The Israeli Crisis (STRATFOR) By George Friedman 08/14/12)
UNITED JERUSALEM Articles-Index-Top
Crises are normally short, sharp and intense affairs. Israel´s
predicament has developed on a different time frame, is more diffuse
than most crises and has not reached a decisive and intense moment.
But it is still a crisis. It is not a crisis solely about Iran,
although the Israeli government focuses on that issue. Rather, it is
over Israel´s strategic reality since 1978, when it signed the Camp
David accords with Egypt.
Perhaps the deepest aspect of the crisis is that Israel has no
internal consensus on whether it is in fact a crisis, or if so, what
the crisis is about. The Israeli government speaks of an existential
threat from Iranian nuclear weapons. I would argue that the
existential threat is broader and deeper, part of it very new, and
part of it embedded in the founding of Israel.
Israel now finds itself in a long-term crisis in which it is
struggling to develop a strategy and foreign policy to deal with a
new reality. This is causing substantial internal stress, since the
domestic consensus on Israeli policy is fragmenting at the same time
that the strategic reality is shifting. Though this happens
periodically to nations, Israel sees itself in a weak position in the
long run due to its size and population, despite its current military
superiority. More precisely, it sees the evolution of events over
time potentially undermining that military reality, and it therefore
feels pressured to act to preserve it. How to preserve its
superiority in the context of the emerging strategic reality is the
core of the Israeli crisis.
Since 1978, Israel´s strategic reality had been that it faced no
threat of a full peripheral war. After Camp David, the buffer of the
Sinai Peninsula separated Egypt and Israel, and Egypt had a
government that did not want that arrangement to break. Israel still
faced a formally hostile Syria. Syria had invaded Lebanon in 1976 to
crush the Palestine Liberation Organization based there and
reconsolidate its hold over Lebanon, but knew it could not attack
Israel by itself. Syria remained content reaching informal
understandings with Israel. Meanwhile, relatively weak and isolated
Jordan depended on Israel for its national security. Lebanon alone
was unstable. Israel periodically intervened there, not very
successfully, but not at very high cost.
The most important of Israel´s neighbors, Egypt, is now moving on an
uncertain course. This weekend, new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi
removed five key leaders of the military and the Supreme Council of
the Armed Forces and revoked constitutional amendments introduced by
the military. There are two theories on what has happened. In the
first, Morsi -- who until his election was a senior leader of the
country´s mainstream Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood -- is
actually much more powerful than the military and is acting
decisively to transform the Egyptian political system. In the second,
this is all part of an agreement between the military and the Muslim
Brotherhood that gives Morsi the appearance of greater power while
actually leaving power with the military.
On the whole, I tend to think that the second is the case. Still, it
is not clear how this will evolve: The appearance of power can turn
into the reality of power. Despite any sub rosa agreements between
the military and Morsi, how these might play out in a year or two as
the public increasingly perceives Morsi as being in charge --
limiting the military´s options and cementing Morsi´s power -- is
unknown. In the same sense, Morsi has been supportive of security
measures taken by the military against militant Islamists, as was
seen in the past week´s operations in the Sinai Peninsula.
The Sinai remains a buffer zone against major military forces but not
against the paramilitaries linked to radical Islamists who have
increased their activities in the peninsula since the fall of former
President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Last week, they attacked an
Egyptian military post on the Gaza border, killing 16 Egyptian
soldiers. This followed several attacks against Israeli border
crossings. Morsi condemned the attack and ordered a large-scale
military crackdown in the Sinai. Two problems could arise from this.
First, the Egyptians´ ability to defeat the militant Islamists
depends on redefining the Camp David accords, at least informally, to
allow Egypt to deploy substantial forces there (though even this
might not suffice). These additional military forces might not
threaten Israel immediately, but setting a precedent for a greater
Egyptian military presence in the Sinai Peninsula could eventually
lead to a threat.
This would be particularly true if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood
impose their will on the Egyptian military. If we take Morsi at face
value as a moderate, the question becomes who will succeed him. The
Muslim Brotherhood is clearly ascendant, and the possibility that a
secular democracy would emerge from the Egyptian uprising is
unlikely. It is also clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is a movement
with many competing factions. And it is clear from the elections that
the Muslim Brotherhood represents the most popular movement in Egypt
and that no one can predict how it will evolve or which factions will
dominate and what new tendencies will arise. Egypt in the coming
years will not resemble Egypt of the past generation, and that means
that the Israeli calculus for what will happen on its southern front
will need to take Hamas in Gaza into account and perhaps an Islamist
Egypt prepared to ally with Hamas.
Syria and Lebanon
A similar situation exists in Syria. The secular and militarist
regime of the al Assad family is in serious trouble. As mentioned,
the Israelis had a working relationship with the Syrians going back
to the Syrian invasion of Lebanon against the Palestine Liberation
Organization in 1976. It was not a warm relationship, but it was
predictable, particularly in the 1990s: Israel allowed Syria a free
hand in Lebanon in exchange for Damascus´ limiting Hezbollah´s
Lebanon was not exactly stable, but its instability hewed to a
predictable framework. That understanding broke down when the United
States seized an opportunity to force Syria to retreat from Lebanon
in 2006 following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister
Rafik al-Hariri. The United States used the Cedar Revolution that
rose up in defiance of Damascus to retaliate against Syria for
allowing al Qaeda to send jihadists into Iraq from Syria.
This didn´t spark the current unrest in Syria, which appears to
involve a loose coalition of Sunnis, including elements of the Muslim
Brotherhood and other Islamists. Though Israel far preferred Syrian
President Bashar al Assad to them, al Assad himself was shifting his
behavior. The more pressure he came under, the more he became
dependent on Iran. Israel began facing the unpleasant prospect of a
Sunni Islamist government emerging or a government heavily dependent
on Iran. Neither outcome appealed to Israel, and neither outcome was
in Israel´s control.
Just as dangerous to Israel would be the Lebanonization of Syria.
Syria and Lebanon are linked in many ways, though Lebanon´s political
order was completely different and Syria could serve as a stabilizing
force for it. There is now a reasonable probability that Syria will
become like Lebanon, namely, a highly fragmented country divided
along religious and ethnic lines at war with itself. Israel´s best
outcome would be for the West to succeed in preserving Syria´s
secular military regime without al Assad. But it is unclear how long
a Western-backed regime resting on the structure of al Assad´s Syria
would survive. Even the best outcome has its own danger. And while
Lebanon itself has been reasonably stable in recent years, when Syria
catches a cold, Lebanon gets pneumonia. Israel thus faces the
prospect of declining security to its north.
The U.S. Role and Israel´s Strategic Lockdown
It is important to take into account the American role in this,
because ultimately Israel´s national security -- particularly if its
strategic environment deteriorates -- rests on the United States. For
the United States, the current situation is a strategic triumph. Iran
had been extending its power westward, through Iraq and into Syria.
This represented a new force in the region that directly challenged
American interests. Where Israel originally had an interest in seeing
al Assad survive, the United States did not. Washington´s primary
interest lay in blocking Iran and keeping it from posing a threat to
the Arabian Peninsula. The United States saw Syria, particularly
after the uprising, as an Iranian puppet. While the United States was
delighted to see Iran face a reversal in Syria, Israel was much more
ambivalent about that outcome.
The Israelis are always opposed to the rising regional force. When
that was Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, they focused on Nasser.
When it was al Qaeda and its sympathizers, they focused on al Qaeda.
When it was Iran, they focused on Tehran. But simple opposition to a
regional tendency is no longer a sufficient basis for Israeli
strategy. As in Syria, Israel must potentially oppose all tendencies,
where the United States can back one. That leaves Israeli policy
incoherent. Lacking the power to impose a reality on Syria, the best
Israel can do is play the balance of power. When its choice is
between a pro-Iranian power and a Sunni Islamist power, it can no
longer play the balance of power. Since it lacks the power to impose
a reality, it winds up in a strategic lockdown.
Israel´s ability to influence events on its borders was never great,
but events taking place in bordering countries are now completely
beyond its control. While Israeli policy has historically focused on
the main threat, using the balance of power to stabilize the
situation and ultimately on the decisive use of military force, it is
no longer possible to identify the main threat. There are threats in
all of its neighbors, including Jordan (where the kingdom´s branch of
the Muslim Brotherhood is growing in influence while the Hashemite
monarchy is reviving relations with Hamas). This means using the
balance of power within these countries to create secure frontiers is
no longer an option. It is not clear there is a faction for Israel to
support or a balance that can be achieved. Finally, the problem is
political rather than military. The ability to impose a political
solution is not available.
Against the backdrop, any serious negotiations with the Palestinians
are impossible. First, the Palestinians are divided. Second, they are
watching carefully what happens in Egypt and Syria since this might
provide new political opportunities. Finally, depending on what
happens in neighboring countries, any agreement Israel might reach
with the Palestinians could turn into a nightmare.
The occupation therefore continues, with the Palestinians holding the
initiative. Unrest begins when they want it to begin and takes the
form they want it to have within the limits of their resources. The
Israelis are in a responsive mode. They can´t eradicate the
Palestinian threat. Extensive combat in Gaza, for example, has both
political consequences and military limits. Occupying Gaza is easy;
pacifying Gaza is not.
Israel´s Military and Domestic Political Challenges
The crisis the Israelis face is that their levers of power, the open
and covert relationships they had, and their military force are not
up to the task of effectively shaping their immediate environment.
They have lost the strategic initiative, and the type of power they
possess will not prove decisive in dealing with their strategic
issues. They no longer are operating at the extremes of power, but in
a complex sphere not amenable to military solutions.
Israel´s strong suit is conventional military force. It can´t fully
understand or control the forces at work on its borders, but it can
understand the Iranian nuclear threat. This leads it to focus on the
sort of conventional conflict it excels at, or at least used to excel
at. The 2006 war with Hezbollah was quite conventional, but Israel
was not prepared for an infantry war. The Israelis instead chose to
deal with Lebanon via an air campaign, but that failed to achieve
their political ends.
The Israelis want to redefine the game to something they can win,
which is why their attention is drawn to the Iranian nuclear program.
Of all their options in the region, a strike against Iran´s nuclear
facilities apparently plays to their strengths. Two things make such
a move attractive. The first is that eliminating Iran´s nuclear
capability is desirable for Israel. The nuclear threat is so
devastating that no matter how realistic the threat is, removing it
Second, it would allow Israel to demonstrate the relevance of its
power in the region. It has been a while since Israel has had a
significant, large-scale military victory. The 1980s invasion of
Lebanon didn´t end well; the 2006 war was a stalemate; and while
Israel may have achieved its military goals in the 2008 invasion of
Gaza, that conflict was a political setback. Israel is still taken
seriously in the regional psychology, but the sense of inevitability
Israel enjoyed after 1967 is tattered. A victory on the order of
destroying Iranian weapons would reinforce Israel´s relevance.
It is, of course, not clear that the Israelis intend to launch such
an attack. And it is not clear that such an attack would succeed. It
is also not clear that the Iranian counter at the Strait of Hormuz
wouldn´t leave Israel in a difficult political situation, and above
all it is not clear that Egyptian and Syrian factions would even be
impressed by the attacks enough to change their behavior.
Israel also has a domestic problem, a crisis of confidence. Many
military and intelligence leaders oppose an attack on Iran. Part of
their opposition is rooted in calculation. Part of it is rooted in a
series of less-than-successful military operations that have shaken
their confidence in the military option. They are afraid both of
failure and of the irrelevance of the attack on the strategic issues
Political inertia can be seen among Israeli policymakers. Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to form a coalition with the
centrist Kadima Party, but that fell apart over the parochial Israeli
issue of whether Orthodox Jews should be drafted. Rather than rising
to the level of a strategic dialogue, the secularist constituency of
Kadima confronted the religious constituencies of the Likud coalition
and failed to create a government able to devise a platform for
This is Israel´s crisis. It is not a sudden, life-threatening problem
but instead is the product of unraveling regional strategies, a lack
of confidence earned through failure and a political system incapable
of unity on any particular course. Israel, a small country that
always has used military force as its ultimate weapon, now faces a
situation where the only possible use of military force -- against
Iran -- is not only risky, it is not clearly linked to any of the
main issues Israel faces other than the nuclear issue.
The French Third Republic was marked by a similar sense of self-
regard overlaying a deep anxiety. This led to political paralysis and
Paris´ inability to understand the precise nature of the threat and
to shape its response to it. Rather than deal with the issues at hand
in the 1930s, the French relied on past glories to guide them. That
didn´t turn out very well.
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