Iraq and the Palestinians – Israel’s Fateful Choices
- Part 1
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
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
As Turkey moves closer to Europe, it is important for Israel to
maintain and strengthen its political, economic, and military ties
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
by Asher Susser.
views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent
the views of Scottish Friends of Israel
Israel Policy Forum.