It All Started When He Hit Me Back

[Editor’s Note: This blog entry originally appeared on Michael Neiberg‘s personal blog and has not been edited in any way.]

In August, I had the great privilege of spending eight days studying Israeli and Middle Eastern security issues as a guest of Academic Exchange and the Yitzhak Rabin Center. The trip involved high-level discussions with Israeli and Palestinian government officials, journalists, business leaders, peace negotiators, and security specialists. What follows are a few of my impressions of the trip. I have not used the names of specific individuals with whom we spoke in order to preserve the honesty and frankness with which they spoke to us off the record.

Although the Middle East is habitually unstable, we may be living through the most revolutionary period in its history since 1967, maybe even 1948 or 1918. Across the Middle East, state authority is collapsing; the Shia-Sunni rivalry is replacing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main driver of instability; non-state actors like ISIL, Hizbollah, and Hamas are becoming dominant players; Turkey is in turmoil; Syria is in civil war; the rise of Iran has triggered responses by most of its Sunni neighbors; and the loss of faith in a two-state solution for Palestine has sapped whatever optimism remains from the Oslo process.


These changes have had some ironic and unintended consequences for Israeli security. First, they have left Israel with few serious state challengers in the region. Egypt and Jordan are allies with shared interests in deterring and preventing both terrorism and a spillover from the Syrian civil war. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq are failed states that cannot threaten Israel’s existence, although the possibility exists of terrorist groups taking advantage of that failure, especially given Hizbollah’s exploitation of Lebanese territory.

The rise of Iran has created strange bedfellows for Israel. Traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States now have a shared interest with Israel in preventing an Iranian bid for regional hegemony. Israeli foreign policy therefore now looks more and more like what one might expect from a moderate Sunni state. As for the Sunni states themselves, one speaker mentioned that they treat Israel like a mistress. They enjoy the pleasures of the relationship, but prefer to do so in the dark or when they are out of town. Israel is also enjoying better relations with India, Brazil, Singapore, China, and even Russia, partly as a result of Israel’s booming tech sector and partly because warmer relations with Israel no longer compromise these nations’ dealings with Arab states.

Israel’s greatest threats come from non-state actors closer to home. Hizbollah (based in Lebanon) and Hamas (which runs the Gaza Strip) both have the means and the will to cause Israel great harm. Both have used rockets and terrorism to kill Israelis in recent years. Gaza presents a special problem. Hamas’s endemic corruption and Islamist ideology have led Egypt to close its border crossing with Gaza. International humanitarian support for Hamas has dried up, leaving 1.2 million people in Gaza with so few resources that the UN estimates that Gaza will not be able to support human life by 2020. Already hundred of thousands of people there lack regular access to electricity, sewage, and clean water.


We visited Kerem Shalom, the main entry point for all supplies into Gaza and the self-styled ugliest place in Israel. It handles 900 to 1,200 trucks per day in a complicated ballet wherein Israeli and Palestinian drivers never see one another. All trucks are inspected and analyzed, then brought into one of eleven “neutral” areas where goods are offloaded. Then the Israeli drivers leave the neutral zone, allowing Palestinian drivers to enter and load the goods into their own trucks. As the director of the crossing told us, it is the first place of its kind built not with the hope of peace but the expectation of perpetual war. He knows most of the Palestinian drivers and workers by name, but, as he told us repeatedly, he operates from a position of zero trust. He was himself one of the families whose homes in Gaza the Israelis destroyed as part of Israel’s complete and unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. The memory obviously still caused him great pain, though his sense of duty to ease the suffering of Gaza (as long as it did not threaten Israeli security in the least) was quite evident.

The situation in the West Bank is a bit better than Gaza, but it is also tense. The various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle bequeathed by the Oslo process have createdthree non-contiguous areas. Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA); Area B is controlled for civil purposes by the PA, but security is Israeli; and Area C is fully under Israeli control. In a region where my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend, the PA and Israel both fear and despise Hamas, but that shared interest has not brought them much closer together. Each side deeply mistrusts the other and the issues of Israeli settlements, borders, and the future of Jerusalem are just a few of the problems with no foreseeable compromise or agreement in sight. Each side can trace its history back centuries, can find defenses in international law for their positions, and can mobilize a great deal of emotion. As one veteran of years of negotiations between the two said, it is like being the parent of a child who says “It all started when he hit me back.”


The PA is deeply corrupt, terribly inefficient in its governance, and unwilling to divorce itself from the violence often done in the name of the Palestinian people it represents. The unequal sharing of resources and security with Israel surely handicaps the PA, but the modernization and professionalization of the state that the Oslo process was supposed to usher in has clearly not happened. Municipal elections in October and the impending withdrawal of Mahmoud Abbas from the political scene could portend even greater instability. Should Hamas do well in those elections, the situation is likely to get significantly more tense.

Still, we saw some positive signs in the West Bank which, compared to Gaza, shows some promise. The parts of Ramallah that we saw showed a few signs of new construction and economic growth, including the modern hotel and lovely restaurant that hosted us. We also visited Rawabi, a truly inspiring planned community under construction about 25km north of Jerusalem. Once completed it will have 5,000 apartments, a central commercial area with high-tech employers, schools based on the Cambridge model, green spaces, water parks, mosques, a church for Christian residents, a 15,000 seat amphitheater, and even a winery. Everything about it looks to the future. The project developer has gone out of his way to hire women as engineers and architects. We all left Rawabi wishing we had money to invest or perhaps to buy ourselves an apartment. The sense of promise in Rawabi was contagious. The town’s motto reads “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

5But Rawabi faces enormous challenges. It cannot possibly make money for many years to come, so it depends on international aid, mostly from Qatar. Construction crews store six months of everything they need to keep building because Israel occasionally closes the one small road leading out of Area C to Rawabi. The PA hates Rawabi because it challenges the narrative of Palestinian victimhood and is independent of PA funding; the Israeli settler community nearby fears its growth; and traditional Muslims dislike its modern orientation. One can’t help but cheer for it and hope for its success, but the more we learned about the problems ahead, the less we academics were sure about the wisdom of investing our (admittedly hypothetical) capital, however much we were charmed by what we saw.

Rawabi also highlights the question of whether Palestine more urgently needs economic development or political stability. In an ideal world, of course, it would get both, but resources are limited. Rawabi’s supporters hope that by improving the economy and living conditions, Palestinians will be less likely to turn to groups like Hamas. Critics of this approach argue that political stability must precede economic development because without functioning schools, police, and civil administration, Rawabi and ideas like it are doomed to failure.

A further problem comes from the nature of Israeli society. Repeatedly we heard the essential dilemma expressed as the difference between Israel as a Jewish modern state or a modern Jewish state. The two need not be in conflict, but in reality they often are. Maintaining Israel as a Jewish state means restricting the rights of Arab citizens and resisting any incorporation of West Bank Palestinians (to say nothing of Gazans) into the polity. To make Israel a democracy means to many people risking changes to its essential identity. Recent court cases challenging the menorah as a state symbol and the Hatikvah as the national anthem highlight this tension as does the growth of political influence among the ultra-Orthodox.

6The following are seven general points of consensus among most of the speakers we heard:


  1. The Sunni-Shia rivalry across the region has largely replaced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main schism of the Middle East. It is being played out both as a state vs. state conflict and a proxy war through various militias and terror groups. Iran’s support for Hizbollah gives it a cheaper and easier way to deter Israel than a nuclear weapon, which may explain why Iran was willing to agree to the nuclear treaty.
  2. We may well be seeing the end of the Westphalian state in most of the region, though what will replace it is anyone’s guess. Arab states failed to give people either economic security or a sense of belonging that could supersede ethnic and religious identity. Even in Israel, the tensions of pluralism and the classic problem of balancing security and democracy is putting pressure on the state. The imposition of western models of governance in the region may at long last be ready to implode. To complicate matters further, “God is back in town” after a long period of essentially secular governance in the region, and the sacred cannot be compromised.

  3. Until or unless the state system does implode, improved Israeli relations with moderate Sunni states hold out the potential to reshape the region. Those states can offer to recognize an Israel that recognizes a Palestinian state. They may also be able to serve as a productive third party, as the Saudis have recently tried to do; they can also provide money and encouragement to fellow moderates. Still, there is a perception that states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are playing the role of both the arsonist (in promoting extremist ideologies) and firefighter (in allying with Israel against Iran). 

  4. The international community has very little legitimacy in the region. No one trusts the UN, the EU has proven ineffective, and the USA gets decidedly mixed reviews. Some see the USA as a powerful and indispensable broker, while others are convinced that the USA has little real idea of what is happening in the region. Most thought the Iran nuclear deal a positive development, but thought the USA could and should have gotten more from it. The USA also inadvertently helped to create the Iranian problem by eliminating two of Iran’s biggest foes, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

  5. The situation in Gaza is a true tinderbox awaiting a spark that could come at any moment. The crisis is not far away there as conditions continue to deteriorate and no one comes to help. But a focus on Gaza may distract from the West Bank, where Israeli settlements and the lack of help from Arab states has made Palestinians ever more desperate and pessimistic.

  6. A majority of people on both sides still say that they want a two-state solution, but a majority among both majorities believes that the other side is not a reliable partner. Thus even though a two-state solution is still probably the best way forward, the chances of it succeeding continue to fade. Each successive setback only exacerbates the problem, further undermining the faith of people on both sides.

  7. US policy makes two false presumptions. First, it assumes that the people of the region want what Americans want, namely democracy, equality, and integration. But in the Middle East, where identities are still tribal, this assumption is flawed. The United States cannot expect to export Jeffersonian democracy to the Middle East, and it should stop trying. Second, Americans continue to talk about solving the problem when few people in the region have any hope that it can be solved. The goal now is to try to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible. Solutions are a bridge too far.

Despite the ubiquitous joy and energy in the country, it would be easy to leave Israel depressed about its future and the future of the region more generally. The improved relations with many of the states on Israel’s borders will likely last only as long as the states themselves do, and some of them may have short futures indeed. Most importantly, the essential problem of the Palestinians looms menacingly over Israel, even if (or perhaps specifically because) for many Israelis the status quo seems perfectly acceptable. Israel may be reduced to taking what unilateral action it can in the absence of reliable partners for peace, but even that will require political leadership that may be lacking.

Still, there are reasons for optimism. Israel is dynamic, democratic, and full of resources. The most important of those resources is its people, many of whom have a deep appreciation of the problems they face and a commitment to finding ways to improve the situation. There was also a sincere appreciation of the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people and an awareness that the two communities must find a way to live together or die side by side. Whether that determination will be enough is for the future to decide.

More photos can be seen at:

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Turkey’s Competing Strategic Cultures: Part 4 – Now and Into the Future

(Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Scholars of strategic culture have noted that multiple strategic cultures can exist in the same country or community. Indeed, this is true of the concept of culture writ large. As Alastair Iain Johnston argues, “the diversity of a particular society’s geographical, political, cultural, and strategic experience will produce multiple strategic cultures….” This is certainly the case in Turkey where two elites have produced two competing strategic cultures – one republican and the other neo-Ottoman.

The rise of the neo-Ottoman strategic culture and the slow decline of the republican one have been the subject of this series so far. Both strategic cultures were elite driven (as strategic cultures almost always are). Republican strategic culture rose from the traumatic dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which lost its populous, prosperous European territories from the early 19th century through to the First World War. This process culminated in the never-enacted Treaty of Sevres, which sought to end Turkish control of the Straits, put Smyrna under Greek suzerainty and then sovereignty, and carve out independent Armenian and Kurdish states from Eastern Anatolia. Turkish nationalists prevailed in the end under the inspiring leadership of Mustafa Kemal. These experiences and the hard realities of geography forged a strategic culture that was obsessed with homogeneity and internal unity, distrustful of outside powers (particularly Russia), saw security as limited to sovereignty and territorial integrity, slow to compromise, and fearful of getting dragged into outside conflicts.

Republican strategic culture is now being challenged and even, in some ways, superseded by a neo-Ottoman strategic culture – the product of a different elite. Mustafa Kemal disestablished Islam’s political role as he forged the Turkish Republic and the military and government bureaucracy served as reliable guardians of the principle of laicism. But in the aftermath of Turkey’s 1980 coup, a spectrum of devout political actors, including Islamists from the Milli Görüş, found more fertile soil in which to grow. The military and republican elites turned to the Turkish Islamic-Synthesis to stave off far leftist ideologies that, as they saw it, almost tore Turkey apart in the late 1970s. They enacted educational reforms that gave religious actors more room to maneuver. Turgut Özal, who from deputy prime minister to prime minister to president in the 1980s, embodied many of the transformational reforms of the era in the political, religious, military, and social spheres. He championed a more forward-leaning, activist foreign policy. While he was often stymied in these efforts by the Turkish Armed Forces, he set the stage for the more assertive strategic culture now seen embodied by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This neo-Ottoman strategic culture accepts diverse, subnational identities; prefers more balance in Turkey’s Western-Eastern orientation; seeks greater regional power, if not regional hegemony; favors activism and involvement, particularly in the Middle East and broader Muslim world; and views security as a far broader concept than territorial integrity. In this entry, I will briefly address how Turkey’s two strategic cultures are interacting with two key issue facing Turkey today: Syria and the Kurdish problem. I will then discuss one case where Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture is clearly ascendant and dominant: post-Arab Spring Egypt.

Syria: Problems with a Neighbor

Bashar al Assad’s Syria was once the testing ground of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine. Erdoğan and Assad seemed to have become friends and even vacationed together. That was then. The Syrian civil war broke out and now Erdoğan and Assad are deadly enemies, with the former supporting a wide range of rebels, including a wide range of Islamists, who seek to depose the Alawite-dominated regime. Throughout the course of the conflict, Turkey’s political opposition parties have loudly and consistently protested Erdoğan’s leadership on this issue, accusing him of adventurism and recklessness (echoing opposition criticisms of Özal back in the day). From Kurds to Alevis to republicans and beyond, many Turks have serious objections with Erdoğan’s Syria policies. And as much as he grumbles about Western power and foreign lobbies, Erdoğan is still afraid of acting boldly without Western (and particularly American) backing. Erdoğan is therefore constrained. He is unable and unwilling to follow through on the strategic culture he has been so instrumental in advancing.

Kurds: Trying to Answer the Eastern Question

The Kurdish problem is perhaps the most interesting illustration of the tension between Turkey’s two strategic cultures. A restive Kurdish population has been the biggest challenge to the homogenous Turkish identity the modern Republic has sought to establish. Both Özal, himself of partial Kurdish extraction, and Erdoğan extended more political and social rights to Turkey’s Kurds than they previously enjoyed. Under Erdoğan, the Kurds enjoy greater freedom to use their own language and organize as Kurds. And in the aftermath of America’s second war in Iraq, the Turkish government forged ties with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and started peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), with which the Turkish state had been fighting since the 1980’s. A peace deal with the PKK would involve even greater Kurdish freedoms in exchange for PKK disarmament and demobilization.

And then two strands of Turkish policy collided. Just as the PKK talks had reportedly reached discussions about disarmament, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) exploded out of Syria into Iraq, seizing much of the country’s north and west, threatening the KRG, among others. ISIL also advanced on Kobane, one of three main Syrian Kurdish enclaves that had enjoyed relative autonomy for the last two years. While Turkey could accept military relief and support for the KRG, Kobane was a different matter. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the predominant Syrian Kurdish faction and is affiliated with the PKK. The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been effective in the field against ISIL previously, but talk of arming them came up against serious opposition from Ankara. A tension was thereby revealed between a neo-Ottoman strategic culture that sought to advance Turkish power abroad and accept sub-national identities and a republican strategic culture that was threatened by challenges to internal unity.

Egypt: Neo-Ottomanism Ascends

As the so-called “Arab Spring” took off in Egypt, then Prime Minister Erdoğan and his foreign minister saw this as their moment to shine and exert Turkey’s fatherly influence on this emerging Middle Eastern democracy and former Ottoman territory. As it rose to power, it did not take long for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to cool to Erdoğan’s advances, although this did not decrease his desire to woo them with the so-called “Turkish Model.” When the Brotherhood was deposed, Erdoğan harshly condemned the coup as an affront to democracy and has since sheltered Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including a body that resembles a sort of government-in-exile. Erdoğan continues to condemn Egypt’s new government every chance he gets. Turkey is not only missing out on a healthy relationship with Egypt – its ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also strained over the issue, aligning itself with the Muslim Brotherhood at a time these Gulf states have banned the group.

These examples demonstrate to different extents the tension that still exists between republicanism and neo-Ottomanism. Turkey’s republican strategic culture is far from irrelevant and still exerts influence over the military, opposition parties, and even explains some of the hesitancy of the ruling AKP, the key vehicle of neo-Ottoman strategic culture.

Why is this? Strategic cultures change slowly – often very slowly. Dominant strategic cultures are resilient even in the face of revolutionary strategic change (continuity between the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation provide a good example of this). One reason for this, and one that certainly applies to Turkey, is that bureaucracies are stubborn – a simple, yet under-acknowledged factor in the study of strategic culture.

Where does all this mean for U.S.-Turkish relations? It is hard to say. I will focus here on two points: the historic difficulties of U.S.-Turkish relations and the limits of personal diplomacy. Since Erdoğan rose to power, Western op-ed pages have regularly worried about Turkey’s reliability as an American ally. These op-eds constitute a genre of their own They reflect on Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, Islamist leanings, anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric, and his general bombastic and stubborn style. The tone of these op-eds has intensified in the context of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s tolerance (and worse) of violent Islamist networks, its refusal to allow U.S. warplanes to use Incirlik as a base against ISIL, and Ankara’s resistance to come to the relief of the besieged Turks of Kobane have left many American observers frustrated and angry. In these op-eds, vexing Turkish policies are always juxtaposed with the simple fact that Turkey is a NATO ally as if they are asking: “How could this be? They are in NATO!”

Unfortunately, people who write op-eds for a living often have a blinkered view of history and this is especially true for those penning op-eds in this genre. The fact of the matter is, Turkey has almost always been a rather difficult ally, even at the height of the Cold War when republican strategic culture reigned. For example, this is not the first time Ankara has restricted U.S. usage of Incirlik. The air base has long been, as one reviewer put it, “a pressuring mechanism in the hands of Turkey to gain concessions from the US.” In 1970, Turkey told Washington not to use the air base to relieve Jordan’s Hashemite kingdom during Black September or to supply Israel in 1967 (although the United States did both anyway, just as Washington more recently resupplied the Kurds of Kobane in the face of objections from Ankara). In 1967 and 1974, Turkey nearly went to war with Greece – another NATO ally. In 1974, Turkey actually did seize northern Cyprus despite American objections (and thought they had sunk two Greek warships, when in fact it was a friendly fire incident against Turkish naval vessels). In response, the United States imposed an arms embargo that impacted U.S.-Turkish military relations until it was lifted during the Carter Administration. While the character of the challenges presented by Turkey have changed in line with its strategic culture, a recalcitrant, difficult Turkey is nothing new and exclusive to neither republican or neo-Ottoman strategic cultures. So before someone writes another op-ed about how uniquely impossible Erdoğan is, they should take a beat and view today’s problems in historical perspective.

During President Obama’s first term, he depicted Erdoğan as his one of his most important international friends. The president directed considerable charm and attention to strengthening and maintaining the U.S.-Turkish relationship, talking to Erdoğan regularly. But personal diplomacy does not always pay off. Turkey has gradually become a more authoritarian place and its foreign policies have been, from Washington’s perspective, far from ideal. But we cannot blame Obama for this. The forces at work driving Turkey’s foreign policies and strategic cultures are bigger than Obama and bigger than Erdoğan. Strategic culture is manifested in personalities and represented by them more than it is driven by them. I hope the United States applies this lesson, not just to Turkey, but to dealings with other allies and especially with rivals such as Russia and China.


Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. The author would like to thank Soner Çağaptay, Michael Koplow, Bill Park, Joshua Walker, and Chase Winter for their input and mentorship in all matters Turkey. 

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Israel: Has ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda Shifted Focus?

Yesterday, the Jerusalem Post followed later by the New York Times reported that three Palestinians seeking to attack targets in Jerusalem were interdicted. The story alleges the three men were recruited, online, by an al Qaeda operative in Gaza. The Jerusalem Post says the targets of the three men “…included the Jerusalem Convention Center, a bus traveling between the capital and Ma’aleh Adumim, the US embassy in Tel Aviv, and emergency responders who would have arrived at the scene of attacks.”

While al Qaeda connections to Gaza and Palestinians are not unheard of, they appear less frequently.   Terrorist group competition for Palestinian manpower continues to be quite intense. Al Qaeda came after, not before, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others.  But with Hamas pursuing a more political path and young boys willing to fight, al Qaeda might be finding a ripe audience for their message.  The article continues by explaining how the Internet facilitated recruitment of parallel operatives:

“The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida’s central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri….In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus’s wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders….Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center….Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.”

If these initial reports are true, this plot would represent a notable shift in ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s targeting – one that I had been expecting for some time (see the closing paragraph here.)  For Zawahiri and his ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda compadres, they will always seek the end of the U.S. However, the al Qaeda organization, if it is to survive in an era of terrorism competition, must recalibrate its objectives.  In its inception, al Qaeda sought to:

  • Expel Americans from Muslim holy lands
  • Establish a caliphate implementing Sharia law
  • Attack the “far enemy” (the U.S. and the West) to prevent them from propping up “near enemy” apostate regimes
  • Destroy Israel and eliminate Western support for Israel

A cursory examination of these broad ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda objectives suggests that most don’t hold much water more than a decade after 9/11/2001.  The U.S. no longer occupies holy lands in Saudi Arabia. As evidenced by the Taliban before 9/11 and AQIM and AQAP temporary caliphates in recent years, the U.S. either doesn’t, or is slow to, respond directly to a caliphate if it does not pursue terrorism against the U.S.  As for attacking the “far enemy” to relieve support for the “near enemy”, the U.S. either helped topple apostate rulers (Libya) or stood by and watched as dictators fell during the Arab Spring. If this were truly an Al Qaeda objective, they should be seen as failures as their actions had nothing to do with the recent fall of apostate rulers. The remaining objective is Israel.  With Syria boiling and Egypt ripe, in my opinion, shifting focus to Israel makes a lot of sense from al Qaeda’s perspective:

  • The U.S. has been killing us! (al Qaeda that is) – While al Qaeda and its affiliates have had their moments over the last decade, for the most part; they’ve been outmatched by the U.S. and its Western partners. For every al Qaeda affiliate that rises up, an eventual descent has occurred.  Syrian linked al Qaeda groups represent the only counter to this trend, and there, Zawahiri struggles to maintain any control.  So for Zawahiri, a pragmatic terrorist, why not shift focus from the U.S. in the short term and return later to the lofty objective.
  • Regenerate resources – Resources for al Qaeda flowed during the early years of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Gulf donors are fickle.  Bin Laden’s death, the failure to achieve lasting gains against the West, opportunities to back upstarts post-Arab Spring and the unending escalation of and sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict have given donors a host of more viable salafi-jihadi causes to invest in.  By shifting focus to Israel, ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda might be able to tap into what has always been an enduring anti-Israel resource stream.
  • Rally both Syrian and Egyptian support – With the fall of Mubarak and later Morsi, Zawahiri, an Egyptian, has never been better positioned to push ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda forward in Egypt.  Affiliates and partners in the Sinai have made gains.  Likewise, as Zawahiri battles for control in Syria against one of his own affiliates, ISIS (formerly al Qaeda in Iraq), what better way to shift attention back to ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda by executing a spectacular attack in Israel refocusing attention on a common adversary of all groups.  Successfully executing an attack in Jerusalem would rally support for ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda on both borders of Israel and might quell some of the sectarian fighting going on in Syria and Lebanon.  The doomsday scenario is if all jihadists groups, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, all call a temporary truce and turn their guns toward Israel.  Zawahiri has already called for such unity, a high profile attack might be what is needed to demonstrate the possibilities.
  • When al Qaeda attacks Israel, they will be engaging the U.S. too – If ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda were to attack Israel, the U.S. will get involved.  Thus, if Zawahiri can’t attack the U.S. or go toe-to-toe with their capabilities in other regions, attack Israel and opportunities to attack or pinch the U.S. will present themselves.  It’s not a coincidence that one of these suspected bombers sought to hit the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.


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Out of Center Stage, Is an Israeli-Palestinian Deal Possible?

A quick scan of the daily headlines from the Middle East reveals news of unrest, tumult, and instability in countries spanning the region. From news of the bombing in Hezbollah’s stronghold over its involvement in the Syrian conflict, to competing explanations for Morsi’s ouster and where Egypt is headed, to the Russian accusation that the Free Syrian Army used homemade sarin gas against regime forces, it has become clear that the region has been turned on its head. Apparently, so have its priorities.


For what seemed like a never-ending stretch of time, the issue that dominated the Arab, Iranian, and Turkish discourse – from the regimes to the street  – was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, there was an entire axis of state and non-state actors allied almost solely on the basis of their mutual obsession over this issue. But with the beginning of the Arab uprising and the unpredictable series of events that have followed since throughout the Middle East and North Africa, public attention has turned inward.

Husam Itani laments that “the Palestinian cause and everything related to it seem to be in a state of deep slumber.” He explains the waning of the Palestinian issue from its sacred position as “the central cause of the Arab populations” by relying on a mix of a tried and true conspiracy theory with an actual policy critique, arguing that “the neglect that is clear to all observers is not only the outcome of the ‘American-Israeli conspiracy,’ but also that of the bankruptcy affecting the Palestinian and Arab policies in approaching this cause.”

Hamas’ uncertain footing in the wake of the Syrian conflict may be another explanation for the silence on the Palestinian front. Having sided with the Syrian people against its erstwhile ally – the Assad regime  – Hamas not only lost its home-away-from-home in Damascus, but also alienated itself from its major benefactor  – Iran. Qatar seemed to be waiting in the wings to rescue Hamas, having already thrown in its lot to the tune of $18 billion with the now-fallen Morsi regime in Egypt. However, now that the Brotherhood is out (potentially for the foreseeable future), Hamas’ stalwart support system is in question, as it is financial security. This is the case so much so that groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which seems committed as ever to continuing “the resistance” against Israel, stands to gain from Hamas’ losses. Though it claims that it is not interested in being top dog, Hamas’ resistance credentials seem to be getting a bit old for many still waving the resistance banner.

For the United States, this situation may actually provide an opportunity – one not lost on Secretary of State Kerry. It has long been in the strategic interest of the United States to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, no matter how intransigent both parties seem to be. However, with the eyes of the region turned inward on domestic issues, Hamas’ somewhat weakened position, and frankly Abbas’ unexpected longevity, there may be some hope in reaching some sort of accommodation between the two obstinate sides.

When Mubarak was ousted, it inspired the region, especially since it was followed by the collective rise of Islamist parties in Egypt and beyond. However, with the events that have developed since, and more specifically, the Syrian case serving as a constant reminder of how bad it can get, pragmatism may be able to trump resistance. This may be too optimistic and most people agree that Kerry wants peace a lot more than Bibi and Abu Mazen (to say nothing of Hanniyah), but the point is that sometimes a lot can be accomplished out of the spotlight.

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