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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.”

Looked at in Islamic terms, Turkey joins Iran and Saudi Arabia as the major sources of Islamic “outreach” in the world. This has also meant attempts to influence “infidel” governments, encourage conversion to Islam, and impose Sharia law. These are ominous precursors to a potential Islamic wave. Yet reality is more complicated, given the relationships between these three countries:

  1. The Arabs, particularly the Saudis, view Turkey as ex-colonizer and overlord;
  2. Saudi Arabia and Iran vie as, respectively, the representative of Sunni, Arabic-based Islam and that of Shiite, Persian-rooted Islam. This is exacerbated by the bloody warfare between Sunni Iraq and Iran for decades. Iran has made it clear that it regards Saudi Arabia as a rival and enemy, in part because of the Saudi alliance with the United States;
  3. Iran and Turkey also face each other across a Sunni-Shiite divide, and Turkey has a historic dispute with Syria, Iran’s client.

Beyond this, the Saudis and most of the Arab world — excepting Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas — are mortified at the prospect of the Iranian bomb. The Saudi fear is quite legitimate, based on Iran’s pretensions to control the Middle East and its historic rivalry with the Arabs.

Since Iran has territorial conflicts with the Gulf states and is open about its desire to lead the world into Islam through the mechanism of its expanded sovereignty, the Saudis could not realistically join such an axis. More specifically, they prefer that an Israel that they despise lead an effort to set back Iran’s nuclear program rather than that program succeed.

For Israel, this presents massive problems and certain opportunities. To the extent that the Israeli-Arab conflict is still that, and not simply a subset of the war between Islam and the non-believers, the Arab problem with Iran is a chance to find some common ground. To the degree that Turkey “complements” Iran as a self-proclaimed champion (or ruler) of the entire region, the Arabs have a second non-Arab actor to fear — one with a past history of ruling over them with cruelty and disregard. In other words, the principle of “the enemy of my enemy” could apply here as well.

In theory, Israel has an opportunity for a practical rapprochement with all parts of the Arab world save Syria and Hezbollah-controlled/influenced Lebanon. Certainly Israel has demonstrated, often to its detriment, its desire for peace. The problem — aside from the quality of Israeli outreach — is the measure of Arab animosity to Israel. Using the Camp David Accords as a guide, hope is not the best guideline. The Egyptian government often deals with Israel in the nature of a man who must walk on hot coals to reach the other side of a pit. When Mubarak has an opportunity to embarrass Israel, he has done so (witness Egypt’s enthusiastic sponsoring of a recent UN resolution whose purpose is to disarm Israel’s suspected nuclear arsenal).

Saudi Arabia remains the linchpin of ideological Arab/Islamic hostility to Israel, despite Syrian and Hezbollah arsenals. Saudi Arabia is the real test. Given its fierce Wahhabist leanings, the union between Islam and the Saudi leadership, and the many “missions” of its native sons for jihad and Islam, it is nearly impossible to hold onto hope. Approximately 40% of all suicide bombers in Iraq have been Saudi. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. The funding of extremist mosques and the efforts to convert Westerners are hardly indicative of a state that is ready to normalize and coexist with the hated Jewish “inferiors” in its backyard.

David Ben-Gurion is long-gone, and the region transformed since his passing. The real question that 2010 brings us is: Can any Muslim state ever be a normal state operating on rational, Western assumptions in its dealings with other states? The answer remains generally and persuasively no.

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