ARAB SPRINGS, TURKISH REVIVAL, AND ISRAEL’S STUBBORNESS

By: Sarah Eleazar & Taimour Khan

The Muslim world is going through one its most tumultuous yet positive changes in history. We have the Arab Springs spreading across the dictatorships of the Middle East where the ideals of the French Revolution finally won their latest battle 300 years after their first fight. Those monarchies that have been able to subdue the protests, realize that they cannot ignore them completely. And it seems that democratic participation on an egalitarian level has finally gained the critical mass necessary to be the dominant idea of the Middle East. Turkey, a hundred years after being called ‘the sick man of Europe’, now equals if not exceeds its European neighbours in terms of military and economic clout. And the while the rest of the Muslim world seems to be either in slumber or in precarious chaos, one cannot ignore the fact that even amid the violence of countries like Pakistan, democratic ideals are withering the powerful blows of corruption and autocracy without giving away any territory in the ideological battle field.

However, it is the changes in the Middle East, and Turkey, that will have the most significant effect on the state of Israel, and its security. For almost three decades now, it has lived in a condition of, not peace, but without any offensive threat from its neighbouring countries. With US backing it has been able to deal with its middle eastern neighbours more and more aggressively, and had an unchecked hand in its treatment of the Palestinian territories. But in the light of the changes mentioned above, it will now face a radically different battlefield.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ISRAEL.

Ever since its inception in 1948, Israel has been fighting with its hostile neighbours. It has had two wars where it fought with the three Arab nations of Syria, Egypt and Jordan(not including the military support from the rest of the Middle East) in 1948 and 1967, and one in 1973 with two Egypt and Syria. This is not including the two Lebanon wars of 1982 and 2006. Legally it has been in a state of war with Egypt since 1948, fighting the three wars of 1948, 1967(six day war) and 1973(Yom Kippur war). It has a similar situation in Syria which other than the 48 and 67 wars, was the only country alongside Egypt in the 73 war, and the only Arab ‘state’ to fight Israel in the first Lebanon war. Jordan was the only Arab country to actually capture any territory in the 1948 war, which it then lost in the 1967 war.

The topic of Palestine, or Israel’s occupation of it, has been the one issue that has united the bickering Arab nations at least in rhetoric. But for about three decades, Israel has been able to subdue these aggressions through diplomacy. In 1978, Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David accord with the help of the United States. As a consequence, Egypt became the only Arab state to legally recognize Israel, opening diplomatic relationships with it. Due to its signing of the accords, Egypt became the second largest recipient of American Aid, the first one being Israel. With the threat from Egypt, its most powerful enemy, now neutralized, and Iranian machinations after the Iranian revolution ensuring that the rest of the Arab states never united as before, Israel was able to subdue Syria and Jordan through its own military strength, and carry out raids and advances into Palestinian and neighbouring Arab territories on unilaterally.

Turkey, a long time American ally, alongside Iran during the Shah, was Israel’s only other Muslim allies. After the Iranian revolution, only Turkey remained.

THE ARAB SPRINGS AND TURKISH RESURGENCE

Since the Camp David accords till present (more than three decades), Israel has been able to use the threat of withdrawal of US aid to make sure that any Arab opposition stays in the realm of rhetoric. However, although American aid was enough to subdue the leaders, the people of the Middle East have always been strongly anti-Israel. The Arab leaders were unable or unwilling to subdue the virulent anti-Semitic propaganda espoused by radical Islamic bodies that arose in the absence of Arab opposition to Israel as an expression of popular frustration with Israel. This is where the Arab springs will have their most significant effects.

The dictatorship of Mubarak’s Egypt has fallen. Syria is about to be toppled, and calls for a revolution in Jordan, though few and far apart at the moment are gaining momentum. More importantly, these are not the military coups of previous years, but popular civilian revolts which were guaranteed non-intervention by the military. So unlike the previous revolutions, the chances of these being hijacked by the military are far smaller. The revolts were an expression of civilian anger and frustration so loud that even the United States attempts to claim responsibility for them were rebuked. The governments that will be formed now will be more representative of the people. A people that for the last thirty years have grown furious over their respective government’s apathy to the plight of the Palestinian people.

On the other hand we have Turkey. A long-time friend of Israel, its importance is doubly compounded due to its unique status as its only Muslim military ally. However, with Turkey growing more and confident of its position in the international arena, it has been increasingly vocal about Israel’s transgressions. All this was exacerbated by the raid by Israeli commandos on a Turkish aid flotilla to Palestine last year, which resulted in the deaths of Turkish nationals. A raid which the UN described as one of ‘unnecessary force’. The move has angered Turkey so much that it cut off all ties with Israel, expelled its ambassador, and warned that it will send its navy to protect Turkish aid ships in the Mediterranean. (It should be noted that Turkey’s ruling religious party is not as responsible for this change in policy as western media would like to portray. The party itself had to change its religious manifesto to be elected in the first place).

In this new more visibly hostile environment, the rules of engagement have changed. The prospects of American influence in the new governments seem dim due to American support for the dictators that the revolutions toppled. As such, Israel can no longer expect that its transgressions will go unnoticed. Whereas in the past it had been able to launch invasions into Lebanon and Palestine at will, use surgical strikes to hit training camps in Syria, expand Jewish settlements into Palestinian territories, and even coerce Egypt into joining its blockade of Palestine, now it can expect stiff resistance and even response. With American diplomatic leverage severely hampered, and the question of American boots on the ground in support of Israel tantamount to political suicide, Israel can only rely on its own military strength augmented by American military and economic support.

MILITARY THREAT

So how potent is the threat from these new enemies on paper? Let’s look at each individually.

By far, Turkey is the most powerful of all the states mentioned. The second biggest power in NATO, and the most technologically advanced Muslim military force. It has an active force of more than 600’000 highly trained troops, with access to the latest in American military technology, Turkey’s new found relative autonomy from NATO in matters of defence has been a worrying trend for America. It has continually launched operations in Northern Iraq against Kurdish rebels against American wishes showing that in matters of national security they are willing to be more aggressive. The performance of the Turkish Military in NATO operations, especially in the 1950’s Korean war, has won it widespread accolades. It is also the only country among those mentioned with an economy strong enough to sustain a military campaign against Israel. However, its affiliation with NATO, and its desire to earn acceptance in the EU, will force it to take some hard decisions. Also, given that it does not have access to a land route to Israel, and the risks of a long range war, it will probably only use its naval power to ensure the safety of its civilian ships. The sight of Turkish paratroopers landing in Israel is, common sense prevailing, an unlikely scenario.

Secondly, we have Egypt. After the Camp David accords, Egypt received large amounts of American military and economic aid and access to American military technology. With more than 450’000 active personnel, it is the only Israeli neighbour with the latest American Abraham tanks. However, although it received substantial American aid, compared to the aid America gave to Israel it is paltry. As late as 2004, during George Bush’s second term, Israel received $30bn from America in economic aid alone. Egypt on the other hand received only $2bn yearly. However, even when it was in the Soviet camp, Egypt was the only country to have ever forced Israel to retreat (1973 war). Its military personnel are highly trained compared to other Middle Eastern countries.

Thirdly we have Syria. Armed with mostly Soviet era equipment and boasting over 300’000 active personnel, it is the smallest of the three forces. After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, it has had trouble acquiring new technology. Its most recent access to new weaponry has been Russia. However the performance of Syrian forces, even when it was armed with the latest in Soviet technology has been less than inspiring, facing total defeat in every war it has fought with the Israeli forces. However, strategically, Syria is placed closest to Israeli civilian centres posing a serious threat.

But what about Israel? Judging from its previous record, it is easily the most well trained and motivated fighting force in the Middle East. With barely less than 200’000 (although highly trained) active personnel, its military skills and leadership have ensured it devastating victories in almost every engagement with its Arab neighbours. The ‘blitzkreig’ war strategies it employed during the 1967 six day war, saw the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force in just fifteen minutes, and the total destruction of Egyptian, Syrian and Jordan military forces. It is the biggest recipient of American military aid. Its own military industry is even more sought after, producing the latest and most innovative technology in the world (the Israeli Merkava tank is regarded ‘the safest tank in the world’). Despite all this however, it lacks the ability to sustain a long war. Even though like Egyptian and Syrian forces, it is also a conscript force, unlike Egypt and Syria, it does not have the population necessary to sustain this. Its reserve forces constitute its entire labour force, thus a prolonged war will have dire effects for its economy.

CONCLUSION

With such high stakes the probability of war breaking out does not seem high, given that the only scenario for such a war is the continuance of Israeli military aggression and disregard for Arab life and sovereignty. The biggest lesson that Israel should take from this changing political scenario is that it can no longer operate with impunity. It now has to take into account the fact that political atmosphere has changed. The governments in its neighbouring Arab countries are going to be increasingly answerable to their population. Unlike in previous regimes, it cannot buy their silence anymore, and given the present frustrations the Arab populace has with Israel, it will have to tread very lightly so as not to aggravate them. Added to this, it has lost the security blanket that the United States’ influence provided. In the wake of the Arab springs, the US has lost significant leverage and is scrambling to establish cordial relationships with the new regimes. As such, it cannot afford to aggravate them.

This is not to say that there will be a new era of peace. Middle Eastern relations have rarely been so peaceful. But with the ascendancy of democratic norms, the decision making process has become a lot more complex than simply the whims of corrupt dictatorships.

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