In my last post, I gave several examples of irrational or even crazy international behavior that is dangerous for Israel. A country or other entity behaves irrationally when it acts in ways that are inconsistent with reality, do not serve the real interests of the regime, or both.
Note that I said ‘the regime’, not ‘the country’. Many regimes do things that are bad for their population in the long or short run in order to enrich themselves or stay in power. For the purposes of this discussion, these actions are considered rational. Bashar al-Assad may be destroying Syria, but he is acting to stay in power, the top priority of an autocrat after staying alive.
Ideology-driven regimes often behave irrationally, because ideology invariably distorts reality. Hitler drove out Jewish scientists before the war, and then diverted resources to killing Jews that could have been used for the war effort.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell when policies are ideologically driven and when ideology is just used as an excuse for pragmatic action. This is one of the difficulties in predicting the behavior of a country like Iran, where we don’t know how much influence the leaders’ religious beliefs have on their decisions.
Autocratic regimes usually act pragmatically rather than ideologically, but their behavior becomes irrational when they lose touch with reality. Think of the Egyptian generals in 1967 reporting to Cairo their imminent entry into Tel Aviv. But an autocrat doesn’t stay in power for long if he doesn’t act rationally (e.g., Saddam thinking he could defeat the US) so there is a kind of natural selection for rationality.
The US is different, because its president is often elected for reasons unrelated to competence, and he can stay in power for extended periods despite massive failures. He can’t be deposed by a vote of no confidence, nobody will overthrow him, and impeachment is rare (and slow). He also has an almost totally free hand in foreign policy; although Congress can theoretically rein him in, in practice he can take highly consequential actions before Congress can respond.
An effective foreign policy for Israel has to take into account all of these considerations. Irrational behavior based on ideology is the most difficult to handle — you can’t negotiate with someone whose ideological enmity exceeds his pragmatic interests.
Israel is in the interesting position today that the pragmatic interests of some of its traditional enemies (Egypt and Saudi Arabia) favor Israel, while the administration of its most important partner, the US, seems to have allowed ideology to warp its perspective. Rather than supporting countervailing forces to expansionist Iran (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt), it appears to be cooperating with Iran.
The fundamental irrationality here is that Iran sees the US as its enemy, both ideologically and as an obstacle to its expansion. The only explanation that I can see for this contradictory policy is that its authors think that in the short term they will gain some boots on the ground against Da’ash and immunity from Shi’a terrorism, while in the long term a sufficiently abject apology for Western imperialism will change the Iranian attitude.
But this is based on a misunderstanding of its partner. From the Iranian point of view, the message is that the US is weak and wants to surrender. Any cooperation will be exploited.
Since opposition to Israel’s existence is a high priority both ideologically and pragmatically for Iran, US cooperation with it undercuts the American relationship with Israel, which already is suffering from the administration’s lack of sympathy.
We saw this play out during the recent Gaza war, when the US applied various forms of pressure — including an apparent embargo on all kinds of weapons and ammunition — to try to force Israel to agree to a disadvantageous ceasefire proposal presented by Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar. I see this as primarily ideological, based on the administration’s misperception of the Palestinians as an indigenous people oppressed by a colonialist Israel, and their struggle to destroy the Jewish state as a ‘civil rights’ issue.
The US agreed to donate $212 million to rebuilding Hamas-controlled Gaza at the recent donor’s conference, to which Israel was pointedly not invited. In all, there were $5.4 billion in pledges. This is as if Hitler were allowed to remain in power in 1945 to help distribute Marshall Plan funds.
So we have the US, on the one hand, doing everything short of explicitly siding with Hamas in its aggression and terrorism against Israel, justifying its actions with hypocritical accusations of disproportionate use of force (while its own operations have been far more disproportionate); and on the other hand, moving closer to Israel’s most dangerous enemy, Iran, to the point of facilitating its acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Israeli policy has been to try to convince the administration that a) Hamas is an evil terrorist organization and b) Iran will be dangerous to the US if it gets nuclear weapons. Both of these efforts have been unsuccessful, because of ideological barriers to perception.
Israel’s leadership doesn’t seem to understand that relations with the US have taken a new turn with the Obama Administration. It is possible that political winds in the US have permanently shifted to the left. If this is true, then Israel can’t just wait until 2017: it needs a whole new approach.
The US is rapidly losing influence over the behavior of the Arab nations and Iran, who see it as unwilling to support its talk with action. Unfortunately, it retains a great deal of its ability to hurt Israel. While Netanyahu seems to be doing his best to take advantage of the pragmatic interests of the Arab nations to improve relations with them, if he understands the danger of the ideological shift of the US, he is keeping his thoughts to himself. Even the often outspoken Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon is speaking in conciliatory tones.
I think that an entirely different policy is needed. Israel is a powerful country, possibly the most powerful in the region. It should act like that, not like a supplicant begging the US and others to allow it to exist. It should, for example, make a clear statement that it will not permit the establishment of a sovereign ‘Palestinian’ state in Judea/Samaria. There is already one in Gaza, and it is a viciously hostile entity.
Soon there will be multiple nuclear powers here. With the US losing influence, someone will have to take up the slack. Contenders include Turkey and Iran. The idea of an Israel-Turkish alliance to secure the Eastern Mediterranean would be attractive and sensible, except that Erdoğan’s Islamist ideology prevents it (yet another example of ideology causing irrational behavior).
A conflict between Israel and Iran, probably taking the form of war with Hizballah, seems unavoidable. If Israel prevails, then it will be in a position to control its own destiny far more than it can today. But we should expect serious opposition from the US, perhaps even worse than in the Gaza war. Planning should be in progress now to fight this war without assistance from the US. It must be possible to destroy Hizballah’s fighting ability before it is saved by an imposed ceasefire.
This war will be a turning point. Either Israel will come out of it as a regional superpower, or it will be so weakened that its survival will be in question.