As upheaval sweeps into country after country of the Middle East, endemic instability has become the order of the day—with no end in sight. Long-established certitudes about the regional order are no more, having been supplanted by an Arab “spring” that produced neither a summer of democracy and prosperity nor a return to the winter of past authoritarian immobility but, rather, a prolonged autumn of volatility and baffling uncertainty. And this is not to speak of the impact of events on nominally peripheral powers such as Turkey, Ethiopia, and Iran—the last-named of which presents a regional challenge of major proportions—or on such formerly inhibited but now emergent actors as the Kurds, the Christians, the Druze, and even the Alawites.
At the eye of this regional hurricane, Israel is eerily quiet, tensely following the turbulence and endeavoring, amid the wreckage, to fathom the shape of the new Middle Eastern reality. Much is still unknown, other than that the old order is gone for good, an epochal shift is under way, and Israel’s three-decades-old strategy for survival—a strategy aimed above all at maintaining “stability”—may have to be abandoned. Can it be replaced by a better one—and a more activist one?
The forces at work in the region are seen as operating in two directions. A disintegrative pull is evident everywhere. At the same time, however, integrative forces are also in play, presenting the possibility of new alignments and partnerships. Broadly speaking, these forces adhere mainly to either nationalist or religious-ideological visions.
Most obvious among the nationalist forces are the Kurds. Barring disastrous factional infighting, the way seems open for a historic convergence of some 30 million Kurds and the potential emergence of a Kurdish national entity. Such an entity, encompassing the already autonomous Kurds of Iraq and Syria and the increasingly organized Kurds of Turkey and Iran, could dramatically recalibrate all regional balances.
Another potential force is Berber nationalism in North Africa, affecting up to 35 million people spread out from Morocco to Tunisia. In their current state of organization, only the Berbers of the Kabylie in Algeria are seriously active in seeking self-determination; but this is a community on the march.
Then there is the other important integrative factor: religion, or rather religious ideology. While in some cases this can break political entities apart, in others it can have the opposite effect. Visible in today’s ferment is the potential emergence of three large religious-ideological clusters, each vying with the others to assume leadership. To a great extent all three subscribe to a version of the Islamist ideology that entered the vacuum created by the demise of radical pan-Arabism.
The best established and most salient among the three clusters is the radical Shiite grouping, led by Iran and comprising as well the Hezbollah-led Shiites of Lebanon and the Asad-led Alawite-Shiite alliance of western Syria, with the Shiite majority in Iraq similarly drifting toward Tehran’s orbit. Iran is also eyeing the sizable Shiite communities that form a majority of the population in Kuwait, Bahrain, and eastern Saudi Arabia—all in the hope of engendering a Shiite belt around the Persian Gulf.
The second cluster is the populist-Sunni grouping led by Islamist Turkey and allied with Qatar and the various Muslim Brotherhood-inspired political movements in the region. It is currently in power in Yemen and Gaza, while forming the main political opposition in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Jordan. In Egypt, it was only recently ousted from power in the anti-Brotherhood military coup. This grouping supports democratic elections, in the expectation (usually correct) that it will emerge from them either victorious or as the main opposition party.
The third cluster is authoritarian-Sunni, led by Saudi Arabia and including such traditional monarchies as Morocco, Jordan, and all Gulf nations except Qatar, as well as the Sunni leadership in Lebanon, the Mahmoud Abbas faction of the Palestinian Authority, and, its most important recent prize, Egypt led by General al-Sisi. Algeria seems also to be edging toward it. This grouping is in effect what remains of the former Arab Sunni majority that dominated the region for decades; now in retreat and on the defensive, it tends to distrust democracy and is allied to the various “Salafist” groups of purist Islamists who reject the Muslim Brotherhood as being too liberal and democratic.
Each of the three clusters maintains close connections to terrorist organizations, which are activated at will against the others as well as against Western and Israeli targets. Moreover, to these three groupings one may add a smaller one composed of the various Sunni jihadist groups, the most famous of which is al-Qaeda. These organizations, which for the most part do not accept the authority of any of the big three, are politically and numerically inconsequential. But they wield clout in their two fields of concentration: terrorism against Western targets worldwide and insurgency against non-Sunni regimes. A good example of the complex interplay among all these forces is the current contest for leadership of those areas in Syria that have been liberated from the Asad regime (itself part of the Shiite grouping) and are now dominated by Arab-Sunni fighters. There, the fierce contest for territorial control and political dominance among the pro-Turkey Muslim Brotherhood groups, the pro-Saudi Salafist groups, and the go-it-alone jihadists often eclipses the battle against Asad.
Israel is, to say the least, not a good fit for any of these regional groupings. Yet it must be said that in at least one respect, they represent an improvement over the formerly united anti-Zionist Arab front. As long as they continue to exist, they are likely to invest fewer resources in fighting the Jewish state than in fighting each other for dominance. They are also quite fluid and brittle, as we have seen in Egypt’s recent switch from the populist to the authoritarian grouping. Indeed, even in the three leading countries of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the internal political situation is far from secure, and a change of leadership, especially in Turkey, is hardly unthinkable.
What can an activist Israel do?
On the first level, i.e., the immediate vicinity, an activist policy of supporting minorities would see Israel focusing on those who do not and cannot identify with any of the three Islamist groupings: the Christians and Druze of both Lebanon and Syria, and above all the Kurds. The last of these, while mostly Sunni, overwhelmingly tend to identify with their Kurdish nation and may potentially turn into one of the largest and most cohesive political powers in the region. Together with Israel, these groups might conceivably form a fourth, alternative group to the three Islamist clusters—one with a shared propensity in favor of self-determination, democracy, open societies, and open markets.
In addition, Israel should obviously consider ways to weaken the three Islamist groupings by seeking out elements that might be tempted to secede. The most evident candidates are the Syrian Alawites; concentrated in the coastal area, they are now led by Asad and allied to the Shiite cluster, but this is a far from natural alliance. The Alawites do not subscribe to the tenets of Shiite Islamist ideology. (Regarded by Shiites as doctrinal heretics, they tend to be quite secretive and moderate in religious matters.) If the war in Syria concludes with the establishment of a self-governing Alawite zone, sooner or later its residents will have an interest in jettisoning the Asads and distancing themselves from the bear hug of fanatical Shiite ideology.
A similar course might be followed in the long run with Iran’s restive Azeris, who make up some 20 percent of the population and are concentrated in the northeastern corner of the country (bordering on the Kurds and Azerbaijan). And then there is Sudan, where even after partition, a new civil war is looming between the Arabic-speaking population of the north and east and the long-oppressed groups of the south and west who describe themselves as Africans (rather than Arabs) and now seek new allies.
At the second level, that of peripheral strategy, the implosion of the Arab world has created a regional power vacuum unprecedented since World War I. The old peripheral strategy was predicated on the assumption that Ethiopia, Turkey, and Iran—the three main non-Arab powers at the edges of the Arab-speaking states—had in common with Israel both an interest in stemming pan-Arabism and the capability to influence the regional balance of power. In the latter decades of the 20th century, however, all three suffered a reversal, while Israel turned elsewhere.
Ethiopia fell prey in 1974 to a Communist dictatorship, plunging it into a generation of famine, terror, civil war, and destruction ending only in 1991. In Iran, the 1979 revolution brought to power the radical Khomeini regime, which promptly fought a long and exhausting war with Saddam’s Iraq. Turkey, which fared somewhat better, nevertheless faced a serious and protracted problem of terrorism and underwent a number of military coups; and thanks to its faltering economy, its successive attempts to join the EU met with repeated rebuff.
Now, all three are back on their feet. Ethiopia, having put its political and economic house in order, is today the most stable and important American ally in eastern Africa, cooperating with Washington in fighting Islamist terror in Somalia, defending the strategic city-state of Djibouti, and extending assistance to South Sudan; to the chagrin of the Egyptians, it is erecting the greatest dam ever built on the river Nile. Turkey, having enjoyed in the last decade both political stability and spectacular economic progress, has abandoned its EU-oriented strategy and, notwithstanding Prime Minister Erdogan’s current troubles, is now consolidating its role as a regional leader. Iran has already acquired a central role as patron and protector of all things Shiite; although still crippled by sanctions directed against its military nuclear program, it has successfully serenaded the West into easing up and off.
Now the Arab collapse has drawn these powers from the periphery right into the thick of things, with, in the case of Turkey and Iran, decidedly challenging implications for Israel’s security. At the same time, however, a new periphery is emerging, as the formerly Soviet republics of the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan present a possible counterbalance to the bordering nations of Turkey and Iran. Especially significant is oil-rich, Shiite Azerbaijan, wary of Tehran’s schemes against it, enjoying strong ties with Iran’s oppressed Azeris, and conspicuously friendly with Israel. Even Greece and Cyprus, uneasy at growing Turkish assertiveness, are strengthening their ties to the Jewish state, especially in the spheres of defense and energy policy.
On the international scene, finally, there is no escaping the current troubles of the United States—and there is no lack of powers that would like to replace it, from the EU or some of its members (like France) to Russia and even China. As things now stand, none of these is equipped with the requisite combination of military, economic, and intellectual resources, and none seems up to putting its money and troops where its mouth is. The U.S. is still by far the only serious great power on the international scene, and for the foreseeable future there is no alternative to its might.
Political will, however, is another matter, and in that respect Israel might indeed be facing a diminished American role, at least if elements within both political parties in Washington achieve their wish for a retreat from world leadership. At the moment, the U.S. is mired in a foreign-policy labyrinth of its own making; if this turns out to be a sign of things to come, Israel’s options will be severely affected. However implausible a complete disengagement of the U.S. from its strong commitment to Israel’s security may appear, even a relative retrenchment, signaled by the reluctance to employ military force or even direct diplomatic and economic pressure, would transform the regional equation and enable the entrance of new players.
The Saudis, disquieted by American disarray, have already announced a major strategic “shift away” from Washington and, along with others in the region reliant on American support, are now seeking alternative options. As of now, Israel is not yet seriously readying itself for a serious American cutback, but some are already proposing that, in case it materializes, Jerusalem should seek to combine American support, however diminished in scale, with the support of at least one other major ally. Since the EU, Russia, and China have significant limitations in this respect, a principal candidate for partnership is now India, an emerging giant making its first and very tentative steps on the world stage. Israel has already become India’s main supplier of military equipment, and there are growing ties of commerce, technology, and intelligence between the two countries, which also share a deep-rooted democratic tradition as well as a strategic conflict with radical Islam.
Such, then, is the new shape of the Middle East, and such are the dilemmas facing Israeli strategists and policy makers. There is no such thing as a strategy without a price; in choosing activism, Israel would be choosing to involve itself in difficult and uncertain ventures and to run the risk of failure and setbacks, including in the form of severe cross-border violence. Some failures will be costly in diplomatic and economic terms, others in human lives. But the alternative is no less fraught with danger, and its cost will be measured in the expansion and consolidation of Israel’s enemies.
It is also worth pointing to the moral dimension of the strategic choice at hand. Fomenting disarray and division among Israel’s enemies, helping them to crumble, is both an enticing prospect and a good in and of itself. But the activist course also has the clear advantage of working mainly in favor of those forces in the Middle East seeking self-determination, democracy, and liberty: the forces that brought into being the Arab spring. A change in this direction of a single important regime—a more Western-oriented Turkey, a non-Islamic Iran—would create a regional power shift as dramatic as anything witnessed in the last few years.
At best, the activist strategy can go much farther. It can foster and assist newly emerging political entities in the region that will be far more favorably inclined to the existence among them of the Jewish state. Cooperating with peripheral powers from Greece through the Caucasus to Ethiopia can create a wider regional partnership whose scope might then extend outward toward international actors with shared values and interests. In the best of circumstances, an activist strategy can advance the process by which various former minorities become a strong and stable alliance of national communities, constitutionally inclined to democracy, free markets, and open societies.
Ofir Haivry is vice-president of the Herzl Institute. This article was excerpted by permission from a longer essay in Mosaic. Read the full essay at mosaicmagazine.com.