Israel in the Eye of the Hurricane

The Middle East is imploding. America is pulling back. Time for a new regional strategy.
A Syrian man walks amid destruction in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 10, 2013. © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images.
A Syrian man walks amid destruction in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 10, 2013. © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images.
Essay
Ofir Haivry
Jan. 5 2014

A

s upheaval sweeps into country after country of the Middle East, endemic instability has become the order of the day—with no end in sight. Egypt and Tunisia seem permanently on the verge of civil war, Syria in the­­ midst of it; Libya and Yemen are disintegrating, with Lebanon and Iraq seemingly not far behind; unrest is seeping into Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, and Jordan; not even oil-rich Saudi Arabia or the smaller Gulf states seem immune. Long-established certitudes about the regional order are no more, having been supplanted by an Arab “spring” that produced neither a summer of democracy and prosperity nor a return to the winter of past authoritarian immobility but, rather, a prolonged autumn of volatility and baffling uncertainty. And this is not to speak of the impact of events on nominally peripheral powers like Turkey, Ethiopia, and Iran—the last-named of which presents a regional challenge of major proportions—or on such formerly inhibited but now emergent actors as the Kurds, the Christians, the Druze, even the Alawites.

At the eye of this regional hurricane, Israel is eerily quiet, tensely following the turbulence and endeavoring, amid the wreckage, to fathom the shape of the new Middle Eastern reality. Much is still unknown—other than that the old order is gone for good, an epochal shift is under way, and Israel’s three-decades-old strategy for survival may have to be abandoned. Can it be replaced by a better one—even an older one?

 

1. Lines in the Sand

The history of Israel’s regional strategy predates by a half-century the birth in 1948 of the state itself. Under the formal suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, the centuries-old regional order found by the visiting Theodor Herzl in 1896 displayed a variety of social and political arrangements. Some areas were administered directly from Istanbul, others—like Egypt and Arabia Deserta—were virtually independent, and still others like Kuwait and Lebanon enjoyed special rights and status under the protection of European powers. Herzl sought to forge a deal either with the Sultan or with a European power to sponsor a Zionist protectorate. At his death in 1904, his efforts seemed to have come to naught.

But a decade later, almost exactly a century ago, came the opening shots of World War I—and fresh opportunity. By siding with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Sultan signed the death sentence of the gigantic Ottoman empire, long regarded as the “sick man” of the international system. Even as war raged, the British and French set out to carve a new regional order out of the expiring empire’s carcass.

In December 1915, Sir Mark Sykes proposed to the British cabinet that a straight line be drawn “between the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”—that is, from the northern Mediterranean coast of present-day Israel to the mountains where present-day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey meet—with the area above the line going to France and the area below it to Britain. The eventual division agreed upon by the British and the French in early 1916 (which came to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement) adhered roughly to the same line, defining zones of influence under direct or indirect control of the two powers. Pretty much oblivious of local circumstances, it was expressive only of cold imperial calculations.

There was one main exception. Neither side would readily concede to the other the southwestern corner of the regional carve-up that comprised the Holy Land. Unwilling to leave an ill-defined gap on the flank of their prized Suez Canal, the British in particular found themselves reconsidering an idea sown a decade earlier by Herzl: setting up a new protectorate for the Jewish nation in its ancient land. The idea would allow Britain to enlist Zionists as allies in the war effort, and help rally American Jews to the cause of the war.

Thus would a minor initiative exercise some of the most significant and long-lasting regional effects. Encountering at first much skepticism toward the idea, both within the British government and by the French (who derided it as a chimerical attempt to resurrect a “Kingdom of Israel”), London reopened channels to Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist leadership. It was an opportunity the latter did not let slip from their grasp. Adding a proposal to recruit Palestinian Jewish troops for the Western war effort, they finally achieved, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the formal commitment of Britain to the creation of a Jewish “national home.”1

In deciding the fate of their new Middle Eastern possessions, the British and French encountered a patchwork of entrenched local realities and many clashing interests, long played deftly against one another by the Ottomans. Two main options presented themselves. One was to follow, as much as possible, existing ethnic and religious divisions, producing a mosaic of political entities that, while hard to control, would be consistent with the modern principle of self-determination. The other was to attempt some kind of partial or complete regional unification, so that the whole area, in which Arabic was the predominant language, would be deemed “Arab” and ordered accordingly. The British, followed later and unwillingly by the French, opted for the second course. This apparently simple principle left the region with a legacy of arbitrary borders and unstable identities, all of which have come home to haunt it and the West a century later.

Further complicating the map were the conflicting promises made to local parties by the two powers. The British had promised to the Zionists a Jewish national home and to the Kurds an independent state. At the very same time, in the very same areas, they were wooing the Hashemite dynasty of Mecca with the promise of a pan-Arab state ruled by them. For their part, the French, who had no intention of ceding to the Hashemites a foothold in France’s sphere of influence, created a succession of states and entities based sometimes on religious and ethnic identities and sometimes not. The war added its own complexity when an “Arab revolt” led by the Hashemites, which was supposed to overwhelm the Turks, failed to end Ottoman rule.

In 1917, a British army under General Edmund Allenby left Egypt to invade the Ottoman empire. In its forces were a number of Jewish regiments comprising much of the next generation of Zionist leaders: from Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and the one-armed war hero Joseph Trumpeldor to future Israeli prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol to future Israeli president Itzhak Ben Zvi. Allenby’s army captured Gaza, Beersheba, and Jerusalem, eventually crushing the Turks at the decisive battle of Megiddo in today’s northern Israel and bringing about the swift fall of the Galilee, Amman, and Damascus. Thus, when the war ended in November 1918, the Zionists and Hashemites as well as the British and French were harboring their own respective plans for future regional borders.

 

As those borders took shape in the wake of the war, Zionist policies, which until then had focused almost solely on persuading and pressuring the great powers, gained a local dimension. Parallel to holding an increasingly reluctant London to its pledge of establishing a Jewish homeland within its postwar Mandate of Palestine, Zionists now had to deal with Middle Eastern interests and opinions. The circle extended outward from the Arabic-speaking groups and tribes in the Mandate areas to Christian-dominated Lebanon and the Hashemite dynasty ruling first Arabia and later Iraq and Jordan.

In the face of the gradual weakening of Britain’s commitment to the Jews, and the wide front of Arab opposition, Weizmann attempted to reach some kind of understanding with an important regional player. He floated repeated proposals for nominal Hashemite suzerainty over Palestine, under which Jewish self-rule could shelter. But despite many negotiations and even a short-lived treaty signed with Emir Feisal in 1919, no Arab figure of prominence, Hashemite or otherwise, was willing publicly to stomach the presence of Zionism in the region. The nominally “special relationship” that developed between Zionist leaders and the Hashemites, persisting to this day, always remained a fair-weather one. When push came to shove, as it would do in 1948 and 1967, the recurring response from across the river Jordan was treachery and betrayal.

By the late 1920s, the effort to find an Arab partner for Zionism had failed completely in the wider regional sphere; in the local sphere, the situation was even worse. There, the British-installed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had successfully founded his leadership of Mandate Arabs on the twin pillars of his own tyrannical rule and his virulent opposition to Zionism; the latter frequently erupted into brutal attacks, most notoriously in 1929, on Jewish neighborhoods and settlements. The Mufti soon also became active on the wider Arab and Muslim scene, turning fanatical hatred of Zionism and Jews into a key marker of Arab identity.

Nevertheless, Zionist efforts to reach an accommodation with Arab leadership persisted. As late as 1936, David Ben-Gurion strove to convince Mussa el-Alami, the local representative of the Supreme Arab Committee, that Jewish immigration and development would yield much economic and social benefit to Arab inhabitants of the land. Ben-Gurion became convinced of the fruitlessness of such efforts only when the urbane Alami responded that, rather than partake of progress brought by Zionists, he would prefer to leave the land poor and barren “even for another century.”2

As all attempts to find Arab partners with a Jewish state foundered, two opposite responses emerged among the Zionists. One, in groups like Brit Shalom and later Ihud, consisted of ever more desperate proposals seeking some minimal quotient of Jewish presence that would be acceptable to the Arabs—even something as small as a cultural-religious community under Arab protection. The other was formulated most cogently by Jabotinsky in the title of his 1923 article, “The Iron Wall”; there he argued that, in the face of widespread Arab extremism, Zionism had to be built behind the protection of military force—ideally its own—and only in the long run, “when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then [would] extreme groups lose their sway, and . . . moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions.” This approach, often described as hawkish or even extremist, was actually quite modest in scope, proposing only to mount a strong enough defense to ensure Zionism’s existence until the region accepted it as fact.

Although modified versions of the opposing Brit Shalom and Jabotinsky approaches would inform the ideas, the positions, and the values of diverse Zionist figures and parties, neither of them was actually adopted by the leadership that piloted mainstream Zionism from the mid-1930s onward. Instead, a third approach, much more activist and inventive, eventually became the strategy guiding Zionist policy.

 

2. Israel’s Old School

It fell to David Ben-Gurion to steer the Zionist ship through the maelstrom of the 1930s and 1940s. Ben-Gurion successfully combined a commitment to Herzl’s strategic legacy—alliance with at least one great power—with a regional policy. If the main goal until 1948 was the establishment of the Jewish state, thereafter it was to withstand and eventually break up the Arab anti-Zionist front.

In the years before 1948, Ben-Gurion had adroitly maneuvered both the declining and increasingly recalcitrant British and the rising but endlessly wavering Americans to support Zionist policies. With many tactical failures along the way, not least when it came to saving more of European Jewry in World War II, he succeeded in persuading London and Washington to refrain from aborting the Zionist project and to accede, eventually and grudgingly, to the creation of the Jewish state. In Israel’s ensuing war of independence, much to the surprise of both powers, the fledgling nation managed to survive the seemingly insurmountable odds arrayed against it.

From early on, Zionists had sought out alliances at the regional level, sending feelers to Christian-dominated Lebanon as well as to the Alawite French protectorate that was trying to resist incorporation into Syria. On the local level, too, there were tentative attempts at partnering with groups that might be disconnected from the hostile Arab front—a policy at least partly vindicated in the 1947-1949 war when most Druze, some Christian towns, and some Bedouin tribes sided with Israel rather than its enemies. This “localist” approach fit well with the new military doctrine emerging under the influence of Orde Wingate, a maverick British officer and Christian Zionist who advocated daring initiatives that would inspire many of Israel’s later security policies.

It was against this background that Ben-Gurion by 1948 had established a “school” of regional strategy: a three-tier affair for actively seeking out allies and opportunities.

At the first level, in addition to looking for points of contact with immediate neighbors, Israel kept an eye out for internal fissures and conflicts within hostile but more distant countries like Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria. The idea in both cases was to identify and support those with a shared aversion to an exclusively Arab Middle East. At a minimum, the policy aimed at creating distractions among Israel’s enemies; at a maximum, it held out the possibility of discovering future leaders and groups with whom one might do business.

The second level was directed to the “peripheries”: the outer edges of the Middle East where Israel actively and for a time quite successfully courted the three major non-Arab countries: Ethiopia, Iran, and Turkey. Here the aim was to forge structures of mutual cooperation with nations bent on countering the intrigues of pan-Arab nationalists and opposing (often in cooperation with the U.S.) the spread of Communism.

The third level, the Herzlian one, saw Israel striking actual alliances with Western powers, in particular France until 1963 and, especially since 1968, the United States.

The rise of Israel’s strategic doctrine coincided with a period of general unrest in the Middle East. The power vacuum created by Britain and France’s gradual retreat from their empires was filled with conflicts over the borders or the very existence of many individual states. The Christians in Lebanon could hardly control that country’s other groups, and anyway Christian rule was never recognized by the Syrians; in Sudan, the southern populations resisted forced incorporation into the Muslim-dominated regime in Khartoum; the Kurds, sliced up among Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, rose repeatedly against their oppressors; in Yemen, a long and bloody civil war yielded a decades-long division into northern and southern states.

But the most potent destabilizer was pan-Arabism: an ideology purporting to incorporate the whole gigantic area between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans into a unified Arab nation that, once liberated from its oppressors, would occupy a position of prominence among the great nations of the world.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of states in the region would undergo military coups and counter-coups, assassinations, insurgencies, regime changes, and bloody palace intrigues, intermixed with the vicious repression of opposing forces—all in the name of pan-Arabism. Regimes committed to some version of the ideology came to power in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Libya. But its dark shadow spread everywhere; although it never came close to achieving its universal goal, it played a major role in delegitimizing the states erected by the great powers after World War I. All the while, its excuse for failing to deliver on its promises was a single, unchanging refrain: the existence of a Jewish state in the midst of what, by right and by logic, was to be an exclusively Arab homeland.

For Israel, therefore, the main strategic objective in those years was to challenge and undermine the claims of pan-Arabism, with the help of any parties that had reasons of their own to oppose it.

 

What did Ben-Gurion’s activist school accomplish? At the level of the more or less immediate vicinity, it offered assistance (mostly covert) from 1955 onward to the South Sudanese uprising against the Muslim north, and from 1961 to the Kurdish uprisings led by Mustafa Barazani against Iraqi rule. Also in the 1950s, Israel continued to nurture its ties with the fickle Christian leadership of Lebanon and to carry out other programs, most of them still unpublicized, from Algeria to Egypt to Yemen.

At the second, peripheral level, the Ben-Gurion strategy saw extensive cooperation between Israel and, especially, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia in areas ranging from the economy and agriculture to armaments and intelligence. Here, too, much has not been fully disclosed to this day, but what is known speaks volumes. To give just one example: in October 1958, a series of regular quarterly meetings was initiated among the heads of the intelligence services of Israel, Turkey, and Iran. (The Ethiopians collaborated as well.) Dividing the region into spheres in which one partner would assume the lead position while the others assisted, the group undertook to define common objectives in fighting both Soviet influence and the pan-Arabist agitation spearheaded by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. Against Egypt itself, it planned a full range of activity including espionage, economic sabotage, and regime destabilization.

At the third level, Israel’s close partnership with France enabled it to obtain vital military and economic assistance as well as crucial support in the often hostile environment of international diplomacy. The most important product of this alliance was the Sinai war of 1956, when France and Israel co-opted Great Britain in a joint effort to seize the Suez Canal area from Nasser, who had unilaterally nationalized it, thereby hoping also to discredit his claim to leadership of the Arab “nation” and to lay the ground for the establishment of an acquiescent regime in the most populous and prominent Arab country. For Israel, there was the added goal of eliminating Nasser’s constant efforts to block maritime traffic to the port of Eilat and his sponsorship of Palestinian “Fedayeen” terrorist gangs operating against southern Israel.

In military terms, the 1956 campaign was a spectacular success. Israel easily seized the Sinai peninsula, and Franco-British forces swiftly gained control of the Canal. In diplomatic terms, however, it was a complete debacle. Together, the U.S. and the Soviet Union pressured Britain and France, neither of them any longer up to the great-power game, to withdraw from Suez; Israel held out for a while but eventually withdrew as well, after receiving UN and American assurances that it would never again be threatened by Egypt.

Jerusalem learned its own, bitter lessons from this episode. In 1967, again vitally threatened by Egypt, it found neither the UN nor anyone else willing to lift a finger in aid. But it was probably Washington that would most rue its short-sightedness in 1956. In saving Nasser’s neck, America handed the Egyptian dictator his greatest propaganda victory and convinced much of the Arab world that it was possible to withstand the combined might of the great powers; even many Egyptians gradually came to believe that their military prowess had broken their opponents’ spirit. For decades to come, the legacy of Nasser’s “victory” caused untold damage to Western interests and values, encouraging the delusions of petty emulators from Libya to Iraq and, perhaps worse, of the Arab masses. It is only now, some three generations later, that Middle Eastern societies have come seriously to question the whole pan-Arab narrative.

For Israel, meanwhile, although it had been forced to retreat from the Sinai with little to show for it materially, on the international scene as well as at home this small sliver on the map had demonstrated its ability to stand up to and overcome a grave challenge.

 

The golden age of the activist Israeli school lasted through the long ascendancy of Ben-Gurion, who served as prime minister from 1948 to 1954 and (after a hiatus of 21 months) from 1955 to 1963. Aside from Ben-Gurion himself, figures associated with the strategy included such direct disciples as Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon as well as those, like Yigal Allon, belonging to rival factions of the Labor-Zionist movement.

To be sure, there were also dissenters, especially among those still hopeful of concluding some kind of arrangement with the Sunni Arab world or its central players. Prominent among these was Moshe Sharett, longtime foreign minister and briefly prime minister (1954-1955), who preferred a more pragmatic and reactive stance, as well as central political figures like future Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. For the most part, as long as the “Old Man” was in power, these figures refrained from contesting his line openly, instead trying to limit its scope; when he finally left office, they gradually abandoned the activist strategy associated with his name, and shifted course.

The change was concealed for a time, first by Ben-Gurion’s brooding presence in the wings and the possibility he might return to power, then by the stunning Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day war. But that war actually accelerated the change, for Israel’s triumph, accomplished in circumstances of dire necessity and with the country’s back to the wall, lulled its political leadership into a false sense of confidence. To the temperamental aversion to activism of many Labor leaders was now added a sense that Israel could deal with its neighbors from a position of power, and there would be no further need for serious strategic initiatives forthwith; the scope of such initiatives declined.

Indeed, the 1967 war itself had been fought without benefit of a strong alliance with a great power, and without clear goals except for removing the immediate threat to Israel’s existence. Once victory had been achieved, internal debates focused on the fate of the liberated territories. While Ben-Gurion, in old age and in opposition, asserted the need at all costs to keep the sacred sites of the Old City of Jerusalem and Hebron, as well as the Golan Heights, successive governments failed to formulate anything like a clear strategy, eventually pursuing neither a truly serious policy of settlement and annexation of all or some of the territories, nor a policy of trading all or some of the territories in exchange for secure peace treaties. Only eastern Jerusalem was formally re-unified with Israel in 1967, while in 1981, in an attempt to placate domestic criticism of his treaty with Egypt, Prime Minister Menachem Begin would annex the Golan Heights—again with no considered plan for development or settlement. Even such daring feats as the 1976 Entebbe raid in Uganda and the 1981 bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq were conducted without benefit of comprehensive strategic thinking.

Attempting to fight this drift were two men widely regarded as prime-ministers-in-waiting: Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. The latter especially, both before and after the 1967 war, suggested that among Israel’s aims should be the creation of a Druze state, carved out of Druze-populated areas in southern Syria and Lebanon, that would become a natural ally of Jerusalem. He was overruled. On the other hand, Allon’s detailed plan defining those post-1967 territories that in his view had to remain in Israeli hands became for some two decades the only thing approaching a strategic program—again, however, a program never wholeheartedly embraced or rejected by successive governments despite haphazard attempts to apply its principles.

By the early 1970s both Dayan and Allon were politically sidelined, and by 1981 both were dead. Among Ben-Gurion’s disciples, that left Shimon Peres, always energetic but no less erratic and inconsistent, and Ariel Sharon. Famous for his go-it-alone manner and military prowess—which played a decisive role in Israel’s triumph against terrible odds in the Yom Kippur war—as well as for his insistence that the “Palestinian problem” could be solved only by making Jordan into the sought-after Palestinian state, Sharon was responsible for whatever post-’67 settlement policy Israel could be said to have.

In 1982, having become defense minister and the dominant figure within the Begin government, Sharon attempted to implement his “Great Oranim” plan: an overt military-cum-political alliance with Lebanese Christians against Yasir Arafat’s PLO and the Syrians, who between them had shackled Lebanon to their war against Israel. The ensuing military campaign, initially an unreserved success, brought about the evacuation of PLO forces from Lebanon and even a formal peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon. But what was envisioned as the start of a whole new era quickly unraveled as the IDF found itself doing all the fighting and compelled against its wishes to move northward to the very outskirts of Beirut. When the Christian leader and Lebanese president-elect Bashir Jemayel was assassinated in September 1982, no one else proved willing or able to step forward; the leaderless Christian militias, in retaliation for his murder, then turned in a murderous rampage against hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila—thereby bringing domestic and international opprobrium down upon the Israeli government and leading to Sharon’s dismissal in disgrace.

 

3. The “New Middle East”

The Lebanese debacle and the prolonged political eclipse of Sharon left Israel without anyone prominent enough to assume the mantle of strategic activism and very little desire to be associated with it altogether. In the meantime, ever since the two wars of 1967 and 1973, an alternative approach had gradually developed whose aim was instead to achieve “stability.” It was epitomized in 1982 by the complete Israeli withdrawal from and obliteration of its settlements in the Sinai peninsula in fulfillment of its obligations under the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. Often identified with the formula of land-for-peace, the new, “stability” approach posited that Israeli territorial concessions could achieve a durable political settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

But this was only a corollary to the strategy’s essential thrust: namely, reaching real concord with the region’s Sunni Arab dictatorships on the basis of mutually shared interests. In its most candid version, the strategy assumed that the surrounding Arab populations were themselves profoundly if not irredeemably anti-Israel and anti-Jewish; therefore, Israel’s best insurance policy lay in striking accords with their rulers, who by dint of their very cruelty and corruption could be counted upon to keep popular passions in check. This line of thinking had the added benefit of fitting nicely into American strategic doctrine, which since the 1970s had increasingly preferred regional stability and containment to more active options.

Thus, in the early 1970s, Israel repeatedly saved the pro-Western King Hussein of Jordan from enemies both internal and external, while scaling down its assistance to the Kurdish and South Sudanese insurgencies; after 1973, both Israel and the U.S. cooperated (often behind the scenes) with other established Arab regimes in ensuring domestic tranquility. After 1982, the approach assumed paramountcy in Israeli strategic thought.

Perhaps surprisingly, a domestic factor also contributed to the strategic shift. This was the political rise of the center-Right Likud party, which took office in 1977 and since then has been continuously in power for all but nine years. As mentioned earlier, the supposed hard-line approach of Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” had paradoxically fostered among many of his disciples an essentially defensive attitude, manifested in a reluctance to entertain the creative and admittedly risky activism of the Ben-Gurion school. Similarly, militant rhetoric aside, later Likud leaders have tended to make do with firmly resisting Arab aggression or (in the case of Dan Meridor, Ehud Olmert, Ronnie Bar-On, and Tsipi Livni) have openly supported the stability school of thought.

True, most of the architects of the late-1970s peace treaty with Egypt, from Prime Minister Begin to Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and Foreign Minister Dayan, did not wholeheartedly subscribe to that school of thought; rather, the agreement with Cairo was a move calculated, albeit at a high price, to remove from the conflict the strongest of Israel’s Arab enemies and thus permit greater flexibility on other fronts like Syria and the PLO. Yet the conceptual opening supplied by Camp David created room for others, including young Labor activists like Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir, Nimrod Novik, and Avrum Burg, to flesh out a new positive vision, rooted in the principle of stability, that was eventually embraced and implemented by none other than Shimon Peres.

By the early 1990s, Peres had become a true believer in the stability principle, articulating it explicitly in his book The New Middle East (1993) and making it the animating premise of the Oslo accords with the arch-terrorist and would-be dictator Yasir Arafat. The argument went like this: since the region was not yet ready for openness and democracy, one should strive for a kind of armistice with its regnant potentates. Ideally, such an arrangement, girded by Western financial assistance, would encourage economic progress, and growing affluence would in turn produce an easing of regional tensions, a waning of extremism (including the extreme hatred of Israel and the West), and perhaps even, in the fullness of time, a lessened attachment to such outmoded commodities as chauvinism and national borders. Eventually, in Peres’s rosy conception, the rise in prosperity and goodwill would allow Israel to join the Arab League—by then metamorphosed into a Mideast version of the European Union—and one day perhaps even see Arab peoples partaking of democracy with a capital D.

In order to work, this strategic vision required cooperation among all major players in crushing any threats to regime stability. Such threats were perceived as emanating not only from leftist and Islamist terrorists but also from domestic liberals working for civic reform or democracy; they, too, would have to be suppressed—an unfortunate circumstance but, to true believers, well worth the price. The allure of the strategy to U.S. policy makers was obvious: the State Department and Peres were at one in the conviction that the Middle East’s Ghaddafis, Assads, and Mubaraks did not have to be contested or toppled but rather engaged and supported. As for Israeli policy makers, a majority, although eschewing Peres’s colorful rhetoric, likewise came to embrace some form of this vision, which in later years would still be informing the policies of prime ministers Ehud Barak (1999-2001) and Ehud Olmert (2006-2009).

Finally, the “stabilist” American and Israeli approach went hand in glove with the mood of the reigning powers in the Arab world, which, from about 1970 on, enjoyed an extended respite from internal turmoil. The frequent coups, revolutions, and civil wars of earlier decades had declined sharply, and while pan-Arabism remained the predominant rhetorical posture, individual regimes seemed to have mastered the art of securing their rule on their own—aided, of course, by immense oil wealth that enabled the concentration of all power in the hands of the governing elites and discouraged any significant economic or political competition. Dissent was easily bought off, or forcibly crushed. Even countries lacking significant oil revenues, like Egypt and Syria, could easily obtain funding for their repressive regimes by extending or withholding support for terrorist groups or browbeating minuscule oil sheikdoms.

 

4. The Death of Stability

But, notoriously, the presence of great oil riches in the closed and repressive circumstances of Arab societies turned out to be as much curse as blessing—to put it mildly. All over the region, an outwardly stable and sturdy exterior hid an interior in which everything was rotting. Probably never in history have such gigantic resources been invested in such a short time with so little to show for it. The Arab states poured money into nationalized and grossly inefficient industries, gargantuan but defective infrastructure, substandard education for all, and mammoth armies that time and again collapsed on the battlefield. The regimes’ only objective success lay in the savage suppression of all internal opposition.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, failing in war against the Iranians despite having gassed them, later gassed its own civilian Kurdish population for refusing to fall into line. Hafez Assad’s Syria, unsuccessful against Israel, terrorized Lebanon and butchered the civilian population in its own rebellious city of Hama; the record of Assad’s son and successor Bashar is too recent and too well known to bear repeating. The atrocities committed by Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and others, many in the name of Arab nationalism, have not been much different.

By their very nature, these regimes discredited not only pan-Arabism but eventually their own legitimacy. Their subjects learned to scorn the empty bombast and to resent and distrust the state, increasingly turning to local ethnic and tribal connections. Ironically, only traditional monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco, which also rely on some kind of religious sanction (as descendants of the Prophet or keepers of holy sites), have succeeded in retaining a degree of legitimacy for their rule, lately reflected in their relative ability to withstand the Arab “spring.” By contrast, most Arab “republics,” originally established by military coups, eventually came to rely on the support of tribes and clans. As the years progressed, this clannish system produced the odd spectacle of so-called republics with dynastic successions. Even in far less tribal and clannish Egypt, the exhausted regime could find no better replacement to ailing president Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1982, than to groom as successor his son Gamal.

It was a vicious circle that could not be sustained indefinitely—and neither could the stability model that was its Western enabler. What would eventually replace it was very different from the “new world order” envisioned after the first Iraq war by the elder George Bush and the U.S. State Department, let alone the “New Middle East” fantasized by Peres and his supporters. Instead, with the final collapse of the Soviet empire, in whose embrace many an Arab leader had sheltered, various Islamist factions became energized, under the banner of “global jihad,” to accelerate their terrorist activities against the oil-rich Arab dictatorships—and especially against the Great Satan that protected them.

September 11, 2001 represented a spectacular success for the new Islamist jihad—and, in swift reaction, the emergence of a new American strategy, aimed not only at hunting down and destroying al-Qaeda and allied groups but also at overthrowing regimes supportive of anti-American terrorism. The new strategy saw the direct U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, wide-ranging preemptive military actions in places like Somalia and Pakistan, and pressure on regimes like Ghaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria to realign themselves with American interests or risk being added to the hit list. Although the complications unleashed by the 2003 removal of Saddam Hussein would quickly damp U.S. enthusiasm for regime change, by then it was too late to rewind the clock. The regional mold had been shattered, and all of Washington’s horses and all of its men couldn’t put it back together again.

 

5. Toward a New Old School

The Arab “spring” and its aftermath, having toppled three Arab regimes (Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt), plunged two more (Yemen and Syria) into civil war, and seriously rocked many more (from Morocco through Jordan to Bahrain), has completed the breakdown of the previous regional order. Nor is there an easy or painless option going forward. Any new regional system will either entail the bloody imposition of authoritarian regimes in country after country or see the formation of entirely new political entities. Some of those new entities are likely to reject the old arbitrary regional borders, along with the Arab identity formerly imposed on them.

Today, Iraq is de-facto partitioned into three zones: a southeastern Shiite area, a southwestern Sunni area, and the non-Arab Kurdish area in the north, a resounding economic and political success and now independent in all but name. Syria could be replaced by partially or completely independent Alawite, Druze, Kurdish, and Sunni-Arab zones. Libya is divided into tribal areas, loosely along the lines of the pre-independence entities of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. The Western Sahara, militarily occupied by Morocco since 1975, is stirring. In Algeria, a sclerotic regime is facing calls for Berber self-definition, especially in the Berbers’ northwestern stronghold of Kabylie. Even in Jordan, there are indications of a potential break between the Palestinian-majority urban north and the Bedouin-dominated tribal south.

Taken together, these developments are the expression of one fundamental truth: although for a century the Middle East has been commonly perceived as a Sunni Arab region, it is the non-Arab and non-Sunni groups who constitute the actual majority. As formerly oppressed communities like the Shiites of Lebanon and Iraq, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq, and the Christians of South Sudan have asserted themselves, there has been a dramatic recalibrating of regional identities. A presumptively monolithic “Arab” region is being supplanted by a patchwork of identities and allegiances whose definition, patterns of organization, and prospective alliances are all yet to be played out.

 

For Israel, the latest developments mean not only that the “stabilist” strategy of the last 30-odd years has become completely irrelevant, but that efforts to revamp it would be nothing short of immoral. Even Shimon Peres, the most outspoken proponent of stability, has recently admitted that butchers like Syria’s Assad cannot be left in power, let alone become partners in a regional order.

Going forward in these circumstances, however, also entails significant obstacles and perils. Even doing nothing means effectively either to abet some local rebellion or to encourage its ferocious repression by a cornered dictator—as currently in Syria. On the other hand, to favor strongman rule means to will the military measures necessary to secure it. One such quandary already presents itself in Gaza, where suppression of the Islamist Hamas government by the secular Abbas dictatorship—a presumed good—would require Israel to take responsibility for affording passage, and perhaps assistance, to Palestinian Authority soldiers: a hazardous course with very few foreseeable rewards.

On a larger scale, even to begin considering Israel’s choices requires abandoning the preoccupation of the last decades with two issues at the expense of virtually all others: namely, the conflict with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear threat. Both are extremely important, and both are in urgent and unceasing need of the most vigilant attention; but that does not diminish the need to think about other threats—or to consider the possible opportunities afforded by emerging developments. Indeed, among such opportunities might be some with positive implications on these two fronts as well.

The good news is that Israelis are alive to today’s challenges and airing ideas about how best to meet them. Although discussion for the most part is being conducted away from the public eye, the media have managed to find what to report. On one side are those, like Amos Yadlin, former IDF chief of military intelligence and today head of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), who believe that the internal Arab strife of the last years has seriously weakened the threats posed to the Jewish state, and might well produce significant strategic benefits—the implication being that a prolongation of the turmoil strife is in Israel’s interest. On the other side are those, including diehards of the old stability strategy, who warn that the fighting will inevitably embroil Israel as well, to no clear end—and that now is precisely the time for Israel to indicate its readiness for regional negotiations with the Arab League, whose moldering peace initiative might yet “contribute to enhancing stability in the Middle East . . . and strengthening Israel and the moderate Western-Sunni axis.”

Still others, deploring passivity, have begun to urge a return to the activist approach: not a simple revival of Ben-Gurionism, obviously—the problems and concerns of those days are no more, while others, like the use of missiles and non-conventional weapons by state and non-state actors, have emerged with a vengeance. Rather, a return to old-school activism in today’s circumstances would entail a forward-looking flexibility and, especially, a readiness to seize opportunities thrown up by the disappearing legitimacy of most of the region’s secular authoritarian regimes and the corresponding search for new sources of identification and protection in ethnic, tribal, or religious identities.

 

To the activists, the forces at work in the region are seen as operating in two directions. A disintegrative pull is evident everywhere from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to Yemen and post-partition Sudan, to Morocco and Algeria, to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states; even non-Arab Turkey and Iran are now threatened by Kurdish and Azeri stirrings. In areas that are solidly Sunni and Arab, the breaking point tends to follow tribal and regional allegiances, as can be seen in Libya, in the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq, in the solidifying division between Palestinians in Gaza versus those in the West Bank, and even in Jordan.

At the same time, however, integrative forces are also in play, presenting the possibility of new alignments and partnerships. Broadly speaking, these forces adhere mainly to either nationalist or religious-ideological visions.

Most obvious among the nationalist forces are the Kurds. Barring disastrous factional infighting, the way seems open for a historic convergence of some 30 million Kurds and the potential emergence of a Kurdish national entity; such an entity, encompassing the already autonomous Kurds of Iraq and Syria and the increasingly organized Kurds of Turkey and Iran, could dramatically recalibrate all regional balances.

Another potential force is Berber nationalism in North Africa, affecting up to 35 million people spread out from Morocco to Tunisia. In their current state of organization, only the Berbers of the Kabylie in Algeria are seriously active in seeking self-determination; but this is a community on the march.

And then there is the other important integrative factor: religion, or rather religious ideology. While in some cases this can break political entities apart, in others it can have the opposite effect. Visible in today’s ferment is the potential emergence of three large religious-ideological clusters, each vying with the others to assume leadership. To a great extent all three subscribe to a version of the Islamist ideology that entered the vacuum created by the demise of radical pan-Arabism.

The best-established and most salient among the three clusters is the radical Shiite grouping, led by Iran and comprising as well the Hizballah-led Shiites of Lebanon and the Assad-led Alawite-Shiite alliance of western Syria, with the Shiite majority in Iraq similarly drifting toward Tehran’s orbit. Iran is also eyeing the sizable Shiite communities that form a majority of the population in Kuwait, Bahrain, and eastern Saudi Arabia—all in the hope of engendering a Shiite belt around the Persian Gulf.

The second cluster is the populist-Sunni grouping led by Islamist Turkey and allied with Qatar and the various Muslim Brotherhood-inspired political movements in the region. It is currently in power in Yemen and Gaza, while forming the main political opposition in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Jordan. In Egypt, it was only recently ousted from power in the anti-Brotherhood military coup. This grouping supports democratic elections, in the expectation (usually correct) that it will emerge from them either victorious or as the main opposition party.

The third cluster is authoritarian-Sunni, led by Saudi Arabia and including such traditional monarchies as Morocco, Jordan, and all Gulf nations except Qatar, as well as the Sunni leadership in Lebanon, the Mahmoud Abbas faction of the Palestinian Authority, and, its most important recent prize, Egypt led by General al-Sisi. Algeria seems also to be edging toward it. This grouping is in effect what remains of the former Arab Sunni majority that dominated the region for decades; now in retreat and on the defensive, it tends to distrust democracy and is allied to the various “Salafist” groups of purist Islamists who reject the Muslim Brotherhood as being too liberal and democratic.

Each of the three clusters maintains close connections to terrorist organizations, which are activated at will against the others as well as against Western and Israeli targets. Moreover, to these three groupings one may add a smaller one composed of the various Sunni jihadist groups, the most famous of which is al-Qaeda. These organizations, which for the most part do not accept the authority of any of the big three, are politically and numerically inconsequential. But they wield clout in their two fields of concentration: terrorism against Western targets worldwide and insurgency against non-Sunni regimes. A good example of the complex interplay among all these forces is the current contest for leadership of those areas in Syria that have been liberated from the Assad regime (itself part of the Shiite grouping) and are now dominated by Arab-Sunni fighters. There, the fierce contest for territorial control and political dominance among the pro-Turkey Muslim Brotherhood groups, the pro-Saudi Salafist groups, and the go-it-alone jihadists often eclipses the battle against Assad.

 

6. What Can an Activist Israel Do?

Israel is, to say the least, not a good fit for any of these regional groupings. Yet it must be said that in at least one respect, they represent an improvement over the formerly united anti-Zionist Arab front. As long as they continue to exist, they are likely to invest fewer resources in fighting the Jewish state than in fighting each other for dominance. They are also quite fluid and brittle, as we have seen in Egypt’s recent switch from the populist to the authoritarian grouping. Indeed, even in the three leading countries of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the internal political situation is far from secure, and a change of leadership, especially in Turkey, is hardly unthinkable.

What, then, can an activist Israel do?

On the first level, i.e., the immediate vicinity, a new-old policy of supporting minorities would see Israel focusing on those who do not and cannot identify with any of the three Islamist groupings: the Christians and Druze of both Lebanon and Syria, and above all the Kurds. The last of these, while mostly Sunni, overwhelmingly tend to identify with their Kurdish nation and may potentially turn into one of the largest and most cohesive political powers in the region. Together with Israel, these groups might conceivably form a fourth, alternative group to the three Islamist clusters—one with a shared propensity in favor of self-determination, democracy, open societies, and open markets.

In addition, Israel should obviously consider ways to weaken the three Islamist groupings by seeking out elements who might be tempted to secede. The most evident candidates are the Syrian Alawites; concentrated in the coastal area, they are now led by Assad and allied to the Shiite cluster, but this is a far from natural alliance. The Alawites do not subscribe to the tenets of Shiite Islamist ideology. (Regarded by Shiites as doctrinal heretics, they tend to be quite secretive and moderate in religious matters.) If the war in Syria concludes with the establishment of a self-governing Alawite zone, sooner or later its residents will have an interest in jettisoning the Assads and distancing themselves from the bear hug of fanatical Shiite ideology.

A similar course might be followed in the long run with Iran’s restive Azeris, who make up some 20 percent of the population and are concentrated in the northeastern corner of the country (bordering on the Kurds and Azerbaijan). And then there is Sudan, where even after partition, a new civil war is looming between the Arabic-speaking population of the north and east and the long-oppressed groups of the south and west who describe themselves as Africans (rather than Arabs) and now seek new allies.

At the second level, that of peripheral strategy, the implosion of the Arab world has created a regional power vacuum unprecedented since World War I. The old peripheral strategy was predicated on the assumption that Ethiopia, Turkey, and Iran—the three main non-Arab powers at the edges of the Arab-speaking states—had in common with Israel both an interest in stemming pan-Arabism and the capability to influence the regional balance of power. In the latter decades of the 20th century, however, all three suffered a reversal, while Israel turned elsewhere.

Ethiopia fell prey in 1974 to a Communist dictatorship, plunging it into a generation of famine, terror, civil war, and destruction ending only in 1991. In Iran, the 1979 revolution brought to power the radical Khomeini regime, which promptly fought a long and exhausting war with Saddam’s Iraq. Turkey, which fared somewhat better, nevertheless faced a serious and protracted problem of terrorism and underwent a number of military coups; thanks to its faltering economy, its successive attempts to join the EU met with repeated rebuff.

Now, all three are back on their feet. Ethiopia, having put its political and economic house in order, is today the most stable and important American ally in eastern Africa, cooperating with Washington in fighting Islamist terror in Somalia, defending the strategic city-state of Djibouti, and extending assistance to newly independent South Sudan; to the chagrin of the Egyptians, it is erecting the greatest dam ever built on the river Nile. Turkey, having enjoyed in the last decade both political stability and spectacular economic progress, has abandoned its EU-oriented strategy and, notwithstanding Prime Minister Erdogan’s current troubles, is now consolidating its role as a regional leader . Iran has already acquired a central role as patron and protector of all things Shiite; although still crippled by sanctions directed against its military nuclear program, it has successfully serenaded the West into easing up and off.

Now the Arab collapse has drawn these powers from the periphery right into the thick of things, with, in the case of Turkey and Iran, decidedly challenging implications for Israel’s security. At the same time, however, a new periphery is emerging, as the formerly Soviet republics of the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan present a possible counterbalance to the bordering nations of Turkey and Iran. Especially significant is oil-rich, Shiite Azerbaijan, wary of Tehran’s schemes against it, enjoying strong ties with Iran’s oppressed Azeris, and conspicuously friendly with Israel. Even Greece and Cyprus, uneasy at growing Turkish assertiveness, are strengthening their ties to the Jewish state, especially in the spheres of defense and energy policy.

On the international scene, finally, there is no escaping the current troubles of the United States—and there is no lack of powers who would like to replace it, from the EU or some of its members (like France) to Russia and even China. As things now stand, none of these is equipped with the requisite combination of military, economic, and intellectual resources, and none seems up to putting its money and troops where its mouth is. Despite predictions of “The End of the American Era” (Stephen M. Walt, the National Interest, November-December 2011), the U.S. is still by far the only serious great power on the international scene, and for the foreseeable future there is no alternative to its might.

Political will, however, is another matter, and in that respect Israel might indeed be facing a diminished American role, at least if elements within both political parties in Washington achieve their wish for a retreat from world leadership. At the moment, the U.S. is mired in a foreign-policy labyrinth of its own making; if this turns out to be a sign of things to come, Israel’s options will be severely affected. However implausible a complete disengagement of the U.S. from its strong commitment to Israel’s security may appear, even a relative retrenchment, signaled by the reluctance to employ military force or even direct diplomatic and economic pressure, would transform the regional equation and enable the entrance of new players.

The Saudis, disquieted by American disarray, have already announced a major strategic “shift away” from Washington and, along with others in the region reliant on American support, are now seeking alternative options. As of now, Israel is not yet seriously readying itself for a serious American cutback, but some are already proposing that, in case it materializes, Jerusalem should seek to combine American support, however diminished in scale, with the support of at least one other major ally. Since the EU, Russia, and China have significant limitations in this respect, a principal candidate for partnership is now India, an emerging giant making its first and very tentative steps on the world stage. Israel has already become India’s main supplier of military equipment, and there are growing ties of commerce, technology, and intelligence between the two countries, which also share a deep-rooted democratic tradition as well as a strategic conflict with radical Islam.

 

7. Conclusion

Such, then, is the new shape of the Middle East, and such are the dilemmas facing Israeli strategists and policy makers. If the stability strategy, in any form, seems the worst possible way to proceed—for how does one “stabilize” something that has already died?—the activist strategy requires not merely a shift in policy but a complete transformation of outlook, a change of heart. First and foremost, and for the foreseeable future, it means viewing instability and competition as assets, not drawbacks; it also means not only seizing opportunities but creating and initiating them.

There is no such thing as a strategy without a price; in choosing activism, Israel would be choosing to involve itself in difficult and uncertain ventures and to run the risk of failure and setbacks, including in the form of severe cross-border violence. Some failures will be costly in diplomatic and economic terms, others in human lives. But the alternative is no less fraught with danger, and its cost will be measured in the expansion and consolidation of Israel’s enemies.

It is also worth pointing to the moral dimension of the strategic choice at hand. Fomenting disarray and division among Israel’s enemies, helping them to crumble, is both an enticing prospect and a good in and of itself. But the activist course also has the clear advantage of working mainly in favor of those forces in the Middle East seeking self-determination, democracy, and liberty: the forces that brought into being the Arab spring. A change in this direction of a single important regime—a more Western-oriented Turkey, a non-Islamic Iran—would create a regional power shift as dramatic as anything witnessed in the last few years.

At best, the activist strategy can go much farther. It can foster and assist newly emerging political entities in the region that will be far more favorably inclined to the existence among them of the Jewish state. Cooperating with peripheral powers from Greece through the Caucasus to Ethiopia can create a wider regional partnership whose scope might then extend outward toward international actors with shared values and interests. In the best of circumstances, an activist strategy can advance the process by which various former minorities become a strong and stable alliance of national communities, constitutionally inclined to democracy, free markets, and open societies.

Responses

  1. The Middle East—It’s Bad Enough As Is by Robert Satloff
    We don’t need overhyped claims about the collapse of Sykes-Picot to see that Israel has more than enough bad options to grapple with.
  2. Beware an Alliance of the Weak by Martin Kramer
    Even in a region that is unfree, Israel has shown that it can maintain liberty. There is no substitute for independent power.
  3. More Important Is Patience by Efraim Inbar
    Israel is a small state in a large, chaotic region. Its main challenge is to avoid costly errors, and stay strong.
  4. What Would Ben-Gurion Do? by Michael Doran
    . . . if he were caught between the rise of al-Qaeda and Iran and the decline of the United States?

More about: Arab Spring, David Ben-Gurion, Foreign Policy, Israel, Middle East, Ofir Haivry, Theodor Herzl, Zionist history