The controversy over President Obama’s “Iran Deal” concerning nuclear weapons during the spring and summer of 2015 intersects with ongoing debates over Israeli settlers, disputed territories, Palestinians, Gaza, the West Bank, and the “two state” solution.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s government calls the Iran Deal an “existential” threat to Israel’s existence: the deal, it claims, puts at fundamental risk Israeli’s very existence. At the same time, the Israeli government pursues policies towards the population under its control, concerning land use, settlers, civil liberties, voting and the formation of a Palestinian government that threaten also to pose an existential threat, of a different kind: to the values of Israel, to its Jewishness, and to its relationship both with its allies around the world and with its enemies.
These two existential threats interact. Israeli policy within its borders influences the way outsiders behave, and the behavior of outsiders affects the conduct of people living within both Israel itself and Israeli-controlled territories. Disagreement over foreign policy stokes disagreement over domestic policy, and the lines go the other way as well.
The interaction of external and internal security threats constitutes an ancient trope in reflections on international relations. The controversy over the Iran Deal has fused with the quarrel over the “two state solution” to form a “Perfect Storm”—the phrase used by a well-known advisor to the Netanyahu government, Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, in his essay “The Perfect Storm: the Implications of Middle East Chaos,” published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Summer this past summer. Amidror has served as national security advisor in Israel, and was formerly head of the research department in military intelligence. He is known as a hawk on security matters; he published a New York Times op-ed back in 2013 opposing the then-nascent deal with Iran.
Amidror’s new essay can thus be taken as representative of an important body of thinking in Israel, certainly that of the dominant governing coalition. It contains arguments being made by Israeli officials to the American public, and it resonates as well with some arguments being made in the US among opponents of the Iran Deal, especially among the Republican right and in parts of the American Jewish community.
The essay calls upon the US government to undertake interventions in the Middle East region involving soldiers, money and words. Amidror sees the tremendous dangers to Israel of its situation, and is often quite persuasive about them. His treatment is influential, important, strong and worth careful reflection. It deserves a close reading.
It is also, in my view, wrong. I offer an analysis—and a kind of response—here. In a nutshell, Amidror’s “Perfect Storm” reflects awareness of the connection between the external and the internal “existential” threats to Israel, but it avoids dealing with the interactions head on. His analysis explores extensively the external threats to Israel, but it greatly underplays the internal ones and the actions Israel could take to ease the interaction of the internal with the external.
Amidror’s Perfect Storm
Amidror’s “perfect storm” involves the confluence of several forces:
First, he notes the erosion of the Middle Eastern state structure created by the Sykes-Picot arrangements after World War I, and with it the emergence of a dream among Islamists to recreate the caliphate that collapsed with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Ataturk’s brand of anti-Islamic state secularism in Turkey.
Second, Amidror stresses the triumph of the Shi’ite revolution in Iran, which he argues demonstrated to the Sunnis how forceful a revived clerically-based Islamic state could be. (Amidror thus blames the clerical roots of Islamic terrorism on the Shiites in Iran more than on the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, which may reflect his pro-Saudi Israeli policy preferences.)
Third, Amidror notes the ineptitude of the West, led by the US, in dealing with the rise of these new forces in the Middle East, citing especially the way the West handled the Arab Spring and the collapse of various Mideast Leaders: the abandonment of Qadhafi in Libya; the letting go of Mubarak in Egypt, the premature departure from Iraq and Afghanistan; the non-response to Assad’s crossing of Obama’s red line on chemical weapons; the non-intervention in Syria either to stop Iranian intrusions or to help anti-Assad moderates; the acquiescent positions in negotiations with Iran; the functional ruling out of the use of force against Iran; and the consequent communication of a lack of willingness to act. Amidror adds Qatari support for Al Jazeera and its impact on what he terms “the Arab street” as a negative factor in the region.
Amidror does express some caution about evaluating the situation: “it is impossible to know or assess how blocking Iranian aid or increasing support for less radical rebels would have changed the situation, but it is clear that the vacuum created as a result of the world’s helplessness made the emergence of ‘IS’ possible.” (p 21) But he doesn’t express much caution. It’s impossible to know, perhaps, but Amidror’s basic logic is one of relentless growth of the power of terrorism, in which inaction of the US-led West is a major cause.
For Amidror, one constraining factor on Islamic terrorism has been the success of the region’s militaries in counterrevolution, as for example in Egypt’s stopping of the Muslim Brotherhood. This interpretation reflects his support of intervention and repression as desirable policies.
In Amidror’s analysis, the global framework that made the “perfect storm” possible comprises four global phenomena: (1) the lack of an international arbiter; (2) the withdrawal of the United States from its hegemonic position in the world; (3) the waning of internationalism, which is to say the lack of an alternative to US power and the weakness of multilateral institutions; and (4) the dissipation of European influence.
From this confluence of forces, Amidror concludes the US cannot turn back the ISIS threat without a much greater commitment of ground troops than the Obama administration has shown any interest in committing. This is a key point in the partisan character of the analysis and in Amidror’s assumptions: Under Obama, he argues, the US has been weak; an assertive GOP would be more active. Whether this correct or not is open to question. Rhetoric aside, is there really more support in the GOP for sending troops and losing lives and money in the region in exchange for uncertain outcomes? Colin Powell’s support of the Iran Deal is illustrative, and the Powell Doctrine is famous for its caution. The Republicans in power could be expected to be more careful about the use of force than one finds them from the floor of Congress or the campaign trail.
Amidror then wonders whether even more US interventionism would do any good. The seeds of the current crisis have been growing since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and they have been growing like a malignant tumor over the past 35 years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Now, he argues, “to have any real influence on this raging wave is most difficult if not impossible even for the United States. The wave’s geographical scope it too broad and its religious and cultural roots are too deep.” So while critical of the US and the West for their timidity, Amidror is actually skeptical that they can do much good. This scenario leaves Israel alone to do whatever it must.
And from this dire analysis, Amidror draws dire conclusions. A nuclear Iran would mean that other countries in the region would nuclearize, and that will mean that terrorists will get their hands on weapons as well. What then is Israel to do?
The growth of threats around Israel has multiplied. Hamas in the Gaza strip,
Hezbollah in Lebanon supported by Syria and Iran, ISIS—Israel is surrounded on every side and there are many terrorists who mix with civilians and cannot be distinguished from them.
In Amidror’s view, the only protection is to hold territory. The rules of the region are not the rules that may apply in Europe or between the US and Canada. Whoever signs an agreement with Israel may not remain in power; any signatory country to a peace settlement could fall in the hands of ever-more extreme terrorists. Israel must thus have the power to defend and enforce any agreement. It cannot give up key security positions in the West Bank or Gaza, from which enemies could threaten the rest of the country. And this condition may go on for many, many years.
The Palestinians thus must make broad concessions to accommodate Israeli security needs. Until then, no progress will happen on the political front.
The Eye of the Storm—What Amidror Passes Over
The power of Amidror ‘s analysis lies in his vivid evocation of the very real dangers Israel faces in the environment around it. And those security challenges are indeed stupendous. Every visit to Israel reminds one of this fact, and the problem has surely gotten worse as the chaos of the region has spread. Any serious observer of the situation should reflect on the issues Amidror raises.
The core difficulty lies in Amidror’s domestic analysis and its link to the external one. So great is the external threat, in Amidror’s estimation, that Israel cannot afford to yield in any way on the relationships with the Palestinians living within the boundaries of it control. These problems cannot be separated from the problems of external enemies. Any concession about border crossings or economic or political rights means giving entry to the enemy. For Amidror, Israel can give no ground.
What specifically does this mean for Israeli relationships with the Palestinian populations within its territories and all the issues involving settlers in the West Bank?
Amidror says an agreement with the Palestinians is essential. The Palestinian cause remains powerful in the Arab street as a symbol of aggravation by Israel and by the West, he acknowledges. An agreement is thus vital for security within Israel.
Yet beyond this pro forma admission, he is virtually silent about the situation within. He makes no exploration of Israeli policy as in any way contributing to the tensions that persist. He makes no comment about settlers or about expanding Jewish control of territory. He has nothing to say about the limited capacity for Palestinian economic development or how to improve economic opportunity for Palestinians or about a range of other issues that keep tensions alive.
His position thus justifies some of the stronger claims made within the Netanyahu coalition for retention of West Bank territory. Amidror does not refer to the religious foundations of those claims, the evocation of Judea and Samaria. But his paper does see a religious struggle. It sees that struggle both as a way of talking about enemies outside of Israel and as a way of imagining the civilian population in the West Bank and Gaza as internal allies of those external enemies. Yet strangely, the religious component of the domestic security threat to Israel—that the incorporation of land necessarily involves the incorporation of large numbers of people—he passes over.
Much of the world, of course, does not accept the religious foundation for Israeli retention of the Occupied Territories, nor does it accept the one advanced by Amidror. In Europe, in the US, and in the Islamic world, Israel is under attack for its territorial claims. The security-oriented formulation of the argument does not mute the criticism. The settlement policy and the treatment of Palestinians provoke the very backlash at home and abroad which Israel seeks to overcome. A newspaper account says that in 2013, Amidror privately opposed more settlements in the West Bank because of the threat this posed to Israeli’s relationships in Europe. But there is no evidence of that in opposition in this paper.
To survive as a tiny country in a tumultuous region, Israel needs allies. It needs some kind of peace internally. Amidror’s reasoning brushes these considerations aside. It is an assertive “go it alone” “realist” approach. Countries should surely consider their options without allies. And Israel, and Jews more generally, have plenty of reason to doubt that others will come forward to rescue them when the going gets tough. But all that said, it’s hard to imagine a bright future for Israel without allies, internal peace, and decent foreign relations with the democratic world.
Indeed, the Netanyahu approach shows this well: Israel is lobbying hard for an activist US foreign policy, for greater confrontation with Iran, for more verbal assertiveness in diplomacy. It allies with the American interventionists who want these things, notably on the GOP right. Like, Amidror’s paper, it blames the “perfect storm” it faces on US inaction and reluctance to intervene. Yet Israel’s international isolation is only growing.
A Two-Level Game
A key step in Amidror’s argumentation lies in essentializing the region’s religious struggles into irreconcilable poles of conflict between which understanding is impossible: that Islam is now led by the Shia mullahs in Iran, who mobilize the most anti-Western and anti-Jewish elements of Islam. (He passes conveniently over the Sunni contribution to Islamic radicalism, notably the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, which has been promoted and sustained by Saudi Arabia. It is certainly the case that the Saudi monarchy shows restraint in foreign and economic policy. Witness its endorsement of the Iran Deal. But the monarchy does not restrain the strict teachings by the Saudi clergy upon whom it depends for legitimacy. Amidror blames Iran for Hezbollah, but he does not blame Saudi Arabia for Osama Bin Laden or for ISIS.)
The conclusion drawn by analysts such as Amidror is that Israel cannot risk ceding authority to the non-Jewish, Islamic population in its midst. As the radicalization of Islam in the region increases, the probability of peaceful, democratic Palestinian governance structures in Israel’s midst decreases. Whatever concessions are made to a Palestinian Authority that may appear relatively peaceful, Israel cannot be assured that these forces will remain in charge of the PA or its successor. A “Hamas-stan” could emerge, as it has in Gaza—or maybe something worse, an “ISIS-stan.” In Amidror’s argumentation, Israel cannot live with this and must be in a position to prevent it.
This is not a crazy judgment. The relentless hostility toward Israel and the West by so many of its neighbors certainly deserves a great deal of blame for the acute state of conflict in the region. And it isn’t entirely clear how Israel should behave in the face of that implacable wall of hate. It cannot eliminate it.
That said, Israeli policy doesn’t have to feed it. And the truth is that Amidror’s judgment is only partly a security judgment. It is a security judgment fused with a set of other political ambitions. The truth is that Israel can act a lot better than it does, and there needs to be some consideration of Israeli agency in the state’s fate—more consideration than Amidror appears willing to give the subject. Of course, Jews are not to blame for anti-Semitism. But states are agents in the policies they make. And the desire to settle large swaths of the West Bank, the tolerant policy toward the settlers there and the resulting treatment of the Palestinian population are not chiefly security issues. They have to do far more with Biblically-based claims of justification to the land and the desire for a larger, rather than a smaller, Israel. They are thus provocative both internally and externally.
Indeed, Amidror’s position leads to a terrible contradiction for Israeli security. If it cedes democratic rights to the Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza (or both), it risks the Jewish character of the state and, perhaps, the ascendance of undemocratic movements through elections won by Hamas-type groups. If, instead, it represses democratization yet insists on retaining control of the land, it creates a multi-tiered membership in Israeli society, a tier for Jews, a tier for non-Jewish citizens, and a tier for a large number of non-Jewish “residents” who have something less than citizenship. That poses other kinds of severe threats. Internally, it means having a hostile population, the risk of another intifada, a constant risk of some kind of uprising, and the consequent constant need for some degree of repression. Externally, it means provoking more hostility among Israel’s allies in Europe and the United States. Those countries have considerable hostility to Islamic extremism but they have many supporters of liberal values—values the Israeli state in many ways uniquely embodies in the region. The result is that there is much agitation in these countries over illiberal practices in Israel. The final collapse of the two state solution risks making things much worse on this score.
Many things are legitimately beyond Israel’s control. Neither Israel nor the United States can induce moderation across the Mideast and in Islam more generally. But Israel can do more to aid the Muslim population of the territories it controls. It can stop settling lands that reduce the capacity for Palestinians to have a viable state and capital. And it can give more opportunity for education and economic advancement, both within Israel itself and in the West Bank. In the West Bank, in particular, it can strip away barriers to normal life.
Amidror is oddly silent about such potential measures. He does not raise as problematic that Israeli policies contribute to Israel’s problems or acknowledge that it could thus do something to alleviate the tensions it faces. He is very critical of the United States for its failures to act. He is not critical of his own government for its failures to act.
Amidror cites Henry Kissinger with approval. The citation is apt, for his analysis falls into Kissingerian traps. It is quite brilliant in looking at grand forces that cause problems and uncertainties and insecurities. Yet it is quite flat at analyzing the domestic actions, the internal balancing that could alter the situation. It jabs at American inaction, but the American action Amidror envisions is the commitment of more US force and more soldiers on the ground in the Middle East, while he does not even ask his own government to make modest changes to its domestic line.
The paper oscillates in its “realist” thinking. At times it is “essentialist” in its postulation of the units of the system that define the threats. Thus, Islam, and Iran especially, are now in hands of the extremist mullahs. And they define an existential fight to the end with Judaism, and Christianity. At the same time, however, Amidror is too well educated to see Islam as unitary. The same for Judaism and Christianity. It is impossible to walk through the streets of Jerusalem without being stunned by the variety of ways of being Jewish.
We hear that in Iran the mullahs are quite unpopular; we hear the same of Hamas in Gaza. Amidror assumes Hamas holds sway among its population, yet there has been no election since 2006, and few analysts I have spoken with think it is still popular in Gaza. The ways of Islam in politics are, in other words, also quite varied, yet Amidror does not explore strategies of dealing with that variance but rather essentializes his enemy, and then obscures the variety of ways Israel might interact with the Islamic population under its rule.
There is a directly political interpretation of an article like this one: It is that Netanyanu in Israeli and the GOP in the US are playing a double interactive two-level game. The Israeli right hopes the American right will produce the kind of activist intervention they would like, the activism called for in Amidror’s article. That, in my view, overestimates rhetorical support in the US for interventionism for actual support. Even the US public on the political right is not enthusiastic about spending money, or risking the lives of soldiers in renewed military intervention of any scale. It has lost faith in Bush-Cheney-type activism. But the Amidror article and the government it supports is gambling a double domestic game. The bet is that allying with the activist foreign policy wing of the GOP will help Netanyahu at home while also helping the GOP in the US. Under the rubric of security concerns, a domestic struggle for power is being waged in both countries.
The deep problem is that while the rhetoric of the Amidror article operates at the level of the existential security threat at the international level, there is also an equally deep one it ignores at the domestic level. Yes, there is an international security issue, but there is also a domestic one. And the two are not independent. The domestic arrangements in Israel influence its relationships with the US and Europe, as well as with other countries in the region and, of course, with its domestic population. Looking only at the existential menace of Islamic radicalism looks at one kind of existential threat but distracts attention from looking at the other.