By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft
Israel, with its legitimacy disputed in its region, drives vital political dynamics in the Middle East. All contending factions in the neighbouring countries relate to Israel and its policies, directly or indirectly, one way or the other. The region is now undergoing dramatic change in its political landscape. As a result, traditional policies no longer work, in the sense that they fail to achieve intended effects, and may even have turned counterproductive. Will Israel reassess its security strategies?
Israeli security strategies have been threefold:
• uphold legitimacy as a democratic, Jewish state,
• project superior power,
• deter and, when perceived necessary, preempt attack.
There are currently two major challenges to these Israeli security strategies: Iran, a threat aggravated by its nuclear program, and the emerging regional power of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Power versus legitimacy
To explore the changing circumstances of Israel I will draw on the ideas of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Henry Kissinger, who, as professor and central policy advisor to President Nixon, became perhaps the foremost theorist and practitioner of diplomacy in modern times, in the sense of developing an overarching historical thesis on the relationships between states, while he exploited options and forged deals. In an interview with Der Spiegel on President Obama’s foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East, he reiterated his two requirements to stable and peaceful relations between countries: First of all a balance of power must prevent one country from overthrowing the existing order, but, secondly, to be stable, those parties to such an order must perceive it as basically just. None of these conditions are present in Israel’s relations with its region, but below I argue that the situation may evolve in this direction, conditional upon smarter moves by Israel in adapting to changing circumstances.
In the absence of political acceptance in the region of its existence, Israel has primarily staked its security on the projection of superior power. Power projection is mainly effective against regimes controlled by one leader or limited ruling clique. But this is precisely the decisive condition that is now changing in Israel’s region as people take to the streets. They are not intimidated by power, unlike the dictators they strive to overthrow, but driven by a quest for justice.
Against Iran, which, pending the victory of the Green Revolution, remains a centrally controlled dictatorship, the traditional strategy of power projection is still the only effective strategy. But in relating to the Arab Spring, it has lost its edge to the point of becoming counterproductive – to the degree that people in the streets succeed in empowering themselves. Towards the Arab public opinion only shaping their perception of legitimacy will work.
Israel’s legitimacy undermined by Israeli policies
Israel has undermined its twofold legitimacy, as a democratic and as a Jewish state. The underlying problem is its failure to merge the Jewish identity with the ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism of a modern democratic state. This failure to forge a modern state identity in Israel causes a basic problem of attitudes towards Arabs under its rule, aggravated by the occupation of the Palestinians following the war of 1967. These attitudes towards Arabs have eroded the democratic legitimacy, while the Jewish identity has been undermined by imposing Israeli rule on a large number of non-Jews. The Israeli historian, Tom Segev, describes in his book “1967. Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East” how evolving policies, not an original design, resulted in the current state of affairs, which is incompatible with the dual basis for the state of Israel, modern democracy and Jewish identity.
Balance of power changing
It was the new sense of power, legacy of the victory of 1967, that according to Tom Segev deluded the Israelis to make short-sighted choices, neglecting the long-term effects that created the current Israeli predicament. As a consequence of the changes in Israel’s regional circumstances, the balance of power is also changing. Therefore, the internal political pressure in Israel, that has driven the occupation and the boycott of Gaza, is losing weight relative to the new external pressure; this must be the emerging perception of the power equation in the Israeli political elite, or so we must assume. The traditional strategy of power projection towards Arabs is becoming less effective, perhaps even counterproductive.
Israel needs to avoid long-term effects of mistakes
The current occupation, despite the overwhelming power behind it, will not be politically sustainable in the larger strategic picture now emerging. As a consequence, Israel is now, without an effective Palestinian state, set on a course that, if not corrected, will result in a new pluralistic state in which the Jews will be in a minority, and where the new majority will not, in the predominant Israeli view, share Israel’s democratic values. Under the current political trends the new Arab majority in Israel, which would be formed by the current minority of 20 % if joined by the Arabs on the West-Bank now under occupation, will likely come under strong influence from the Muslim Brotherhood and its off-shot Hamas. In the perception of the Israeli political elite, Israel’s dual legitimacy would then erode. Israeli fear that such an altered Israel would no longer be democratic in the Western sense because they feel convinced that current Israel’s western democratic principles are not shared by the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the equality of women and acceptance of political dissent. Nor would Jews, with the trauma of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, feel safe in a state they no longer control. (In fact, according to the theories of the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, on the dynamics that cause humans to commit evil, the strong hostility Israel engenders could conceivably, in case power shifted hands, lead again to genocide.)
Israel needs regional allies against Iran
Where traditional power projection is still appropriate, the changed political circumstances of Israel make greater legitimacy in its region imperative. As Kissinger points out, without a shared perception of legitimacy, power will not produce stable relations. Israel will need political and probably military backing also from the regional powers to effectively and sustainably contain Iran, its overriding foreign policy concern also without Iranian nuclear arms because of Iran’s declared revolutionary vision aimed at Israel.
If Israeli politicians see a need to adapt policies to altered circumstances, they could take a clue from Kissinger. It was by his initiative to improve relations with China that the United States neutralized the potentially disrupting consequences of withdrawal from Vietnam. In the same vein, Israel will need to reduce current political tensions to forge regional alliances against Iran to off-set adverse effects of the changing political landscape. (At some point reduced tensions could even lead to improved relations with Iran. More about this in a later blog input.)
In forging regional alliances, the unresolved issues of the occupation and the boycott of Gaza will remain obstacles to those potential allies that share Israel’s concern over Iran. In Israel’s old ally Turkey popular resentment of Israeli policies limits the room for manoeuvre of the Government, should they find that concerns over Iran supersede resentment of Israeli policies. In Israel’s tacit ally Saudi Arabia, its ruling elite as well as its public opinion resent strongly what they perceive as Israel’s refusal to consider the Arab peace plan the King initiated, a sentiment shared by the other Gulf States.
Perhaps the single most important political actor bearing on Israel’s security interests now is the Muslim Brotherhood, an emerging regional political force based on political mobilization, because this movement wields significant power by its influence on Arab minds. But whatever the leadership could be persuaded to agree to, they will also have a limited room for manoeuvre towards Israel as long as the Brotherhood’s supporters resent so strongly Israeli attitudes towards Arabs, most blatantly manifested in the occupation and the boycott of Gaza.
For a balance of power in Israel’s region to be stable in Kissinger’s sense, alliances need to be more than tacit, transient, circumstantial or instrumental. Only a foundation of a shared sense of justice and perceived mutual benefits can provide peace and security. Perceptions and emotions shape motivation.
But should luck run out while a state of confrontation persists, even the coolest of minds cannot prevent everything from going terribly wrong; this was the lesson drawn from the Cuban Missile Crisis by one of crisis’ central actors, Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence.
The risks of fallibility
Henry Kissinger, in the interview in Der Spiegel, described Obama as a “chess player”, Kissinger’s professed ideal for a foreign policy operator. In this ideal, Kissinger unfortunately fails to grasp the limits to rational analyses and control, limits described by the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, as I have set out in a previous blog input. Kissinger therefore fails to address the weakness in his balance of power ideal, how it can maintain under stress the stability which is its purpose. Kissinger notoriously fails to address the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in his own diplomacy in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1973 war he acted more like a poker player, pressuring the Soviets by raising the US nuclear alert.
Kissinger’s Middle East brinksmanship of 1973 is an analogy to the current confrontation with Iran. The requirements of diplomatic pressure are seen to need the option of war to be credible. The problem for crisis management is that the path to building diplomatic pressure by making the threat of war more credible is the same as to actual war. When the parties to such a confrontation edge towards the brink of war, they could by inadvertence, if not by design, tip over the edge and find themselves in a situation immeasurable worse than what they set out to avoid.
Kissinger, in the interview, stated that the concept of victory in war is now meaningless. There would be no victors in a war between Israel and Iran, only losers. Kissinger has joined other central actors from the Cold War in calling an end to all nuclear arms since they serve no purpose, but remain an existential threat. As a step towards realizing this vision in the region, trust must be established that no new nuclear arms are in the process.
From power projection to consensus building
But Kissinger still fails to address the basic risks inherent in any power thinking, be it by “chess players” or “poker players”: the ramifications if one “player” tries to outsmart or call the bluff of a posturing opponent. Everybody could easily find themselves without bearings in situations resembling what Clausewitz described as “the fog of war”. Kissinger’s basic assumption is flawed, the primacy of the power equation, one nation’ power relative to others. Today, almost all national interests can only be protected in cooperation with other countries as self-motivated partners, while conflict entails huge costs to all, especially opportunity costs.
Kissinger’s work “Diplomacy” of 1994, setting out to summarize his ideas, makes his flaw clear. The book starts out with the peace negotiations following the end of the Thirty Year War resulting in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, in hindsight seen as the starting point for the modern international system of nation states pursuing national interests to be mutually checked by a balance of power. Kissinger’s hero was the French leader Cardinal Richelieu for his adept exploitation of this principle, then a novelty, to pursue the national interests of France. But Kissinger, in his analysis of the innovative principles driving the negotiations leading up to the agreement of Westphalia, commits a serious omission: It was not the novel principle of Richelieu, pursuance of national interest by power, that prevailed as much as another novel principle, consensus-building diplomacy, driven by the unassuming Trautmanndorf, the emissary of the weaker party, the Austrian emperor.
From confrontation to cooperation
Israel today, dominated by the spiritual heirs of Richelieu, probably needs to find another Trautmanndorf. He bequeathed the heritage of consensus by compromise, a necessary first step towards effective cooperation in joint interest, such as the current European cooperation.
In fact, only cooperation and economic integration along the European model can solve the really serious security problem in the region, economic stagnation and unemployment. Especially young unemployed men are a ticking bomb in any society. Only effective economic cooperation can prevent despair, desperation and aggression caused by a feeling of hopelessness. To cope with this security threat, Israel could, in the spirit of Trautmanndorf rather than Richelieu, take the European Union’s agreement with those non- members that qualify for membership, the European Economic Area, a proven instrument for peace, security and prosperity, and suggest to neighbouring countries and the Palestinian Authority that relevant parts of it could be applied selectively and gradually. That could be a beginning to a new regional process that in everybody’s interest.
What can Israel now do to escape the long-term effects of the mistakes of 1967 that Tom Segev points out? In this perception of the current predicament, the only option available to Israel is to exercise its right to terminate the occupation of the West Bank. (Israel already did so in Gaza.) In the same vein, the single most effective move to counter Iranian ability to conduct “asymmetric warfare” in Lebanon would be to reach an agreement with the post-Assad regime in Syria over the Golan, to deprive Iran of its channel to Hezbollah.
Kissinger’s point that those parties to the political order must perceive it as basically just, or legitimate, has important implications for both Israeli and western considerations of strategies in the altered circumstances: It matters what the Muslim Brotherhood, the emerging regional political power, thinks of Israel and the West, perhaps even more than what Israel and the West think of them. They are today the most effective channel for influencing the perceptions of the new emerging elite that will shape Israel’s vicinity.
Israel, in its inevitable reassessment of its security strategies, may lament the passing of the old dictators for the stability they provided, but indulging in such counterfactual thoughts, which some Israeli seem to do, remains an exercise in futility. Within Israeli power, however, is the ability to influence perceptions among the emerging Arab political elites of options in relating to Israel, on the continuum between confrontation and cooperation.