Israel


Steve Cook at CFR has offered his latest analysis of the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, a thing he readily admits to having incorrectly dismissed. In it, he points to several matters of shared strategic interests and material concerns (energy and possibly Iran) that might encourage such a renewal of ties, and some that might not (Syria) – all of which I largely agree with.

What’s interesting is that having laid the groundwork for the materialist/realist argument, he then concludes that it is a result purely of personalistic politics; that President Obama essentially shamed Erdogan and Netanyahu into making up. I can’t help but wonder if this explanation overlooks the deep history that these two states share. Maybe it was the breakup that had more to do with personalities and politics than does the reunification?

Israel’s offensive in Gaza is not likely in preparation for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, though such a disastrous campaign cannot be dismissed.   Israeli feelings of being besieged from twin threats – external enemies and internal demographic changes – make it possible, if unlikely, that Israel might engage in otherwise counterproductive behavior.

In my last post, I looked at some of the strategic considerations for Israel in manning a ground campaign in Gaza versus its current airstrikes in terms of the costs of operating in the Arab Spring-thawed Middle East. Mostly, I was looking at its relationship with Egypt and just how far it would be willing to go without endangering the peace treaty. But it is worth pivoting east, as some have, to look at what this might mean in terms of Israel’s continuing confrontation with Iran.

Jerry Seib suggested in a Wall Street Journal blog post that Iran might have promoted HAMAS to attack Israel in order to tie them up militarily. Iran has, after all, been HAMAS’ main supplier of weapons, including the more advanced missiles seen over the last week. Then again, he also points out that this course might backfire and allow Israel to free itself of the HAMAS deterrent.

In short, this would be a stupid plan for Iran even if the assumed relationship between Iran and HAMAS were true. HAMAS is not a proxy for Iran in the same way that one could describe Hizballah – and even there, you run into problems thinking the relationship so unidirectional.

I think it likely that HAMAS wasn’t pressured by anyone (other than Israel) to resume its missile strikes. And its building of a better arsenal over the past year or so doesn’t have to stray beyond basic military precautions to make sense (those home-made mortars weren’t doing anything other than making potholes in the desert).

Others have  further speculated that the campaign in Gaza might be but a precursor to an offensive in Iran to destroy that country’s nuclear program. The logic goes that Iran supplied the advanced missiles to HAMAS as a deterrent against Israeli aggression, and so by dismantling that deterrent  Israel should feel more free to act directly against Iran.

I’m sure that Israel would feel much better knowing that Iran’s supply of arms to HAMAS has been weakened, but I don’t think that the situation is quite so simple. Deterrence probably was part of Iran’s reasons for supplying HAMAS, as it also supplies Hizballah and Islamic Jihad, as might the general theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend; however, none of these are probably a large enough deterrence to stop Israel from striking Iran if it thought it could take our that country’s program. It after all did exactly that to Iraq and Syria.

The largest deterrence to Israel in striking Iran is that Iran’s program is much bigger, more complex, more advanced, and better defended than either Syria or Iraq’s programs were. A full-on war effort by Israel would be unlikely to do more than set Iran back a few months or maybe a year.

The second biggest deterrence to Israel is the US, which thus far has managed to hold its ally back from the brink. But the US is limited in its ability to do this, and Israel is spurred on to action by domestic political interests as well as security concerns.

That same mixture of concern for security and political machination also goes far towards explaining Israel’s offensive in Gaza on its own. Israel has always verged on paranoia in its foreign policy, and the Tip O’Neill axiom that all politics are local is far more true of Israel than it ever was for the US. It is evident in its concern over Iran’s nuclear program and in HAMAS’ rocket campaign, neither of which could ever constitute a existential threat. That said, Israel’s paranoia is occasionally justified, and it has fought its fair share of defensive wars over the years.

Politically, Israel has seen a massive shift towards the right – defined in Israel between Hawks and Doves – in the last decade, in part because of structural considerations that gives inordinate political weight to fringe groups and in part due to demographic changes that threaten to to make Jews a minority. Feelings of being besieged from twin threats make it possible, if unlikely, that Israel might engage in otherwise counterproductive behavior. So we can’t rule out an Israeli strike on Iran, but we can be reasonably sure that whatever its motivations in Gaza, preparing the ground for a strike on Iran isn’t among them.

The past several days have seemed like a nostalgic return to the MENA of old, with HAMAS launching rockets into Israel and Israel responding with air strikes and threats of a ground invasion. So repetitive has been this pattern that one could almost forget that the region within which it is occurring now is so very different than the one in which that pattern emerged and, more or less, worked for Israel.

Israel (and HAMAS) now have to deal with a region in which the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt (albeit in a sort of power-sharing agreement with a partially reformed military which still benefits from its peace agreement with Israel) within a democratic framework, HAMAS’ traditional power base in Damascus is gone along with Assad’s support, Lebanon is caught up in the Syrian fight, Jordan is facing its first serious calls for the overthrow of the monarchy (in part from Palestinians, who make up the majority of the population), and Israel’s traditional ally of Turkey has shown itself unwilling to back Israel against Palestinian resistance. The ties between HAMAS and the Islamist governments of Egypt and Turkey can easily be overstated–HAMAS is NOT the Muslim Brotherhood, though it does share an ideological heritage and members of both groups hold affinities for one another–but it is a thing to be reckoned with from the perspective of Israel.

What then does all this mean? Will there be a ground war? What will be the repercussions, for Israel, HAMAS, FATAH, Egypt, and your grandmother?

By far the biggest, and least asked, question from all of this is, so what? Whether Israel invades on the ground of continues to pummel and kill from the air, does it make a difference to the regional political situation, to states’ security, or to US interests? I like it when others ask the right questions:

This poses the first real test of some of the biggest questions about the real strategic significance of the Arab uprisings of the last two years.  Do the uprisings really constrain Israel’s ability to wage wars such as the 2006 war against Hezbollah or 2008/09 war against Gaza?  In what way?  Would the empowerment of a mobilized Arab public force Arab leaders to adopt significantly different policies towards Israel?  Would democratically elected Islamist leaders like Morsi really change core foreign policy positions such as the commitment to the Camp David peace treaty? Would intense political competition, popular mobilization, or different ideologies outweigh the cold calculations of Realpolitik and hopes for international acceptance?  

Mubarak would have crushed real dissent, allowing only a show of solidarity while maintaining the peace with Israel; Moursi may not have that leeway. My own assessment is that this will not likely lead to a ground war, as that may be the line that Egypt cannot allow Israel to cross. They will strive to maintain the status quo that so benefits them, especially in the current uncertain period of transition, but in the face of a ground occupation, they be compelled to act by the vast majority of Egyptians angry over their Muslim brethren (and blood relatives in many cases) being killed.

But what of the last part of my question? Would any outcome affect US interests, and therefore get the US to intervene on either side?

Since the US is still trying to build relations with the new Egypt, it is unlikely to have much in the game at this point. And the US is likely still to back Israel no matter what. So regardless of what Israel does, it is essentially guaranteed political (and military, if need be) support from the US and there will be no major changes in the US-Egypt relationship.

Ah, nostalgia.