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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Israel and the Economics of Superpower Politics

Global Economic dislocation has created opportunities to realign superpower interests. After the fall of the Soviet Empire the world was briefly held together by US unipolarity.  That has now been replaced by an emerging multipolarity that includes Russia, China and the United States of America. Traditional or transient alliances will fall away.  All nations should be wary of promises of protection.  The future is neither guaranteed nor at all clear. Those nations that depend for their economic well-being on the largess of their patrons should be looking further afield and weaning their economies off their addiction to easy money.

US Aid to Egypt, the most populous Arab country, between 1948 and 2012 totalled $72bn while during the slightly later period of 1949 till 2012 aid to Israel totalled $109bn.  US government loan guarantees have eased Israel’s access to global capital markets but it has also meant that Israel’s second largest budget item is its repayment of these loans.

Russia has a substantial investment in Syria. It is a significant and prestigious strategic asset which it cannot consider the possibility of losing. The Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea Fleet. American fear of Russian influence in Turkey means that it will forgive almost any Turkish geopolitical transgression in order to slow down the burgeoning Russian-Turkish economic relationship. China will trade with anyone who supplies it with oil and has extensive dealings with Iran through its China National Petroleum Company.

In most cases, economics will always trump morality. So where does this leave Israel, surrounded by nations that have rarely recognised the rights of their ethnic and religious minorities?

Nahum Barnea wrote about Egypt that even ordinary Egyptians saw themselves as having “…the confidence that a direct line connects the magnificent culture of the Pharaohs to modern-day Egypt, and the confidence that Egypt is the sole leader of the Arab world; the military, political and cultural superpower.”  Israel’s situation could not be further from this. Widespread secularism has failed to find a cultural narrative that both left and right can share which facilitates a vision of who they, as Israelis, are. The political system is largely to blame for this failure of identity because it disenfranchises the majority in favour of peripheral and radical interests.  It is one of the main reasons for Islamic / Arab confidence that Israel’s days are numbered. The Islamic view is far simpler – suffused throughout with Islamism and Colonialism; it cherishes an historic memory of ancient empires reflecting past glories down through the millennia, even when the history has to be re-written to accommodate the self-delusion of eternal superiority.

If Israeli politics is ever to regain the middle ground it must first discard the visionless economic free-for-all that has so alienated most Israelis, forcing both rich and poor alike into extreme positions that no reasonable Israeli could accept.   But as the numbers of alienated citizens grow the critical mass of extremists will likewise expand ensuring deadlock and violent confrontation.  The current controversy over universal conscription is evidence of the widening gap between those who identify with the nation and those that not only do not identify but are also unwilling to contribute as equal partners in the national enterprise.

What is the danger for Israel today? While Israel must reduce its areas of strategic threat they are increasing. Instead of the two fronts of Gaza and Lebanon we now also have Turkey, anxious to flex its muscles in a war with anyone, so that it may demonstrate its strength as an Islamic superpower.  And Jordan which has refused to even meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu but blames Israel for the deadlock with the Palestinians (while it retains its own expansionist dreams).  Egypt in modern times has always viewed itself as leading the Arab world and has made lots of threatening noises about annulling the Peace treaty with Israel. Bereft of President Mubarak, Egypt no longer has the fig leaf of a secular (military backed) one party president to pretend that it is serious about peace with Israel. And Iran, contemptuously chauvinistic of its Persian Imperial past and Shiite present, it manipulates Shiite dissatisfaction in order to export its own brand of extremism with missionary zeal across the Arab world. Syria fears Turkey and Lebanon fears Syria which also sees Israel as part of its historic imperial patrimony.  A destabilised region creates few if any opportunities for peaceful co-existence.

The real question for Israel is whether the limits to which she can respond to any significant provocation from any direction in the future is restricted by a radicalised Islamist Egypt? And for this Israel must be prepared.

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