Professor Asher Susser
Tel Aviv University, Israel
Speaking about Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean really requires first to have a look at Israel and its place with reference to the Arab Middle East. Because I would argue that Israel’s increasing interest in the Eastern Mediterranean is a function of the changes that have taken place in the Arab world in recent years, and that have made it much more appealing for Israel to look westwards into the Eastern Mediterranean rather than eastwards to its Arab neighbors, who are facing such profound domestic crisis.
Israel made peace with two very important Arab states – Egypt and Jordan. But in both cases these have been very stable peace agreements that remained in place for decades, but have never really produced a firm people to people relationship, either between the Israelis and the Egyptian people, or between the Israelis and the Jordanian people. And it’s very customary in Israel to speak about the peace both with Egypt and Jordan as what we call a “cold peace”. Its formal, it’s diplomatic, it’s governmental, but there is none of the people-to-people warmness, and therefore a certain sense of disappointment on the Israeli side, because the “cold peace” also means to the Israelis, that their legitimacy hasn’t really been fully accepted, even though there is a peace treaty. The peace treaty represents a recognition on the Arab side of the balance of power in Israel’s favor, but not a recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, and the Israelis feel that is solely lacking.
So when the Israelis look eastwards, essentially they look beyond the horizon. Israel looks over the Arab states: to India, to China, and to Japan. And in the last twenty five years or so it is Israel’s relations with these countries that have developed very dramatically – in economic relations, in defense relations, in diplomatic relations – in a way that has not emerged with the Arab states.
And the closer, more proximate Arab world that we face is in the throes of this what I call the “crisis of the Arabs”. What exactly is the “crisis of the Arabs”, and what exactly does it mean for Israel’s place in the region? In the 1950s and 1960s there were great expectations among the Arabs, that Arab nationalism would provide the power, the prestige and the prosperity that Abdul Nasser or Egypt promised the Arabs. but that great movement of Arab nationalism ended in political failure. And the political failure of Arab nationalism was also a political failure of secular, and secularizing Arab politics. After all, Arab nationalism was a secular ideology. It was about the belonging of people to a nation on the basis of language they speak, not on the basis of their religion. And therefore Arab nationalism was also this platform for secularizing politics, and the failure of Arab nationalism was therefore also the failure of secularizing effort.
The consequence of that is that the vacuum left by Arab nationalism has been steadily filled over the years, for the last half century or so by Islamic politics. Islamic politics have a very divisive effect on the Arab countries. First of all, there is a Sunni version of Islamic politics, and there is a Shiite version of Islamic politics. If Arabism and Arab nationalism was designed to paper over the sectarian differences between the Arabs, Islamic politics exacerbates sectarianism. It differentiates obviously between Sunnis and the Shiites, it also differentiates between the Muslims and non-Muslims. It has contributed to the break-up of some key Arab states, like Syria and Iraq.
So the neighborhood to the east in this profound crisis is not very appealing to the Israelis as they look in that direction. Moreover, the crisis of the Arabs is also the expansionism of Iran at the Arabs’ expense. The weakness of the Arabs, the vacuum in the fertile crescent, the collapse of Saddam’s Iraq, the breakup of Syria have allowed for Iranian hegemonic design to develop almost without any real restraint. If Iraq was once the gatekeeper to Iranian expansionism, the downfall of Saddam was the downfall of Sunni Iraq to be replaced by Shiite Iraq, which is a partner for Iranian expansionism rather than the gatekeeper. Today Iranian expansionism is represented most clearly in Syria, where the Iranian intervention contributed to the survival of the Bashar Assad regime. But the Iranian intervention on its own would never brought about the success of Bashar had it not been for the intervention of Russia. And this has changed the balance. If Assad has emerged victorious, and Iran has therefore emerged victorious as well in the struggle for Syria, the Sunni Arabs have lost another major round against Iran. Syria is now very much in the Iranian sphere of influence, and therefore this Shiite crescent that everyone refers to from Teheran all the way to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It’s not Russia that is Israel’s main problem in Syria, but that the Russian presence in Syria is the umbrella and the facilitator of the Iranian expansion. And that has become a major Israeli concern in recent months.
There are three major powers in the Eastern Mediterranean today. It would be way out of date to speak of the Middle East today as the Arab world in the political terms. The Middle East today is governed by three regional powers, none of which is an Arab state: Iran, Turkey and Israel. If you look at this triangle there was a time when Israel and Turkey had very close relationship. Now that was a good balance to Iranian hegemonic design. But the relation with Turkey has soured in recent years between Israel and Turkey. And this, I fear, is not a temporary change, it reflects a profound change of direction, a reorientation of Turkish politics. Erdogan and the more Islamic politics of turkey, is undoing much of the secular Turkish republic, as established by Ataturk with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. This is a very different Turkey: less European, more Islamic, and therefore more hostile to Israel and in this triangle of powers – Turkey, Iran and Israel – Israel is on the wrong side of both of these regional powers today.
Because of the Iranian expansionism and the rising power and influence of Iran, and the threat that the Israelis feel from Iran, the Israelis here have a common interest with the Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf States. The problem with that is that Saudi Arabia does not seem to have the clout to stand up to Iran as an equal, and the Sunni states that have an ever-increasing, I would say even alliance with Israel, are states that are relatively weak in the present regional architecture. Add to that what is happening in Syria recently, and I will link that with Lebanon, the fact that the Saudis lost in Syria, lost to Iran, no doubt, in Syria, has led to an effort by the Saudis to correct the balance. The recent apprehension, arrest, whatever it is, of the Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri in Saudi Arabia, is one such action. How that will impact upon Lebanon is anyone’s guess, but there is fear in Lebanon that the Saudis may wish Israel to do its dirty work in Lebanon, which I think the Israelis would be very disinclined to do. But that is raising the stakes and raising the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. As we speak there are reports in the news today of Hezbollah being very anxious of something happening between Hezbollah and the neighbors, whether it be Saudi Arabia or maybe Israel.
But as I say Israel is very disinclined to get involved in that. Israel was very careful not to get involved in the Syrian issue at all, except when it related directly to Israel’s own security that is the Iranians trying to supply Hezbollah through Syria. Very often there were reports that the Israelis were interdicting these kinds of supply routes in an effort to prevent Hezbollah from upgrading its arms arsenal. And that probably remains true. But Israel does not seek to intervene in the Lebanese issue or in Syria. The big problem here for Israel is neither Lebanon in and of itself and Syria, but rather the Iranian influence in both of these countries – the Iranian influence via Hezbollah, and the Iranian influence via the direct Iranian presence which is being brought up now in Syria. And that of course has a great deal of concern for Israel. So it is against that background that Israel looks far more attentively towards the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Eastern Mediterranean in comparison to Israel’s other neighbors – Turkey and the Arab States – has countries like Greece and Cyprus, like Israel the non-Arab, non-Muslim players in the Eastern Mediterranean. Culturally closer to Europe, have a lot in common in everything from cuisine to music. There is a people-to-people relationship between Israel and Cyprus, between Israel and Greece, which has been going on for decades, with thousands of Israeli tourists spending time in these countries, and very familiar and close relations between Israelis, Greeks and Cypriots over the years, as opposed to the rather distant, non-existent I would say almost, people-to-people relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors. If one needs to add to that, what has emerged in recent years in terms of strategic ties, and this comes especially as a result of the change between Israel and Turkey, which as I say is not a temporary hiccup, but a change of direction.
The importance of the strategic relationship between Israel and its neighbors in the Eastern Mediterranean – Greece and Cyprus – assumes an ever more important element. The fact that the Israeli military trains in Greece and in Cyprus too, air exercises, special forces exercises, is very impressive indeed. There was an air exercise in Israel last week and the Greeks participated in that too. So there is a strategic component which is ever more important. If one ads to that economic issues, gas, the possible building of a pipeline, that would link Cyprus and Israel with Greece and the European continent, this is of huge potential economic consequence. So I would say that what we see today between Israel an the Eastern Mediterranean on the one hand, and Israel and the Arab east on the other hand are two parallel trends that represent an ever-increasing orientation of Israel westwards – toward the Eastern Mediterranean rather than looking for its involvement, integration with the Arab east, which is not very appealing these days.