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Talking to Islamists – Israel’s Choices

Caravan, Hoover Institution, August 13, 2012

The policy debate on the proper response to the challenges presented by the recent surge in Islamist power and influence in the Middle East is also a matter of geography. The position obtained by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt or Turkey’s quest for a hegemonial role under an Islamist Prime Minister are seen differently from the distant capital of the American superpower, from the concerned capitals of Mediterranean European countries and from Israel, Egypt’s neighbor and the object of Islamist wrath.

For Israel, the Islamist challenge is manifold and the policy choices complex. The Iranian regime openly calls for Israel’s destruction. It established itself on the shores of the Mediterranean north and south of Israel, seeks regional hegemony and a nuclear arsenal. A dialogue is out of the question and Israel’s policy is clear: to combat Iranian influence and to abort its quest for nuclear weapons. The debate in Israel is whether it should, if all other efforts fail, resort to a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The proponents of this option argue that a regime of deterrence is not feasible when Ayatollahs possessed by an apocalyptic vision are on the other side of the equation.

Nor do Israelis envisage a dialogue with Iran’s proxy in neighboring Lebanon, Hizballah. Israel has dealt with Hizballah indirectly. Cease-fire agreements have been negotiated since the 1990′s and swaps of prisoners and bodies have been brokered. More significantly, a regime of deterrence has in fact been established. Israel retaliated ferociously in July 2006 after Hizballah’s provocation and the border between Lebanon and Israel has been quiet since then. Israel is now sending clear signals to Hizballah trying to persuade the organization that shooting missiles in response to an Israeli raid on Iran would be much costlier than the 2006 war.

Egypt’s new political reality presents Israel with multiple challenges. Peace with Egypt has been a pillar of Israel’s national security since 1979.Israelis complained about the “cold peace” maintained by Mubarak’s regime, but peace it was. Ironically Israels hopes are now pinned on the Egyptian military, the guardians of the American and Israeli relationship. Israelis have no qualms about talking to President Mursi or other Islamists; it is the Egyptian Islamists who refuse to talk. At this point they make ambiguous statements about relations with Israel and are quite content to let the military deal with the “Zionist Entity”. Egypt’s loss of effective control of the Sinai Peninsula, the penetration of this sensitive area by Jihadi groups and the imminent danger of another explosion in Gaza, threaten to undermine the fragile Egyptian-Israeli relationship.

Israel’s problem with Hamas is twofold. Hamas is the effective sovereign in Gaza, though Israel continues to control access, and provide electricity, and maintains a siege in order to minimize the smuggling of rockets and advanced weapons. Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 created limited deterrence. But rockets are occasionally fired from Gaza. It is an explosive state of affairs that could easily deteriorate into a major crisis that could spill over into the Israeli-Egyptian relationship. Then there is the larger political issue. What should Israel do about Hamas when the quest for a full or partial settlement with the Palestinians is revived? Some of the organization’s leaders offered in the past a “hudna,” a long term armistice based on full Israeli withdrawal without Palestinian recognition. The majority of Israel’s decision makers and experts still maintain that the Palestinian Authority controlled by Fatah is the natural and only partner and that any opening towards Hamas would only serve to undermine the Authority and the current stability in the West Bank.

Turkey of the 1990′s was a close strategic ally of Israel. As PM Erdogan gradually consolidated his power during the previous decade, he distanced himself from Israel in a bid for a Turkish role in the Arab world. Beyond cold calculus, Erdogan is a genuine supporter of the Palestinian cause, and specifically of Hamas. The Avi Marmara’s attempt to defy the Israeli siege of Gaza brought the Turkish-Israeli relationship to its lowest ebb. But the two countries still share important interests (Syria is just one of them) and efforts to normalize the relationship continue. As in the case of Egypt, Israel has no qualms about talking to Turkish Islamists. It is Erdogan and the AKP who are willing to resolve the acute crisis but shun a return to a cordial relationship.

The Islamist surge is one component in a darker geopolitical landscape faced by Israel. In this landscape, there are also opportunities that Israel can exploit. But in order to play in the current Middle Eastern political and diplomatic arena Israel needs to take two initiatives: fix its relationship with Turkey and restart a diplomatic process, or at least, some concrete movement with the Palestinians.

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