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    Middle East
     Jul 13, 2011


Is Israeli smart power for real?
By Sreeram Chaulia

Israel, a state born in controversial circumstances and challenged on its legitimacy throughout its lifetime, is a unique example of a loner in international diplomacy that struggles to find the required balance between its ends and means. The country has succeeded in securing hard-won boundaries in a hostile neighborhood, but floundered in gaining international acceptance as a Jewish state.

At the heart of this mixed bag is the question of how Israel has employed force to advance its interests. The stigma attached to its creation and the question marks surrounding its recognition as an exclusive homeland for the Jewish people can only be overcome if Israel uses force in ways that comport with acceptable global norms. Yet the panoply of guerrilla movements and unfriendly states abutting it has meant that Israel has frequently been brutal and clumsy in the deployment of its military and intelligence apparatus.

Taints of "war crimes", "disproportionate violence", "collective punishment" etc haunt Israel's security policies at international forums. While a section of the country's hardline right-wing opinion believes that Israel should care two hoots about world opinion and must persevere with its aggressive national security measures, the attendant loss of goodwill and reputation has stymied Israel's entry into a condition of normal interaction with the world.

Israel's choice to be harsh, lethal and extremely militaristic in its dealings with its foes continues to be justified by hawks within the country as an option forced upon them by permanent adversity. But 60 years of coping with pariah status on the world stage (notwithstanding the American embrace) is taking its toll. Fresh thinking is needed in Tel Aviv about attaining non-negotiable security objectives through smarter and less damaging methods.

A rethink about using power smartly is especially occasioned by three crises confronting Israeli foreign policy today. The first relates to the breakdown of trust with the United States, its all-weather ally. Under President Barack Obama, US relations with Israel have slumped to the lowest point in the entire history of this special bilateral relationship.

No amount of frequent bilateral meetings and exchanges have sorted out lingering tensions between Washington, and its desire for a speedy two-state solution, and Tel Aviv, which is wary of a genuinely independent Palestine. A fundamental misalignment of interests between the US and Israel is emerging, a development that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not nipped in the bud.

The second threat staring Israel, a state described by its diehard sympathizers as the only democracy in the Middle East, is ironically the fire of democratization that has consumed Arab countries this year. Israel's preference for accommodative Arab despots like Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been rocked by rebellions that portend the rise of popular new rulers with anti-Israeli orientations.

The fall of Israel's Arab partners with whom it did business for decades must propel Tel Aviv to devise smart power alternatives to the old methods of bulldozing its way with overwhelming violence.

Despite its formidable conflict-ready military intelligence complex, Israel cannot simultaneously wage limited or total war against dozens of state and non-state actors in the post-Jasmine Revolution era. It will have to find new allies within democratizing forces in Arab societies and learn to rely less on muscle.

The third factor that draws Israel towards rethinking its macho foreign policy is the steady erosion of the Turkish friendship during the reign of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). Tel Aviv peeved Ankara with the application of excessive force in the 22-day-war in Gaza in 2008-2009, followed by the flotilla raid incident in May 2010 which caused the death of nine Turkish activists. As the only non-Arab Muslim state in its environs which recognizes Israel, Turkey is a vital regional actor that Tel Aviv cannot afford to antagonize with the repetition of all-brawn, no-brain acts.

That Israel may be passing through a learning curve in smart power dynamics is suggested by recent allegations that its military intelligence apparatus sabotaged two ships carrying pro-Palestinian protesters intent on breaking the siege of Gaza. The Swedish vessel Juliano, part of a larger flotilla, was docked in the Greek port of Piraeus late last month and mysteriously found its propeller broken.

Shortly after this incident, a similar sabotage operation was conducted in Turkey's territorial waters against a fellow ship of the Gaza Flotilla, viz the Irish Saoirse. Although Israel has kept a telltale silence on these events, there can be little doubt as to the provenance of the saboteurs.

In the full arc lights of the media, Israel is averting open confrontation at sea with the Gaza siege-breakers and thereby also avoiding unwanted world attention on its policies in the occupied territories. Netanyahu even reversed his own government's pronouncements in June that media personnel boarding the subversive ships to cover the Gaza flotillas would be deported and banned from entering Israel for 10 years. This style of going covert, climbing down and softening is uncharacteristic of Israel, but a sign of a necessary trend for a state that sees an unfavorable international environment deteriorating further.

Even on the core problem of Iran's nuclear weapons program, Israel has toned down its earlier belligerence and war-like maneuvers after it realized that Washington would not play ball by authorizing preemptive strikes. The Stuxnet worm which magically disabled Iran's nuclear centrifuges in the middle of 2010 has averted real physical war and steered the conflict into relatively safer confines of ciphers and digital combat. Albeit dogged by implausible deniability in this deed, Israel has solved a mounting danger through a means much smarter than bombing Iranian nuclear plants and plunging the whole region into a devastating war.

Still, the evidence is mixed on whether Israel has managed to fully transition from a unconscionably gung-ho foreign policy to a smarter one that is mindful of consequences and adopts the course least likely to harm its international image.

The same Israel which is cleverly converting impending public relations disasters into quietly satisfying blips is also allegedly carrying out ugly assassinations of guerrilla commanders in high profile locations via "smoking gun" techniques such as forged passports and identity theft (as was the case with the daft killing of the Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai in early 2010). An overdose of hit squads and widely publicized deportations of foreigners brings embarrassment to Israel.

The real test of whether Israel can switch to a smarter use of power across the board will come as the Palestinian statehood resolution comes up in the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Bumping off targeted individuals or raining firepower on densely populated localities is not going to help Israel ward off the unpleasantness of a unilateral declaration of independence that secures a two-thirds majority at the UN. Smart power calls for subtler responses, including a willingness to come to terms with the Palestinians before the diplomatic dice gets loaded even more unfairly against Israel.

Can Israel buy or inveigle enough United Nations member states into voting against the unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence? Will Netanyahu rein in fundamentalist Jewish settlers as part of this bargain? Is his government going to reverse the folly of falling foul with the Obama administration by setting and implementing concrete timelines for de facto and de jure statehood in Palestine? Does Tel Aviv have the perspicacity to begin cultivating assets among the rising tide of secular democratic elements of the Arab Spring?

Answers to these policy conundrums will reveal whether Israel can decisively overcome the might-is-right philosophy, which has become untenable in the context of an international consensus that rewards smart diplomacy and penalizes crude behavior.

Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the author of the newly released book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I B Tauris, London).

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