Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Strategic Balance in the Middle East: an Israeli Perspective

The Strategic Balance in the Middle East: an Israeli Perspective

This essay is based on a talk to the FPRI Sponsors Forum on January 29, 2004. The Forum is regularly hosted by Pepper Hamilton LLP ( 

The Middle East has been divided for decades between radical forces challenging the regional status quo and Western influence, pro-Western states, and regional actors whose foreign policy fluctuated in accordance with the regional balance of power. Since September 11 2001, we witness an unprecedented American effort to enhance considerably its influence in the region. The global war on terrorism focuses on the Greater Middle East (from Libya to Afghanistan), which hosts the infrastructure (headquarters and training) of most terrorist organizations. The subsequent American invasion of Iraq was an additional effort to establish a Pax Americana in the region. The main challenges to the attempt to spread democracy and free market values in the region are taking place in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and in Palestine. The success in meeting these regional challenges will clearly affect also Israel’s security.


In the aftermath of the American victory in Iraq the important question is whether the American military presence in Baghdad constitutes the beginning of a new period in the Middle East or will we see a quick military withdrawal and the dissipation of American influence, similar to what happened after the victory in 1991? Can the Americans westernize and democratize the Arab world, by “Hellenizing” this region in a manner reminiscent of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE? Will we see a really new Iraq, with a transformed political culture and with radically new attitudes? Will Baghdad become, once again, a flourishing center of sciences and of belle arte and an agent of change in the Middle East? The answer to those questions depends primarily on two uncertain factors. The first enigma surrounds the ability and the determination of the American polity to play an imperial role; the second set of uncertainties revolves around the Iraqi society and its ability to absorb change and to transform itself into a 21st century socio-political entity.

Despite the bad name acquired by imperialism, there is nothing inherently or morally wrong in bringing peace, prosperity and progress to less blessed regions. The US definitely has the military, economic and political preeminence to exercise its hegemony and export its values to every corner of the world. Its tremendous cultural influence is already omnipresent at every level, facing only quixotic resistance. The universal lingua franca is English (the American variant). American TV series, McDonalds and Cokes abound. Enrollment in the elite American universities is the entry card into the rather cosmopolitan professional and scientific elites of many states. The US is the strongest magnet for those who wish to improve their economic lot or to be freer. American political culture has the potential to reinforce the quest for implanting the American Way elsewhere. It contains a sense of universal mission rooted in biblical motifs.

Yet, America is not known for being patient enough to sustain a long-term commitment needed to this mission. Do we see nowadays a transitory reaction to 9/11 or a decidedly internationalist American outlook based on long-term popular support and a readiness to pay the price for its civilizational role? The route taken by Washington remains to be seen and will be of course affected by the configuration of indigenous forces to which we now turn.

In a limited sense, Iraq is ready for change since anything is better than the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. In a larger sense, it probably has a potential for gradual transformation, primarily because Iraq is a rich country. It has oil, arable land and water. The American presence can bring about a more equitable division of resources. Democratization in Korea or Taiwan shows that an important intervening variable in such a process is higher standards of living. Iraq also has a rather sophisticated middle class (a part of it abroad), which could become under certain circumstances a potent force for progress. Arab political culture does indeed play a negative role in this context, but it is not an insurmountable barrier for change as old traditions often contain modernizing elements. In any case, American-induced change will elicit active resistance by motley groups, such as Islamists, ex-Baathists, and disgruntled tribal leaders, Who might get support from abroad. Indeed, most of Iraq’s neighbors have good reasons to fear change in Iraq and will probably meddle in its affairs. While Western democracy in Baghdad is not around the corner, a successful economic and political liberalization process in Iraq will have tremendous ripple effects in the region.

From Jerusalem’s perspective, the Iraqi threat during the reign of Saddam Hussein was removed. Saddam Hussein had a record of aggressive behavior and displayed hegemonic ambitions. He was responsible for starting a long war with Iran (1980-88); for invading Kuwait in 1990; and he did not hesitate to use chemical agents in the battlefield and against his own citizens. These traits made his quest for biological and nuclear weapons extremely dangerous, particularly when it came to Israel. Saddam Hussein has never hidden his deep hostility to the Jewish state and his preference for its demise. He has repeatedly threatened Israel with destruction by using his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) arsenal and did not hesitate to launch missiles to Israeli population centers in the winter of 1991.

While the future of Iraq remains unclear, Israel has benefited from the regime change in Baghdad. The new Iraq is busy with domestic problems and will find it difficult to conduct an active anti-Israeli foreign policy. The American presence and an initial dependency upon Washington would cause the new regime to avoid WMD programs. Such a posture in Iraq removes the potential for establishing an Eastern Front against Israel. Noteworthy, such a front is closer to Israel’s heartland than potential attacks from the north or south. Indeed, the change in Iraq allows Israel to implement cuts in various items of its defense budget.


Since the 1979 Islamic revolution Iran has adopted a vocal anti-American foreign policy. Moreover, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is a direct challenge to the American attempt to impose a non-proliferation regime. An American failure to convince Iran to desist from continuing in its efforts to produce fissionable material (enriching Uranium and/or separating Plutonium) will have dangerous consequences in the Middle East. The prospects of a nuclear Iran would: threaten US, and European security; increase militancy and embolden hard-liners in the region; destabilize the Gulf area; and encourage other states, such as Saudi Arabia and Libya, to follow suit.

The more assertive American position of the current Bush administration on proliferation and its military presence in Iraq do offer some hope in Jerusalem that the Americans might do something about putting an end to the Iranian nuclear program. From an Israeli perspective, Iran has increasingly become a threat to the Jewish State. Iran refuses to recognize Israel and top officials frequently call for the destruction of the Jewish state, calling it the “Small Satan.” For example, in December 2001, Rafsanjani called for a jihad campaign against the Jewish State. He noted that one nuclear bomb could finish off Israel, while its nuclear response would cause only bearable damage to the Islamic word. A more recent example occurred during a major military parade on September 22, 2003 when the Islamic republic showed off six of its Shahab-3 missiles, which were decorated with anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans, including one saying Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Iran has also consistently opposed the peace process between Israel and the Arab world, which was restarted in 1991, while funding the Hizballah in Southern Lebanon that attacked Israeli targets, not only in Southern Lebanon and in Israel but elsewhere in the world. Tehran has also lent support to Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that are intent to destroy the Jewish state.

Iran’s bottomless enmity, coupled with its missile and WMD programs have become an existential challenge to Israel. By the 2003, Iran reached a very advanced stage in the development of the surface-to-surface Shahab-3 missile. It has a 1,300 kms range, putting Israel into its striking distance. This long-range capability made the Iranian nuclear program even more threatening. Therefore, the fruition of the Iranian nuclear program is seen in Jerusalem as an existential threat. Israel’s top intelligence official has issued a stark warning regarding the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. In a November 17, 2003 testimony before the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, stressed that an Iranian atomic capability would constitute the greatest “threat to the existence of Israel” since 1948. Tehran, according to the intelligence chief, will soon reach a “point of no return” in its nuclear development, after which an Iranian offensive atomic capability would be a virtual certainty. Dagan’s assessment follows a recent warning by Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz that “Israel can in no way accept the presence of a nuclear weapon in Iranian hands”— a thinly-veiled threat that Jerusalem is prepared, if necessary, to neutralize the Iranian nuclear program by force if current international pressure fails to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.


Turkey suffered in November 2003 dozens of fatalities and hundreds of wounded due to terror attacks by the extreme Islamic organizations. Terror has not spared Muslim-populated Turkey. This country, which emphasizes the secular nature of the state and its resolution to be part of the enlightened West, is a major annoyance to the radical Muslims. The enchanting, cosmopolitan city of Istanbul, encompassing both banks of the Bosphorus Straits, the waterway designed as the border between Europe and Asia, symbolizes more than anything the Turkish vision to be part of Western civilization. However, this Kemalist dream is a nightmare for al-Qaida and its ilk. Indeed, their intent is not only hitting Jews (who are associated with Israel) and British nationals, but also creating a political maelstrom that will push Turkey once again towards the fundamentalist Islamic Middle East, with its ingrained anti-modernist and anti-Western outlook from which Turkey so wishes to disconnect itself.

The government of Turkey will probably deal firmly with the phenomenon of terror on its soil. This state is one of the few, which has succeeded, through a determined and uncompromising campaign, in wiping out domestic terror, utterly crushing the Kurdish PKK underground. Turkey’s military adjusted its doctrines and tactics to deal with the Kurdish threat and was successful in mobilizing domestic political support and the necessary resources to do the job well. The successful campaign against the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s was carried out, however, on the hills and countryside, as opposed to the present danger— terrorism against civilians in big urban centers, thus rendering the present challenge by international Islamic terror a much greater one.

The Turkish army will gladly meet the challenge to prove that it is still much needed and that it remains the real guardian of the Turkish state. Turkey also has efficient and professional security services. They have been for years in the forefront of the war against Kurdish and Armenian terrorism and have also acquired much experience in combating radical Islamist elements. Hopefully, cooperation between Turkey and other states, including Israel, in the area of counter-terror, will only grow.

If Turkey fails in its fight against terror, one possible terrible consequence would be a reversal in its historic quest to be part of the West. Snatching Turkey away from the West would be a huge success for the radical Islamist elements because it is so far the only successful example of a Muslim country embracing Western values of democracy and free market. Moreover, its geostrategic location is extremely important. At stake, therefore, it is not only the internal security of Turkish citizens, but the identity of the Turkish state and its society, as well as the security of the West.

For Israel, Turkey current foreign policy orientation is extremely valuable. Since the mid-1990s, we have witnessed an upgrading of bilateral relations reaching an unprecedented degree of strategic partnership. The closer Israeli-Turkish strategic cooperation has a positive effect on the peace process, which amounts to a reluctant acceptance of Israel as a regional actor by most Arab states. It reinforces the notion that Israel is militarily strong and cannot easily be removed from the map. Moreover, this relationship has a moderating effect on Arab ambitions and revanchism, which are still nurtured in the region.

Turkey has continued to maintain good relations despite the prolonged Palestinian armed confrontation with Israel that started in September 2000, and the ascendance of the proto- Islamist party (AKP) to power in November 2002— an indication of the resilience of Israeli-Turkish relations. Moreover, Ankara increased its diplomatic involvement in the region, a development Israel welcomed. A change of course in Ankara that the recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul served as an alarm call to such an eventuality. An Islamist takeover in Turkey will have most detrimental effect on the strategic balance in the Middle East and on Israel’s security.

The Israeli-Palestinian Arena

In September 2000, the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat rejected the incredible concessions offered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the framework of a comprehensive peace plan. Since then, they have conducted a terror campaign against Israel. After 9/11 it became clearer than before that the Palestinian violence, despite its local motivations and characteristics, is part of a larger phenomenon— the Muslim rage against the West. The Palestinian national movement, infused with religious motifs from the very beginning, has consistently sided with the anti-Western forces in the Middle East. It supported the Soviet Union; it attempted to topple King Hussein in Jordan; it helped destabilize pro-Western Lebanon; it provided training to most terrorist organization in its camps in Lebanon; it sided with Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003. Fighting Israel, a perceived western post in the Middle East, is part of the Palestinian national ethos. Moreover, the religious elements in the Palestinian national movement, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have close links to Islamist Iran, as well as to Hizbullah and al-Qaeeda.

The September 1993 Oslo agreement seemed to herald a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations. These hopes were shattered in September 2000. The Oslo agreements amounted to a de facto partition of the Land of Israel, something most Israelis did not object to in principle. Unfortunately, the Palestinians established an entity that is corrupt, dictatorial and worst of all: unable to meet the main test of modern state— monopoly over the use of force. The Palestinian Authority allowed the existence of numerous armed militias. The consequence of the Oslo agreement was to give the Palestinian terrorist organizations a territorial base near the heartland of Israel making it easier for them to attack Israeli targets. Indeed, the number of Israeli casualties rose to 898 in the 9/1993-9/2003 period, in sharp contrast to the toll of the previous 15 years— only 254 casualties.

Slowly, Israel became aware of the magnitude of the new challenge, gradually escalating its military responses. Its freedom of action has been constantly curtailed by the vagaries of the Middle East policies of Washington, and by the democratic character of the Israeli political system (the rule of law and the influence of public opinion). The interim assessment shows that Israel was successful in containing Palestinian violence. Moreover, Israel under Ariel Sharon showed considerable resilience. It was successful in nourishing a good relationship with its ally, the US. More than ever was Israel’s foreign policy successful in portraying Yasser Arafat as an obstacle to peace. In contrast, the Palestinians failed to bring about the reversal of the peace treaties between Egypt and Jordan with Israel, and a military involvement of Arab states. All clearly announced their refusal to participate in a wider regional confrontation on behalf of the Palestinians. Arafat also failed to trigger an international military intervention, such as the one in Kosovo. Despite the widespread criticism of Israel’s war against the Palestinian terror, particularly in Europe, and the occasional signs of weakness within Israeli society, it is worth remembering that terror is the weapon of the weak and it is not always effective.

Israel has traditionally demanded of the Palestinians peaceful coexistence with little success so far. Since the famous speech of president Bush of June 24, 2002, greater attention was given to the needed internal change within the Palestinian community to make it ripe for living peacefully next to Israel. The US, in line with the imperatives of the pro-democratic ideology, demands more than foreign policy change. The US insists on a change of leadership, democratization of the PA and dismantling the terror infrastructure. The American position suits well Israel.


Israel is in the frontline of the Western attempt to bring about a more stable and peaceful Middle East that is more open to Western ideas, such as democracy and free market. The main challenges for this endeavor are in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. The success of the radical forces in these focal points will affects adversely Israel’s security. Israel itself can use its power to curtail some of these challenges but it needs the support of the West.