Subjects

2011 Annual Assessment- Geopolitics Executive Summary

Published מרץ 20, 2012
Ambassador Avi Gil


The shockwaves reverberating throughout the Arab world over the last year pose significant challenges to Israel and the Jewish People. The uncertainty that traditionally characterizes the Middle East is exacerbated by the current anxiety and crisis atmosphere marking the entire geopolitical arena. The number of ‘moving parts’ within the international system and the diversity of its components make orchestrating a sound foreign policy difficult.

 

The dramatic upheavals in the Arab world, which have, so far, led to the overthrow of the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, are threatening the stability of other regimes. The dust has not yet settled, and any attempt to draw fast conclusions about the ‘new face’ of the Middle East would be presumptuous. Even the term ‘Arab Spring’ that has labeled the tumultuous and still unfolding events, is more wishful thinking than a true portrayal of their possible consequences.

 

In such a dynamic reality, indecision is as much a decision as any other, and therefore decision-makers in Israel and the Diaspora are not exempted from making difficult choices. Such resolutions are imperative in light of geopolitical developments in the following four major complexes:

 

  1. The Global Complex, in which the ‘World Order,’ that prevailed during the Cold War era and the ‘American Moment’ that followed the collapse of the USSR have been replaced by a ‘World Dis-Order’ that has yet to consolidate into a stable and functioning system. The USA – whose friendship is so critical to Israel, and which is home to an exceptionally thriving half of the Jewish People – continues to witness a steady diminution in its power and international stature.

  2. The Middle East Complex, in which the long-standing anchors that have long provided relative strategic stability in the region, are tottering, while the chances of stabilization and a resulting semblance of calm remain slim in the near future. To this, one should add the ouster of Egypt’s President Mubarak the uncertainty regarding Assad’s reign in Syria, the ongoing crisis in Israel-Turkey relations and, above all, the dramatic achievements of political Islam. All of this is happening as Iran continues to make progress towards obtaining nuclear weapons, challenging Israel (and the USA) with the dilemma of whether to launch a preemptive military attack.

  3. The Israeli-Arab Conflict Complex, in which the stalemate continues to threaten both the security and the Jewish-democratic character of the State of Israel, which in turn helps to fuel the phenomena of de-legitimization against it. The ongoing failure of the model of ‘direct talks with US mediation’ drives the Palestinian side to prefer an alternative course – an enforced solution under an international diktat.

  4. The Jerusalem-Washington-US Jewry Triangle complex, which constitutes a critical strategic resource for the power of Israel and the Jewish People, and in which the past year has revealed both the strength of Israel and of the Jewish People (mainly in preventing steps by the American administration that are in contradiction with the Israeli government’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue), and the danger involved in exercising this power, as in turning Israel into a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats.

These complexes are of course intertwined and interdependent. Many of the trends within them are not amenable to intervention by Israel or the Jewish People, but in a limited number of cases, the policy chosen could have a significant effect. The year ahead could witness the maturation of critical developments, necessitating unequivocal decisions with potentially critical impacts on the fate of Israel and the Jewish People.

 

The Middle Eastern picture on the eve of the upheavals was clear for all to see (ineffective governments, poverty, economic hardship, high unemployment rates, myriads of young people without any hope for a decent future, rampant corruption, revocation of basic freedoms and human rights violations). However, the best experts, including intelligence agencies, failed to foresee what was coming, and could not imagine Arab crowds flooding town squares and risking their life in front of live fire.  One should, therefore, be wary of absolute predictions; in fact, it would be rather surprising if there were no further surprises in the Middle East.

 

When reality is that fitful, the instinctive human response is to entrench, to react tactically and refrain from initiating any fresh strategic moves until after ‘the dust settles.’ In light of the recent developments, however, Israel is facing numerous threatening scenarios, which an Israeli initiative – despite considerable uncertainties – could actually help to avert, or at least reduce their damage:

 

Security deterioration, which in the extreme case would develop into an all-out war, in which Israel is forced to defend itself against a combined offensive spanning multiple fronts, including its home front (for instance:  following an Israeli or American operation against Iran; following a violent deterioration in Gaza or in Lebanon, etc.).

 

Damage to Israel’s international stature, as a result of the danger that Israel will be viewed as the party responsible for the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the erosion of the international standing of Israel’s American ally; the collapse of the strategic axes of Jerusalem-Cairo and Jerusalem-Ankara; and the rise of political Islam in the Middle East.

 

Economic downturn, as a result of deterioration in the security situation, and/or as part of the ‘de-legitimization’ campaign waged against Israel; sanctions, not necessarily by governments, enacted against Israeli products, tourism, investments, etc. (the global economic crisis is obviously exacerbating such scenarios).

 

Damage to Israel-US relations in light of a perception in some US circles that the price of the US friendship with Israel is increasing steadily; that Israel is an ungrateful ally, that the US image in the Muslim world is damaged due to Israel’s policies; and that Washington is being cornered in international forums and harshly criticized for its support of Israel, (this potential damage will probably be suppressed until after the November 2012 elections).

While the upheavals in the Arab world could go on for years, certain developments and dilemmas are already discernible and should be taken into account in shaping any policy vis-à-vis the fermenting Middle East arena:

 

  • The flourishing of political Islam: Political Islam is emerging as the major victor of the Arab revolt. It remains to be seen whether the entry of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political game in Arab countries will mitigate their positions, lead them into coexistence with secular parties in ruling coalitions, or engender dark theocracies. Would they work towards the abrogation of the peace accords with Israel or respect them (as some of their leaders vaguely declare), thereby paradoxically conferring popular and religious legitimacy to the accords and perhaps even resulting in the toning down of Hamas hostility. Since Israel is incapable of affecting the growth of political Islam, do we have the wherewithal to ensure that [when in power] it would adopt a stance that is consistent with Israeli interests?


  • The increased power of the ‘Arab Street’: Without drawing any conclusions regarding the final resolution of the Arab revolts, it seems safe to assume that future rulers of Arab countries will have to be much more attuned to popular sentiment. To what extent will popular opinion, which is saturated with hatred of Israel and gives priority to the Palestinian issue, be reflected in the respective Arab governments’ foreign policies and in their stances on Israel in particular? (For instance, will Israel’s ability to respond to future violent provocations by Hamas be limited by concerns that Egypt could be dragged back into the conflict?) Are Israel and the Jewish People capable of mitigating the animosity of the Arab Street?


  • The worsening economic crisis: The deteriorated economic situation, which helped fuel the Arab uprisings, has worsened in their wake. In the immediate term, there is a considerable decrease in economic growth. Local tourism and foreign investment have suffered and local investors are transferring their money out of the region due to uncertainty. The economic crisis may force Arab governments to focus their efforts on economic recovery and domestic affairs, but it could also create a temptation to redirect internal frustrations against ‘the Zionist arch-enemy.’ Does the economic crisis in the Arab world also offer an opportunity and a context for a proactive policy by Israel and the Jewish People?


  • Breakout of ethnic conflicts: The compromised power of the central governments in Arab countries, the economic crisis, and the sense that the US is weakening and providing less and less order in the region, could combine to trigger serious breakouts of ethnic and religious conflict. For instance: In Iraq, the pent up tension between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority could burst in the wake of the US withdrawal from Iraq (while the Kurds pursue their dreams of independence). In Syria the riots could spiral into an all-out struggle among the Sunni, Alawite, Kurd and Druze, and in Lebanon, the trauma of a harrowing ethnic civil war (between Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Druze) may return.


  • The Perception of US decline and disengagement: In part based on the US decision to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan; its failure to curb Iran’s nuclearization efforts; the failure to advance an Israeli-Palestinian agreement; and the American economic crisis. These factors combine to paint a picture of a steadily weakening American superpower, unable to attain its goals, increasingly preoccupied with its own predicaments, and progressively less willing to assume roles in the region. Further, the US response to the Arab revolts has been perceived in the Middle East as less than truthful and inconsistent. Israel’s power – both its actual strength and the way it is perceived – is directly correlated to the prevalent perception of US power and the intensity of its friendship with Israel. Can Israel, for its own good, help the US to restore its standing in the Middle East?


The decline of traditional regional strategic arrangements: The shockwaves moving throughout the Arab world are toppling the strategic alignments that have characterized the Middle East in the past. The pro-American ‘Moderate Axis’ was shaken: Mubarak’s ouster and the deterioration in relations with Turkey exacerbate Israel’s strategic isolation. (At the same time, however, the ‘Axis of Resistance’ that is hostile to Israel – Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas – is also being undermined by the threat to Assad’s regime). Will this strategic reality be faced promptly and creatively by Israeli decision-makers, especially vis-à-vis Egypt and Turkey?


The dilemmas outlined above necessitate choosing between two polarized approaches; one that prefers to entrench and wait, while the other opts for spotting and pursuing opportunities proactively.


The first approach maintains that the threats to Israel have increased substantially as a result of the upheavals in the Arab world. This is not the time for taking risks based on wishful thinking and strategic naiveté. In the coming years, political Islam, which is extremely hostile to Israel, is expected to dictate the Arab states’ conduct. This uncertainty calls for extreme caution, because any territory conceded by Israel today could fall into the hands of a hostile force tomorrow. Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed this approach in his speech at the Knesset on November 23, 2011:

 

“… Chances are that an Islamist wave will wash over the Arab countries, an anti-West, anti-liberal, anti-Israel and ultimately an anti-democratic wave … They are moving, but they are not moving forward towards progress, they are going backwards … I will not ignore reality, I will not ignore the dangers, I will not ignore history … or give up on any of our security requirements that have increased because of the recent crises and not diminished … This is not the time to rush into things, it is the time to be cautious in our connections with the Palestinians.”


Conversely, the alternative approach regards taking the proactive initiative in order to achieve progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, and the Israeli-Arab conflict in general (as part of a comprehensive regional agreement) as a move that could potentially bring about a total realignment of Israel’s strategic situation, as well as a response, albeit partial, to the new challenges created by the Arab revolt. The advantages to such a strategy include:

 

Help remove the Israeli issue from the Arab Street’s agenda; Reduce the incentive for Arab countries to alleviate internal tension by initiating a violent confrontation with Israel; Dissolve many of the bonds that are holding the region’s extreme axis together; Pave the way to normalization in Israel’s relationship with the entire Arab and Islamic world; Improve the ability to restore damaged strategic axes (Egypt, Turkey) and consolidate a regional strategic alignment against Iran.

 

Tighten Israel-US relations by crediting Washington with a ‘historic achievement,’ as the sponsor of the agreement, which would, in turn, reestablish the US position in the Middle East; Improve Israel’s political standing and image around the world and substantially curb the de-legitimization trend; Boost Israel’s economic growth and ability to find new markets; Alleviate the challenges of co-existence with the Arab minority in Israel; Secure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic and attractive state.

 

The clash between these two approaches will continue to play out in the strategic and political discourse in Israel and the Diaspora in the year ahead. Is this a time for strategic passivity, or are we compelled to take a proactive approach to Israel’s situation? The changes triggered by the dramatic turbulence of last year are still stirring under our feet, shaping the future of the Middle East and challenging Israel and the Jewish people with tough choices that cannot be ignored.