Crazier ideas have worked before. The Israeli security sector is very uneasy with what’s happening right now across the Golan. Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez have never been friendly, but the Israel-Syria conflict has long been stabilized and fought through proxies. There’s a worry that the fall of the House of Assad will yield more urgent tension–at best, a fledgling government may attempt to shore up support by getting pushy about the Golan Heights. At worst, they see a small chance that Israel will have unstable Islamist governments in its two historic state rivals, plus Hezbollah on its northern border. What can Israel do to prevent that unhappy geopolitical outcome? More than you’d think.
Category Archives: Israel
Comment I wrote for a course; the topic is two articles in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, pitched as a debate on Israel’s current weak international position. The first is Ronald R. Krebs’ “Israel’s Bunker Mentality: How the Occupation Is Destroying the Nation.” The second is Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner’s “The Problem is Palestinian Rejectionism: Why the PA Must Recognize a Jewish State.” Both articles are well-written and worth reading, but both, in my opinion, miss the mark.
I had only intended to write two posts on Israel’s bad week. However, sometimes a lot happens in a week. The fallout with the Turks expanded, with Erdogan threatening to use Turkey’s military to protect aid vessels traveling to Gaza. Such an action could start a war, which would certainly jeopardize Ankara’s standing in NATO. Still, no nation likes to be threatened with military involvement by an ally. Last night’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, however, is the icing on the cake for the Jewish state’s awful week. Protests outside the embassy were not tolerated under Mubarak; now, they’ve become regular, and they’ve been growing more intense for weeks. An Egyptian man scaled the building in which the Embassy is housed and removed the Israeli flag; during his arrest, soldiers hoisted him above the crowd like a hero. In subsequent nights, protesters launched fireworks at the embassy’s windows. With a view to relieving tension, the government built a large Berlin Wall-like barricade in front of the building; a few nights ago, protesters tore it down with, among other things, a large makeshift battering ram.
In the past several hours, however, unrest crescendoed. Protesters breached the building and then the embassy itself, throwing sheaves of documents from its windows and again removing the flag from its balcony. Several embassy personnel were reportedly inside when the protesters entered, and barricaded themselves in a room; a security agent on the phone with Foreign Ministry officials reportedly asked them to tell his family of his death in person rather than by telephone should the last door fall.
The other reason Benjamin Netanyahu is probably not sleeping well tonight is an American whisper campaign. Recently retired Defense Secretary and Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates called him “ungrateful,” suggesting that Israel is offering America little in return for many favors. At the same time, the New York Times has run a story on an FBI Hebrew translator who was jailed for leaking information gleaned by American espionage about Israeli efforts to influence the American political system. There was a saying among American spies operating in Moscow that “once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” Given the sensitivity and care with which America manages its relationship with the Levantine power, we can likely lower our standards of evidence–this is a coordinated, deliberate action.
It’s been a rough week in Israel. After PM Netanyahu refused to offer more than regrets for the flotilla incident after the release of an ambiguous official report, Turkey sent home Israel’s ambassador and announced plans for a range of sanctions. Meanwhile, reports have emerged that recently retired US defense secretary Robert Gates was a harsh critic of Israel behind the scenes, and that his criticisms were not met with objections by other senior officials. Either one of these events happening alone would be unsettling; the two happening in the same week surely has Israeli leaders sweating from more than just the late summer heat.
The Turkish affair comes amidst a steady deterioration of relations. The rise of the Islamist-lite AK Party in Israel’s ally was very worrisome to some Israelis (and many Turks) who see its moderate rhetoric as a mask for a darker agenda. Erdogan, Gul, and Davutoglu led the Republic away from an increasingly unfriendly Europe and towards greater influence in the Middle East, with little regard for the alignments of the factions from which they sought influence. Realists found this tactic quite familiar and thus downplayed reports of a fundamental Turkish shift even when Ankara’s stance after the flotilla incident was effectively pro-Hamas. This was a credible position—while the rhetoric flying between Turkey and Israel was heated, cooperation continued behind the scenes, including in crucial areas like security.
The zero change thesis is now becoming harder to maintain. Erdogan has promised the total suspension of all dimensions of Turkish-Israeli relations, including not just military aspects, but also trade (the latter being $3 billion per annum). Erdogan is prone to overstatement, and an anonymous official later said that the Prime Minister was only referring to a stoppage of military trade, rather than all commercial activity. However, this is still (to paraphrase another famous misspeaker in contemporary global leadership) a big deal. The falling out has now begun to damage the hard elements of the relationship—a changed Turkey is all but undeniable.
The LA Times has a rundown of Israeli preparations for September protests related to the Palestinian UN recognition bid:
As Palestinian leaders rally West Bank residents on Facebook and activists prepare campaigns against Jewish settlements and military checkpoints, Israel’s Defense Ministry has spent about $22 million on new riot gear and police have canceled September vacations.
[ . . . ]
To prepare, the military is stockpiling tear gas dispensers, rubber bullets, stun grenades and so-called skunk water cannons, which spray a foul-smelling liquid and have been used to disperse weekly Palestinian protests against the separation barrier in Bilin and other villages.
Yisrael Beiteinu FM Avigdor Lieberman is predictably agitated:
When you prepare a demonstration in which tens of thousands will storm the Kalandia checkpoint, everyone can just imagine what would happen if 30,000 or 40,000 people try to forcefully enter Israel. How are soldiers and officers supposed to react?
The article does suggest that Palestinian activists have been unable to achieve effective organization so far. However, the mere possibility of a major crisis, the mere possibility of massacres, riots, bombings, is all avoidable. The Iranian government referred to its war with Iraq as the Imposed War. If strife breaks out, IDF grunts might have a similar nickname for this conflict. Israeli PM Netanyahu’s fear of UN recognition is at odds with Israeli history and the facts on the ground, as I’ve discussed before. Misperception is extremely dangerous in politics. If cooler heads don’t prevail, this will be demonstrated–Netanyahu will give Israel a crisis it cannot profit from and could have avoided.
You have to wonder about the timing of this story–with the debt ceiling thing on everyone’s minds around the world, it’s a great time to slip in a new policy without getting a lot of bad press. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a serious peace bid for the first time in his tenure. The basis of negotiation will be pre-Six Day War 1967 borders, and Palestine will trade land in its territory that hosts settlements for Israeli land beyond the 1967 lines–there will be “mutually agreed swaps.” That phrase, of course, is taken from Barack Obama, who was subjected to extensive criticism for it from his own domestic audience, even though everybody from Toronto to Tehran knows that that is the only realistic basis for peace talks. Any peace policy that doesn’t recognize the Palestinians’ more reasonable claims (i.e., we’re leaving out right of return here) will not get their support–any such policy is not a policy. The folks at J Street must have been extremely unhappy, as the criticism of Obama was a testimony the ability of the Likudniks–and not left-leaning groups like themselves–to get their talking points airtime, regardless of sensibility. To see Israel’s reliably rightist PM quietly taking a position that just a few weeks ago was deplored as foolish pie-in-the-sky leftism in the US shows the very weird way that the Middle East peace process is discussed in America.
But back to Bibi. It’s obvious that the reason he’s suddenly making serious steps in the peace process is the Palestinian bid for increased recognition at the UN next month. As I’ve argued in this space many times before, Israel has nothing to worry about from this. It will move the peace process forward by about an inch, because Palestine already has standing to take a lot of actions in international forums, and because the peace process will forever be between Israel and Palestine only, not Israel and the international community. An Israeli Prime Minister, especially one as seasoned as Netanyahu, should know that. Elements in the international community have been at Israel’s throat since Ben Gurion read out the Declaration of Independence, and Israel has continued to exist and thrive. In spite of this, there have been many rumors that Netanyahu was terrified of the UN bid, that he thought it would bring a “diplomatic tsunami” against Israel. We can now see that those rumors are true. They fit perfectly with Netanyahu’s image as a paranoid politico, always watching his back for maneuvers. That’s a sensible stance in the chaotic world of the Knesset, but it’s a bad way to make decisions in a state protected by one of the world’s most effective militaries and sitting on strategic, surprisingly defensible land. Netanyahu has restarted the peace process on realistic grounds due to threats from an imagined enemy. It’s as if Don Quixote, while jousting windmills, had accidentally lanced a real giant.
In 1830, France invaded Algeria. In 1958, the French Army occupying Algeria very nearly invaded France. The Fourth Republic had, in the eyes of many French settlers in Algeria and individuals on the French right, become increasingly unwilling to deal with the Arab rebellion against French colonialism and increasingly unsympathetic to the cause of the settlers. French generals seized Algiers, launched an airborne invasion of the island of Corsica, and began drawing up plans to take Paris. Panicked French politicians ordered citizens to occupy the airports to protect democracy. The generals were sated by the extraordinary accession to power of Charles de Gaulle, who assumed new powers as President and inaugurated the Fifth Republic. What had happened, then, was essentially a coup. We should reflect on this for a moment–a military faction had forced the end of the government of a leading First World democracy. This was truly a dark moment in the history of the modern West.
Israel’s foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, is reportedly blocking the sales of Israeli arms to Turkey. Lieberman has been prone to dramatic behavior in the past, and his credentials as a hardliner cannot be disputed, but this decision takes him to a whole new plain: the plain of foolishness. I try to take alternative perspectives, to see this through his eyes, and it still doesn’t make sense. Israel and Turkey have a longstanding security relationship, including extensive arms deals. The flotilla incident last summer caused a major public falling-out between the two states, but the security cooperation continued without trouble. Still, some on the Israeli right see Turkey as having made a dramatic Islamist turn in recent years, and see no daylight between the governing Justice and Development Party and the Muslim Brotherhood or similar movements. To them, Turkey’s public reaction to the flotilla incident negated the private nonreaction. To them, cooperation with Turkey is cooperation with a country that is a non-friend at best.
We cannot deny that Turkey’s “Arab Turn” will lead to divergences of interest. Turkey is cozy with Syria and tried (with Brazil) to help Iran mend its differences with the IAEA. Turkey cannot go too deeply into the Arab world without facing questions about its ties with Israel, and without being forced to feign interest in the Palestinian cause. However, Turkey is playing a double game and keeping the back channels with Israel wide open. Israel has a chance to use its formidable arms industry to repair any damage to the relationship that wasn’t superficial. Avigdor Lieberman’s confused image of that relationship could seriously hinder those repairs.
One of the major concerns raised about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear program is the potential need for follow-up strikes. An air raid might not destroy all targets successfully due to mechanical problems in the strike package, weapons failures, or plain bad luck. Iran might take military actions that demand a response. It’s quite likely that even if the raid is successful, a rebuilt Iranian nuclear program would need to be taken out again in future years (Israeli officials have referred to the process as “mowing the lawn”). However, all of Israel’s options for carrying out the initial strike would have serious political consequences–flying over Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq without permission (or with secret, publicly denied permission) would be a major international incident. The state whose territory was violated would risk serious domestic and international consequences for letting Israeli jets through again.