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reflections

Oct 13, 2009 | 02:05 GMT

6 mins read

An Independent Israeli Foreign Policy?

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER EHUD BARAK was set to travel to Poland and the Czech Republic on the evening of Oct. 12 for meetings with the Polish and Czech prime ministers and defense ministers, as well as with other high-level officials. Barak was scheduled to attend events on human rights and the Holocaust, but his trip comes at a time of enormous international tension over Iran — an issue deeply interwoven with U.S.-Russian relations involving Central Europe. An Israeli media report stated that Barak would discuss "Iran's nuclear program as well as military industries" with his Polish and Czech counterparts. The United States has begun negotiations with Iran over its compliance with international nuclear laws. For the U.S. position to have any bite, Washington has held up the threat of severe sanctions against Iran. But the American position is compromised by Russia's ability to blast a hole through the prospective sanctions regime. The United States therefore must make promises to Russia that it will back away from the former Soviet sphere of influence, or face Russian intransigence in dealing with Tehran. So far, the United States has not offered much for the Russians to sink their teeth into (backing down on ballistic missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic was not enough — and regardless, the Russians question U.S. sincerity). Discussions with Iran are under way, yet without a resolution to the U.S.-Russian situation there can be no enforcement against Iran. This leaves Israel in a highly uncomfortable position, at a time when its patience is already running thin. Yet the fact that Israel has depended so heavily upon the United States in the past sixty years does not mean it is without leverage of its own. To understand this, we look to Israel's geopolitics. The Israeli core is situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and Jordanian desert to the east, the Sinai and Negev deserts to the south, and the hilly areas of Galilee in the north. Throughout history, this area has been relatively advantageous to defend — assuming Israel is internally unified. Attackers from the west, south or east would need to stretch their forces across the sea or inhospitable deserts. Historically, Israel has faced only two serious threats. The first is Syria, to the northeast, which in times of strength potentially can penetrate Israeli territory north of the Sea of Galilee. But the Israelis are generally well prepared to defeat today's Syrians alone. The second threat is the graver of the two. This is when a great foreign empire from farther away attempts to grab Israel's advantageous coastal strip, whether through Syria or by harnessing the resources to overcome Israel's natural buffers. The Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans at various points in history staked a claim to this land, forcing the Israelis to accommodate them or bear their yoke. Under the reign of the Persian Empire, the Israelites were able to arrive at a compromise that left them subordinate but intact. This is their preferred stance during eras in which they cannot enjoy their ideal isolation. Similarly, in its modern incarnation since 1948, Israel has rendered itself inoffensive to American interests. It recognized the United States as the global hegemon and, during the Cold War, the guarantor of Israel's security against another potential invading empire, the Soviet Union, which had proxies in Syria (as mentioned, Israel's most threatening neighbors) and Iraq (the modern version of ancient Israel's Babylonian conquerors). Yet the fact that Israel has depended so heavily upon the United States in the past sixty years does not mean it is without leverage of its own. Israeli leaders long have entertained the possibility that the country could develop a more self-determining foreign policy — with Israel acting as a power in its own right. This would be necessary in the event that the United States abandons Israel to the winds — which is deemed possible should American interests shift. In the post-Cold War period, the United States has remained close to the Israelis because of U.S. interests in the Middle East, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks. But both the Americans and the Israelis can at least conceive of a time when their paths begin to diverge, necessitating contingency plans for Israel. This is why the timing of Barak's trip to Central Europe is important. By visiting Poland and the Czech Republic to discuss "military industries" — perhaps arms deals — the Israelis have taken Moscow by surprise, and the Kremlin will not be happy. Israel acting boldly in a region outside its own is an anomaly. There are two possible explanations. First, the move might have been coordinated along with the United States, in order to stick it to the Russians at a time when they are threatening to destroy a united international front against Iran. The Russians long have seen U.S. and Israeli meddling in their periphery as one and the same, and the United States is needling the Russians in similar ways at present (for instance, with plans for Vice President Joe Biden to visit Warsaw, Prague and Bucharest later this month). The other possibility is that the Israelis have acted alone, directly reminding the Russians that they have leverage in Central Europe — such as the ability to provide intelligence or military assistance to the Poles or the Czechs. This could be a way of directly warning the Russians to back away from supporting Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. If this was the case — and the Americans were not consulted about Barak's visit — it follows that Israel has begun to view America as an unreliable ally. The current U.S. administration has irked the Israelis by letting deadline after deadline on Iran slip by. And the Israelis are not willing to tolerate a reincarnation of the Persian Empire, or a Persian proxy of a revived Russian Empire, armed with a nuclear-tipped missiles. Therefore, Monday’s move might be Israel's first step in developing a foreign policy for itself — in a world where the Israelis believe they must act alone to distract and encumber great powers beyond its region. After all, such powers traditionally have posed the greatest strategic threat to Israel.

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