Magazine article The Middle East

Israel Seeks New Friends: Adrift after the Political Convulsions of the Arab Spring and the Messy Rift with Its Former Ally Turkey, Israel's Leaders Have Been Forced to Rethink the Country's Strategic Options and Are Looking for New Alliances to Help Them Ride out the Storm

Magazine article The Middle East

Israel Seeks New Friends: Adrift after the Political Convulsions of the Arab Spring and the Messy Rift with Its Former Ally Turkey, Israel's Leaders Have Been Forced to Rethink the Country's Strategic Options and Are Looking for New Alliances to Help Them Ride out the Storm

Article excerpt

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With Islamic parties making giant gains in free parliamentary elections across North Africa, the fruit of the Arab Spring, Israel fears an Islamic winter and is scrambling to find new friends in the region, the Mediterranean and Africa. There are even signs of a new warmth in relations with China, which must raise eyebrows in Washington.

The 2010 rupture of relations with a key non-Arab ally, Turkey, has heightened the Jewish state's sense of international isolation at a time when it sees an existential threat from a nuclear-armed Iran and from the democratic reforms so long denied Arab states by their rulers. Meanwhile, international approbation over Israel's treatment of Palestinians, who have endured over half a century of occupation, is becoming increasingly vocal.

"Israel is facing the biggest erosion of its strategic environment since its founding," Thomas Friedman, the influential foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times wrote recently. "It is alienated from its longtime ally Turkey. Its archenemy Iran is suspected of developing a nuclear bomb. The two strongest states on its border--Syria and Egypt--are being convulsed by revolutions. The two weakest states on its border--Gaza and Lebanon--are controlled by Hamas and Hizbullah."

Israel is seeking to refashion its long-held "periphery doctrine", a strategic plan devised by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who more than any other of his generation shaped the policies of the upstart state, and Eliahu Sassoon, one of Israel's leading experts on the Middle East, who was later its first diplomatic representative in Ankara.

This strategy involved offsetting the hostility of the Arab world by establishing relations with such key nonArab states as Turkey, imperial Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya and others, such as Iraq's Kurds and Lebanon's Maronite Christians, to counter the ring of hostile Arab states around Israel when it was founded in 1948.

This middle ring of friendly nations and embattled minorities fell apart for various reasons over the years, including Israel's links to apartheid South Africa, and that includes cooperation in developing nuclear weapons, as well as the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, that Israel now says directly threatens the existence of Tel Aviv.

Many of these often murky relationships ended in tragedy and disappointment, most notably Ariel Sharon's disastrous foray into Lebanon in June 1982 to establish a friendly regime under the Maronites, who, along with the rest of their countrymen, have paid dearly for their shadowy dealings with the Jewish state.

The Jerusalem Post reported in December that Prime Minister Netanyahu's increasingly isolated government--the result of blatantly sabotaging peace talks with the Palestinians and relentlessly maintaining a military occupation of Palestinian lands--is looking at "three clusters of states as allies and possible counterweights".

The first is in the eastern Mediterranean--Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria, all longtime rivals of Turkey and wary of the drive by the Islamist-dominated government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become the region's paramount power. The Israeli air force recently conducted extensive exercises with the Greek air force, including long-range flights that looked suspiciously like rehearsals for strikes against Iran.

The second cluster lies in Africa--Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria and the infant state of South Sudan, which became independent of Sudan in July 2011.

Israel is focusing on the Islamic terrorism threat to seek and nurture new ties in these countries, primarily through security cooperation. Most of the target states are predominantly Christian, seen to be potentially at risk from militant Islam.

'Strategic illusion'

The third cluster lies in the Arab world. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel has been striving to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough. …

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