Israel’s changing periphery

By Azfar Mohammad

The tiny Jewish state of “Israel,” which was formed in 1948 through the mass influx of persecuted Jewish refugees from Europe, has completed 69 years of existence this May 2016. This tiny statelet, which is no more than the size of New Jersey in the US has not only been able to survive hostilities of the Arab neighborhood but has consistently expanded its territory in Arab lands for which security has been given as a primary justification. However various critics and analysts continue to question the real motive behind the expansion of settlements and say that the ultimate intent is to create “Eretz Yisrael” or “Greater Israel.”

If we look at the Arab-Israeli conflict from the prism of David & Goliath, it is clear that over the course of time, David (Israel) has not only been able to contain Goliath (Arabs), but also slay it on various occasions including 1948 (War of Independence), 1967 (Arab-Israeli Conflict) & 1973 (Yom Kippur War) apart from other regional battles fought subsequently in Lebanon, West Bank, and Gaza. What we see today is a completely divided and fractured Arab world extending from Libya in the West to Iraq in the East with the conditions of GCC states being more precarious than has ever been in the past. The various Arab regimes – be it Authoritarian Dictatorships, Monarchies and even Islamists are on a constant quest to hold onto their power and even territorial sovereignty in most cases, let alone play the role of playing the catalyst towards the formation of a Palestinian state.

It is obvious that Israel has done some extraordinary strategic maneuvering which has not only allowed it to strengthen its position in the region with every passing year but has over a period of time, diverted the attention of Arabs from Israel as a primary foe to managing internal issues be it sectarian, social or economic and conflicts in the immediate neighborhood.

Without a doubt, the role of the strong Jewish lobby in the United States and the wider global Jewish Diaspora has been instrumental in furthering Israel’s cause. One of the bulwarks of Israeli strategy in the region has been the policy of “Alliance of the Periphery” formulated and implemented by David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the state of Israel. This strategy has led to development of strong bilateral relations with major Non-Arab nations such as Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia in order to effectively counter the rising threat of Pan-Arabism focused towards the Palestinian cause and Arab Unity. The relation with these states was fairly strong for the first four decades especially until the disintegration of Soviet Union which was the primary major threat to Israel.

Iran and Turkey established cordial relations with Israel immediately upon its creation although Ethiopia happened to recognize Israel much later. This policy of developing cordial ties with Iran and Turkey was extremely effective in encircling the hostile Arab states, which were a major threat to the fledgling state of Israel. Israel effectively played the card of age-old Persian-Arab / Shia-Sunni hostility to divide Iran and the Arab World, whereas in the case of Turkey, the secular Kemalist governments had been more westward leaning and more or less ignored the Arabs since the end of World War 1 which worked to Israel’s advantage.  With the establishment of the Periphery alliance doctrine even a myopic possibility of a potential Pan-Islamic Alliance which could be an existential threat to Israel was put to rest. This allowed Israel to consolidate and establish necessary governance institutions in the start-up nation, ultimately allowing it to proceed forward with the neo-revisionist ideology of right winged Ze’ev Jabotinsky and carry on expansion and settlement policy, more so from the time of Menachem Begin in 1977 onwards.

Another point worth noting is that apart from the geostrategic need of an alliance with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia these three countries have been inhabited by a reasonable Jewish population for millennia which has been gradually migrating to Israel in phases since its creation; hence, strengthening the Israeli state demographically. The population of Israel has grown from 800,600 in May 1948 to approximately 8.3 million in 2016 which is a ten-fold increase over 68 years. Along with this, the average fertility rate amongst Jewish women is 3.03/woman which is reasonably high going by the global standards. Hence, the twin policy of continuous migration and the increased birth rate is making the nation demographically stronger and more stable.

Israel’s relations with Iran under Pahlavi regime and secular Turkey have been very cordial; however, there have been some cracks visible especially since the “Rise of Islamism“, first in Iran with the advent of Islamic Revolution in 1979 which brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power leading to the establishment of first Islamic government in the region later with AKP coming to power in Turkey. Although the relationship took a hit with the establishment of Islamic government, they were never completely fractured as geopolitical priorities dictated otherwise. According to Dr. Trita Parsi in his book ” Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States,” the geostrategic needs and priorities have superseded the ideological impediments and there have been instances where on one hand Iran was strong in its rhetoric towards Israel by calling for its destruction but on the other hand continued to deal with it by supplying oil and buying weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. According to Dr. Parsi, Iraq constituted a bigger threat to Israel compared to Iran a). Due to its geographical proximity to Israel and also its open hostility to the state of Israel. Iraq was also a major patron of PLO led by Yasser Arafat who had leftist leanings.

Let’s look at the example of Turkey. Turkey has maintained very strong relations with Israel since its creation, and these relations have strengthened further under the Kemalist leadership of Turkey. Israel has consistently supported Turkey by not recognizing the “Armenian Genocide” to keep the diplomatic wheel lubricated. However, in 2002 there was a major change in Turkish politics when the Islamist party (Justice and Development Party aka AKP) came to power for the first time since the creation of the secular Turkish state. This led to the cooling of relations between the two sides, but the bi-lateral ties continued to develop until the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008 and the Gaza Flotilla Incident where the Israeli commandos intercepted a civilian ship Mavi Marmara carrying aid for Palestinian refugees and killed 9 Turkish officials during the raid. This antagonized the Turkish government and led to the deterioration of relations between the two countries. However, since then, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and agreed to compensate the bereaved families to repair the damage, but the fissures in the relations are clearly visible.

The Bush administration’s neoconservative team led Invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has left Iran in a very volatile neighborhood sharing borders with two disintegrating states. The ongoing civil war in both Iraq and Syria has led to absolute catastrophe with millions of deaths, and millions other displaced who have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries of Iran, Turkey, and Jordan. Apart from Iraq and Syria, which are near collapse, Iran and Turkey, which share borders with the above two states respectively, are also experiencing serious stability concerns.  Their borders (Iran and Turkey) have become porous, and there is a large deluge of migrants which is affecting the stability of these two states. While Iran is stuck managing Iraq, Turkey, on the other hand, is struggling to control the spillover of Syrian refugees as well as contain the Kurdish separatist forces. Needless to say, this has and will continue to weaken them.

Iraq was invaded on the pretext of holding weapons of mass destruction which were never found in Iraq. American Ambassador Joseph Wilson who was appointed to investigate regarding Saddam Hussein’s purchase of yellowcake uranium from Niger, refuted charges of any such dealing through his op-ed piece “What I didn’t find in Africa.” By this bold act, he ruffled feathers with some people in the Bush administration who subsequently leaked his wife Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent. However, this can be explored as a separate matter, but the mistakes have been very costly in the larger context of destabilizing the entire region.

After countering and decimating the threat of Pan-Arabism, Israel has now focused attention on its distant cousin “Pan-Islamism.” With the advent of political Islam first in Iran and later in Turkey, the “Original Periphery Doctrine” was gradually losing the purpose for which it was created and hence necessitated the creation of a “new periphery doctrine” in consonance with the changing times and priorities. Weakened Arab states of Iraq and Syria has allowed Israel to focus its attention on previous allies Iran and Turkey who are now becoming a threat to Israel due to their Islamist orientation and support for Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in Gaza Strip. So, although Iranian nuclear program is something that needs to be managed the high pitch of Anti-Iranian rhetoric heard after the destruction of Iraq points to something deeper than meets the normal eye.

To counter the rising threat of Political Islam, Israel plans to strengthen its relationship under this “New Peripheral Doctrine” with countries such as Azerbaijan, Greece, Cyprus, and India. There is the geopolitical significance of choosing these countries as partners.

Diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan were established after the disintegration of Soviet Union. However, the majority of the dealings between Israel and Azerbaijan are tacit to avoid the wrath of fellow Muslim nations towards Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan President, Ilham Aliyev compared his country’s relation to Israel with an iceberg: “Nine-tenths of it is below the surface.” Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan are a direct threat to Iran since approximately 18 million Iranians are of Azeri descent, and it would not be too difficult to flame secessionist movements which would be a direct threat to Iranian sovereignty. Since 2012, the relations between Israel and Azerbaijan have become deeper with Israel selling weapons worth billions of dollars to Azerbaijan. Even the trade and commerce links are on the rise. Israel buys approximately 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan. Recently – there were talks that Azerbaijan had permitted Israel to use its air base for striking Iranian nuclear facilities although this is not yet confirmed officially. There is no doubt that Israel now wishes to use its relationship with Azerbaijan to counter Iran, just the way it used Iran to tame Iraq in the not so distant past.

Relations between Turkey and Israel and have been cool since the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power. This deteriorated further with the Turkish condemnation of Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008 followed by the Gaza Flotilla incident in which many Turkish citizens were killed. Although relations have become better since Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the incident the broader trajectory of relations seems to be changing. Off late, the relations have been very transactional in nature, and both sides need each other for their PYD (Kurdish separatists in Turkey) and Hezbollah (Iran support Shia militia which is anti-Israel) problems. Since 2010 relations between Greece, Cyprus and Israel have warmed up substantially with heads of state exchanging visits and also holding trilateral summits to give a more strategic direction to the relationship. There have been several joint military, air, and sea exercises conducted by the forces of these three nations to strengthen co-operation. Apart from this, there is ongoing collaboration towards developing energy ties between the three countries. The Leviathan Gas Field development is one such project where Greece, Cyprus, and Israel are coordinating. This warming of relations with turkeys historical arch-enemies has made Turkey more fearful of Israel’s intentions.

Similarly, Israel’s relations with India have been on the rise with collaborations in various diverse areas such as military, technology, and agriculture. The relations have received a further boost during the reign of right-wing parties in both countries i.e. PM Narendra Modi (BJP) and PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud Party). India has abstained votes against Israel on various UN resolutions exhibiting its interest in solidifying relations to a strategic level. Recently, Modi-led Indian Government has approved multi-billion dollar deals exhibiting its intent to strengthen the ties. India’s growing stature globally along with its location at the eastern end of extended Middle East civilization makes India a natural ally to encircle the Islamic lands. India was ideologically pro-Palestine previously however its geopolitical realities necessitate having better relations with Israel primarily to have some influence on American foreign policy in the region. India needs US support to manage the looming threat of China which is its northern neighbor. Being Pro-Israel automatically provides leverage in the power circles in Washington DC. AIPAC  (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) board of directors have visited India in the past to strengthen US-Israel-India co-operation against fundamental Islam. AIPAC is one of the strongest pro-Israel lobbies based in the United States and has an influential impact on the formulation of American policies.

So although Israel may choose and leave its partners based on its geostrategic needs, it has grown much more powerful than what it was 69 years ago when it was created. Various Israeli interest groups whether in government, industry, academia, media, etc. have done a phenomenal job of coordinating and working towards a stronger Israel and no doubt they have been very successful thus far. Whether everything they do is morally & ethically justifiable? Their behavior is certainly questionable on a multitude of issues, and there is a lot of dirty linen which is hidden. But if there is any state Niccolo Machiavelli would admire and be proud of it would certainly be “Israel.”


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Azfar Mohammad

Azfar Mohammad is an independent analyst & researcher on Middle Eastern affairs. He works in the private sector based in Dubai for the past 12 years. During the course of his professional career he has travelled extensively across GCC region which has given him the opportunity to get a first hand experience of the economic, social and political landscape. He has extensively studied the region from the foreign policy perspective and is now working on doing a PhD in the subject.

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