Israel in the Eye of the Hurricane

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


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.


  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


What Would Ben-Gurion Do

. . . if he were caught between the rise of al-Qaeda and Iran and the decline of the United States?

<em>David Ben-Gurion with IDF Commander Yossef Nevo and Mayor of Jerusalem Mordechai Ish-Shalom at an army post at the Jerusalem border, 1962.</em> By David Harris.
David Ben-Gurion with IDF Commander Yossef Nevo and Mayor of Jerusalem Mordechai Ish-Shalom at an army post at the Jerusalem border, 1962. By David Harris.
Jan. 12 2014
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.

Ofir Haivry inIsrael in the Eye of the Hurricane” calls for reviving David Ben-Gurion’s activist school of foreign policy. In building his case for the rightness of such a policy, Haivry provides us not only with an insightful survey of the historical development of Israeli strategy but also with a framework for comparing policies across time periods. His approach is particularly helpful in pointing out the complex interconnections among local, regional, and global politics.

But in taking the view from 30,000 feet, Haivry misses the specific dilemma that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces: Israel is caught uncomfortably between the decline of American power and the rise of al-Qaeda and Iran.

As Haivry observes, America is pulling back. In the words of former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, the Obama administration has determined that the United States is “overinvested” in the Middle East. President Obama, therefore, has shown himself to be deeply reluctant to commit the U.S. to any initiative designed to shape a new regional order. This standoffishness has resulted in a power vacuum. The vacuum is most obvious in Syria, where Shiite Iran and Sunni al-Qaeda are both growing increasingly powerful even as they vie with each other for influence.

For Israel, the dilemma arises not so much from America’s withdrawal as from the decidedly partial character of that withdrawal. Although Obama has taken one step out the door, the other foot is still planted firmly in place. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, for example, he targeted two problems for energetic solution: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. He could not have chosen two issues of greater concern to Israel. While other Middle Eastern leaders complain of an aloof and distant America, the Israeli prime minister finds himself hosting Secretary of State John Kerry nearly once a month. In short, Obama has boxed Netanyahu in.


As historical coincidence would have it, however, Ben-Gurion had to grapple with an analogous dilemma, and in doing so his activist school reached the zenith of its influence. In the mid-1950s, as radical pan-Arabism shook the region, the Eisenhower administration, which leaned toward the side of the Arab states, was singularly fixated on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The best way to achieve that goal, the President believed, was to force Israel to make painful territorial concessions.

And there was more. In 1955, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the charismatic young leader of Egypt and champion of pan-Arabism, had signed a massive arms deal with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower chose to interpret Nasser’s move as a hedge against Israel rather than a rejection of the West per se. Rolling back Israel could therefore also serve as a means of wooing Nasser away from the USSR. 

Not surprisingly, a significant gap in perception opened up between Jerusalem and Washington. The Americans fawned over Nasser; the Israelis increasingly saw him as an existential threat. As a result, Ben-Gurion was forced to adopt a bifurcated strategy. Wherever possible, he showed deference to the United States—making sure, for example, to cooperate with Eisenhower’s Arab-Israeli peace initiative. At the same time, in a practice that enraged the Americans, he did not refrain from launching aggressive border raids against his neighbors, including Egypt.

Events reached a high point in 1956 when, ignoring explicit American warnings, Israel launched a war against Egypt in concert with the French and the British. That coalition was itself very much the product of the preceding two years of Israeli activism. By demonstrating Israel’s willingness to act independently of Washington, and by showcasing considerable military prowess, Ben-Gurion had laid the groundwork for an alliance with France that in the next decade would prove a godsend to the newly independent Jewish state. It was, indeed, the French who roped the British into the coalition against Egypt.


Although much has changed since then, there is a good deal to be learned from this historical example. Specifically, if Israel were to revitalize Ben-Gurion’s activism in today’s circumstances, what goals would it pursue?

In addressing this question, Haivry himself argues in favor of “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.” Ben-Gurion’s track record suggests otherwise, especially with regard to Iran.

In the 1950s, the Israeli leader’s top priority was arresting the advance of Egyptian military power. The Soviet arms deal gave Nasser an edge: an advantage that to Ben-Gurion represented a threat on the same order as the Iranian nuclear threat represents to Israel today. Indeed, if Ben-Gurion were reincarnated as an adviser to Netanyahu, he would undoubtedly draw a parallel between the rise of Iran as a nuclear power—and the American posture that has inadvertently facilitated that rise—and his own experience with Nasser.

Just like Egypt in the 1950s, Iran today presents a nexus of three key factors: malevolent intention, lethal capabilities, and strategic determination. None of Israel’s other antagonists on the Middle East scene exhibits such a multidimensional challenge. Al-Qaeda, to be sure, is fearsome. But Sunni jihadism in general is organizationally fragmented, militarily weak, and strategically inept. The danger it poses to Israel is real enough, but hardly rises to the level of an existential threat.

The primacy of the Iranian challenge raises a key question. If Ben-Gurion were alive today, would he urge Netanyahu to follow his example in 1956 and launch a strike against Iran that could, plausibly, turn into full-scale war? The answer is almost assuredly no.

Let’s assume that Israel actually possesses the military capability to destroy the Iranian nuclear program (a big assumption). In the event that led to all-out military confrontation, it would lack great-power support, something that Ben-Gurion regarded as an absolute prerequisite. In 1956, he gave the order to attack only after he had ensured the backing of Britain and France. 

Netanyahu enjoys no such support today. Getting into a war with Iran all by himself would be easy enough. But getting out of it would require the good offices of the United States, which he cannot count on.


This, however, does not entirely nullify the activist option. Extrapolating from his behavior in 1954-55, but stopping short of war, Ben-Gurion would press forward with the most muscular policy possible, especially through an aggressive covert campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. All the while, using the model of Britain and France in 1956, he would search for actors willing to partner with Israel against Iran on the wider Mideast scene.

Granted, it is not entirely clear that such actors exist; but the possibility is insufficiently explored in Haivry’s analysis. For example, after discussing the three “clusters” of states in today’s Middle East, Haivry writes: “Israel is, to say the least, not a good fit for any of these regional groupings.” He thereby scants one of the most striking developments of the last three years—namely, the confluence of interests between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, Saudi Arabia first and foremost.

A reincarnated Ben-Gurion would certainly investigate whether behind-the-scenes cooperation between Riyadh and Jerusalem was possible, and whether an activist foreign policy could help to solidify it. The arena offering the greatest potential for such cooperation is Syria, where shifting the balance against Iran’s proxy Hizballah is in the interest of both the Saudis and the Israelis. An additional advantage in Syria is that Netanyahu can act aggressively there without unduly complicating relations with Washington.

Of course, the impediments to cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh are considerable, and it would be difficult to pull off even a covert alignment with any effectiveness. But the Middle East is changing rapidly, and the stakes are very high. It would be a mistake to assume that yesterday’s impossibility will remain unthinkable tomorrow. 

Who knows? In the process of courting the Gulf states, Netanyahu might even find other partners whose cooperation he could not have foreseen. After all, Ben-Gurion planned neither the alliance with France nor the alignment with Britain. It was his activism that generated both relationships. Activism, he understood, was a form of advertisement.


Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. 

More about: Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, David Ben-Gurion, Foreign Policy, Iran, Israel, Jewish State, Ofir Haivry


More Important is Patience

Israel is a small state in a large, chaotic region. Its main challenge is to avoid costly errors, and stay strong.

<em>Egyptian gather around the burning headquarters of the of the ruling National Democratic party (NDP) in central Cairo on January 28, 2011. </em>© KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images.
Egyptian gather around the burning headquarters of the of the ruling National Democratic party (NDP) in central Cairo on January 28, 2011. © KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images.
Efraim Inbar
Jan. 15 2014

The discussion of Israel’s strategic choices in Mosaic is a welcome initiative, and the essay by Ofir Haivry makes for a serious point of departure. But his essay also exhibits several weaknesses, which I shall try to outline in what follows.

In his categorization of historical periods in Israel’s unfolding regional strategy, Haivry lauds in particular the “activism” of the years under the influence and premiership of David Ben-Gurion. This, in his view, was replaced after 1967 by a more passive “search for stability,” characterized by efforts to reach accommodations with the region’s Sunni regimes. For the period now upon us, he advocates a return to the older “strategic activism,” pointing out the political opportunities (as well as some of the risks) held out by such a course.

Haivry’s historical scheme is debatable. Setting aside shifting circumstances and the idiosyncrasies of particular leaders, there has actually been greater continuity in Israel’s foreign and national-security policy than he suggests. No less than Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1980s and 90s, David Ben-Gurion did his own share of playing for time, waiting for the Arabs to change their rejectionist stance while doing what he could to build Israel into a strong geo-political actor. For Ben-Gurion as for his successors, Israel’s use of force was limited to impressing upon the Arabs that they could not win militarily, and to creating sufficient deterrence to prolong the intervals between necessary wars.

By the same token, Ben-Gurion’s activist “periphery” doctrine blossomed again in the post-cold-war 1990s when relations between Israel and Turkey became incredibly close. During those same years, Israeli leaders whom Haivry characterizes as passive also seized opportunities in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and India. Nor, in the first decade of this century, did Israel miss the chance to improve relations with Cyprus, Greece, the newly born South Sudan, and several African states.

What Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders were acutely aware of, but Haivry sometimes seems to forget, is that Israel is a small state with limited capabilities to affect its surroundings. Therefore, any activist policy is inherently limited in what it can achieve. By themselves, Israeli initiatives cannot transcend entrenched ethnic, religious, and historical forces. Israel could not “fix” Lebanon in 1982, and it has been helpless in addressing the political problems of the emerging Palestinian political entity. Most important, it is restricted in its potential influence over the strategic calculus of the major extra-regional states. Rather than enter into direct conflict with such strong powers, Jerusalem prefers to wait for better days.

Operating within the constraints of classical realpolitik, and emphasizing the pursuit of its national interests, Israel must also leave to one side the domestic politics, however distasteful—or worse—of its adversaries and/or its occasional partners. The cardinal virtue in such an approach, and one that for the most part has guided past and current Israeli governments, is the need for prudence.

Israel was happy to adopt a pro-American orientation when the Americans were ready for it in the late 1960s. A decade later, Menachem Begin responded positively to the peace overture of Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat. In the early 1990s, Yitzhak Rabin accepted the Oslo agreement after becoming convinced that the PLO was ready for a deal within the framework of his cautious, step-by step approach. Precisely because of the inability to alter significantly the strategic landscape of its mainly hostile region, Israel’s national strategy since the beginning has been focused on biding time and exploiting periods of respite in order to develop and strengthen the country’s capabilities.


If Haivry’s review of Israel’s past strategic choices is problematic, his prognosis for the future is even more so. While he acknowledges the key importance for Israel of the U.S. role in the Middle East, his discussion of this role and its potential diminishment is almost off-hand. It is certainly plausible to envisage, as he does, a lower American profile in the region, especially as the U.S. reduces its dependence on Middle East oil. But it is not self-evident that this would necessarily be bad for Israel. Despite a possible reduction in material support, less American attention to the Middle East in general would not be bad for Israel’s interests and might enhance Israel’s freedom of action. 

Haivry suggests that the potential loss of the American commitment could be offset by Israeli partnerships with other powers. Conceding the unsuitability of such obvious candidates as Russia or China, he points especially to India, a rising power with which Israel has excellent relations. But the suggestion betrays a fundamental ignorance of the complexity of Indian interests in the Middle East as well as the timidity of India’s strategic culture. The plain fact is that in the near future, when it comes to global powers, Israel has no real strategic choices. The sooner Israelis understand that, the fewer mistakes will be made.

In depicting the changes that have occurred in the Middle East following the so-called “Arab Spring,” Haivry rightly notes the re-emergence of old tribal, ethnic, and religious identities at the expense of state structures. Yet his judgment that Arab Sunni dominance is at end is ill-advised. Sunni Egypt, despite its current problems, still maintains a powerful statist order, is still the most populous and strongest Arab state, and may yet bounce back as a serious regional actor. Moreover, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel dramatically affects the latter’s strategic situation. Jerusalem cannot afford to ignore Cairo’s preferences.

Haivry’s new “activist” strategy advises the courting of minorities in the Middle East like the Kurds, the Christians, the Azeris, and the Alawites. This makes some sense. But we should not forget that minorities are weak, and that aligning with them may estrange the more powerful majorities among whom they live. A pro-Kurdish policy like the one proposed by Haivry would exact a high price in relations with Turkey, which is still an ally of choice. As for the Lebanese Christians, they proved unreliable in the 1980s, as Haivry himself reminds us. Encouragement of Azeri separatism in Iran has also been tried and failed. That leaves the Alawites, who with good reason seem to prefer the company of Shiite Iran and Hizballah over that of the Jews.

In surveying the field of prospective Israeli activity, Haivry urges policy makers to abandon their preoccupation with the Palestinian and Iranian issues “at the expense of virtually all others.” He also stipulates, however, that the Iranian nuclear threat is in “urgent and unceasing need of the most vigilant attention.” That is understating the case. A nuclear Iran would be a game changer in the Middle East, and elsewhere. There is no need here to catalog the terrible consequences that would flow from Iranian possession of the bomb, from nuclear proliferation throughout the region, to the encouragement provided to Islamist radicals, to Iranian control of energy prices, to spin-off effects on the Indian sub-continent and in Eastern Europe. 

While there is room to debate the proper Israeli response to the Iran’s nuclear program, whichever choice it settles on—a preemptive strike, or a posture of deterrence—will have tremendous implications for its status in the region, its evolving security needs, its domestic morale, and many other factors impinging on its well-being. Behaving like an ostrich toward Iran has become the favored stance of a major part of the Western community. Unfortunately, it seems to have caught up with Haivry as well. 

For over six decades, Israel has steered its ship of state in the stormy waters of the Middle East with prudence and notable success. For the most part, it has done so in full recognition of the constraints upon it as a small power. In this new era of turbulence and uncertainty, the main challenge is to limit costly errors. Israel does need activism, in small doses, primarily for the purpose of incapacitating those intent on harming the Jewish state; but more important is patience.


Efraim Inbar is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and a fellow of the Middle East Forum.

More about: bomb, David Ben-Gurion, Foreign Policy, Iran, Israel, Ofir Haivry


Beware an Alliance of the Weak

Even in a region that is unfree, Israel has shown that it can maintain liberty. There is no substitute for independent power.

<em>Members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Kurdish Partiya Karkerên, PKK) in Kurdistan/Iraq. </em>Courtesy James Gordon/Flickr.
Members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Kurdish Partiya Karkerên, PKK) in Kurdistan/Iraq. Courtesy James Gordon/Flickr.
Jan. 19 2014
About the author

Martin Kramer, formerly the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, is president of Shalem College in Jerusalem.

Ofir Haivry has given a historically well-versed account of the evolution of Zionist and Israeli grand strategy, from Herzl to the present. He also makes a trenchant case that Israel has strayed from the “activist” precedent set by David Ben-Gurion in the early years of the state.

There was always something romantic about the “activist” doings of Israel—forging ties as far afield as Ethiopia and Iran, dabbling in the secessionist causes of the Kurds of Iraq and the blacks of southern Sudan. And, of course, there was the longest and most cherished play of all: the cultivation of ties with the Maronites of Lebanon. Ah, that view from the heights above Beirut. . . . 

But as romantic as it all may seem in retrospect, this “activism” failed to achieve its primary end, which was to keep Arab states so preoccupied with other problems that they would avoid war with Israel. In each decade, Israel ended up fighting wars with Arab states: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. Each war had its own dynamic, but together they combined to create the firm impression in the world that the Arab-Israeli conflict was indeed the “Middle East conflict,” the source of all the region’s problems. Israel’s support for the southern Sudanese and Ethiopia didn’t restrain Egypt, its support for the Kurds didn’t deter Iraq, and its backing of the Maronites didn’t stop the PLO from carving out a mini-state in Lebanon. Relationships with Turkey and Iran did nothing to cause Arab states to think twice.


The problem was that Israel’s would-be friends among the region’s minorities were too weak, which was precisely why they sought Israeli support in the first place. Israel’s sub rosa allies, the monarchies of Ethiopia and Iran, were also weak at their cores, and both would be toppled by revolutions, in 1974 and 1979 respectively. Attempts to rekindle these ties never translated into meaningful strategic gains, and one of them, Israel’s mediation in the Iran-Contra affair, totally backfired.

The only way to break the cycle of wars with the Arabs was to get Egypt out of it. Egypt, too, had engaged in an “activist” policy following the 1952 revolution. In his Philosophy of the Revolution (1955), Gamal Abdel Nasser placed Egypt in three “circles”: Arab, African, and Islamic. Egypt began meddling in all of them, thinking this would inflate its importance as a regional power. Instead, this ceaseless “activism” turned into a burden, culminating in Egypt’s disastrous military intervention in a civil war in Yemen, which may have set the stage for Nasser’s humiliating defeat in 1967. Pan-Arabism was the Arab version of “activism,” and it, too, failed. When Anwar Sadat also sought an exit from the cycle of wars with Israel, his first move was to jettison it altogether.

It was the dual failure of Israeli and Egyptian “activism” to end costly wars that drove both countries to abandon it in favor of a direct deal for peace. The contribution of this peace to Israel’s security has been indisputable. Israel hasn’t fought a full state-to-state war since 1973. The costs of small wars, from Lebanon to the intifadas and Gaza, have never approximated those of waging a war with an Arab state—or worse, a coalition of them. No wonder Israel has preferred the stability of Egypt, although it has no way to promote it, and can only pray for it.


The drawback of the old “activism” was that it committed Israel to weak parties who didn’t bring enough heft to the relationships. The list presented by Haivry in arguing for a new “activism” today isn’t much more promising. There is no reason to be in the morass of southern Sudan, for instance, if there is no threat from Egypt, and even then it would be a very weak card. The same is true of the North African Berbers, also of little use to Israel absent a threat from Egypt. The Christians scattered across the Fertile Crescent are vulnerable, and they are emigrating whenever they can. The Druze everywhere sway with the wind, as they must do in order to survive, and they saw enough of Israel in Lebanon to know that they would be foolish to rely on it.

The Kurds, a big item on Haivry’s list, are much more interesting than they were way back when Israel cultivated them against Saddam. If they don’t overplay their hand, they may even acquire some trappings of sovereignty. But Israel will never be more than a bit player there, given that the Kurds are landlocked and Turkey has resolved to play the dominant role. Then there are the Alawites, who, if they did retreat to a coastal enclave in northern Syria—far from certain—would do so in defeat, and would need more than they could give. (Russia would remain their patron.)

As for the Azeris and other ethnic groups in Iran, despite decades of Western efforts to entice them to break off, they remain in a fixed orbit around the Iranian state. (Azerbaijan itself is a better play, although its significance is more economic than strategic.) Ethiopia, again, is valuable only if Israel faces a hostile Egypt, which it doesn’t. Lately, Israel has reached out to Greece and Cyprus, to tweak Turkey. But these are the basket cases of the European Union—better than nothing, but far inferior to any future reconciliation with a post-Erdogan Turkey.


This may be as good as it gets, and the Mossad could be kept busy collecting little bits and pieces of the shattered mosaic. But let’s not rule out alternatives to an alliance of weaklings.

One is some kind of cooperation with the Arab oil states, which are economically powerful but militarily exposed, and which are worried (perhaps excessively so) that the United States might sacrifice them to a reconciliation with Iran. No, they are not “natural” allies of Israel, and in the Saudi case, they are as distasteful to Israelis as Israelis are to them. But here, too, there are significant differences. The statelets that line the Gulf may funnel money to Islamists in Syria and elsewhere, but at home they are comparatively tolerant, to the point of allowing Arabs and Muslims to fall into the minority through the importation of foreign workers.

The emirs who build extensions of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, open branches of American universities, and put their resources not into weapons but skyscrapers, are more than just “Sunni authoritarians,” in Haivry’s phrase. These small states represent the most functional part of the Arab expanse (remember, it’s all relative), they’re not totally benighted, and they have strengths to offset their weaknesses. If Iran’s power grows, and confidence in the United States diminishes, these micro-states will do what it takes to survive, perhaps opening opportunities for Israel.

They are also in league with Egypt and Jordan, which remain bound to Israel by treaties that have stood many tests. The behind-the-scenes cooperation between Israel and the military in Cairo and the monarchy in Amman remains far-reaching. Those observers who, only a few years ago, wrote off the generals and the royals as vestiges of the past have a lot of explaining to do. Just as important, the ruling elites in both countries have shown grit in the face of challenges, and they can deliver on security when it is in their interest to do so. The simple geographic fact is that they are the custodians of Israel’s two longest borders, and no amount of romantic adventure in distant corners can substitute for solid relationships with immediate neighbors.


It would be splendid if all these considerations could be cast aside in favor of building, as Haivry writes, a league of “forces in the Middle East seeking self-determination, democracy, and liberty.” The problem is that these forces don’t have much force, and their commitment to the lofty principles that underpin Western modernity is far from unequivocal. In any case, the prevention of war is just as moral a pursuit as the promotion of democracy, especially where prospects for the former far outweigh the unlikely success of the latter. Even the United States, the greatest champion of liberty in human history, has been humbled by its failure to spread its values in the Middle East. Fortunately, Israel has shown that it can maintain liberty even in a region that is unfree. It can afford to wait until the peoples surrounding it transform themselves, however long it takes.

Israel has also shown that it can flourish even in the absence of a Palestinian state. In Israel, the question of whether the status quo on this front is sustainable is a subject of political disagreement, but it doesn’t break down along the lines of support for “activism” versus “stability.” For example, one might get the impression from Haivry that Amos Yadlin, the former chief of military intelligence, is a potential “activist” who sees opportunities everywhere except in the Palestinian track. In fact, he so supports a Palestinian state that he would have Israel thrust it upon the Palestinians even if they don’t want it—as a way to stabilize Israel.

Yes, there are some who believe that Israel, like Arab regimes, is also losing legitimacy (through its own actions or hostile “delegitimation”), and so must be saved by an alternative “activism” personified by John Kerry, who presents Mahmoud Abbas, the old-guard head of the Palestinian Authority, as a new “opportunity.” The problem with Abbas is that he is just another one of the weaklings, reliance upon whom is more likely to drain Israeli power than enhance it.


Which brings us to the “special relationship” with the United States. It is absolutely true that the United States is retrenching (the result of its own deep disillusionment with the “activism” of George Bush’s “forward strategy for democracy”). Elsewhere I have argued that Israel needs to think about a “Plan B” for a post-American Middle East. But I must also admit that no one, myself included, has one. I recently chaired a panel of Israel’s most astute strategic thinkers, from the full range of the political spectrum, but when I asked them what could be done to offset American retrenchment, their answers were identical: there is no alternative. If India is indeed a “principal candidate,” as Haivry suggests, it will be a long time before any outside power fills the vacuum, so Israel will have to find ways to do so itself.

In particular, it will have to make sure that Iran doesn’t fill that vacuum. To some, Israel’s preoccupation with Iran may seem excessive and obsessive. I myself think it can be best apprehended by viewing this single image. Look at it carefully. Today, no regional power is capable of making this nightmare scenario come true. If Iran emerges with such a capability, Israel’s entire grand strategy will have to be revamped to embrace a very different kind of “activism,” well beyond drinking coffee with Kurds and Druze.

The possible parameters of such a posture deserve fuller treatment, but it would be better not to have to go there at all. That is why Iran must remain at the top of the agenda, and that is why Israel musn’t be distracted by Arab springs, Islamist winters, and various photogenic “awakenings.” It must keep its eye on this ball, lest the ball become a fireball. No ramshackle structure of “partnerships” will matter if the image above becomes not just thinkable, but feasible.


The strength of Zionism and Israel has been their adaptive character, and particularly their ability to identify extraneous sources of power and to draw upon them to build independent Jewish power. Our heirs in the decades to come will judge us by whether, in these times of relative security, we prepared Israel for more troubled days. There can be no substitute for independent power, in the absence of which our fate would be comparable to that of Kurds, Christians, and Druze. By all means, let us seek new friends. But let us not forget that we must prepare ourselves to survive as a people that dwells alone.


Martin Kramer is president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and the author of, among other works, Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East and Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.

More about: Egypt, Foreign Policy, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Ofir Haivry, Palestine


The Middle East—It's Bad Enough As Is

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.

<em>The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement—not actually collapsing.</em>
The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement—not actually collapsing.
Robert Satloff
Jan. 22 2014

Like fashion and food, political analysis of the Middle East has its fads, too. At one time, there was the “days are numbered” fad, as in “King Hussein’s days are numbered” or “the Saudis’ days are numbered.” In fact, the former died of natural causes after nearly five decades on the throne while the latter have proved surprisingly resilient, leader after leader. For many years, there was the “linkage” fad, the fervently held belief that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unlocked the secret elixir to heal all of the region’s ills. No serious person makes that case any more, marveling instead at the impermeable bubble in which Secretary of State John Kerry keeps Israeli-Palestinian peace talks quarantined from the chaos swirling around the region.

The current fad is about “the collapse of Sykes-Picot,” a phrase that triggers no fewer than 5.7 million hits in a Google search. This thesis takes various forms but, at its core, it is the idea that the system of largely artificial nation-states invented by the British and French at the end of World War I to safeguard their colonial interests—a system kept in place in the post-colonial period by decades of strong-man rule—is finally collapsing. In most versions of the story, the competing and often violently conflicting loyalties of tribe, sect, ethnicity, and religion are chiefly responsible for erasing these century-old lines in the sand. 

Like the earlier fads, advocates can rightly cite certain objective facts to support their case. Fact: one Arab state, Sudan, has recently divided into two, largely along religious and tribal lines. Fact: the tragic history of the long-suffering Kurdish people is looking more hopeful than ever with the emergence of a largely effective, quasi-independent, refreshingly progressive (certainly by regional standards) Kurdish government in northern Iraq. Fact: after more than 40 years, the Assad family no longer has a firm grip on the Syrian state and its mosaic of populations, with large swaths of the country totally, and perhaps irretrievably, free from central government control. And fact: in just 15 years, an ideologically based, transnational non-state actor, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, has risen to the top of the national security agenda of both Western nations and status-quo states in the region. There are possibly other facts to add to this list.

In making his provocative case for the implosion of the Middle East, and the necessity therefore for Israel to devise a new regional strategy to confront the new threats it faces, Ofir Haivry adds some creative facts of his own. The Arab “spring,” he argues, “seriously rocked” Morocco and Jordan. The Western Sahara, he states, is “stirring,” and the Algerian regime is “facing calls for Berber self-definition.” The Hashemite kingdom of Jordan is facing a “potential break between the Palestinian-majority urban north and the Bedouin-dominated tribal south.” When you add all this together with the demise of regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and civil wars in Yemen and Syria, he concludes, “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.”


Whoa! Taken as a whole, this, analytically speaking, is balderdash. Given that the Arab region was “presumptively monolithic” only in the romantic imagination of besotted Westerners, the demise of the monolithic paradigm has no meaning. By and large, states have developed and survived as effective instruments of power and control, even at times of turbulence and upheaval.

Indeed, until the current events in Syria, one of the most striking aspects of the tidal wave of change across the region since December 2010 has been the uniquely national stories that have emerged. In contrast to the Arab nationalist wave that washed across the region in the 1950s and 1960s, this one has been state-focused. Egypt has been an Egyptian story, not an Arab story with major roles played by other Arab actors; similarly, Libya and Tunisia. Saudi Arabia has played a key role in Yemen and Bahrain but neither place has been the setting for some trans-Arab political earthquake.

As for the specifics of Haivry’s case, it is a corruption of language to say that the Jordanian and Moroccan kingdoms have been “seriously rocked” when neither has seen any significant violent protests and both kings—somewhat surprisingly in the case of Abdullah, less so in the case of Muhammad—remain firmly on their thrones, at least for now. One also needs to take account of the anti-Islamist, pro-statist counterrevolution in Egypt, which appears to have empowered a telegenic army general with more support and popularity in 2014 than a certain air-force general named Mubarak enjoyed throughout most of his 30 years of rule.

In his analysis of America, Haivry is closer to the mark. He is right to note that despite its “current troubles,” the U.S. is “still by far the only serious great power on the international scene.” He is also correct when he says that “political will is another matter,” a fairly light critique of the Obama administration’s over-correction to its predecessor’s perceived “irrational exuberance” (to borrow Alan Greenspan’s phrase) in the use of force as a tool of national policy. He is on no less firm ground in noting that “even a relative [American] retrenchment” will have considerable impact on Israeli national security calculations.

All that is fine, as far as it goes. But Haivry does not really connect his brief assessment of American strategy and policy with his fundamental thesis of the collapse of the Middle East state system. 

States, as we have known them, have been around for several hundred years, but, more than any other country, America is responsible for the modern, post-World War II state system, with its international institutions, international law, and international regulations (i.e., treaties). It is no surprise that America benefits from this system, thrives in it, and has an interest in its survival. The demise of a state system that, to a great extent, was devised, nurtured, and sustained by America would be a BIG deal, complete with capital letters. Not even a disengaged American president, a neo-isolationist American Congress, and a preoccupied American public smug in the mistaken idea that America had become energy-independent would be able to remain indifferent to such an eventuality.

In fact, however, nothing like this is happening. Justified criticism of President Obama’s steely nonchalance toward Iranian troublemaking and Assad’s butchery notwithstanding, his administration has invested heavily in cauterizing the spillover from Syria and bucking up states across the region. Washington has spent huge sums to support Jordan, elevated Morocco to a “strategic partner,” developed an impressive network of integrated military and intelligence capabilities across the Gulf, and begun to correct the indulgence toward the Muslim Brotherhood that characterized policy toward Egypt in 2012-2013. Similarly, U.S.-Israel defense and intelligence cooperation has hit new heights, at least on the professional and technical levels.

To be sure, none of this is enough to prevent a debacle, in both human and strategic terms. The Obama team’s focus has been overwhelmingly defensive in nature, choosing to strengthen our allies’ capabilities rather than push back against Tehran’s egregious behavior (including brazen terrorism in our nation’s capital), or the ideology of radical extremism (including the brand that motivated the Morsi presidency in Egypt), that together form the root causes of much of the region’s insecurity.

But a full critique of the administration’s Middle East policy is the stuff of another essay. In terms of Haivry’s thesis, it suffices to point out that even the Obama administration—the most reluctant to wield power abroad since the presidency of Jimmy Carter—recognizes the vital role that states play in the international system, including in the Middle East, and has focused its efforts on shoring them up. (As an aside, it strains credulity to imagine that, as Haivry suggests, India—an impressive democracy with which Israel shares a fear of radical Islamism and an interest in developing closer ties—will ever play that role, let alone develop into a “candidate for partnership” on the U.S.-Israel model.)


The Middle East in 2014 is a depressing place. Bombs are going off in so many places that it’s tough to keep up. A rejuvenated al-Qaeda has turned the Syria-Iraq frontier into an Arab version of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkey, a NATO member-state—a NATO member-state!—has more journalists in jail than any country in the world. In Egypt, liberals are seeking refuge in authoritarians to protect themselves from Islamists. And in Syria, a cruel ruler on the road to political redemption is purposefully starving children and, with the active support of one permanent member of the UN Security Council, and the acquiescence of the others, is getting away with it.

For Israeli strategic thinkers, all this poses enough difficult choices, and enough bad and worse options, to grapple with. Still, it is not wrong—or, as Haivry suggests, immoral—for Israel to shore up a system that has served Israel well and that may even, in the case of Egypt, be shoring itself up on its own. Yes, uncertainty in Cairo and Damascus has brought an end to what I have elsewhere called the “forty-year peace”: the period since the October 1973 war during which Israel could count on the fact that neither Egyptian nor Syrian rulers had an interest in resuming direct, conventional war against the Jewish state. But heightened uncertainty does not mean the collapse of the entire Middle East state system, allegedly abetted by a now-and-forever American indifference to the outside world. It suffices for Israel to address difficult problems as they are, not as they are imagined to be. 


Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of books on topics ranging from the domestic politics of Jordan to the search for Arabs who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

More about: Barack Obama, Bashar al-Assad, Foreign Policy, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Ofir Haivry, Palestine, Syria


Objects in Mirror Appear Larger Than They Are

How long before the "strong" Arab states of the Middle East follow Syria, Iraq, and Libya into chaos?

<em>A photo of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.</em> Courtesy FreedomHouse/Flickr.
A photo of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Courtesy FreedomHouse/Flickr.
Ofir Haivry
Jan. 26 2014

I am grateful to Michael Doran, Efraim Inbar, Martin Kramer, and Robert Satloff for their extensive comments on my essay. Although we disagree, sometimes fundamentally, about many aspects of the issues raised, I regard this exchange as the start of a long-overdue discussion about the new strategic challenges and opportunities facing Israel.

To that discussion, each of the respondents contributes his own particular insights and distinctive brand of expertise. But, beyond their differences, all four approach the Middle East region from a broadly common, “realist” perspective that contrasts sharply with my own “activist” outlook. That perspective informs their individual diagnoses and, even more so, their policy proposals for Israel.

Of the four, Michael Doran is the most willing to consider active Israeli initiatives, at least as a thought experiment; but these he would direct toward solidifying the “confluence of interests between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, Saudi Arabia first and foremost.” For his part, Efraim Inbar, the most explicit in his embrace of realpolitik, considers Israeli capabilities to be inherently limited and finds little to rely on in any of the region’s emerging minorities, whom I named as potentially new partners for the Jewish state; his watchwords are patience and prudence. Martin Kramer is more scathing: dismissing an activist stance as dangerously “romantic” and historically abortive, he agrees with Inbar about the weakness of the regional minorities, in preference to whom he, like Doran, urges cooperation with the Sunni authoritarian regimes led by Saudi Arabia, however distasteful they may be. Writing from a somewhat different angle, Robert Satloff minimizes the long-term effects of the current regional turmoil, characterizing as a “fad” the idea that the old Sykes-Picot borders are collapsing and insisting that the Middle East state system is here to stay. That being the case, he, too, would have Israel turn to the authoritarian Sunni regimes and help “shore up a system that has served Israel well and that may even, in the case of Egypt, be shoring itself up on its own.”

In brief, we are offered two or three related pieces of advice: either that Israel wait out the current regional turmoil even if doing so will take decades (what I termed the “Iron Wall” approach); or that Israel renew its efforts to establish an alliance with the oil-rich Arab states and their subcontractors Egypt and Jordan against the twin threats of Islamic jihadism and Iranian hegemonic ambitions (what I termed the “stabilist” approach); or some combination of the two. To my mind, this suggests nothing so much as business as usual.

Since, within the confines of this reply, I cannot possibly address all the points raised by my critics, I’d like instead to focus on three central dichotomies relating to action in the international arena, each of which makes an appearance in the respondents’ essays and each of which invites further clarification. They are: tactics versus strategy; “realism” versus “romanticism”; and weakness versus strength.


First: experts and politicians too often confuse tactical maneuvers with a long-term national strategy, whose goals may or may not be served by those maneuvers. For example: an ad-hoc understanding with the Saudis on the next move against Iran’s nuclear program might certainly be worth considering from Israel’s point of view; the same holds for cooperating with the current Egyptian effort to crush jihadist terrorists in the Sinai peninsula. But these are merely short-term exercises, with little long-term significance.

By contrast, any truly strategic thinking about cooperation with the Saudis and Egyptians has to take into deep consideration not only the odious aspects of those regimes but also their core ideas and interests, which are very much antithetical to those of Israel. At the moment, they share with Israel a common enemy in a nuclear Iran, but their long-term interests, no less than those of Iran itself, reside in the survival of their ruling clique and of their particular version of Islamist ideology.

The Saudis and most Gulf sheikdoms are the main patrons and funders of Salafist Islamism from Chechnya to Syria, and it is they who are propping up the new Egyptian regime of General Sisi. Their rulers, many of whom have come to power after backstabbing a father or brother, are the region’s true “realists,” masters of treachery who, when push comes to shove, will swiftly align themselves with whoever looks stronger. The moment an opportunity arises for a separate understanding with Iran, or for advancing their favored Islamist militias, they would not devote so much as a moment’s remorse to their abandoned Zionist “ally.”

So perhaps Israel should turn (back) to Turkey, a move proposed by some Israeli observers? True, Turkey’s current prime minister is fond of indulging in rank anti-Semitism, and Ankara’s patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood is disquieting, but then there’s the heartening example of a January 14 raid by Turkish police forces that netted two dozen operatives linked to al-Qaeda, some of whom were recruiting volunteers to fight with jihadists inside Syria. Well, maybe not so heartening: by the afternoon of the same day, the Erdogan government had quashed the operation and placed the police commanders on mandatory leave. Whatever this tells us about temporary internal struggles within the Turkish regime, it more certainly highlights that regime’s permanently benevolent disposition toward Islamist militancy and Brotherhood-friendly organizations like the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (of Gaza flotilla fame).

In terms of Israel’s long-term national strategy, then, those advocating an alliance with either the authoritarian regimes led by Saudi Arabia or the populist regimes led by Turkey must confront the essential nature and aims of those regimes. Even assuming their longevity (about which more below), on what grounds can anyone be confident that, even in the medium term, they would not come to pose a threat to Israel equivalent to that posed by Iran and its radical Shiite allies today? At the moment, to judge by the near-unanimity of my critics on this point, the Saudi-led option seems the more favored; how long would it take before Israel found itself required to support, or condone, the imposition by blood and fire of a Saudi-financed and Salafist-inspired government in, say, Syria or Libya?

At present, the only alternative strategy on offer to an alignment with Saudi Arabia and/or Turkey is the one I called “Iron Wall,” better known these days as “Castle Israel.” The main idea here is that, aside from the occasional “surgical” strike against missile throwers, there really is nothing strategic that Israel can or should do outside of its borders but wait and pray. Without denying the power of prayer, the Jewish and Zionist tradition would seem to encourage at least the contemplation of some action. Since, in any case, total inaction is impossible—stuff always happens—the “Castle” strategy, when it does not entirely forgo the pursuit of any goal short of survival, reduces to a policy that is only and always reactive.

Of course, it may be countered that, as my respondents insist, Israel’s options are severely constrained not only by inbuilt limitations on its freedom to act independently but also by the weakness of regional actors other than Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Yet even if history did not suggest that such assessments have too often served as an excuse for passivity, they resolutely ignore what still seems to me an inescapable strategic fact: the old regional order is crumbling, and attempts to deny this, or to patch it up, leave Israel in the position of the passengers on the Titanic who, instead of preparing themselves for survival in the ice-cold sea, furiously scrambled upward to the areas onboard that were still farthest from the water. They were really climbing hard, but the ship was sinking faster.


This takes us to the second dichotomy: the contrast between realism and a more imaginative, activist, and “romantic” approach to foreign policy. Realists, in the stock definition, deal in hard facts, in calculations, centrifuges, and cannons; romantics deal in such indefinable and evanescent materials as ideas, intuitions, and inclinations.

The contrast exists, to be sure, but in the world of experience it is seldom so clear-cut; ideas and cannons intermix on every front. Nor, when it comes to the international arena, is the realist approach always the more definitively productive—or the more realistic.

The epitome of late-20th-century realpolitik was Nixon and Kissinger’s masterful upending of the Soviets with the American opening to Communist China. But it was the “romantic” Reagan who, defying the principles of realpolitik, won the cold war by choosing not détente with Soviet Communism but competition, and who actively fought the “evil empire” by supporting unrealistic allies like Polish shipyard workers and launching the much-derided Strategic Defense Initiative (a/k/a “Star Wars”).

In the Middle East, I can think of at least one eminently “romantic” enterprise that has also been startlingly successful to date—a project called Israel, which, for more than a century, has been carried forward by a bunch of romantic Jews helped by their friends abroad. But there have also been other “romantic” projects in the region, some of them pursued or supported by Israel. The idea of a Christian-dominated Lebanon failed, but the idea of a Christian South Sudan separated from the Arab north has come to fruition. The idea of a free self-governing Kurdistan, friendly toward Israel, has failed repeatedly, yet today the reality exists before our eyes in northern Iraq; it may be snuffed out again, but it has proved it is not intrinsically unrealistic.

The effects of an activist or, as some would have it, romantic strategy are to be sought not only in direct results but also in more roundabout ways. As Michael Doran suggests, such an approach appeals to potential allies, making them more likely to value cooperation with you. David Ben-Gurion’s activism in the 1950’s registered its share of failures, but it succeeded spectacularly in attracting France and Iran into allying themselves with Israel, as well as in convincing Washington after 1956 to forgo its obsession with Israel’s relinquishing the Negev as the price for peace with the Arabs. 

Indeed, if the regional events of the last three years show anything, it is the spectacle of long-established and apparently secure dictatorial regimes being either seriously rocked or altogether swept away by masses of people pursuing romantic ideas. Those ideas include, on the one hand, the bright promise of democracy and an open society and, on the other hand, the dark menace of an Islamist utopia. Think what you will about the disparate ideals moving these masses, or about the results so far of what they have done; they have surely demonstrated how risky it is to calculate the strength or weakness of a regime or a nation by the number of its tanks or the hard-currency worth of its oil reserves.


And this brings us to the third dichotomy. My respondents stress that the non-Islamist entities I named as prospective allies of Israel—emerging groups like the Kurds, Druze, Berbers, and Alawites, or states like Greece and Ethiopia—are themselves inherently weak, and that in the struggle against its major foe, Iran, the Jewish state should align itself instead with strong players like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

I am reminded in this connection of the words on my car’s rear-view mirror: “objects in mirror appear larger than they are.” Egypt, Saudi Arabia , Turkey, Iran: not so long ago, there were two more supposedly strong players in the region, namely, Syria and Iraq. No longer. Also gone is Libya’s trouble-making regime, which for four decades hosted and bankrolled anti-Western terrorism. Even the remaining four are far weaker than they appear. Could there be something suspiciously “romantic,” one wonders, in the attachment of self-styled realists to Egypt and the oil states as Israel’s strategic anchor?

Egypt is virtually bankrupt, unable to deter “weak” Ethiopia from erecting a gigantic dam that will affect the water supply of the Nile or a small group of jihadists from calling the shots in the Sinai; it is now on the brink of reviving the same corrupt and sclerotic regime of soldiers and bureaucrats that crumbled only three years ago, a zombie government surviving on the life support of the Gulf sheikdoms that use it as a convenient sub-contractor.

As for the Saudis and the smaller Gulf states, they may still be awash with funds, which permit them to build lavish skyscrapers and to buy Yale and Harvard franchises, but money can’t buy you everything. A society too terrorized to let women drive, too afraid even to count the number of Shiites in its midst, is not a strong society, even by the starkest of realpolitik calculations.

Turkey and Iran are also, as I suggested in my essay, weaker than they appear, riven by internal challenges and, in the Iranian case, persistent popular opposition that the regime is repeatedly compelled to suppress with violence. On the other side, some of the “weak” regional players may not be so weak after all. The Kurds in particular have shown themselves to be resilient and tenacious against terrible odds, having withstood a century of relentless oppression and persecution, complete with the occasional massacre, and yet still standing and even thriving. A nation 30 million strong, on the rise in several countries, for the most part pro-American and pro-Israeli—I would take the grasshopper Kurds any day over the rotten giants of Saudi Arabia or Egypt.


States do not disappear so fast, as Robert Satloff wisely observes. But they do sometimes break up, or linger only in name, or end up following different paths. One might see a rough parallel to today’s Middle East in what happened in the Soviet bloc after the fall of Communism and empire. National states like Poland or Hungary survived and went on to prosper. The non-national states took diverse routes: the multi-national Soviet Union and Yugoslavia crumbled, the Czechs parted from the Slovaks, the East Germans reunited with the West.

Of them all, the example of Yugoslavia may be the most pertinent. First it divided into five sovereign states. Later, Montenegro and Kosovo seceded from Serbia (with the sovereignty of the Kosovars remaining contested to this day), while Bosnia, after a bloody civil war, is nominally still a single state but for all practical purposes is divided into three ethnic entities.

The same Balkanization is to be expected in the Middle East. With the artificial pan-Arabist ideology now gone, older identities are resurgent. They may be yet trampled on for decades to come, undergoing turmoil involving hundreds of thousands of casualties and savage political repression, but resurge they will.

Some of this is already happening. From the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, the three former Arab states of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq now present a spectacle of partition into no fewer than ten (and probably more) sub-national entities, which in many cases cooperate across former borders. Not all of these will necessarily become formally independent, but as the former Yugoslavia shows, many other working political models are possible.

An additional three Arab states, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, forming a rough line from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, are all experiencing low-intensity civil war, sometimes erupting into high-intensity clashes, permanently teetering between the status of failed states and full partition. This leaves us with Egypt and with what we might term the Maghreb Three (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and the Arabian Seven (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the five smaller Gulf sheikdoms). These, too, as I have already noted, are much more unstable than appears, and it is safe to say that, sooner rather than later, some will witness serious internal strife or worse.

Should Israel seek out such allies, buy their fool’s gold, lie in their company, associate itself with their endless cruelty and turpitude? And how is Israel to convince its own people that these are allies whose cause is theirs, and with whom it is morally proper to join arms?


A long-term national strategy has to look forward, identifying weaknesses and strengths, devising options and tactics. With respect to Israel, many have historically been convinced that so small a minnow would never stand a chance against the big beasts. But Israel’s greatest assets have always been its people, their idea of themselves and of their freedom, and their resolve: resources plentiful enough to withstand and even prevail against 100-to-1 odds.

Other peoples in the region are today attempting to chart an independent course of their own, equipped with little more than similar resources. Not all of them have what it takes, but it is challenging and worthwhile to consider assisting them. In the long run, there is a better than even chance that worthy nations will come to claim their place under the sun, replacing the authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes of whose ruins it will one day be said, as Shelley wrote two centuries ago in “Ozymandias” (1818),

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


 Ofir Haivry is vice-president of the Herzl Institute, a research and training center in Jerusalem. He has served on several advisory committees to the Israeli government and is a member of Israel’s Council for Higher Education.

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