Unsurprisingly, the prospect of Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power is sending a shock through Israel and especially the Israeli security establishment. For the last three decades, Mubarak oversaw what is often referred to as a ‘cold peace’ with Israel. But in the most significant geostrategic respects, it was real peace. Egypt is the big military force on Israel’s borders. It’s always been the bigger military power than Syria while Jordan and Lebanon are only minor players in conventional military strength. Since 1979 Israel’s defense doctrines have been able to assume quiet on the southern border — something that has been key in the wars in Lebanon, actions in the West Bank and Gaza as well as making possible significant reductions in the percentage of GDP Israel spends on defense over the last two decades.
I am not convinced that the epochal developments in Egypt over the last week won’t end up being a good thing for Israel in the long run — a point I’ll return to in a minute. But there’s little question that these events are terrible for the hyper-nationalist ideology which animates the current government. It throws into question decades of Israeli military doctrine. And it turns a bright light on the hubris affecting the government’s actions over the last two years.
The relationship to Egypt is of singular importance for Israel. It was before 1979 and it has been since. But the strategic relationship with Turkey is critical too.
A couple days ago I mockingly tweeted that with Mubarak going down the tubes, the hot idea of trashing the relationship with the Turks doesn’t look like such a bright idea. That was greeted by a range of guffaws and attacks from the usual voices claiming that the current Turkish government is made up of Islamic radicals who are out to get Israel. So none of the deterioration in relations is Israel’s fault.
Broadly speaking, I think that’s baloney. But you don’t need to see the Israel-Turkey relationship through rose-colored glasses or in black and white terms to see how wrong-headed this view is. The current Turkish government is more sensitive to Turkish public opinion on this issue and it has a mix of pan-Islamic and regionalist priorities which distinguish it from the old Turkish national security stance that was always rooted in the secularist elite and anchored in the Kemalist Turkish military. What’s more, it’s at least plausible to argue that the current Turkish government saw it in its interests — quite apart from Israel’s actions — to create some distance in the relationship, thought I think that just how much this is true is open to real question.
But the truth is, like life, diplomacy and international relations aren’t fair. It’s filled with challenges, reverses, changes in the terrain that a country must constantly adapt to. And even allowing for problems on the Turkish side the Netanyahu government has taken a series of what can only be called contemptuous and provocative actions toward the Turks that went a long way toward getting the relationship into the deep freeze its now in. There is even some reason to believe that the notorious ambassadorial dress-down may have been Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s effort to derail Defense Minister Barak’s efforts to improve relations with the Turks. So the relationship with Turkey hostage to the vagaries of factional in-fighting inside the current shaky coalition government.
Yet, the particulars are less important than the big picture. The whole pattern speaks to a leadership afflicted with hubris, imprudent and heedless of the limits almost any country must operate in. Some serious effort to distinguish between the critical musts of foreign policy and the things you’d merely like; and some recognition that you can seldom have it all, at least not for long. Even though this particular blow up in Egypt caught most people off-guard, the end of the Mubarak era was clearly on the horizon in some form. He’s 82 years old, apparently ill and the national consensus which at whatever level had been willing to tolerate if not necessarily support his rule showed clear signs of a refusal to tolerate his efforts to install his son Gamal as his successor. The peace treaty with Egypt, with Mubarak as its guarantor, has been a lynchpin of Israel’s security strategy not only for three decades but — remember — for half of the history of the state’s existence. So the real prospect of change to the South was definitely on the horizon, if not necessarily in such an abrupt manner as we’ve seen.
So with that to contend with, why get into basically needless spats with the Turks, the other big eastern Mediterranean, Muslim power, with which Israel has had strong defense ties for decades? That is just folly. The enablers of this reckless behavior say, well, it’s not Israel’s fault that the Turks elected an Islamically-oriented government. So it’s the Turks fault. But this is not only probably wrong on the facts, as I’ve suggested above. More importantly, it’s wrong on the realities of diplomacy and national security.
Let me give an example. You walk out into the street without looking for traffic and get run over. Your fault. Now another example. You look one way and then the other and then walk out into the street and get run over. Not your fault? Maybe not. But who cares? Your problem. You’re still run over. And maybe both ways wasn’t enough. Maybe you needed to look one way, the other and then back again. Not your fault doesn’t make it not your problem.
A similar logic applies in foreign affairs. Fairness or who started it may get you a pat on the back but not much more. Countries, especially small countries, need allies. And since you will lose some allies for reasons beyond your control, frittering away others for trivial or avoidable reasons is unforgivable.
So why is it that Israel finds itself with a deeply strained relationship with the Turks? And why is the Netanyahu government facing a White House that has reportedly lost faith in Netanyahu as a good faith interlocutor? And why are either of these things happening when the Israelis see Iran as their chief threat? Needless to say, this is all a very bad footing from which to confront any rupture with the Egyptians. And it speaks to a pattern of imprudence born of operating for too long with no realization of limits.
That wasn’t always the case. The Israelis have always had a forward defense strategy. Taking the fight onto an enemy’s territory at the soonest possible point. It’s both a matter of formal defense doctrine and national character. But for all their willingness to go it alone, Israeli governments were once exquisitely conscious of the importance of guarding the critical alliances that grounded its security — the internal story of the lead up to the 1967 War is one of the most illustrative examples. At first it was France, then it was the USA. But all the while there were numerous secondary alliances, of which the tie with the Turks was a critical one. But we’ve seen none of that caution in the last couple years.
There’s no question this is bad news for Israel, certainly for the policy of the current government. Whether it’s bad or terrible news has yet to be determined, though within Israel the commentariat seems to have little doubt it’s the latter. But I think there’s at least the possibility that there could be a silver lining. The 1973 War was a shaking, shattering blow to Israel’s belief in its own military superiority, despite the fact that the Israelis ended up battling back and threatening Cairo itself at the end of the war. In many ways that experience of limits laid the groundwork for the Camp David Accords and the 1979 Peace Treaty. This, we know now, was Sadat’s thinking going into the war.
History is unpredictable. In our own lifetimes we’ve seen jagged ruptures in history that have turned out surprisingly benign (collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc) and others terribly dark (the Iranian Revolution). But I think it’s worth considering that while Mubarak preserved the letter of the peace treaty with Israel, I’m not sure the status quo was really working for Israel’s long-term security. And it’s important to find the potential bright sides of what’s coming down the pike, because it’s coming one way or another.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.