

Still, Israel has meanwhile cemented strong relationships with Greece, Cyprus and Azerbaijan, to make up for the loss of Turkey. While none of these countries offers the same level of prowess and influence, they provide important assets to Israel. Cyprus offers thriving energy cooperation and the chance tomake Israel a net exporter of gas to Europe – a strategic development potentially of great consequences.Greece, though on the brink still, cements Israel’s connectionto Europe and has lifted the sense of isolation Israel felt after losing Turkey. And Azerbaijan – a Shia Muslim country bordering with Iran – offers the guarantee of abundant oil supplies, trade, and proximity to Israel’s worst enemy.

America – the indispensable ally. In the background of this confusion, there is America of course – Israel’s strongest supporter and best guarantee of strategic superiority in the region and diplomatic cover internationally.

Every time American-Israeli relations experience a downturn – and there is little question that the two current leaderships have had their share of tensions in the four years since US President Barack Obama and Israeli PrimeMinister, Benjamin Netanyahu took office – alternatives are sought.

No doubt, Israel has vastly improved its world standing in the last 20 years. Today, it enjoys deep and enduring bilateral relations with China, India and Russia. It has quietly built friendly relations in Africa and Central Asia and built up existing ones in Southeast Asia. Despite interesting developments, especially concerning China, India and Russia, Israel’s friendship with America remains indispensable and no other alliance or relationship can replace it. Given Western insistence on achieving a durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians through Israeli territorial concessions, one would imagine that regional confusion surrounding Israel would make Jerusalem more vulnerable to Western pressure at this particular juncture.

In fact, Israel is able to offermore to its Western allies than in the past; canmake a stronger case for its security needs in the Palestinian-Israeli bargain; has a compelling argument to postpone negotiations indefinitely; and stands as a guarantee of stability and reliability amidst the chaos of the entire region.

What Israel offers is what the region has lost. Israel is stable. Its economy is Western. Its society is open. Its governments, despite coalition challenges, elections and scandals, are surprisingly stable. Its population is resilient. Amidst the chaos and uncertainties of the region, where today’s friend could become history tomorrow and be replaced by enemies, the West still finds in Israel a pillar of stability and a guarantee of friendship.

All in all, the momentous changes of the last two years have not left Israel weaker or more isolated. They have brought new challenges and caused understandable anxieties. But on balance, Israel is not worse off today than it was on December 17, 2010, when an unknown street vendor set himself, and the entire region, on fire.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.


Egypt Iran Israel Lebanon Syria Turkey