Israeli Policy in the Age of Islamism

It is a short walk from here to nowhere, if you are a Jewish state (or even a state of mostly Jews) in the midst of the Mideast. When your back is to the sea and history, and your face is to the inhospitable desert, both the feeling and the view can be cramped and inhibiting.

Once upon a time, Israel had a prime minister named David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of the state and a politician with strategic grasp. While he often flew solo, sometimes to the detriment of his nation, Ben-Gurion grasped Israel's dilemmas well enough. The young state was surrounded by implacable Arab enemies; virtually all political factions in each Arab state opposed Zionism absolutely. No matter whether a nationalist, a pan-Arabist, or a Marxist ruled a particular Arab state, a policy of politicide towards Israel always worked at home. Anything else was an invitation to accusations of treason and heresy to the nation and to Islam.

Ben-Gurion saw a way out of this, or at least around it. He would form alliances with important states on the periphery of the Arab world -- non-Arab states with historic bones to pick with their Arab adversaries. Chief candidates were Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia. Iran and Turkey (especially) were both under secularizing regimes that emphasized national identity, which worked against Muslim sentiments and highlighted differences with Arab rivals.

This in fact became Israeli regional policy in the 1950s and 1960s. As Gamal Nasser emerged as Egypt's strong man and developed his pan-Arab nationalism, it became a matter of survival. In the absence of any demonstration of genuine friendship from the United States, Israel also developed a warm relationship with France. While this was shattered in the wake of the 1967 war -- when Charles de Gaulle, freed of Algeria and conscious of the size and potential markets of Araby, suddenly remembered "Jewish arrogance" -- this relationship served Israel well for years.

Israeli policy was thus two-pronged and sensible, featuring 1) cultivation of ties with powerful Mideast periphery states, and 2) maintaining suitable European alliances. The success of the periphery alliances can be seen by the fact that Turkey and Iran remained on good terms with Israel after de Gaulle and the French turned on the Jewish state.

Why were these policies effective, and what do they tell us about current events in the region? After all, Iran and Turkey have emerged as Israel's most threatening adversaries in the region -- with all respect to the hostile Syrians, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other factors. Iran clearly spearheads ideological and practical opposition to Israel's existence as a sovereign, non-Muslim, and Jewish state in the Middle East. It practices a virulent form of Shiite messianism that is interwoven with its foreign policy. The Iranian government and its most visible spokesman, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, breathe fire and brimstone as they promise Israel's destruction and constantly repeat that it is a cancer to be removed from the region.

The Turks are rushing to catch up. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has emerged as a full-fledged Islamist, instructing historian Bernard Lewis that there is no such thing as extreme Islam, that "Islam is Islam" and all other interpretations are insulting. Mr. Erdogan has referred to "mosques as barracks" and minarets as bayonets for Islam. His political party, the Justice and Development Party (“AK”), has enthusiastically promoted the Islamic sentiments of its supporters.

Erdogan is essentially attempting to remake Turkey as a smaller, more Islamic Ottoman Empire, one that discards the Western-facing experiment instigated by Turkey's national hero, Mustafa Kemal ("Ataturk"). He is trying to purge Turkey of its democracy and its mostly secular national identity. That is, Erdogan and his allies are anti-Turkish, assuming that modern Turkish identity indeed manifests Ataturk's vision. Only if Erdogan and the AD destroy the concept of Turkey can they implement their Islamist vision. If they succeed, then Turkey essentially becomes a Sunni variant of today's Iran.

These are profound changes, suggesting a permanent shift in Turkey's very identity. Political identifications, alliances, and enemies are all shuffled organically as a result. The turn back to Islam inevitably strengthens Iran, most of whose major allies are of convenience and based on "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."