Into the fray: Israel’s national imperative: “Keep your powder dry.”

While the normalization with the UAE could definitely entail significant benefits for Israel it is still somewhat premature to celebrate the onset of lasting amity—rather than enmity—in the region.

Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry attributed to Oliver Cromwell, prior to the opening engagement of the English civil war at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. 

…The purpose of keeping powder dry is to be able to blaze away at the proper time. Thus, the phrase “keep your powder dry”… carries an implicit, most ominous threat: “…be prepared to blow the enemy’s head off at the propitious moment”—William Safire, “Keeping Your Powder Dry”, The New York Times, Feb. 23, 1997.

..it’s impossible to understand the reality we face today, without knowing the history of HebronTzipi Schissel, curator of the Hebron History museum, on the brutal 1929 Hebron Massacre of Jews by their long time Arab neighbors.

The emerging normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has ignited hopes among many that it will be a harbinger of further amiable relationships between Israel and additional “moderate” Sunni states across the region.

A challenge to past perceptions? 

While the normalization initiative certainly could entail significant benefits for the Jewish state, including a “knock-on” effect, inducing other Mid-East countries to follow suit, I recently cautioned that it is still somewhat premature to celebrate the onset of lasting amity—rather than enmity—in the region.

Numerous pundits (or is that “pundits”?) have set out their preferred preconditions for a lasting peace, only to have their prescriptions upended by recalcitrant realities.

In some ways, the Israel-United Arab Emirates initiative has indeed challenged widely accepted “wisdom” regarding peace, and the absence thereof, in the Middle East.  Thus, a little over three years ago, on the website of Commanders for Israel’s Security, former Head of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, declared: “Popular hostility in Moslem countries resulting from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made normalization with Jordan and Egypt impossible, and has rendered anything other than secret agreements with other Arab countries impossible.  The Palestinian issue serves as a categorical limitation on the establishment of formal relations between Arab states and Israel.” 

Clearly, the move toward normalization between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem severely undercuts the rationale underlying Pardo’s diagnosis.  Indeed, although Emirati leaders have paid ostensible lip service to the “Palestinian cause”,  the apoplectic rejection and incandescent rage with which the initiative was greeted by the Palestinians clearly indicates that their “cause” has been relegated in Arab priorities and is no longer a focal rallying point for the Arab world.

The “people-to-people” peace paradigm

In the ongoing discourse on peace and its determinants, it has become common—and fashionable—to claim that to create a sustainable peace, it is not sufficient to conclude a “political peace”—i.e. a compact between governments/regimes.  Peace, according to this school of thought, must be between the peoples of erstwhile adversarial collectives.

This is a perspective that is not confined to the Israel-Arab conflict and is propounded for the resolution of hostilities in other parts of the globe—such as Central and East Asia.

Thus, in a piece entitled People-to-people contacts seen central to peace, Pakistani journalist S. Mudassir Ali Shah reported on discussions in a 2018 conference in Islamabad, under the banner of “Festival for Peace and Regional Convergence”, where participants concluded: “Increased people-to-people contacts among Central Asian states are necessary to achieve lasting peace and prosperity in the region.

This was a view echoed by a senior Pakistani delegate, who stated: “People-to-people contacts are essential to bring the regional states closer.”

Testifying to the wide-spread prevalence of the idea is the fact that a quick Google search for “Peace” + “people-to people-contacts” will yield over 50 million hits, referring to cases of unrest across the globe and how they may be mitigated by inter-personal contacts.

“People to people” peace: The deceptive allure

Of course, the allure of the “people-to-people” peace paradigm is understandable for peace-seeking publics.  Indeed, beyond its obvious emotional appeal, it has a certain internal logic to it.  After all, if members of rivalrous collectives –such Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs—get to know each other, form amicable interpersonal ties, even bonds of friendship, this should work to break down barriers of animosity, undermine mutual suspicion and dispel negative stereotypes.

This all sounds very reasonable—and indeed, Mossad Head Pardo embraced it in his previously cited address , asserting: “At the end of the day, a peace agreement derives its strength from an understanding between peoples, not an accord between governments.”

This parallels the sentiments expressed in a 2019 Hoover Institute paper, Israel-Palestine Peace Is Possible, by Dan Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel (2001-2005): “One important, but undervalued element in all past peace efforts has been people-to-people engagement, that is, activities that bring ordinary people together to overcome mutual distrust and to build understanding at the grassroots level.”

Indeed, the friendly attitude shown towards Israel and Israelis, together with the well-disposed manner in which the 3000 strong resident Jewish community is treated in the UAE has been cited as the basis for the belief that, for the first time, Israel and an Arab country are on the cusp of a warm peace—significantly different from the grudgingly cold peace that prevails with Jordan and Egypt, which resemble non-belligerency accords rather than a harmonious peace.

However, as sensible and sober as these views appear, experience has shown that the credence placed in the durability of amiable people-to-people ties, is at times, decidedly at odds with reality.

Iran becomes inimical

In recent decades, there have been at least two major instances, in which changes in governments have totally washed away any congenial impact of previously multi-faceted people-to-people contacts with Israelis.  These are the cases of Iran and Turkey—which I have discussed in a recent column.   But because of their centrality to the current discussion, I will present the facts once again—and hope readers will understand the rationale for my repetitiveness.

credit: Arab News

From the early 1950s to the late 1970s, until the fall of the Shah (1979), Israel and Iran conducted very close relations.  Following the 1967 Six-Day War, a major portion of Israeli oil requirements were provided for by Iran.  Moreover, Iranian oil was shipped to European destinations via the joint Israeli-Iranian Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline.  There was brisk trade between the countries.  Israeli construction firms and engineers worked extensively throughout the country.  Israel’s national air carrier, El Al, operated frequent direct flights between Tel Aviv and Tehran.  Iranian-Israeli military links and projects were largely classified but were reportedly extensive—possibly including missile development.

The scale and scope of the Israeli-Iranian collaboration are dramatically illustrated by the
words of Yaakov Shapiro, the Defense Ministry official in charge of coordinating the negotiations with Iran from 1975 to 1978: “In Iran they treated us like kings.  We did business with them on a stunning scale.  Without the ties with Iran, we would not have had the money to develop weaponry that is today in the front line of the defense of the State of Israel.” 

Turkey turns truculent 

Turco-Israeli relations followed a somewhat similar pattern to those of Iranian-Israeli ones. Up until just over a decade-and-a-half ago, and the ascendance of Recip Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), Israel and Turkey saw each other as having much in common—two non-Arab countries in an otherwise almost exclusively Arab region, sharing a western looking perspective with regard to the future development of both countries—with Ankara a far less problematic member of NATO than it is today, and with a then-firm ambition to accede to the EU.

Indeed, so close and robust were the bilateral contacts between Ankara and Jerusalem, that the New York Times wrote in an August 1999 piece: “Over the last few years, Israel and Turkey have built a strategic partnership that has altered the face of Middle East politics.  Trade and tourism are booming in both directions.  Israeli pilots practice maneuvers in Turkish airspace, and Israeli technicians are modernizing Turkish combat jets.  There are plans for Israel to share its high-tech skills with Turkey, and for Turkey to send some of its plentiful fresh water to [pre-desalination era] Israel.” 

Relations began to deteriorate with the rise of the AKP and its increasingly firm grip on power in Turkey, but particularly following the 2008-9 IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza—and were further exacerbated by the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident.

Although Turkey’s relations with Israel have not reached the same level of enmity as those of Iran, they are a far cry from those that prevailed in the 1990s—with Erdogan even comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and the events in Gaza to the Holocaust, in an address to the UN General Assembly. 

Israel’s preoccupation with peace & the Middle-East’s “special lunacy”

In many ways, Israel is obsessed with the idea of peace.  This preoccupation is not difficult to understand.  After all, the Jewish state has been under constant threat ever since its inception just over seven decades ago—and the Jewish collective in the Holy Land, for considerably longer.

However, as understandable as this desire is, it cannot blind the country to the real mechanism of international relations and the potentially fickle—or at least, ephemeral—nature of the relationships between nations.

This was aptly expressed by Henry Kissinger in his well know book White House Years.  In it he wrote: “Israel insisted on a ‘binding peace’.  Only a country that had never known peace could have attached so much importance to that phrase.  For what is a binding peace among sovereign nations when one of the attributes of sovereignty is the right to change one’s mind?

He went on to elaborate: “For three centuries France and Germany had fought wars in almost every generation; each one was ended by a formal “binding” peace treaty that did nothing to prevent the next war.  Nor did “open frontiers” in 1914 prevent the outbreak of a world war that shook Europe to its foundations.”

Referring to the special lunacy that pervades the Middle East, he noted: “Most wars in history have been fought between countries that started out at peace; it was the special lunacy of the Middle East that its wars broke out between countries that were technically already at war.”

The imperative of interest

The impermanence of international alliances were succinctly articulated by Lord Palmerston, then British Foreign Secretary, in a March 1848 address to The House of Commons “…it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or perpetual enemy of England.  We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies.  Our interests are perpetual and eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow.

This notion of interest as the dominant determinant of nations’ behavior was, arguably, first articulated by Athenian historian and general, Thucydides‘ (460 BCE – 400 BCE), in his treatise The History Of The Peloponnesian War (Ch V) in which he stipulated that, “identity of interests is the surest of bonds whether between states or individuals”.

Centuries later, essentially the same idea was articulated by British statesman, Lord Salisbury (1830-1903), who stated that, “‘the only bond of union that endures’ among nations ‘is the absence of all clashing interests.’

It was the renowned scholar Hans Morgenthau, who in his Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, set out a modern formulation of the notion of interest as the defining determinant of nations’ behavior.

Novelty no virtue

In it, he pointed out that basic patterns of international behavior have remained immutable over time—and the passage of time will not change them: “Human nature, in which the laws of politics have their roots, has not changed since the classical philosophies of China, India, and Greece endeavored to discover these laws.  Hence, novelty is not necessarily a virtue in political theory, nor is old age a defect.” 

He added “…[T]he fact that a theory of politics was developed hundreds or even thousands of years ago…does not create a presumption that it must be outmoded and obsolete…To dismiss such a theory because it had its flowering in centuries past is to present not a rational argument but a modernistic prejudice…” 

Warning of the consequences of allowing wishful thinking to cloud judgement, he cautions: “In order to improve society it is first necessary to understand the laws by which society lives. The operation of these laws being impervious to our preferences, men will challenge them only at the risk of failure.”

Sobering precedent

For those who subscribe to the “People-to-people” doctrine, perhaps a sobering example is the chilling case of the 1929 Hebron massacre, in which the Jewish residents of the town were viciously attacked and brutally murdered by Arabs, who had long been their friendly neighbors but at the call of their leaders, mercilessly turned on them.

Accordingly, Israeli policy-makers would do well to heed the dour words of Tzipi Schissel, curator of the Hebron History museum: “…it’s impossible to understand the reality we face today, without knowing the history of Hebron.” 

Which is precisely why—despite positive developments—Israel needs to “keep its powder dry.”

….

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

 

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