Israel's Foreign Policy and Identity
Or: What was Netanyahu looking for in the Golan Heights, why did the Russians shoot at an Israeli fighter jet and why can’t Israel formulate a diplomatic/security strategy.
In April 2016, PM Binyamin Netanyahu visited IDF forces on the Golan Heights, dressed in field attire. Surrounded by soldiers (and personal security) the PM declared that the Golan Heights will remain in Israel hands forever. It is doubtful if his patriotic declaration added peace of mind to any rightists. After all, Netanyahu has already conducted negotiations on surrendering the Golan Heights to Syria (by means of his billionaire friend, Ron Lauder). Similarly, Rabin’s declaration on the eve of the 1992 elections that “whoever retreats from the Golan will be abandoning Israel’s security” did not prevent him from later conducting serious negotiations on giving it to the Syrians. In general, Israelis are no longer impressed by its leaders’ declarations of loyalty (to Jerusalem, Gush Katif, the Golan) because in Israel, “principles” serve politics – and not vice versa.
“In Israel, there is no foreign policy, just internal policy” stated Henry Kissinger. In other words, tactics are the strategy. Netanyahu’s declaration fits right in, then, with this Israeli ‘tradition’. It certainly does not add to Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan Heights.
In practice, Netanyahu’s declaration even harmed Israel’s sovereign status on the Heights. First of all, because those who know Netanyahu understand that this type of declaration, made with no visible background situation, likely expresses distress and thus testifies to the exact opposite. Secondly, the declaration elicited a cross-continental reaction from the Americans, the Germans (and later from the rest of the EU nations) and most aggressively, from the Russians; their reactions completely negated Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan.
We can certainly say that if Netanyahu wished to strengthen Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, he achieved just the opposite. As a move like this strange declaration is completely at odds with Netanyahu’s strategy of passivity, and as the man is an experienced expert in the intricacies of international politics, it is very reasonable to assume that he well understood the expected outcome of his declaration.
So why did he do it?
A short time after his declaration, Netanyahu set out for a visit to Moscow, accompanied by senior officers from the IDF air and ground forces and by his Russian-speaking confidante, Minister Ze’ev Elkin. The purpose of the visit – it was explained – was to tighten the coordination and cooperation between Israel and Russia in light of the Russian air force flying in the general area and over the Golan Heights, in particular. However, half a year before that, in September 2015, the same entourage already visited in Moscow and the Israeli public was already told that mutual mechanisms of coordination had already been established to prevent incidents like the Turkish downing of a Russian jet, which happened later. Back in September, the visit to Moscow was marketed to the public as the success of a wise and prescient foreign policy. “Our policy is not to attack and not to down or shoot at any Russian jet. Not them at us and not us at them,” (Ynet, Nov. 26, 2015) explained a senior Air Force officer at the end of a major drill held afterwards. But as the recent visit approached, journalist Shimon Schiffer reported in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper that Russian fire had, indeed, been directed at IDF jets. If another senior visit was again required, apparently the sophisticated coordination system has not exactly been working.
So what is happening here?
Israel’s ‘Tactics Instead of Strategy’ (or ‘Politics as Strategy’) policy has, among other things, led to the retreat of the IDF from Lebanon (orchestrated by Voice of Israel broadcaster Shelly Yehimovitz and the Four Mothers) and to approximately 150,000 missiles positioned on our northern border – among them guided missiles. In terms of the ability to wreak destruction on and paralyze strategic Israeli targets, these missiles present a threat no less serious than Iran’s nuclear threat.
This ‘policy’ has also led to the incomprehensible (strategic) retreat from Gush Katif that made Tel Aviv hostage to Gaza and its missiles. This ‘policy’ also led to the abandonment of Israel’s crucial strategic principle according to which only the IDF defends the State of Israel. It led to Israel’s diplomatic defeat against Iran, made Iran a regional power to be reckoned with and allowed for its almost certain nuclear capability, which will be activated at the first opportunity it encounters.
This ‘policy’ is now leading to the loss of Israel’s ability to defend its border with Syria and a serious threat to its continued sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
How did a unique strategic opportunity morph into a resounding diplomatic defeat?
Between the two World Wars, the Middle East exchanged colonialism, which had fallen out of favor, with the façade of modern Arab nation states. But the puppet administrations were rapidly replaced with local dictatorships that were nothing like real states, at all. Seventy years passed, the ‘Arab Spring’ broke out and the Middle East began to return to its natural, tribal state. Like every political spring, the Arab Spring also brought the society in which it broke out back to its natural state. In the Middle East, that is not democracy and has no resemblance to a nation state. President Bush’s diplomatic (and inept) alchemy, which attempted to produce democracy in occupied Iraq (similar to what was forced upon Japan and West Germany after World War II) was just as logical as the alchemists’ original attempts to turn sand into gold. A real democracy requires a basic cultural foundation that does not exist in Arab Islam.
The political vacuum that was created in the Middle East and America’s weakening grip caused sub-national and supranational armed groups to flourish, on the one hand – and on the other hand, intensified the uncontrollable urge of regional leaders to use the unfolding events to take control of the Middle East. The rising star of ISIS, the incessant civil wars between the Nile and the Euphrates, the armed militias, the horrifying cruelty – all brought about mass death and waves of immigration that flooded Europe.
The first national leaders who attempted to take advantage of the situation and crown themselves the modern day Salah-a-Din, who capitalized on the defeat of the Crusaders (in other words, the Americans) and united the Arabs under his hegemony – were the Iranian Ahmadinijad and the Turkish Erdogan. Like Salah-a-Din in his time, these two gentlemen are not Arabs. And similar to Egyptian President Naaser, who strove to lead the Arab nation by provoking Israel, both Ahmadinijad and Erdogan naturally turned to the same course of action.
True, in the Middle Eastern swamp there is a strong nation, much more developed than Iran and Turkey. It is a flourishing state, both economically and militarily, a local (nuclear) power that is always first to supply aid to countries around the world afflicted by disaster. It would only have been natural for Israel to take responsibility for the monstrous humanitarian disaster that was created on its northern border. Besides providing medical aid to Syrians wounded by the hostile Syrian army, Israel could also have helped Syrian civilians by for example, creating a no-fly zone in certain parts of the Syrian Golan to provide shelter for the refugees who escaped the slaughter. Could someone have seriously complained against Israel for this type of temporary humanitarian step?
In the past, tiny Israel allowed itself to send forces to distant Kurdistan, to train forces in Africa and to support the Christian fighters in Lebanon. Why could every Salah-a-Din wannabe set his eyes on Israel’s back yard, while in Israel – this type of strategic thinking – seeing itself as the regional solution instead of the regional and world problem, as the regional leader instead of the regional leper, as the hegemonic leader instead of the foreign implant begging for a crumb of legitimacy – why was this type of thinking considered impossible?
Let us put this question aside for now. It is sufficient to understand at this point that because of the temporary and episodic way that Israel sees itself, it is incapable of creating real strategic policy. Instead, a vacuum was created on its border.
The world’s second most powerful nation dwells farther north. It seems that, after he rid himself of all the powers that threatened his control, Russia’s leader is now looking for challenges outside his country. Russia’s economy (if it can be called that) is mostly based on gas exports and like the US – the most significant product produced there is military hardware.
Putin does not suffer from Israeli inhibitions. He annexed Crimea, provoked the Turks (where they actually do down a jet that crosses its border), he is provoking the US. Wherever he detects a weakened grasp, the Russian dictator will try his luck and check the limits. The vacuum on our northern border and Israel’s diplomatic weakness did not go unnoticed. This is how Israel’s isolationist policy brought about a new – and much worse – strategic situation.
Instead of a weakened or unstable Syrian regime on the border of the Golan Heights, which Israel could freely attack in response to any threat – instead of a situation that maintained complete quiet on the Golan border since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, strategy-less Israel has now received the Russian bear. Now all the rules of the game have changed. We can no longer nonchalantly react to any artillery ‘mistakenly’ shot over our border without facing off against the new sovereign. Israel’s Air Force can no longer fly in the skies of the Golan without authorization from the Kremlin. The senior Air Force officer who explained that “we are not shooting at them, but it is not so true that they are not shooting at us…” is right.
Why doesn’t it work? Why can’t Russia sit quietly next to Israel?
Because as opposed to Israel, the rest of the world formulates strategy. A situation in which one side has a strategy and the other side doesn’t does not bring quiet. It creates unending pressure: diplomatic pressure, economic pressure and military pressure.
President Putin has global interests. The US and Europe are not the only countries that are allowed to bite off pieces of Israeli sovereignty in their quest to become the intermediaries under whose sponsorship “peace” came to the Middle East. Now that the US is no longer a major player here, the Russians have come to take their turn. If we are already here, why not pressure Israel to retreat from the Golan Heights? We, Russia, will ensure your security…
Russia has distinct economic interests in the Golan Heights and in Israel. The Russian gas company, Gazprom, wanted to be part of the gas extraction from the Leviathan reservoir. Its move was blocked by Noble Energy, which is not interested in the partnership. It seems that there are also large shale oil deposits and energy resources in the Golan. Israel’s retreat from the Golan and its deposit into the hands of a type of Russian hegemony would certainly be a logical strategy for a country interested in controlling Israel’s energy sources.
When you shoot at Israeli fighter jets, when you provide sophisticated missile systems to Iran, when you create a strategic situation that pushes Israel into a corner, you create bargaining chips. Give us (for example) a partnership in the Leviathan gas and get freedom of movement in the Golan…in the meantime…
Putin is not Israel’s enemy. Like the US, he is also acting out of interests. The difference is that he is doing it with less tact. That is all.
Now we can understand Netanyahu’s strange declaration on the Golan. Netanyahu, like Netanyahu, is loyal to his ‘strategy’ of speeches and declarations with which he dealt with the Iranian nuclear threat. By making his Golan declaration, he attempted to create some better bargaining chips for himself before his upcoming trip to Moscow to find favor in the eyes of the new sovereign. The strange incident really did testify to personal stress and a strategic downfall – certainly not determination and strength.
We are left with one more question: Why can’t Israel create strategy, as it did in the sixties?
The answer is that until the end of the eighties, young ‘Israeliness’ provided energies of independent identity that enabled the formulation of strategy. The First Gulf War and the Madrid Conference heralded the end of that era.
As it slowly but surely fled itself and its message, Israel began to see itself as an unwanted guest in the region. “We were as grasshoppers in our eyes and so were we in their eyes,” said the Biblical spies to the Land. The way the world relates to us is a reflection of the way we relate to ourselves. The process reached its peak with the Oslo Accords, in which Israel adopted the principle according to which it is an occupier in its own land. That is why transfer of Jews from their homes is viewed as legitimate, while doing the same to Arabs is a crime against humanity. Prayer on the Temple Mount (the site of the Jewish Holy Temple) is considered an act of lunacy while raising the ISIS flag there is forgivable.
No strategy can be formulated from a national mentality that has lost its identity. The only value behind which we can hide is self defense. This reality does not allow Israel to formulate a global strategy.
Without vision, without identity, strategy is impossible. And without strategy, even the strongest of nations will be brought to its knees.