international analysis and commentary

Israel’s Security Agenda between old and new prisms

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For many years, the security environment of Israel was seen through a specific prism: the “radical axis” of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas was perceived as a threat to Israel, while cooperation with the “moderate axis” led by Egypt and Jordan was deemed pragmatically possible. This security prism, however, is breaking into pieces. The future of the “moderate axis” is unclear: the peace treaty with Egypt seems endangered with Islamic parties’ gains in the recent election round. And while the military will continue to rule in the background, it cannot totally disregard public opinion anymore. Furthermore, in the Palestinian arena, Abbas’ diplomatic move for Palestinian statehood was perceived in many respects as more dangerous for Israel’s status quo than the occasional rocket fire from Hamas.

Similarly, the “radical axis” is disintegrating too. Syrian leader Bashar Assad seems on the verge of falling. This further isolates Iran and Hezbollah, for whom Syria was and still is a central ally. According to media reports, Syrian National Council head Burhan Ghalioun clarified that an opposition-run Syria would cut ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Nonetheless, Hamas does support the Syrian revolution and a possibly emerging Sunni government. The Palestinian Islamic movement has been cooperating with Iran out of strategic interest. It turned to Tehran for financial and military support following its isolation from the West and key Arab states, and the closure of the Gaza Strip. If it fits its interests, Hamas might well turn away from Iran – especially if offered a “home” in the moderate Arab world.

These developments mean that it is particularly difficult for Israel to assess the nature and intentions of its adversaries: the security environment seems rather unpredictable. This also explains partially why Israel is sticking to old policies regarding the Palestinians. For example, while many analysts expected Israel to compromise with the Palestinians, given Israel’s growing isolation, the contrary has been the case: Israel has continued its settlement activity and thus is effectively hampering negotiations with the Palestinians.

Since the Goldstone Report, the Gaza Flotilla incident and, more recently, the Palestinian statehood bid, Israel’s international isolation has been increasing. So has what Asher Arian called the “People Apart Syndrome”. Israelis feel under threat and left alone, especially as the United States is no longer perceived as fully reliable. This mood enables the current government to “securitize” both domestic and foreign relations. It is reflected in the proposed legislation which seeks to squash foreign funding for Israeli human rights NGOs, and in Israel’s current policy towards the Palestinians. Netanyahu tapped into this syndrome, when, in his UN speech, he brought up the scenario of a “Judenrein” (free of Jews) Palestinian state in the West Bank. Officials are voicing fears of an “Islamic winter” and doomsday scenarios regarding Iran are becoming more frequent. Regarding military action in Iran, Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently reiterated that “no option should be taken off the table. Israel is responsible for its security, its future and its existence”.

The relationship with Tehran may be the only one to which the old security prism still applies. The recently increasing “warfare” rhetoric between the two states serves both governments. With it, Israel can counter its international isolation and divert attention from the deadlock in the peace process. Furthermore, it is also useful internally for the current government to silence social protests. Similarly, the Iranian regime can use the Israel card to rally its people around the flag. Paradoxically, that Iran fears a spill-over effect is evident in its efforts to portray the Arab Spring as a continuation of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979.

While domestic concerns explain the renewal of a certain bellicose rhetoric, it should also be remembered that there is a persistent security dilemma for Israel but also Iran which has to be addressed. Iran – surrounded as it is by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and with its key ally Syria mired in crisis – will most probably continue its quest for nuclear weapons. The case of Libya might even reinforce Tehran’s logic: Muammar Gheddafi had given up his weapon of mass destruction program to ease the international isolation of his regime in 2003, but perhaps that program might have saved him from Western interference in the end. Israel, naturally, fears the acquisition of nuclear power by Iran: this would not only change the regional balance of power, but possibly lead to a nuclear race also involving other key states like Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

International intervention seems the only solution to this dilemma, but international sanctions on Iran and clandestine sabotage have so far served only to buy time – at best. As Amos Yadlin, director of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), pointed out, the Iranians already have enough uranium for 4 to 5 nuclear bombs, but are waiting until they feel that the price they will pay for actually building the bomb is low.

The Arab League, whose member states would be direly affected by a nuclear arms race, should shoulder some responsibilities in containing Iran’s ambitions. The League would be a more credible actor to accommodate Iran, as its policy does not seem like a Western re-making of the region imposed by outsiders. The Arab League has indeed shown itself capable of acting in concert regarding some difficult regional questions. In 2003, it presented the Arab Peace Initiative and, very recently, showed support for the Syrian people’s quest for democracy. Indeed, this latest move is somewhat surprising, given that the organization is not made up of democracies: it is probably one more sign of the times – times of change.