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
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
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
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
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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