Israel: between geopolitical strength and internal contradictions

A look at how the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East have benefited Israel and why it is not yet, though, the regional power it could be

Paul Scham, one of the most renowned experts on Israel, has recently published an article in which he makes the point that Israel is today in an extremely favorable geopolitical position within the broader Middle Eastern scenario.
According to Scham, the main reason for this is to be found in the fact that Israel’s existence in the region –especially since the Oslo agreements of 1993 – has become a matter of fact. While in the immediate aftermath of 1948 Israel was under a constant existential threat coming from Arab neighbors, Tel Aviv is today engaged in more or less secret diplomatic relations with countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and the Gulf monarchies. These countries, in Scham’s view, have today lost much of their previous interest in putting into question (when not even cancelling) Israel’s existence because of a series of economic and political reasons.
However, despite this new favorable geopolitical context, Israel is not playing (or at least not yet) the role of regional power to which it could aspire, because of its internal problems and conflicts.

Scham’s stance is an interesting starting-point to make some reflections on what is today the geopolitical game of the Middle East and the role that Israel plays (or might play) in it.
Over the past decades, the Middle East – more than any other region – has undergone crucial changes and developments that have had a dramatic impact on its internal dynamics and that have interested Israel directly and positively.

Firstly, it is to be considered the emergence of non-state actors such as jihadist terrorist groups that, since the ‘80s and even more so since the early ‘90s, have brought with them new threats to the region’s security. Inspired by an extremist Salafi ideology, such groups (of which Al Qaeda has traditionally been the emblem) seriously threaten the stability of the whole area with their attacks against both had and soft targets, and have emerged as the main security challenge with which the Middle East has to deal today.
In this scenario of instability and insecurity – in which not even a Sunni country inherently linked to the radicalism of the Wahhabi ideology, such as Saudi Arabia, is safe from terrorist attacks – the traditional perceptions and distinctions between “enemies” and “allies” have been upset. Today, for all the region’s states, the main and most serious threat is represented by jihadist terrorism and its deeds (as shown by the broad anti-ISIS coalition), with a converse weakening of the perception of Israel as number one enemy to be annihilated.

Linked to the new security dynamics of the region is also the issue of the so-called failed states.
This issue has become ever more pressing since the Arab Spring and the collapse of Libya, Syria and Yemen – states where the failure in 2011 of the hoped-for democratic transition brought with it a deterioration of the internal political context and, ultimately, bloody civil wars. Such wars are now posing serious challenges to all the regional actors and are being fought on more levels and by more powers, thus qualifying themselves as both civil and proxy conflicts.
Faced with the threat represented by failed states, both Arab countries and Iran have inevitably seen themselves forced to set aside (or at least de-prioritize) the Israeli issue and focus instead their calculations of foreign policy on the deteriorating situations of Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Thirdly, in considering the changes involving the Middle Eastern world, it is to be stressed the impact of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 and the subsequent cancellation of the sanctions against Teheran.
These recent developments are particularly important because in the eyes of the Gulf monarchies – and of Saudi Arabia in particular – the real threat to their influence and power in the region is represented now by the ascent of Iran. As a matter of fact, the struggle with the Islamic Republic is investing all fields: military (emblematic the opposing interests in Yemen and Syria), economic (crucial here the issue of oil production), and political-diplomatic (with the apex of tensions reached in early January after the execution of the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia).
The perception of Iran’s rise as a direct and immediate threat has led the Gulf States to a re-dimensioning of the traditional interpretation of the Israeli threat, now seen by Riyadh and the other Gulf states as less pressing and urging than it used to be in the past decades.

The consequence of the changes that at a geopolitical level have interested the Middle East over the past years is that the existential threat previously posed to Israel is now weaker. It tends, in fact, to be limited to the rhetoric of some regional leaders who appeal to it to get mass support (as it was the case of the radically anti-Israel stances of Ahmadinejad) and of some Israeli right-wing leaders who appeal to it to legitimize particularly delicate and contested policies (emblematic Israeli right-wingers’ interpretation of the existential threat to justify occupation).

With its existence by now accepted as inevitable part of the regional status quo and with the traditional rivals challenged by new enemies and threats, Israel’s geopolitical position has undoubtedly improved.
However, such improvement did not bring with it a clear and full affirmation of Israel as regional power – something proved by Israel’s general isolation and marginalization within the regional framework and by Israel’s relations with the USA and the EU, that have become ever more complicated.
The reason needs to be found in Israel’s own nature, in its essence, and in those internal contradictions that have their roots in the14th May 1948. Since then, in fact, Israel has been forced to face an identity dilemma: how to reconcile the religious/Jewish soul of the state with the political/democratic one? How to be a Jewish state and give equal representation to the diverse realities that make up the Israeli state? How to preserve the Jewish component of the State without succumbing to what Uri Misgav has identified as the risk of theocracy? How to guarantee equality to all of Israel’s citizens without betraying the undeniably Jewish roots of the State?
These questions, however pressing and crucial for the present and future of Israel, have not found an answer yet after almost 70 years and are making increasingly complex, contradictory and fragile the Israeli political and social texture.

These internal contradictions are the real existential threat for Israel.
And until the country manages to respond to its identity dilemmas and find a credible balance between its two souls, the Middle East will continue to evolve and change has it has been constantly doing, but Israel will continue to fail to emerge as a true regional power.

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