Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Israel’s Challenges and Opportunities

by Joseph Puder

The P5+1 interim agreement with Iran was an alarming development for the Jewish State. Iran, unlike Hezbollah and Hamas, is an existential threat for Israel. While Hezbollah constitutes a strategic problem, and Hamas a mere tactical one, both can be managed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). A nuclear Iran is however a scary reality for Jerusalem. Yet, as the year 2013 comes to a close, regional developments portend political challenges and opportunities for Israel. 

Needless to say, relations with the Obama administration, not the best before the interim agreement, have gotten worse. Many Israelis feel that Obama has betrayed them, and that he never really cared to protect “Israel’s back.” His promise to Israel that the US won’t allow a nuclear armed Iran, they realize, was mere rhetoric. Israelis have not forgotten his pressure on Israel earlier in his administration regarding construction in Jerusalem. As a result, mutual trust between the two governments has suffered a blow.

Some Israeli officials have suggested that in view of Israel’s widening rift with the Obama administration (albeit, relations with the US Congress is solid as ever), Jerusalem should seek to build up closer relations with some of the Asian giants like China and India, and not place its diplomatic eggs in one basket (the US). The problem is that Israel does not share the same democratic and cultural values with China that it has with America. Additionally, the Chinese government is currently on the wrong side of the Iran nuclear issue as far as Israel is concerned. China has had a long history of pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian posturing due to its dependence on Arab oil. In recent years however, trade between Israel and China has mushroomed, and cultural exchanges and tourism are expanding. Interviewed by the Jerusalem Post (10/20/13) Li Qibao, a senior Chinese Communist Party official in charge of information, media, and culture said, “The Chinese and the Jews are both great nations in the world with long histories and splendid cultures. We have made indelible contributions to the world civilization and have gone through various hardships. Because of these experiences, we have been giving each other mutual understanding, sympathy, and assistance.” Sympathy and assistance do not trump ‘real politik’ for the Chinese, who seek energy resources in the Arab and Muslim world. A political alliance between the two must await future times.

India is indeed a fellow democracy, but it too has had close ties with Iran and the Arab world. By the same token, its conflict with Islamic Pakistan, and its close defense and security cooperation with Israel is promising.

During the Cold War, Israel was firmly ensconced in the Western camp. 20-years later, the bilateral relations between Russia and Israel could be described as “revolutionary.” Israel’s image in the eyes of ordinary Russians has changed dramatically for the better since Soviet times.  Approximately half a million Russians visit Israel annually and thousands of Israelis live and work in Russia. Closer people-to-people exchanges, common political goals on certain international issues, and growing economic ties have led to an historic rapprochement between the two sides.  The fact that over one million Russian speakers live in Israel, contributed to close cultural ties. Although Moscow is a signatory to the interim agreement with Iran, neither Russia nor Israel wish to see a nuclear armed Iran.

In an interview with the Times of Israel (10/21/13), Russian ambassador to Israel, Sergey Yakovlev, endorsed PM Netanyahu’s position that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish State. He stated, “I worked for more than five years as the Russian foreign minister’s special envoy for the Middle East, and the Israeli partners raised this issue I think three or four years ago. I reminded them that when the British mandate in Palestine was divided into two countries by the UN resolution in 1947, it was mentioned that it would be two states – one Arab state and the other Jewish.” Russia, with superpower pretenses, seeks renewed influence in the Arab and Muslim Middle East, and is unlikely to have the special relationship that exists between the US and Israel.

Israel’s strategic position has seen significant improvement in 2013, particularly in the Middle East. The removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt has dealt a blow to Hamas in Gaza, and halted the spread of Islamism. The Egyptian military is in control of the country, and it shares Israel’s concern over a nuclear Iran. The Egyptian military is also dealing with the growing threat of Islamist terror in the Sinai, another concern Israel shares with Egypt.

The civil war in Syria has incapacitated an old foe – the Assad regime. It is currently being stripped of its chemical weapons. At the same time, the Islamist opposition has been unable to prevail. Hezbollah forces, with tens of thousands of Iranian supplied missiles, is bogged down in Syria’s bloody civil war. Hezbollah’s involvement on Assad’s side has generated opposition from Sunni groups, and criticism from other confessional groups in Lebanon. They are blaming Hezbollah for causing instability in the land of cedars. The Daily Star of Lebanon reported (8/13/2013) that the Christian President of Lebanon, Michel Sleiman, called on Hezbollah to avoid intervening in Syria, saying the resources of the resistance belonged to all the Lebanese. He said, “The national capabilities, which are the Army, the state and the resistance, do not belong to a faction or sect.” He added, “They belong to the nation and cannot be biased, and the nation must decide how to use these capabilities.”

Under the leadership of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has become a dangerous adversary of Israel. In 2013, Erdogan overreached both at home and abroad. His glow is off his aggressive stand for Palestine. The European Union’s (EU) relation with Israel is more complex. While a third of Israel’s trade is with the EU, Israel rejects the EU involvement in the peace process with the Palestinians due to its anti-Israel bias. The Europeans are becoming moreover politically irrelevant in the Middle East.

Opposition to Shiite Iran’s hegemonic quest and its drive to acquire nuclear capability has brought together the Arab-Sunni-Muslim states and Israel. It may be an alliance of convenience, but it is nevertheless a first of its kind. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and Israel, oppose the Obama administration’s interim agreement with Iran. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are “turned off” by the Obama administration’s policies that appeased the Iranians and supported the Muslim Brotherhood. UPI reported (11/26/13) “The Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council have pledged $12 billion to Cairo and have delivered about $7 billion…Riyadh has agreed to pay for the Russian arms. But the switch from US weapons – supplied to Egypt since 1979 – back to Russia, the primary supplier to throughout the 1970s will entail a significant expenditure that could signal a possible shift in Arab military procurement policies.”

In summary, Israel’s relations with its primary ally, the US, has weakened under Obama. Israel can no longer count on Washington, especially where Iran is concerned. Nevertheless, to quote Ephraim Inbar, Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic studies, “Time is on Israel’s side, the strength of Israel’s democracy and its high-tech economy, along with its multi-layered missile defense shield, and the weakness of the Arab countries, including a steep decline in their military capability – leaves Israel in a much more secure regional position than ever before.” A nuclear Iran poses a definite threat, and would potentially foster nuclear proliferation in the region. Israel will undoubtedly rise to the challenge from Iran since its survival depends on it.

Joseph Puder


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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