“We’re preparing for war, and it’s hard to know what to expect. What I’m positive of is that there will be a next round and others after that. But I would rather opt for living here in continuous battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people. Any compromise will simply hasten the end. As I don’t intend to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish State in the twentieth century as a mere brief and transient episode in thousands of years of wandering, I intend to hold on here with all my might.”
Yoni, a young Israeli army officer wrote these words in a letter to his brother Bibi in the wake of the Yom Kippur war. Yoni Netanyahu didn’t live to see his grandchildren. He died soon after in the celebrated Entebbe raid. But his brother has survived to have two grandchildren and much more. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is now the prime minister of Israel.
Like Bibi, Israel has endured, survived and thrived in the years after the Yom Kippur war. It concluded a peace treaty with Egypt, its most formidable neighbour that has held to this date. Syria hasn’t given up on Golan Heights but it has never dared to take on Israel directly again. Saddam Hussein lobbed a few useless Scuds during the Gulf war but eventually scripted his own fall from power. Israel has not been able to prevent constant attacks of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. But, it has faced no imminent threat to existence in the years after early 70s.
But, Yoni’s words are regaining ominous significance once again. The established order in the Middle-east and Arabized North Africa has literally fallen apart. The old dictators of Maghreb are all gone almost overnight. Turmoil has started all around Israel. Egypt succumbed to the Arab Spring. Syria is sure to follow next. Jordan has seen serious rumblings. Most surprising change of all, we now have a new kid on the block- an Islamic oriented Turkey.
The new Pharaoh
When I discuss the possibility of Egypt getting involved in another war with friends from Egypt, many protest vehemently. As one person put it, Egypt has spent too much blood and treasure trying to fight other people’s wars. Islamic and Greater-Arab causes no longer excite the Egyptians. He further insisted that even if a future government were foolhardy enough to risk such conflict, the military would be reluctant to follow such orders. But, all this was before the Muslim brotherhood won power riding on the public sentiment that swept Mubarak and his loyalists out of power.
President Morsi has turned out to be a cunning player. He has adroitly managed to defang his political opponents as well as put the military in its place. The Brotherhood was long suspected to have sympathizers within the military. It will be no surprise if the present leadership is eventually replaced with more ideologically oriented officers. It is to be noted that Egypt has been moving military elements into Sinai since last year. Egyptian President has taken the lead in negotiating the truce between Hamas and Israel this time. Israel can hardly protest if the demilitarization clause melts away in a creeping fashion with a few hundred troops and equipment each time. If the Egypt-Gaza border is relaxed, it can turn out to be a nightmare for Israel. Because of its small size, Israel will always remain vulnerable with respect to its immediate western neighbor The new Pharaoh has already promulgated an overtly Islamic constitution. Increased tensions with Israel can also be a handy weapon to neutralize political opponents at home. The Egyptian populace might not have the stomach for confrontation right now. But, that is the product of past defeats and a shattered economy. As things change, the old hostility is probably going to return.
The Ottoman Return
Turkey has undergone the most astonishing transformation in the past few years. This was once a country that hoped to detach itself from Asia and become completely European. It is a member of NATO and was trying desperately in the previous years to get into EU. With its growing economic strength and the unraveling of EU, the direction is now being reversed. The country is now under a firmly Islamist and highly popular prime minister Erdogan. His foreign policy is increasingly reshaping Turkey as a Middle-Eastern power. Once regarded as a close ally of Israel, its recent interventions have been decidedly hostile.
The Syrian crisis on it southern border will inevitably make Turkey a participant in Arab affairs and logically the influence will extend to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. It needs to be remembered that most of Middle-East including the lands that comprises the present-day Palestine and Israel were part of the Ottoman Turk Empire not so long ago. It was only 100 years ago that the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the aftermath of the 1st world war. Increasingly, Turkey will be a major player in the Middle-east with decidedly Islamist outlook.
The Rise of the Brothers
The Arab Spring has really been a springboard to power for one organization. The Muslim Brotherhood has already captured power in Egypt. It is poised to do the same in Syria and probably in Jordan. It is probably the most organized political entity that is spread across the Arab world. The scariest situation for any Israeli analyst is to have the Brothers ruling simultaneously in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. That is almost its entire immediate neighborhood.
The Jordanian King and the ruling elite are playing a dangerous game. They have been suspected of deliberately allowing periodic protests in the country to portray the possibility of an imminent Islamist takeover. This was a kind of show-preview that has served to blackmail the west into giving them more money. But, there is always a chance that these attempts might backfire and result in uncontrolled reactions that end up toppling the regime. Almost half of Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin and it is thirsting for a share of power. None of this is good news for Israel.
The Old Empires & Competitive Anti-Israel-ism
The rise of oil-economy based Arab states has altered the traditional balance of power in the middle-east in the last 4 decades. Middle-east has always been a battleground for contesting empires based out of their respective heartlands on the three sides. The Nile Basin in Egypt, Anatolia and Persia-Mesopotamia have been the centers of empires that spanned out and controlled the region for centuries. The ancient Egyptians, the Byzantines, the Sassanids, the Abbasids and the Ottomans were all instances of this historical reality.
The nuclear ambitions of Iran must be seen in this light. Even Turkey is bound to follow suit if it existing arrangement within NATO becomes irrelevant. These states are going to develop large militaries in order to project power throughout the region. Unfortunately, the Jewish identity of Israel will make it unable to exploit differences between these powers and act as a swing power.
The future of the middle-east may indeed look like an action replay of history. Egypt, Iran and Turkey are going to compete with each other to gain the upper hand and regional leadership. These are countries with historical memories of past empires and populations well beyond the critical size needed for such an enterprise. However, in order to decisively secure their leadership, they need to capture the Arab imagination. Is there an easier way to achieve it than championing of Palestinian cause against the Jewish state? Iran has stolen a head-start over all others by actively patronizing both Hezbollah and Hamas. Despite its Sunni composition, most of the missiles that Hamas used in its latest round of attacks were of Iranian origin. There is no doubt that this is definitely creating an impact in Arab minds. Egypt will always be in reckoning since it’s an immediate neighbour of the Gaza strip. Turkey’s recent attempts have not met with much success, but that is only a temporary setback. There will competition among these states to assume increasingly hostile positions to Israel. That would be formidable opposition for Israel to face in diplomacy as well as on the ground.
Reluctant players with deep pockets
The Gulf Arab States, especially Saudi Arabia might not appreciate the interference in Arab affairs by non-Arabs such as Turks and Iranians. Saudis in particular are paranoid about Iran gaining region supremacy. Hence, they will be unwillingly sucked into this game. They will choose to throw in their lot with fellow Arab state like Egypt or provide their own direct aid to outfits like Hamas. However, none of them will be serious contenders for championing the Palestinian cause. All of these regimes are jittery themselves and are facing serious internal problems. None of them harbour any dreams of regional hegemony. The ruling Sheikhs just hope to prolong their enjoyment of the oil resources into the foreseeable future. But, if these regimes were to fall, hardcore Islamists may take control bringing vast financial resources into play. That would definitely embolden Egypt that may otherwise balk at the financial costs of a confrontation.
The coming betrayal of the West
Mainland Europe is increasingly buying into Liberal-Islamist propaganda. Many of them seem to think that they can buy peace with their restive Muslim citizens by sacrificing Israel. It’s just a matter of time before Europe abandons Israel totally. France, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland recently backed the UN resolution on recognition of Palestine. The United States still remains a strong supporter of Israel. However, the re-election of President Obama is not a very encouraging sign. Given the present demographic trends within US, it is not likely to remain such a staunch ally in the coming decades. While it is not likely to be hostile to Israel, US will be increasingly indifferent. With the looming energy independence from the Middle-east, there is a likelihood of reduced engagement by US in this region. A unipolar world with US at its helm suited Israel very well. But the rise of China and its yet undefined course of action in this region of the world are not so inviting.
Illusion of Iron Dome
Israel has always believed in striking first and striking hard. Its military doctrine has always been to prevent its opponents from gaining access to military assets that would provide them with a decisive advantage. Its raid on the Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981 is a classic example. However, it is nearly impossible to repeat that strategy against Iran. Even the US with its formidable resources would hesitate to take on such risks. Cheap missiles have made it easy for less sophisticated states to carry out asymmetrical warfare. Israel has chosen to invest in missile defenses. But, the Iron Dome system despite its impressive performance has exposed its weaknesses as well. If Hamas had the backing of any neighboring state and far larger arsenal of missiles, it would have caused considerable damage. No missile defense could have prevented that. There cannot be a credible defense for a nation of Israel’s size against a sustained barrage of missiles without launching any offensive action.
Israel has never had it easy. But even by its history, tough times are ahead for this tiny Jewish nation. The coming decade is going to test Israel once again perhaps as much as the days of its founding and that Yom Kippur four decades ago.