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This Day in Jewish History


Between Iraq and the Palestinians – Israel’s Fateful Choices - Part 1

Asher Susser is a distinguished Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and is currently the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. He has written widely on Middle East history and politics. The second half of his essay, see Part 2.

The balance of power in the Middle East has shifted from the Arab world to non-Arab states like Israel, Iran, Turkey, and even the U.S.
This shift is not necessarily to Israel's advantage, as the empowerment of Iran and its terrorist proxies is detrimental to Israel’s security.
As Turkey moves closer to Europe, it is important for Israel to maintain and strengthen its political, economic, and military ties with Ankara.
The US invasion of Iraq has had a dramatic and far reaching impact on the balance of power in the Arab East (Mashriq ) or Fertile Crescent. It has created a power vacuum and left a leadership void in a region where, until very recently, the Ba‘thi regimes of Syria and Iraq once vied for hegemony. Now, post-Saddam Iraq is in shambles and the Syria of Bashar Asad is no more than a caricature of the regional power lead by his father Hafiz for a generation since 1970.

As a result, Israel does not have to face the potential of an Eastern Front of Syria and Iraq ganging up for attack and possibly even pressuring Jordan to acquiesce in cooperation or even to join such an alignment.

Above and beyond the question of Israel’s immediate and longer-term security concerns, Iraq’s demise is both a reflection and exacerbation of the dire predicament of the Arabs. The Arab states, for the most part, have missed the boat of globalization as the gap between them and the advanced states of the first world, including Israel, continues to grow. The traditional centers of Arab power are all going through some form of political decline or crisis. Egypt is a poor third world state that no longer sets the regional agenda as it once did in the heyday of Abd al-Nasir. Egypt is struggling to bridge the ever growing gap between its self-image as a great regional power and the present-day reality, in which it has increasing difficulty to coerce local actors to do its bidding, as its clout and prestige continue to decline.

Syria is completely isolated, more than it has ever been since the country achieved independence in the mid-1940s. Surrounded by the United States and its regional allies, Syria has a declining military, a retrograde economy and an uninspiring leadership. Saudi Arabia since 9/11 is in a state of anxiety verging on panic as its relations with the United States are going through a difficult patch of mistrust and declining mutual confidence. The Saudis, even though oil prices are at an all time high, are not nearly as wealthy as they used to be. They persist in their dual policy of fighting terrorism with one hand, while abetting it with the other, as a form of protection pay off. This has not only consistently aggravated the United States, but has also failed to appease the militant Islamic opposition to the Saudi ruling family, which continues to harass the kingdom with attacks of increasing regularity. The Saudis are not quite sure just where to turn.

Iraq under American occupation is not an independent player and as long as that remains so it is a non-entity. Jordan, one of the best run of all the Arab states, is apparently on the way out of the worst of its economic woes. Geopolitically, however, the Jordanians have always been incapable of shaping the regional context in which they have to operate. Presently they are sandwiched between two arenas of total chaos, Iraq and the West Bank, a position one could describe as strategic anxiety.

Non-Arab Supremacy

The decline of the Arabs has resulted in the emergence of a Middle East where the non-Arab players are far more critical in the setting of the regional agenda than are the Arabs. If the term “Arab world” was once synonymous with the “Middle East”, this is no longer true. External actors like the United States, or the European Union to a lesser degree, and the non-Arab states of the region, Iran, Turkey and Israel, are the key pace-setters. The United States, which just a year ago projected a posture of unassailable omnipotence, is presently undermining its capacity to create a new regional order as it sinks deeper and deeper into the Iraqi morass. Moreover, the regional deterrence of the United States is being eroded as it is exposed as a great power which also has severe political and military limitations.

Conversely, Iranian regional influence is on the rise. The Iranians are ever-more emboldened by American failure. Despite external appearances, they seem determined to continue their quest for a nuclear capability, irrespective of international opposition. Iran’s regional stature is also on the rise as the historical balance of power in the Arab East between Sunnis and Shia is shifting in favor of the latter, for the first time in centuries.

The American invasion of Iraq not only removed Saddam Husayn and the Ba‘ath regime from power, most worthy objectives in and of themselves. It also dispossessed the Sunni Arab minority, which had been in power for centuries in Iraq, and crushed the Iraqi state, the main Arab bulwark against Iranian regional hegemony. Consequently Iran has made major and unprecedented inroads of influence in the chaos of Iraq, as its Shi‘ite coreligionists, the majority in Iraq, ready themselves to inherit the Sunnis.

For other reasons, unrelated to Iraq, and part and parcel of the demographic and concomitant political change in Lebanon of the last two generations, the Shia there too are on the march. They are by far the largest confessional group in Lebanon, spearheaded by their powerful militia, Hizballah. But Hizballah is not only the spearhead of the Shia in Lebanon. It is the long arm of Iran all the way into the West Bank and Gaza, where it has strong operational and financial connections with the whole array of Palestinian groups, from Fatah to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Thus Iran is in pursuit of nuclear weapons with less to fear of the United States, while it also enjoys an unprecedented arc of influence deep into the heart of the Arab East, stretching all the way from Tehran to Baghdad, and then via an old ally in Damascus to Beirut, and beyond to the Palestinian territories. Israel now faces the Iranian challenge, in both its nuclear and terrorist dimensions far more acutely. Those who argue that Israel has only had a windfall of net benefit from the war in Iraq are wrong.

Israel’s options in respect to Iran are far from simple. Urging the international community to constrain Iran and pressure it to discontinue its nuclear program is the most attractive but not necessarily promising policy. The Iranians, in the long run, might not submit to pressure which has been so ineffective hitherto. Israel could choose the military option and attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities as it did to Iraq in 1981. But that is no easy matter either. The Iranians have learnt the lessons of Iraq and do not have one major facility above ground, but numerous underground facilities. Their destruction from the air is anything but guaranteed. Failure in such an operation is not an option for Israel: leaving Iran with both its nuclear potential and an everlasting reason to take revenge.

What may be more realistic in the long run is perhaps some version of the Cold War formula of deterrence, where it would be made clear to Iran, by Israel itself or possibly by Israel and the United States combined, that any non-conventional attack on Israel would be met with a response in kind that Iran would not be able to sustain. For the meantime, however, there is no denying of the fact that Iran has shifted from the periphery to attain an unprecedented platform of regional influence deep into the very core of the Arab East.

The other non-Arab power rising to the fore against the background of the Arab void is Turkey. Perched above the Arab vacuum in the Fertile Crescent, Turkey is a regional superpower stretching all the way from Greece to Iran, controlling the water sources of Syria and Iraq, with the largest and most powerful military in the region, and a population of over 70 million. Along with Iran, Turkey has more influence over Syria and more of a say on the outcome of the war in Iraq than all the Arabs combined (and possibly more than the United States too).

For the last decade or so, Turkey and Israel have had an exceptionally close relationship -- political, military and economic. And though much of that relationship is intact, there have recently been some difficulties between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the religio-conservative government that came to power in November 2002, has been exceptionally critical of Israel and the conduct of its military in the war with the Palestinians. So have the media and the public at large. As Turkey edges closer to membership in the European Union (EU) there is all the more reason for Israel to invest an extra effort to create a relationship of mutual trust and understanding with the new ruling elite.

In many ways, Israel and Turkey are in the same boat. They are non-Arab Middle Eastern powers, and relatively powerful non-Christian neighbors of the EU, with a complicated network of troubled historical, cultural and political ties with the peoples of Europe. Turkey’s accession to the EU would be the dilution of the Christian club of Europe, and may just set the stage for Israel’s accession, at some time in the future. In the meantime, Israel must bear in mind that Turkey is simultaneously shifting closer to Europe in its position on the conflict with the Palestinians and the EU and Turkey may very well share an interest to see Turkey serve as the EU’s extension in Middle Eastern affairs. For all these reasons it is imperative that Israel clear the air with Turkey and establish channels of communication with the new elite, not instead of the existing web of connections with the secular elite, but in addition to them. Turkey is a regional power that Israel cannot afford to antagonize.

Written by Asher Susser.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Scottish Friends of Israel

Part 2

Source: Israel Policy Forum.

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