Israel – no longer people dwelling alone

Prof. Elie Podeh September 2016
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s growing influence, acts of terrorism by jihadi Islamic organizations, the collapse of Arab countries after the Arab Spring, and the aggrandizement of Hezbollah and Hamas – all fuel an image of Israel surrounded by enemies that seek its destruction.

This image is not entirely incorrect: some countries, organizations and individuals in the Arab and Muslim world believe that the annihilation of the “Zionist entity” is feasible and are taking action to put this ideology into practice. But to consider this belief to be a reflection of reality is a mistake, and to use it as a basis for decision making would be an even greater mistake. In fact, a historical analysis shows that Israel’s situation and status in the Middle East has improved immeasurably since its independence.

Since its establishment, Israel actively attempted to breach the wall of Arab isolation. As long as the region was dominated by Pan-Arabism – the ideology designed to unite the Sunni Arab world under Nasser’s leadership – any contact with Israel was taboo.

Under these circumstances, Israel sought out pathways to non-Muslim minorities (such as the Christians and Druse in Lebanon) or non-Arab minorities (such as the Kurds in Iraq) in the region. The results of these attempts were never commensurate with the efforts they entailed, but they were driven by the paucity of options available to Israeli foreign policymakers.

Another direction involved efforts to establish alliances with non-Arab and non-Muslim countries, such as Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia and Sudan. The rationale underlying these efforts was the interests Israel shared with these countries against Nasser’s expansionist Pan-Arab ambitions. Thus, the basis of collaboration was the realistic logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In terms of its achievements, Israel’s peripheral alliance policy was more successful than its minority-oriented policy, but significantly neither was based on an alliance with the Sunni Arab majority that dominated the Middle East and therefore could not change dramatically Israel’s place in the region.

A breakthrough occurred in 1979, when a peace treaty was signed with Egypt, the largest and most important Sunni Arab country in the Arab world.

Still, this breakthrough could not be fully exploited due to the stalemate on the Palestinian issue and the fact that Egypt was boycotted by almost all Arab countries. A change came with the signing of the Oslo Accords and negotiations with Syria in the 1990s, but the momentum was arrested by the failure of the Syrian channel and the eruption of the “al-Aksa intifada” in 2000. Nonetheless, the Oslo Accords had allowed Jordan “to come out of the closet” and sign its own peace treaty with Israel in 1994, making it the second Sunni Arab state to openly sign a formal treaty with Israel.

A significant change occurred with the Second Lebanon War of summer of 2006, which placed Israel in the same camp with Sunni Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, all facing the common threat posed by Hezbollah, Iran, and Shi’ite Islam in general. For the first time, Israel found itself sharing common interests and even collaborating – albeit behind the scenes – with major Sunni Arab countries that acknowledged Israel’s status as a key player in the Middle East.

In recent years, this trend has grown stronger, especially following the US occupation of Iraq and the Arab Spring, which led to the decline and collapse of several major regional powers including Egypt, Iraq and Syria. We are not yet privy to all the details, but information leaked to the global press indicates that Israel maintains channels of communication – some overt, most covert – with Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf States and possibly other countries as well. Moreover, Israel has created a new brand of periphery-oriented diplomatic policy, looking eastward, based on economic and military cooperation with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan, and looking westward, with Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus. The recently signed reconciliation agreement with Turkey might also herald new beginnings.

Clearly, Israel has immeasurably improved its position in the Middle East. If, in the past, cooperation was limited to minorities or peripheral countries, Israel is now collaborating with core Sunni Arab states. As a result, Israel’s geopolitical position at the heart of the region overlaps with its political and military position. The improvement in Israel’s status in the Middle East indicates that the traditional Jewish belief of “a people dwelling alone” no longer has a leg to stand on.

This is an important conclusion in view of the myriad threats mentioned above. The problem is that decision makers in Israel might become ensnared in self-complacency and diplomatic inaction. It should, however, be emphasized, that Israel’s current integration into the region is not overt and is the result of a confluence of interests rather than recognition.

Therefore, a leap to the next step will be possible only through a solution to the Palestinian issue, or at least significant progress toward a solution.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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