It should not come as a surprise that after experiencing a new stalemate in solving the Iranian nuclear crisis, „intelligence sources” leaked that Israel would not warn the US before attempting to destroy Iran’s unchecked and secret nuclear facilities. The real question is what would be the result of such a pre-emptive attack and if it is a viable threat or just a bluff?
Many unexpected events happened this year in the Greater Middle East region, but an agreement between Hamas and Israel was maybe the least probable one. Now that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped five years ago by Palestinian militants, is free in exchange for more than a thousand convicted Palestinians, we have to analyze what factors were needed for this policy change and what does Hamas’s new approach to Israel mean to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Since day one of the imprisonment of Gilad Shalit, who was 19 years old when he was kidnapped, there was great pressure on the Israeli government to bring the soldier back home. The parents, the Israeli society, but also the Jewish and Zionist communities outside Israel lobbied for his release. Also international actors tried to persuade Hamas to set Gilad free, or at least to give him the basic rights of a prisoner of war, which he was refused, like letting the Red Cross supervise his imprisonment. At least four factors had to change to make this deal possible and shift the Israeli-Hamas relations into a new direction. I will examine these factors in the following paragraphs.
Regarding the Israeli government’s willingness to accept a rather high price for only one soldier, we have to understand the effect of the summer protests in Israel. During a wave of mass demonstrations a large part of the Israeli society showed their fury against the rising prices of accommodation, food, childcare etc. and that the gap between rich and poor in one of the world’s most developed country is reaching a dangerous level. The Netanyahu government had to calm down the public rage by freeing Gilad. Israel’s military and social spirit depends on the idea of not letting even one soldier behind. With a system of general conscription, the leadership’s negligence would seriously damage the morale of the armed forces and also of the “home front” – meaning parents and partners of the soldiers. Although most Israelis think that the price Israel paid for Gilad’s freedom was too high, there are only few voices saying that the deal was a mistake, since this claim would go against the core values of the Israeli society.
The second reason why Israel gave in to Hamas’s demands follows the logic that since the Palestinian Authority is not willing to continue the peace process by negotiation and pursues a unilateral strategy of declaring a state in the UN, Israel empowered Hamas by making it the “savior” of the Palestinian prisoners convicted for acts of aggression in Israel. This move has meant to be a punishment for Abbas for not cooperating with Israel and it worked since Hamas’s popularity is on the rise even in the West Bank since the deal. Not everyone is happy about this result, mainly the highly influential security establishment (meaning high ranking officials of the Israel Defense Forces and Ehud Barak Minister of Defense), since they are interested in a strong PA in the West Bank because this is the key to the stability in the territories. This is why there is currently a battle on the Israeli political scene over the necessary gestures Israel should show towards Fatah in order to rebuild its shaken influence in the West Bank. Apparently, the army supports a greater extent of help for Abbas, while Netanyahu and Israeli FM Lieberman are more interested in the punishment and less concerned about Abbas stepping down in return – which would lead to chaos in the PA leadership.
On the other hand, the Israeli willingness would meant nothing without Hamas’s eagerness to strike a deal with Israel. Here it is important to note that the breakthrough happened a result of great effort of the Egyptian intelligence establishment which is interested in a moderate Hamas on its borders. We have to understand this new mutual interest between Hamas and Egypt. Hamas had a great dilemma during this summer when other even more radical militant groups from Gaza started rocket attacks against Israel’s southern cities. Hamas had the option to escalate the conflict (which it did by joining the attacks for a while) or to suppress the other groups and therefore in a way take Israel’s side. Hamas choose the later alternative; it got into a ceasefire agreement with Israel, for which it had to take the punishment from its former mentor Iran, which greatly reduced its support to its former ally. Hamas had to find another great patron and at the same time ease the Israeli security inspection rules in the Gaza Strip, which would pave the way to a better economy in the area with Hamas needing less support from outside to maintain its rule. In addition, Hamas was interested in portraying itself as the one who can get results from Israel in opposition to Fatah, which is currently loosing the diplomatic battle in the UN and all great powers try to push them back to direct negotiations with Israel.
Egypt was quickly willing to step in and spend a great amount of energy to reach a deal between Israel and Hamas. A few months ago, the new Egyptian military junta experienced the chaos that Islamist and mostly Bedouin criminal groups could stir up in the region, when it had to start an armed campaign in the Sinai to take back the control over the peninsula. All signs showed that the tunnels used for smuggling between Gaza and Egyptian territories are the main channel, where trained militants can get into Sinai from their bases in Hamas ruled Gaza. In addition, the Egyptian leadership watches closely the struggle between Iran and Turkey for the heart and resources of the Arab countries. Emerging from the “Arab Spring” Egypt must oppose this invasion of non-Arab forces. Thus it is now embracing Hamas after Iran maybe unintentionally gave an opportunity for Egypt to extend its sphere of influence and to stabilize the Sinai Peninsula. The important question is how far would Egypt go to counter the Iranian and Turkish incursion into Arab territories, since currently Syria and Iraq are turning into real battlegrounds and Saudi Arabia is too weak to fight off the two rising powers of the Middle East.
Currently we have a situation when we can clearly see an emerging race for dominance in the Middle East between three sides — Iran, Turkey, and the shaky “Arab coalition” led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia; with the Jewish state caught in the middle. Israel has its own dilemma when it has to deal with the moderate Fatah and the radical Hamas. The Gilad Shalit deal showed these lines of conflict between the actors of the region in a new light and therefore the story of one kidnapped soldier has turned into a milestone in the Middle Eastern power struggle.
Instability is on the rise in the Middle East with civil wars and extensive waves of protests in the Arab countries. Due to the failed peace process with the Palestinians and their aspiration to unilaterally declare their state, Israel is facing an era of limited security, which could become a trigger of increased violence in the region. In this article, I will argue that an Israel, which feels secure and strong, is the cornerstone of the region’s stability.
The summer is quickly passing and the Israeli leadership seems to be paralyzed by the prospect of the Palestinian bid to the United Nations General Assembly to declare their independent state. We can be sure that the majority of the member states will vote in favour of an independent Palestine within the ceasefire lines of Israel’s Independence War (commonly, but mistakenly known as 1967 borders). The question is not the quantity, but the quality of the votes in favour, let us remember that at the end of the Cold War, the Palestinians already declared their state with the backing of the Eastern Bloc and frankly, nothing has changed because of this. Today the problem is not with the coming into being of a Palestinian state, but the exact borders to which Israel would have to withdraw. The three main issues here are the Jordan Valley, the Jewish settlements and the sovereignty of the Palestinian state in security matters. In this article, I will only discuss the first issue as to demonstrate the necessity of a secure Jewish state.
The Jordan Valley is a key geographical item, which protects Israel from any armed threat from the East, and from any infiltration attempt from Jordan. Israel, especially the middle part of the country, lacks any real manoeuvring space for its armed forces, therefore the Israeli military doctrine is based on first stopping the enemy at the borders and then going into counteroffensive and moving the fight to the enemy territory. The Jordan Valley has only a few parts where an invading army could advance through it and even a limited Israeli armed presence could halt the attack until the reinforcements arrive, therefore Israel cannot be surprised. According to the Palestinians, the Israeli military would be expelled from the valley and generally, Israel would have indefensible borders, it would be incapable of protecting its largest cities on the coastline.
For understanding Israeli political and military thinking, we have to understand two key elements of the Israeli/Jewish mindset: the Holocaust and the experience of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After the Holocaust, and the exterminated 6 million Jews, the Israeli/Jewish way of thinking has incorporated the idea of “Never again”, which means that the Jews have to be capable of defending themselves against any threat, by having a country with strong conventional armed forces, a phenomenon lacking for almost 2000 years. The greatest shock after the Holocaust came in 1973, when Israel was on the brink of destruction because of the surprise invasion of Egypt and Syria. A nation, which has pledged “Never again”, has saw that it almost happened again.
By recognizing this way of thinking, it is important to realise that an insecure Israel will react strongly to any threat against their existence, because Israeli leaders will not give another chance to anyone like they did in 1973. We saw many examples to this rule when the Palestine Liberation Organization used Jordan as a base for their attacks against the Jewish state and the Israeli retaliation made the Jordanian king violently expel in 1970 the PLO (commonly known as the Black September). We saw many times in Lebanon that the meddling of terrorist organisations (formerly PLO, later Hezbollah) against Israel put the Lebanese civilians between a rock and a hard place. When Israel feels secure, it can resort to diplomatic efforts and react in a calm way. But when the Israeli politicians and military leaders perceive that their country is facing an immediate and serious threat (like constant rocket fire from Gaza or Lebanon), their actions will target the source of the threat which usually comes from neighbouring countries and in the end you get a proper war. If Israel would have indefensible borders it would provoke its enemies to use this window of opportunity to cause as much harm as they can, and as a result the Jewish state could be drawn into limited or a regional war, with devastating effect on every country in the neighbourhood.
By giving in to the Palestinian demands and recognising their state without going through the difficult negotiations with Israel, the international community is putting the Jewish state into an unsecure position, which can only lead to more instability in the region. While the Palestinian state is in everyone’s interest (even for Israel because of the demographic trends), it is important that this new state will not present additional threat for Israel. Having Hamas, a terrorist organisation in the Palestinian government is one of the main issues why it is too soon to acknowledge the independent Palestine, and Israel has to be left with secure borders and means to protect itself. The 104 members of the European Parliament who wrote to Catherine Ashton, EU’s foreign relations chief not to accept the unilateral move, which would destroy any chance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace, are a fine example of European decision makers already seeing the great harm which the Palestinian bid at the UN would cause in September.
It should not surprise anyone that the USA is withdrawing from Afghanistan soon after Osama bin Laden has been killed. Combined with the pullout from Iraq and the shaky political situation in other Middle Eastern countries, the European Union is on its way to face the greatest security threat of its existence.
US President Barack Obama has announced recently that he is pulling out ten thousand troops from Afghanistan and another twenty-three thousand next year with the rest staying for a few more years at most. In other words, the Americans consider this battlefront as one that they can soon leave in the “capable” hands of the Afghan national security forces. It is a no brainer, that Afghanistan is going to be a nest of terrorists and ravaged by armed struggle for many years to come, but no NATO country can maintain its participation for much longer. There is not enough money and no will to keep this commitment.
Iraq is a much more serious case since it lies between Iran and Syria, the main players of the Iranian axis, and Hezbollah, which is “just” a junior member of the franchise. At least this was true until the recent crisis of the Assad regime. Anyhow, it is very unlikely that the fragmented Iraqi political elite could hold its stance against the Iranians and their allies without the presence of the coalition forces led by the USA. Power-vacuums cannot exist for long and Iran has many advantages in Iraq. One is the Shiite population, which amounts up to 65% of the total population, the second is the favorable geographical location and the third is the sheer size of Iraq. The third is important because, for example, Saudi Arabia could not throw a few thousand soldiers across the border as it did to save their allies in Bahrain, only a few months ago, since it would require a much larger force to “pacify” Iraq.
After a US pullout from Iraq there is only one thing that can seriously hurt any Iranian ambition for an “empire” stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the heart of Central Asia and that is the fall of the Assad regime. A few months ago, Syria was considered one of the most stable countries in the region, but now it seems that they are on the doorstep of a new civil war. Until now, there have been 1400 deaths and the Syrian army is not holding itself back. There are reports that Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is aiding President Assad, their closest ally in an otherwise hostile world. The greatest threat is that Assad and his accomplices can ignite everything around them. Hezbollah is already talking about opening a new front in Northern Israel and Turkey is very agitated about the possibility of an overspill effect of the conflict into its territory as Syrian troops are marching next to its borders.
We could say that the American withdrawal is a good thing, they can beef up their capabilities to fight wars elsewhere and it is true that today 100.000 US soldiers and a serious amount of military hardware are locked at Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Obama has made it clear that the United States has to focus inwards and cut down on public debt, put the country back on a sustainable track. I do not believe that we are facing another era of an isolationist America, but their commitment to a secure world order will be reduced in real terms, leaving gaps behind them in the security establishment of all regions.
As I wrote before, the European Union will soon face the consequences of the reduced American presence in the Middle East. The main question is whether we can fill in the void, or other actors with unfriendly or even hostile intents will take the initiative instead. It is possible to counter these negative forces by aiding domestic groups in Middle Eastern countries, using proxies and by these methods, the military aspect can be minimized (but not eliminated) in the short run. There are signs pointing in the direction of a revised European Neighborhood Policy, as many European politicians (for example, British PM David Cameron) have acknowledged the failure of our previous efforts to reshape the Middle East. These positive trends are overshadowed by the internal problems of the euro-zone, but if both the USA and the EU are turning inwards at the same time, other actors will make their move. By the time we would solve our domestic questions, our maneuvering space would be seriously reduced, especially in such a turbulent region as the Middle East.
At least three major features shape any political entity’s power in international relations: resources, fears and ambitions. Today we see that the European Union has immense resources, like a grand economy, population, territory etc. but it lacks the ambition to act as a major power. At least, no member state wants to sacrifice much of its own sovereignty for a greater international role of the EU. Today it seems that the only way the European integration could be pushed forward is by understanding the risks of not being a superpower. The Middle Eastern security situation after the US pullout could provide such an example and alert European decision makers. However, the more time the European Union wastes by inaction, the greater price we are going to pay in the long run.
In this introductory article, I will examine what kind of threats and possibilities does the current power vacuum in the Middle East present to Europe. I will argue that the way the European Union can influence the region will be an indicator of whether Europe can become a great power in the XXI century.
The blame game against the West is experiencing its renaissance among many in the Middle East for supporting the corrupt and highly authoritarian regimes of many Arab states during the last few decades. While on one level this criticism can be justified, the actual situation concerning the European Union (and its predecessors) is even more severe, since European countries were only going with the flow without having a real impact on the political system of the Arab regimes. Accepting the blame is easier, because by this we can maintain the delusion that Europe still has a serious influence over its neighbors, but the reality is that the European Union has a long way to go to if it wants to put real pressure on other countries without the aid of the United States. For the time being let us consider “European influence” as a neutral phenomenon, later I will argue for its necessity.
One might say that “Europe” never had any say in the Middle East, rather individual European powers had. While this observation is true, it is still shameful that France, the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU countries together cannot assert their agenda of human rights and stability. During the Cold War, this was a less important issue, but now, during an era of emerging great powers, it will be very important whether Europe has a stable and cooperative neighborhood, or it will be surrounded by failed states and also by allies of its potential adversaries. This realization had to come during a time of a grand turmoil affecting the region from Morocco to Iran, which has shown, that the corrupt but stable Arab regimes in the end cannot provide security neither to their own people, nor to European countries. On the contrary, they are the reason behind civil war-like situation such as the ones we experience in Libya and recently in Yemen too.
This upheaval in the Greater Middle East region has provided an opportunity for many (mostly regional) powers to fill in the ever-deepening vacuum and the European Union is only one and maybe the least active player in this struggle (except for the isolated and half-hearted intervention in Libya). Our main concern should be the growing Iranian influence in the territories in question. We sat through the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hamas’ in the Gaza Strip; but Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen are also quickly turning into battlegrounds where conservative forces have to face an aggressive Iranian expansion. The main problem with this process is not the fall of the corrupt old regimes, but the possible emergence of another, much more hostile tyranny, which has its origins in Iran. The theocratic regime has secured its grip over its own people in Iran, by crushing all opposition back home, but in the meantime, it has been preaching “democracy” abroad, when its interests dictated it. No one should doubt that peoples of the Middle East have their right to elect their own government and set their foreign policy until the point that it is not threatening others. Europe is facing a completely new security threat, where from the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the heart of Central Asia, an extremely anti-Western and hostile power is on the rise. The possibly threatening Iranian nuclear program combined with the continuing development of advanced ballistic missile systems is more than enough to make any European politician worried. A sad thing is that it seems that almost every Western and Arab leader understands the risk, but apart from increased economic pressure and numerous speeches, they do not act against this emerging threat. This European passivity and indecisiveness has become a dangerous habit.
There are other “question marks” in the region, mainly Turkey and Egypt. Turkey seems to be at the crossroads between European integration and an independent foreign policy. The former outcome could be the greatest asset for the European Union to stabilize the Middle East, counter the rising Iran and what is maybe the most important aspect, provide all the countries in the region with a vision that is democratic, highly prosperous and authentically Muslim. An independent and possibly bitter Turkey, rejected by the West, could mean an ally for Iran and counter any European attempt to stabilize the region. These are the two extreme ends of the spectrum, but it is easy to see which one is more beneficial for all the parties involved. Time will tell if the new Egypt will turn into a democratic country, which could rally the other Arab countries Nevertheless, a powerful Egypt could pose some risks too, as we could see under the Nasser regime.
At this point, we have to understand that the most threatening prospect of the current processes in the Middle East is not the new order that hostile actors could create, but rather the emerging chaos that an intensifying power struggle in the region would cause. Today our main concerns should be the spread of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, the illegal mass migration to Europe, and the eroding security of trading and supply routes together with the violence committed against the local populations: Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. The situation is bad and we do not see any sign of stabilization in the near future. With the rise of China, India and other emerging powers, combined with the steady decline of the United States (due to its unmanageable public debt and other factors), the European Union will face a completely new international situation. The resources of the Middle East will become even more precious targets for other global powers than they are today and therefore the fight for them will be even more ruthless. If Europe wants to create a vision for itself and therefore the international order, it has to protect its vital interests in its surrounding and also the civilian population against local and also global actors, because this is what the European Union stands for. The expanding integration has the potential to fulfill these tasks, but it has to make a steady commitment to certain values, not just in rhetoric, but in its actions too. This will not be an easy shift from the Cold War routine, where Uncle Sam would protect the weak Western European countries against the Soviet Union. Truly standing on our feet will be costly, but the price we all would have to pay will be much higher if we continue to ignore the threatening signs. The peoples of the Middle East and Europe need a positive vision and an increased cooperation between these actors is one of the key tools to deliver this beneficial outcome, which is a more assertive Europe that can protect itself and contribute to a stable and prosperous world order.