Israel’s Place within the Community of Like-Minded Nations: A Presentation to the Herzliya Conference

This briefing is a modified version of a presentation I gave this week to the Herzliya Conference, Israel’s most prominent public forum on national security issues (which AJC has supported since its inception eight years ago). I spoke as part of a panel that included two Americans (former ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter and the current assistant secretary-general of NATO, Peter Flory); two Germans (Hermann Buntz of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit), and another Israeli, Israel Elad-Altman, who discussed the French situation.

The topic defined for discussion was Israel’s relationship with the Atlantic community. But amid dramatic events in Gaza and the persistent tension over Iran’s intent and activities—nuclear and otherwise—it was necessary to broaden the scope and speak of the “community of like-minded nations.” Francis Fukuyama—made famous, some eighteen years ago, by his assertion that the collapse of communism signaled “the end of history”—coined this phrase more recently, upon concluding that history had not ended and great hostile forces were still out there. We need to face them together, and we need to do so in a robust manner. We live in a world in which:

  • Contrary to the dangerous and politicized spin put on the American intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, the prospect of military action or other strong measures is still very much on the table, given Iran’s history of actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the suspension of nuclear activities by Iran in 2003 (which has since been reversed, vis-à-vis uranium enrichment and design of delivery systems, and perhaps even as regards work on the weapon itself) was very much caused by the fear that the fall of Iraq had instilled in Tehran (and elsewhere). In other words, military might matters.
  • Moreover, so does military experience. When the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual is on the best-seller shelf in airport bookshops, we may justifiably conclude that what Israel has to offer today is relevant to the U.S. and other allies.

 

Sadly, there are few fresh thoughts in the election-season fray of ideas, in the U.S. and elsewhere. But this may still be a moment of opportunity:

  • In the U.S., by January 20, 2009, a year hence, a totally new administration will be well-positioned to reconsider old verities about national security and the landscape of global alliances;
  • In Europe, new voices are being heard, and above all, the fresh attitudes suggested by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France are leaving their mark, supported by alliance-oriented leaders in Britain and Germany;
  • In the region itself, the “new paradigm”—Iran and its allies and proxies against everyone else—is having its effect. Following the Israeli operation in Syria—about which I find myself in the same position as the proverbial rabbi who felt compelled to play golf on Yom Kippur, scored a hole-in-one in the most difficult course, but then realized he could not tell anyone—the thunderous silence of the Arab world and the international community signaled how deep the new divisions run. They cleave Lebanon in half; they carved up Palestine already into two rival states; in some ways, for some of our neighbors at least, they indicate that Israel might be part of the solution. The very fact that Israel, Morocco, and Algeria participated in NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor together, in Rabat, tells you how far we have traveled. A few years ago this was still “science fiction.”

 

To make full use of such opportunities, we may need to take the bold intellectual step of deconstructing the concept of the Middle East, a colonial hangover that means less and less as the years go by, and to focus more on what could be called the Mediterranean matrix. Each of the two BBBs—shorthand for Big Brussels Bureaucracies, i.e., NATO and the EU—had already created, back in the mid-‘90s, a framework for collective cooperation with the Mediterranean countries: NATO’s Med Dialogue and the EU’s Barcelona Process or EMP. More recently, in 2004, each moved on to offer differentiated courses of closer association to the relevant countries: the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and NATO’s Istanbul Cooperative Initiative. This development is already bearing significant fruit, breaking the stranglehold that some parties, such as the Egyptians, previously held on the prospects for progress.

The one thing that the BBBs cannot provide, however, is an alternative model to the identity politics of the region. In some ways, such a Mediterranean alternative to the unrequited political fantasy of Arabism and to the dangerous delusions offered by politicized Islamism is the most important new element that may emerge. This is the essence of Sarkozy’s new initiative, which should be welcomed as a new opening—and if some in the region resent its French provenance, it can be renamed for Egypt’s great man of letters Taha Husayn, a firm believer in his country’s “Mediterraneaity.”

Once we begin to “relocate” Israel, moreover, we should bear in mind that we are also in West Asia; and within that community of like-minded nations, the new and strong bond between Israel and India (among others) is of great importance, since the two countries—as Indian diplomat Raminder Jassal is fond of saying—together constitute some one-sixth of all humanity. If the scope of that tie is to be fully broadened, then initiatives to create formal institutions for a defense community should include not only Israel, but points east. It is perhaps strange to focus on the far horizons when difficult events unfold at our front door, but this may also be the right thing to do.

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