Could Israel vs. Flotilla be Part of Turkey’s Bid for Regional Hegemony?

As was inevitable, the commentary on Israel’s raid / high seas piracy / legal blockade enforcement / call-it-what-you-will has degenerated into a polarized flame-war between the blind and the deaf, which although very entertaining is also pretty useless*. By far the best analytical article on this issue I’ve found that really cuts through the partisan BS is The Limits of Public Opinion: Arabs, Israelis and the Strategic Balance, a free Stratfor article by George Friedman**.

The most fundamental point is that the current situation suits everyone just fine. The Arab regimes (and the Palestinians themselves) are weak and disunited and no longer represent the strategic threat to Israel that they did during the Cold War. Israel’s actions give them a chance to vent their fury to satiate the “Arab street”, but it is not in their interests to push the envelope any further. In turn, Israel is big enough to accept the verbal lashing in return for keeping its enforcement of the Gaza blockade credible. However, this Flotilla Affair may also presage much more significant long-term developments.

Last week’s events off the coast of Israel continue to resonate. Turkish-Israeli relations have not quite collapsed since then but are at their lowest level since Israel’s founding. U.S.-Israeli tensions have emerged, and European hostility toward Israel continues to intensify. The question has now become whether substantial consequences will follow from the incident. …

The most significant threat to Israel would, of course, be military. International criticism is not without significance, but nations do not change direction absent direct threats to their interests. But powers outside the region are unlikely to exert military power against Israel, and even significant economic or political sanctions are unlikely to happen. Apart from the desire of outside powers to limit their involvement, this is rooted in the fact that significant actions are unlikely from inside the region either.

The first generations of Israelis lived under the threat of conventional military defeat by neighboring countries. More recent generations still faced threats, but not this one. Israel is operating in an advantageous strategic context save for the arena of public opinion and diplomatic relations and the question of Iranian nuclear weapons. All of these issues are significant, but none is as immediate a threat as the specter of a defeat in conventional warfare had been. Israel’s regional enemies are so profoundly divided among themselves and have such divergent relations with Israel that an effective coalition against Israel does not exist — and is unlikely to arise in the near future.

Given this, the probability of an effective, as opposed to rhetorical, shift in the behavior of powers outside the region is unlikely. At every level, Israel’s Arab neighbors are incapable of forming even a partial coalition against Israel. Israel is not forced to calibrate its actions with an eye toward regional consequences, explaining Israel’s willingness to accept broad international condemnation.

Now for more detail on the internal Palestinian divisions between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

To begin to understand how deeply the Arabs are split, simply consider the split among the Palestinians themselves. They are currently divided between two very different and hostile factions. On one side is Fatah, which dominates the West Bank. On the other side is Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip. Aside from the geographic division of the Palestinian territories — which causes the Palestinians to behave almost as if they comprised two separate and hostile countries — the two groups have profoundly different ideologies.

Fatah arose from the secular, socialist, Arab-nationalist and militarist movement of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s. … Hamas arose from the Islamist movement. It was driven by religious motivations quite alien from Fatah and hostile to it.

Hamas and Fatah are playing a zero-sum game. Given their inability to form a coalition and their mutual desire for the other to fail, a victory for one is a defeat for the other. … Though revolutionary movements frequently are torn by sectarianism, these divisions are so deep that even without Israeli manipulation, the threat the Palestinians pose to the Israelis is diminished. With manipulation, the Israelis can pit Fatah against Hamas.

And on why the Arab elites don’t really care that much for Palestinians, despite their rhetoric.

The split within the Palestinians is also reflected in divergent opinions among what used to be called the confrontation states surrounding Israel — Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Egypt, for example, is directly hostile to Hamas, a religious movement amid a sea of essentially secular Arab states. Hamas’ roots are in Egypt’s largest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian state has historically considered its main domestic threat. … For this and other reasons, Egypt has maintained its own blockade of Gaza. Egypt is much closer to Fatah, whose ideology derives from Egyptian secularism, and for this reason, Hamas deeply distrusts Cairo.

Jordan views Fatah with deep distrust. In 1970, Fatah under Arafat tried to stage a revolution against the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. … The idea of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank unsettles the Hashemite regime, as Jordan’s population is mostly Palestinian. Meanwhile, Hamas with its Islamist ideology worries Jordan, which has had its own problems with the Muslim Brotherhood. …

Syria is far more interested in Lebanon than it is in the Palestinians. Its co-sponsorship (along with Iran) of Hezbollah has more to do with Syria’s desire to dominate Lebanon than it does with Hezbollah as an anti-Israeli force. Indeed, whenever fighting breaks out between Hezbollah and Israel, the Syrians get nervous and their tensions with Iran increase. And of course, while Hezbollah is anti-Israeli, it is not a Palestinian movement. It is a Lebanese Shiite movement. … So Syria is playing a side game with an anti-Israeli movement that isn’t Palestinian, while also maintaining relations with both factions of the Palestinian movement.

… the Saudis and other Arabian Peninsula regimes remember the threat that Nasser and the PLO posed to their regimes. … And while the Iranians would love to have influence over the Palestinians, Tehran is more than 1,000 miles away. … But Fatah doesn’t trust the Iranians, and Hamas, though a religious movement, is Sunni while Iran is Shiite. Hamas and the Iranians may cooperate on some tactical issues, but they do not share the same vision.

And now on why Israel feels it has a free hand in the short-term to carry out what it views as its optimal security policy.

Given this environment, it is extremely difficult to translate hostility to Israeli policies in Europe and other areas into meaningful levers against Israel. Under these circumstances, the Israelis see the consequences of actions that excite hostility toward Israel from the Arabs and the rest of the world as less dangerous than losing control of Gaza. The more independent Gaza becomes, the greater the threat it poses to Israel. The suppression of Gaza is much safer and is something Fatah ultimately supports, Egypt participates in, Jordan is relieved by and Syria is ultimately indifferent to.

Nations base their actions on risks and rewards. The configuration of the Palestinians and Arabs rewards Israeli assertiveness and provides few rewards for caution. The Israelis do not see global hostility toward Israel translating into a meaningful threat because the Arab reality cancels it out. Therefore, relieving pressure on Hamas makes no sense to the Israelis. Doing so would be as likely to alienate Fatah and Egypt as it would to satisfy the Swedes, for example. As Israel has less interest in the Swedes than in Egypt and Fatah, it proceeds as it has.

A single point sums up the story of Israel and the Gaza blockade-runners: Not one Egyptian aircraft threatened the Israeli naval vessels, nor did any Syrian warship approach the intercept point. The Israelis could be certain of complete command of the sea and air without challenge. And this underscores how the Arab countries no longer have a military force that can challenge the Israelis, nor the will nor interest to acquire one. Where Egyptian and Syrian forces posed a profound threat to Israeli forces in 1973, no such threat exists now. Israel has a completely free hand in the region militarily; it does not have to take into account military counteraction. The threat posed by intifada, suicide bombers, rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, and Hezbollah fighters is real, but it does not threaten the survival of Israel the way the threat from Egypt and Syria once did (and the Israelis see actions like the Gaza blockade as actually reducing the threat of intifada, suicide bombers and rockets). Non-state actors simply lack the force needed to reach this threshold. When we search for the reasons behind Israeli actions, it is this singular military fact that explains Israeli decision-making.

And while the break between Turkey and Israel is real, Turkey alone cannot bring significant pressure to bear on Israel beyond the sphere of public opinion and diplomacy because of the profound divisions in the region. Turkey has the option to reduce or end cooperation with Israel, but it does not have potential allies in the Arab world it would need against Israel. Israel therefore feels buffered against the Turkish reaction. Though its relationship with Turkey is significant to Israel, it is clearly not significant enough for Israel to give in on the blockade and accept the risks from Gaza.

At present, Israel takes the same view of the United States. While the United States became essential to Israeli security after 1967, Israel is far less dependent on the United States today. The quantity of aid the United States supplies Israel has shrunk in significance as the Israeli economy has grown. In the long run, a split with the United States would be significant, but interestingly, in the short run, the Israelis would be able to function quite effectively.

This is my major quibble with this article. I wouldn’t be so sanguine about the longer term consequences of this Israeli-Turkish spat. While Douglas Muir would interpret Erdogan’s grandiose theatrics as a function of internal Turkish politics, this does not mean it is not part of a larger “declaration of what Turkish identity has become”, as suggested by commentator Yigit Karabak. Mubarak might be risk-averse and friendly with Israel, but he is getting old and his successors will probably be more adventurous and in sync with Egyptian national sentiment (which is anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian).

In the meantime, the Turkish economy is growing, its military is rapidly modernizing and it is expanding its influence in the Near East. Turkey is now (arguably) already conventionally superior to Israel. It is also a de facto nuclear power. There are 90 US nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base, of which 40 are slated to pass unto Turkish control if it is ever attacked by non-NATO nukes. Though it is true that the US has recently began to make noises about withdrawing its nukes from Turkey and Europe, the Turks have also recently – and perhaps not entirely coincidentally – made deals with Russia about massively expanding its nuclear power capacity. Now I’m not saying that Turkey’s sole or even main goal here is to provide a justification for pursuit of nuclear weapons, as argued in The Real Israeli Raid Fallout: Turkey with a Bomb? by Thomas Barnett***. Nonetheless, in a region with a nuclearizing Iran and intense all-round rivalries, it is a possibility that should not be immediately dismissed.

What emerges is a disquieting prospect for Israeli strategists, one in which Turks throw them down the river in their quest for regional dominance while successfully staying the moral high ground and mobilizing the Arab states in their support.

Israel does, however, face this strategic problem: In the short run, it has freedom of action, but its actions could change the strategic framework in which it operates over the long run. The most significant threat to Israel is not world opinion; though not trivial, world opinion is not decisive. The threat to Israel is that its actions will generate forces in the Arab world that eventually change the balance of power. The politico-military consequences of public opinion is the key question, and it is in this context that Israel must evaluate its split with Turkey.

The most important change for Israel would not be unity among the Palestinians, but a shift in Egyptian policy back toward the position it held prior to Camp David. Egypt is the center of gravity of the Arab world, the largest country and formerly the driving force behind Arab unity. It was the power Israel feared above all others. But Egypt under Mubarak has shifted its stance versus the Palestinians, and far more important, allowed Egypt’s military capability to atrophy.

Should Mubarak’s successor choose to align with these forces and move to rebuild Egypt’s military capability, however, Israel would face a very different regional equation. A hostile Turkey aligned with Egypt could speed Egyptian military recovery and create a significant threat to Israel. Turkish sponsorship of Syrian military expansion would increase the pressure further. Imagine a world in which the Egyptians, Syrians and Turks formed a coalition that revived the Arab threat to Israel and the United States returned to its position of the 1950s when it did not materially support Israel, and it becomes clear that Turkey’s emerging power combined with a political shift in the Arab world could represent a profound danger to Israel.

… The Israelis can’t dismiss the threat that its actions could trigger political processes that cause these countries to revert to prior behavior. … It is remarkable how rapidly military capabilities can revive: Recall that the Egyptian army was shattered in 1967, but by 1973 was able to mount an offensive that frightened Israel quite a bit.

The Israelis have the upper hand in the short term. What they must calculate is whether they will retain the upper hand if they continue on their course. Division in the Arab world, including among the Palestinians, cannot disappear overnight, nor can it quickly generate a strategic military threat. But the current configuration of the Arab world is not fixed. Therefore, defusing the current crisis would seem to be a long-term strategic necessity for Israel. [AK: But defusing the crisis is not in the Turks’ interests].

Israel’s actions have generated shifts in public opinion and diplomacy regionally and globally. The Israelis are calculating that these actions will not generate a long-term shift in the strategic posture of the Arab world. If they are wrong about this, recent actions will have been a significant strategic error. If they are right, then this is simply another passing incident. …

* I’ve also gotten some pretty hilarious email feedback about my post on The Geopolitics of Israel vs. Flotilla in which I got called both a “antisimite in objectivist [you mean objective?] apeasement cloth” [sic] and a Zionist extremist. I guess that’s what you get for stepping into this debate, it is every bit as binaried as the Russophile vs. Russophobe one and ten times as vitriolic.

** Yes, I know, Stratfor is a varied quality. Some of their analyses are downright loony, like the nonsense about Poland or Mexico becoming superpowers. But occasionally they are right on the ball (see 1, 2). This time it is one of those latter cases.

*** I would also note that in recent weeks Turkey, along with Brazil, announced a deal with Iran under which it would send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad and voted against the sanctions against Iran on offensive weaponry. In practice this amounts to tacit acceptance of Iran’s right to have nuclear weapons (since even if Iran sent some of its LEU abroad it still thought to have enough to build at least one nuclear weapon). Now Brazil is far away… but why on Earth would Turkey accept a nuclear Iran? (Haven’t the civilizations on the Anatolian and Persian plateaus been in almost permanent conflict with each other from ancient times through the struggles between the Ottomans and the Sassanids?)

Here is my wacky theory. Turkey believes that Israel will not accept a nuclear Iran. The Israelis have said as much. Eventually it could come to an Israeli or US-Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear capabilities, followed by incredibly damaging fallout. The US and Israel will become completely delegitimized in the lands of Islam. The ground will be cleared for Turkey to fill in this space, the Arab rulers either following in its wake or being marginalized or overthrown. Three birds with one stone. Iran out as a regional power – its military will have been decimated should Israel and the US launch serious strikes against its nuclear capabilities and its regime internally discredited – bringing to the fore Azeri (Turkish) separatism. The US influence sidelined out of the region as the resulting oil shock ripples through its debt-loaded economy. Third, this shock and resulting siege mentality may finally spur on the Arabs to recover a united front towards Israel, at which point a Turkey (with latent nuclear capabilities) may offer Israel a deal in which it accepts becoming a client state in exchange for security guarantees.

(Of course, causal chains work in various ways. Fear of exactly this scenario may explain why Israel will not attack Iran after all; perhaps the Israelis consider it better to manage their way though a deteriorated balance of power in the Middle East rather than face the specter of a far superior hegemon in Turkey. And this also, in turn, may explain why the Iranians in turn can feel so confident in getting away with the provocations they do. And why the Americans may be, contrary to all conventional wisdom, secretly seeking some kind of grand bargain with Iran).

PS. This footnote is almost becoming a post in its own right. I’ll probably expand on it a later post.

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