When it comes to Israel and the Middle East, there is never a dull moment. This once backward and sleepy part of the world has now come to centre stage in the greatest geopolitical drama of all. The Arab Revolution/Awakening of 2011 has caused us to take a fresh appraisal of what the future holds for the Middle East and the world.
Humanely speaking, when you cannot solve a problem, like Israel, Palestine, and Jerusalem, then the next best thing you can do is to ‘manage it.’ One of the key management methods is called ‘balance of power.’ It is this principle that kept the Cold War (1945-1989) from going ‘hot’ between the US, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies. Yes, there were many proxy wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan, but it never heated up enough to cause these two titanic nations to face each other on the battle field.
In like manner, ‘balance of power’ has helped keep relative peace in the Middle East. Even though the shadow of war has never gone away since 1948, the last 30 years have been relatively calm (except for the two Lebanon wars and two intifadas). What has not happened were wars between Israel and any of its powerful neighbours, especially Egypt, with which it signed a peace treaty in March 1979. As long as the balance of power stays intact, this will keep the peace more than a pile of papers which say ‘peace treaty.’ If balance of power means stability, then upsetting it creates the potential for increased unrest. That’s why diplomats try to avoid ‘tipping the scales.’
Until recently, the peace-keeping ‘balance of power’ in the Middle East went like this:
BLOC A BLOC B
Egypt: 1979 peace treaty Syria: ally since 1980
Jordan: 1994 peace treaty Hizbullah: patron since 1982
Turkey: diplomatic relations & military alliance Hamas
United States: superpower patron Superpower patron: none
With this line-up of nations, it would be inconceivable for an Arab-Iranian war party (Bloc B) to launch a war against the Israel and the much stronger Bloc A. The response would be deadly.
But times are changing. Here are some things to watch:
Egypt: Egypt and Iran severed diplomatic relations in 1980 and the former’s relationship with the United States, including hefty military aid, kept things that way. Since the February 2011 Revolution, the military government in Egypt has become friendly with Iran, speaking openly of restoring diplomatic relations and even allowing Iranian shipping to go through the Suez Canal. In addition, Egypt is becoming friendlier with Hamas in Gaza. The Islamist-orientated Muslim Brotherhood is making all the right noises regarding pluralism and democracy, but their actions need to be watched as they compete for upcoming parliamentary elections.
Turkey: secular, western-leaning Turkey has waited for years to join the European Union and since 1996 had a military alliance with Israel. This relationship has continued even with the ascendancy of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) of current Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan. But as Turkish hopes of joining the EU fade, relations with Israel have deteriorated sharply over the last few years. Turkey reacted furiously over Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza in December 2008. It also snubbed Israel during a scheduled military exercise and decided to conduct it with its erstwhile enemy Syria instead. Then came the Gaza Flotilla with the Mavi Marmara in May 2010, where Israeli forces clashed with the flotilla, resulting in the death of nine Turks. This incident inflamed passions all the more though it did not, at this point, rupture diplomatic relations. Now Turkey is launching a spy satellite into space that will invade Israeli space -- protests from Netanyahu not withstanding.
According to reliable sources, Turkey even signed a secret agreement with Iran recently where Turkey recognized Iran’s leadership of all Shia Muslims in the Middle East while Iran recognized Turkey’s leadership over all Sunni in the Middle East.
This would not be the first time Turkey had an acknowledged role over all Sunni Muslims in the Middle East: the 600 years old Ottoman Turkish Empire, which only collapsed after World War I, hosted the Muslim caliphate, making it head of the Muslim world. In addition, the Ottoman sultan was the caliph. Having held religious leadership in the imperial past, it is not inconceivable that Turkey nurses future ambitions as secularism fades.
Iran: it has made good progress in constructing a ‘Shia crescent’ across the Middle East -- from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean -- including Shia-dominated Iraq, Alawite-dominated Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. Most non-Muslims may not realize that the animosity between Sunni and Shia is as hateful as any intra-religious rivalry.
Iran is still pushing ahead with its nuclear program, which, it continues to claim, is only for peaceful purposes. The recent Stuxnet virus attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities only affected 10% of its reactors and now has been remedied. Iran had protests in 2009 and 2011. The possibility of the current regime being run out of office does exist, despite brutal crackdowns.
Are both Iran and Turkey, which had major empires in the past, trying to regain some imperial glory in the future? Watch this page.
Russia: this nation does not share the antagonism with Israel as the old Soviet Union, and there are diplomatic relations between the two nations. Nevertheless, Russia continues to assist Iran with its nuclear program and is supportive of Syria.
United States: since the Six Day War of 1967, the US has been Israel’s great benefactor and number one supporter. Yet even here there have been changes. The American Muslim population is growing and so is its political clout. Classical Evangelicalism, which was once strongly-Biblical and solidly pro-Israel, is giving way to a more Neo-Evangelical, postmodern, social justice-friendly version. As this new-fangled evangelicalism, which is less Scripture-based than the classic version, looks at the Middle East situation, they seek to be more ‘evenhanded’ and ‘balanced’ but are increasingly becoming sympathetic to the Palestinians at Israel’s expense. It is almost as if to say: we gave Israel uncritical support for many years; now, we need to redress this in favour of the Palestinians.
On top of it all is the election of Barack Obama. Candidate Obama and now President Obama have consistently reiterated US support for Israel, which he calls ‘a friend.’ He has even said that Israel’s security is ‘sacrosanct.’ Nevertheless, when it comes to supporting Israel, Mr. Obama comes 12th out of 12 US presidents who have dealt with Israel since 1948, based on speeches, actions, and other objective documentation.
Non-State Entities: Hizbullah has successfully maneuvered its candidate to be Prime Minister in Lebanon. Hamas continues to enjoy support from Iran and now warming relations with Egypt. Both parties have missiles that can easily reach major areas in Israel.
Israel: Whenever problems arise anywhere in the Middle East, renewed pressure is put on Israel to desist from building settlements and to make peace with the Palestinians. The idea is that:
a) The source of all Middle East conflicts stems from the Israel/Palestine conflict and/or;
b) Solving of the Israel-Palestine conflict will remove a powerful irritant towards wider conflict in the Arab Muslim world.
Chances are that Israel will become less, not more, accommodating considering the Arab revolution and changing balance of power. Sources tell us that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak favour an early strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, though there are powerful arguments against such a move. Netanyahu is concerned that he may not get reelected in the 2013 election and his potential rival Tzipi Livni may be unable or unwilling to attack Iran.
Yes, the balance of power is changing in the Middle East and with this is an increased possibility of future instability and even war. What can we do? We can pray. Here’s what:
1. Pray for the peace and protection of all the peoples in the region.
2. Second, we can pray for statecraft of the highest order to help bring the region from the brink.
3. Third, prayer that the Arab revolution can truly, if not miraculously, lead to the democracy that the youthful protestors consistently affirm is their goal.
For those in the Melbourne area, why not learn more at the upcoming Free Public Lecture on Monday 16 May.