Israeli Perspectives on the New Middle East Report on the 12th Herzliya Conference, 30 January – 2 February 2012
Israeli Perspectives on the New Middle East Report on the 12th Herzliya Conference, 30 January – 2 February 20121. Executive Summary• The annual Herzliya Conference is the Israeli national equivalent to Davos, Munich or the GMF Brussels Forum.• Israelis are understandably worried by the developments of the last 12 months in their neighbourhood. At least in the upcoming few years, the "Arab Spring", through instability or civil war like in Syria, or through electoral victories by Islamists, is bound to make Israels security environment more difficult. Moreover, the stockpiling of weapons by Hamas and Hezbollah does not augur well for the next military conflagration which, according to many Israelis, will be difficult to avoid in the upcoming years.• Iran is probably less than a year away from developing deployable nuclear weapons. An Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear programme, fraught with many risks and doubtlessly causing trouble in the entire region, would be an action of last resort. Israeli debate about a strike certainly helped to increase European and American resolve about tougher sanctions, but it should not be understood as pure sabre-rattling. PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are the two politicians who will decide whether or not to strike.• Despite the restart of Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks, no one places great hopes in the peace process. Progress, if at all, will come slowly and incrementally. The influence of any outside actors, including the US, is very limited. The EU is hampered by its internal challenges as well as by deep splits among the Member States regarding Israeli-Palestinian politics. A two- state solution is widely accepted in most of the Israeli political spectrum. But Roland Freudenstein – Deputy Director, Head of Research email@example.com Phone: +32 2 300 80 17, Mobile: +32 473 482 527 20, rue du commerce, B-1000 Brussels www.thinkingeurope.eu
-1- Israels security must not be jeopardised, and this is where the disagreements both within Israel and between Israel and its neighbors begin. The rising instability in Israels neighbourhood and increasing military risks further complicate the peace process.• Taking all this into account, the Israeli political class is remarkably calm and determined. Worries about Israels future persist, but further international isolation or other "pressure on Israel" is unlikely to weaken Israeli resolve to strive for a secure existence as the State of the Jewish People. Instead, Israels partners should listen carefully (though not uncritically) to Israelis‘ concerns about developments in the Middle East. As perceptions of the Arab rebellions still widely differ between Israel and most of its partners, and as Israel is hardly represented in European debates about the Middle East and North Africa, more communication is direly needed.1. BackgroundThe annual Herzliya Conference, created in 2000, is the biggest international eventon security in Israel. Its host, the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, privatebut non-profit, is one of Israel’s leading colleges in law, business, government,computer science etc. The 3-day Herzliya Conference brings together Israeliacademia, government, media, security services and business, as well as foreignpoliticians and researchers. The Diaspora Jewish and the German presence isusually very strong, whereas other countries (UK, France, China, Russia) usuallyonly have few representatives in Herzliya. The organisers also make a point ofalways inviting one or two Arab politicians – this year, the only PA representativecancelled at the last minute, and Prince Hassan bin Talal, Deputy Prime Minister ofJordan, gave a (very inspiring) speech only via telebeam. The most prominentspeaker was UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who happened to visit the regionearly February and who is arguably the UN Chief most open to Israeli views in a longtime.2. Israel’s securityIsraeli assessments of its strategic situation remain mixed, at best, and often rathernegative. Politicians and academics tend to be very outspoken in this respect whilesoldiers take care to balance the negative outlook by positive trends, as well. The
-2-Arab rebellions and their recent developments (cf. in Egypt and Syria) seem to provethose Israelis right who have, from the very beginning, had a sceptical attitude andwho saw the revolutions as primarily a breakthrough for the Islamist parties in theregion. Egypt is lost as a reliable partner, as the destruction of the Israeli Embassy,the lawlessness in Sinai and the easing of the enclosure of Hamas have shown.Even if the Islamists formally stick to the Peace Treaty with Israel (because cheapUS wheat is part of the deal and would be lost if the treaty is abrogated), there aremany ways in which they can make life more uncomfortable and less secure forIsrael, f.e. just by allowing more arms deliveries to Gaza.Israel’s Defense Forces now have to prepare and train for a much greater variety ofcontingencies than in the past. Not only crowd control and counter-Intifada in theWest Bank and asymmetrical warfare against Hezbollah in the North and Hamas inthe Southwest are the likely threats, but regarding the developments in Syria, Egyptand possibly even Jordan, large-scale conventional warfare against regular armieshas to be considered a theoretical possibility again. On top of this, the likely kind ofasymmetrical warfare to be expected from Hezbollah and, to an extent, Hamas, willlook quite different and much more dangerous for the IDF in the next conflict than inLebanon in 2006 or in Gaza in 2008: Not only have these two terrorist organizationsstored over 10.000 missiles, many of them built in Iran and able to reach the centralurban areas like Tel Aviv/Jaffa and Haifa. They have also received (from Russia viaSyria) massive deliveries of sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles thatmay well end the ease with which IDF air and land forces have operated so far.Some (from Israel’s perspective) positive aspects of the current situation are thatIran is losing its most loyal ally in the unfolding Syrian civil war, that Hamas feelscompelled to distance itself from the Assad regime while Hezbollah’s loyalty toAssad is increasingly isolating it, and that Iraq’s increasing closeness to Iran actuallymay drive Jordan into a kind of tripartite anti-Iranian coalition, together with Israeland the Palestinian Authority. Some successes in international diplomacy, in order toimprove Israel’s standing in individual countries, are noteworthy: f.e. in Canada,South Korea and India. But all this does not alleviate Israel’s sense of being“increasingly isolated in the world”, in the words of host MajGen (ret.) DannyRothschild.
-3-3. IranThe Iranian nuclear programme, and the Israeli reaction to it, dominated manyHerzliya debates. There is consensus that Iran may finish the development of anoperational nuclear device by the end of this year, and then be able to fit it into awarhead within months. While some international experts still believe Iran will hoveron the nuclear “threshold” (i.e. just some months away from actually developing aweapon) for years to come, most Israelis believe Iran will test a device as soon as itis technically possible, precisely because of the international sanctions which arebeginning to really hurt now. After a successful test, Iran’s rulers would expect thesanctions to be lifted and the international community to enact the same “sunshinepolicy” that they used vis-à-vis North Korea once it had tested its first weapon.Virtually no Israeli wanted to rule out a military strike against Iran within 2012. Thedecision will be taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Barak inthe upcoming months. A US-led strike can be excluded – the Obama administrationwould not want to put itself in such a hot spot, and a new massive militaryengagement overseas would severely disturb the re-election campaign. Mostexperts agreed that Israel, in case it decided to strike, would give the US only 1-2hours of advance warning which would make it impossible for the US to actuallyprevent Israel from attacking. In case of a Republican victory, many observers saidthat active US help for an Israeli strike would be much more likely – but by January2013 it might be too late.4. The Peace processThere was some debate about at which moment in the last 15 years Israel and thePalestinians were closest to a deal: 2001 or 2005. But no one put any significanthopes in the current round of proximity talks between the PA and Israel. The generalfrustration was palpable. A (liberal) US guest asked the decisive question: DoIsraelis think that by prolonging the stalemate and holding out another 10, 15, 20years they could get a better deal in terms of security for Israel than today? – In theeyes of most conservative Israelis, this question is wrongly put. They cannotsacrifice East Jerusalem, they cannot let in whatever symbolical number ofPalestinian refugees of 1948 without endangering Israel’s character as the State ofthe Jewish People, and they will want to control the airspace and guard the Easternborder of any Palestinian state-to-be, all regardless of the alternatives. In the firstnarrative, shared by the Israeli radical Left and many foreigners, time is working
-4-against Israel, and Israelis should make compromises now in order to avoid evenbigger compromises (or existential threats) in future. There is also a notion that timeis running out fast for a peace agreement based on equitable land swaps becausewith settlement construction going on, the land that Israel will want to retain cannotbe matched anymore by land that Israel will cede, from within today’s Israel proper(this notion is disputed by Israeli conservatives who say settlement construction isnow largely confined to East Jerusalem which will not be ceded anyway). In thesecond narrative, Israel finds that the current ‘defensive peace’ is the best optionavailable, and thanks to military strength, Israel will withstand any existential threatsin the near future. The proximity talks between Israel and the PA should continue,but with as little publicity as possible and minimal expectations, leading to onlyincremental improvements. Moreover, in this perspective, the current turmoil in theArab World is the worst time to compromise on existential questions, whereas in thefirst perspective, now is the time to reach out to the neighbours – although thequestion is which among the movements in the Arab World would actually wantIsraelis as special dialogue or cooperation partners, except for Fatah and theJordanians.5. The USThere was much speculation in Herzliya about the Obama administration’s “pivot”away from the Transatlantic relationship (including the Middle East) and towards thePacific. Some Europeans, however, added that the Middle East has a tendency to“drag the US back in”, even after such a pivot. In that sense, the New Middle Eastmight actually provide a field of increased Transatlantic cooperation – provided theIran issue or the Israeli-Palestinian question do not become a bone of Transatlanticcontention once more, and provided the EU can achieve more internal cohesion andmuster the willingness to cooperate with the US.US Government officials (like the US ambassador to Israel) kept repeating theAmerican commitment to a “secure Jewish democratic state” like a mantra, althoughmore independent observers claimed that to many Americans especially on theliberal side of the spectrum, Israel has become a liability. Israelis in Herzliya tried tosell Israel as a strategic asset, an ally and producer rather than consumer ofsecurity, provided it’s a strong and not a weak Israel. Overall, Herzliya showed agreat amount of unity between US and Israeli speakers – always keeping in mindthat most Americans (as well as Europeans) coming to Herzliya tend to be ratherpro-Israel. The highest ranking North American politician in Herzliya, however, was
-5-Canadian Foreign Minister Baird – clearly a result of the recently very pro-Israelipositions of Prime Minister Harper’s government.6. The EUAlthough Europeans were present in large numbers (and among the Europeans, theGerman contingent was probably more numerous than the others combined), EUpositions and policies regarding the Middle East played a bit of a side role inHerzliya – just like in the real world. Of course, the most frequent complaint by theEuropeans themselves about EU Middle East policy was about the disunity amongthe Member States. That disunity was, to an extent, exemplified in Herzliya in thealmost diametrically opposed positions of the current Head of the EU Delegation toIsrael, Ranham, and former Czech ambassador to Israel, Zantovsky. Ranham notonly defended his recently leaked report on alleged Israeli human rights violationsinter West Bank, but also an analysis of alleged discrimination of Israeli Arabs inIsrael proper (while completely ignoring the problem of the expanding Islamistideology in that group). Zantovsky, like most Israelis, criticised this report asdisingenuous and not helpful. The whole exchange was symptomatic for a deep splitamong the Member States between those who see the EUs role as that of an arbiterbetween Israel and the Palestinians (while being increasingly annoyed by Israel) andthose who would like to contribute to peace while leaving no doubt that Israel is anally, and actually a part of the West.The most obvious EU success, for the moment, is its strong recent position on toughsanctions against Iran, together with the United States. All Herzliya participantscould agree on that, while some Israelis added that Europes toughness onsanctions was largely a result of fears about Israeli military action and itsconsequences.The two most prominent speakers from Europe were Czech Foreign Minister KarelSchwarzenberg (the Czech Republic has been consistently pro-Israel since the early1990s) and former Greek PM George Papandreou (as Israel’s relations with Turkeywent sour in recent years, they have radically improved with Greece underPapandreou’s reign). Both expressed support for Israel while calling upon the Westto respect, and remain interested in, the Arab democracy movements.
-6-7. TurkeyTurkey drew unanimous applause for its role in Syria, supporting and helping tostructure the opposition, and helping to isolate the regime. But most Israelisremained, of course, critical of Turkeys increasing support for Hamas. Turkeys self-appointed role as a model Muslim society with relatively secular state structures andcomparatively stable democracy drew more ambiguous reactions. Some Israelis(like former ambassador to the US Oded Eran) still felt that a cooperativerelationship with Turkey is a central element of Israels national interest and Israelshould therefore in some form apologise for the loss of Turkish lives in the flotillaincident of 2010. They also found the EUs attitude towards Turkey "shameful" andwould like to see Turkey as a member. Other, more conservative Israelis were muchmore critical of Turkish neo-Ottoman policy which is why they rejected any possibleTurkish role as a bridge between the West and the Muslim World.8. Prince Hassan bin Talal’s speechArguably one of the more remarkable speeches was made by Jordanian Deputy PMPrince Hassan bin Talal via telebeam. Being the only prominent Arab voice inHerzliya, some of his remarks merit closer attention. He impressed listeners with aquote of the progressive rabbi and thinker Leo Baeck in Hebrew (Prince Hassan hasstudied in Jerusalem). He spoke of having had to overrule „much advice from friendsand family, and even from Israeli peace activists“ against speaking at Herzliya, andpredicted that he would be attacked from both ends of the spectrum for either being„radically moderate or offensively realistic“.Quoting Chaim Weizmann, he said that „conviviality existed longer than warbetween Muslims and Jews“ and then went on to say that since 9-11, thisconviviality had been hijacked by the international security establishment, in order towage the „war on terror“. For us (Arabs), the security agenda of the Bushadministration was just another form of colonialism.He deplored the arms spending in the Middle East and called for a Conference onSecurity and Cooperation in the Middle East, modeled on the Helsinki process inEurope. He also advocated a Weapons-of-mass-destruction free zone in the MiddleEast, thereby clearly criticising the Iranian nuclear program, but also hinting at the
-7-widespread Arab demand that Israel get rid of its nuclear weapons in the fameworkof a wider deal.On the West Bank settlements, he was very clear: They are unlawful, and Israelisshould not complain about the delegitimisation of Israel while Palestine is beingdelegitimised, and concluded with his wish that the Arab Spring turn into an Israelisummer.All in all, it was more the style in which he forwarded his ideas than the ideasthemselves.9. The Isreali domestic situationThe social protests of last summer have subsided. They were motivated by young,middle class Israelis frustration about the costs of living and increasing incomedisparities and not by dissatisfaction about the governments foreign or securitypolicy (as some Arab activists jubilantly claimed). The general mood among Israelis,protests notwithstanding, is surprisingly upbeat, largely thanks to a boomingeconomy driven by information and communication technology. Another importantfactor is the relative security of recent years, with a comparatively low level of missileattacks from Gaza and very few suicide bombings thanks to the security fence. TheHerzliya conference publishes an annual intricate report on Israeli public opinionwhich shows a positive tendency. Of course, there is a link between Israels securitysituation and its economy: higher military expenditures due to new threats in theneighbourhood may lead to tax increases and therefore necessarily jeopardisegrowth - which in turn would certainly exacerbate the frustrations of the youngmiddle class.With parliamentary elections coming up in one year (and maybe earlier in case theKnesseth is dissolved), most foreign observers (as well as many centrist andconservative Israelis) hope for a more centrist coalition under Netanyahu (Likud),leaving aside the religious and the secular extreme right and taking on boardmoderates like Tzipi Livni (Kadima) and keeping Ehud Barak. But given the complexcharacter of Israeli coalition politics, the outcome of the next election is impossible topredict.