This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
week’s events off the coast of Israel continue to resonate.
Turkish-Israeli relations have not quite collapsed since then but are at
their lowest level since Israel’s founding. U.S.-Israeli tensions have
emerged, and European hostility toward Israel continues to intensify.
The question has now become whether substantial consequences will follow
from the incident. Put differently, the question is whether and how it
will be exploited beyond the arena of public opinion.
The most significant threat to Israel would, of course, be military.
International criticism is not without significance, but nations do not
change direction absent direct threats to their interests. But powers
outside the region are unlikely to exert military power against Israel,
and even significant economic or political sanctions are unlikely to
happen. Apart from the desire of outside powers to limit their
involvement, this is rooted in the fact that significant actions are
unlikely from inside the region either.
The first generations of Israelis lived under the threat of
conventional military defeat by neighboring countries. More recent
generations still faced threats, but not this one. Israel is operating
in an advantageous strategic context save for the arena of public
opinion and diplomatic relations and the question
of Iranian nuclear weapons. All of these issues are significant,
but none is as immediate a threat as the specter of a defeat in
conventional warfare had been. Israel’s regional enemies are so
profoundly divided among themselves and have such divergent relations
with Israel that an effective coalition against Israel does not exist —
and is unlikely to arise in the near future.
Given this, the probability of an effective, as opposed to
rhetorical, shift in the behavior of powers outside the region is
unlikely. At every level, Israel’s Arab neighbors are incapable of
forming even a partial coalition against Israel. Israel is not forced to
calibrate its actions with an eye toward regional consequences,
explaining Israel’s willingness to accept broad international
To begin to understand how deeply the Arabs are split, simply
consider the split among the Palestinians themselves. They are currently
divided between two very different and hostile factions. On one side is
Fatah, which dominates the West Bank. On the other side is Hamas, which
dominates the Gaza Strip. Aside from the geographic division of the
Palestinian territories — which causes the Palestinians to behave almost
as if they comprised two separate and hostile countries — the two
groups have profoundly different ideologies.
Fatah arose from the secular, socialist, Arab-nationalist and
militarist movement of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the
1950s. Created in the 1960s, Fatah was closely aligned with the Soviet
Union. It was the dominant, though far from the only, faction in the
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO was an umbrella group
that brought together the highly fragmented elements of the Palestinian
movement. Yasser Arafat long dominated Fatah; his death left Fatah
without a charismatic leader, but with a strong bureaucracy increasingly
devoid of a coherent ideology or strategy.
Hamas arose from the Islamist movement. It was driven by religious
motivations quite alien from Fatah and hostile to it. For Hamas, the
liberation of Palestine was not simply a nationalist imperative, but
also a religious requirement. Hamas was also hostile to what it saw as
the financial corruption Arafat brought to the Palestinian movement, as
well as to Fatah’s secularism.
Hamas and Fatah are playing a zero-sum game. Given their inability to
form a coalition and their mutual desire for the other to fail, a
victory for one is a defeat for the other. This means that whatever
public statements Fatah makes, the current international focus on Gaza
and Hamas weakens Fatah. And this means that at some point, Fatah will
try to undermine the political gains the flotilla has offered Hamas.
The Palestinians’ deep geographic,
ideological and historical divisions occasionally flare up into
violence. Their movement has always been split, its single greatest
weakness. Though revolutionary movements frequently are torn by
sectarianism, these divisions are so deep that even without Israeli
manipulation, the threat the Palestinians pose to the Israelis is
diminished. With manipulation, the Israelis can pit Fatah against Hamas.
The Arab States and the Palestinians
The split within the Palestinians is also reflected in divergent
opinions among what used to be called the confrontation states
surrounding Israel — Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
Egypt, for example, is directly
hostile to Hamas, a religious movement amid a sea of essentially
secular Arab states. Hamas’ roots are in Egypt’s largest Islamist
movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian state has
historically considered its main domestic threat. Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak’s regime has moved aggressively against Egyptian Islamists
and sees Hamas’ ideology as a threat, as it could spread back to Egypt.
For this and other reasons, Egypt has maintained its own blockade of
Gaza. Egypt is much closer to Fatah, whose ideology derives from
Egyptian secularism, and for this reason, Hamas deeply distrusts Cairo.
Jordan views Fatah with deep distrust. In 1970, Fatah under Arafat
tried to stage a revolution against the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan.
The resulting massacres, referred to as Black September, cost about
10,000 Palestinian lives. Fatah has never truly forgiven Jordan for
Black September, and the Jordanians have never really trusted Fatah
since then. The idea of an independent Palestinian state on the West
Bank unsettles the Hashemite regime, as Jordan’s population is mostly
Palestinian. Meanwhile, Hamas with its Islamist ideology worries Jordan,
which has had its own problems with the Muslim Brotherhood. So rhetoric
aside, the Jordanians are uneasy at best with the Palestinians, and
despite years of Israeli-Palestinian hostility, Jordan (and Egypt) has a
peace treaty with Israel that remains in place.
Syria is far
more interested in Lebanon than it is in the Palestinians. Its
co-sponsorship (along with Iran) of Hezbollah has more to do with
Syria’s desire to dominate Lebanon than it does with Hezbollah
as an anti-Israeli force. Indeed, whenever fighting breaks out
between Hezbollah and Israel, the Syrians get nervous and their tensions
with Iran increase. And of course, while Hezbollah is anti-Israeli, it
is not a Palestinian movement. It is a Lebanese Shiite movement. Most
Palestinians are Sunni, and while they share a common goal — the
destruction of Israel — it is not clear that Hezbollah would want the
same kind of regime in Palestine that either Hamas or Fatah would want.
So Syria is playing a side game with an anti-Israeli movement that isn’t
Palestinian, while also maintaining relations with both factions of the
Outside the confrontation states, the Saudis and other Arabian
Peninsula regimes remember the threat that Nasser and the PLO posed to
their regimes. They do not easily forgive, and their support for Fatah
comes in full awareness of the potential destabilizing influence of the
while the Iranians would love to have influence over the Palestinians,
Tehran is more than 1,000 miles away. Sometimes Iranian arms get
through to the Palestinians. But Fatah doesn’t trust the Iranians, and
Hamas, though a religious movement, is Sunni while Iran is Shiite. Hamas
and the Iranians may cooperate on some tactical issues, but they do not
share the same vision.
Israel’s Short-term Free Hand and Long-term Challenge
Given this environment, it is extremely difficult to translate
hostility to Israeli policies in Europe and other areas into meaningful
levers against Israel. Under these circumstances, the Israelis see the
consequences of actions that excite hostility toward Israel from the
Arabs and the rest of the world as less dangerous than losing control of
Gaza. The more independent Gaza becomes, the greater the threat it
poses to Israel. The suppression of Gaza is much safer and is something
Fatah ultimately supports, Egypt participates in, Jordan is relieved by
and Syria is ultimately indifferent to.
Nations base their actions on risks and rewards. The configuration of
the Palestinians and Arabs rewards Israeli assertiveness and provides
few rewards for caution. The Israelis do not see global hostility toward
Israel translating into a meaningful threat because the Arab reality
cancels it out. Therefore, relieving pressure on Hamas makes no sense to
the Israelis. Doing so would be as likely to alienate Fatah and Egypt
as it would to satisfy the Swedes, for example. As Israel has less
interest in the Swedes than in Egypt and Fatah, it proceeds as it has.
A single point sums up the story of Israel and the Gaza
blockade-runners: Not one Egyptian aircraft threatened the Israeli naval
vessels, nor did any Syrian warship approach the intercept point. The
Israelis could be certain of complete command of the sea and air without
challenge. And this underscores how the Arab countries no longer have a
military force that can challenge the Israelis, nor the will nor
interest to acquire one. Where Egyptian and Syrian forces posed a
profound threat to Israeli forces in 1973, no such threat exists now.
Israel has a completely free hand in the region militarily; it does not
have to take into account military counteraction. The threat posed by
intifada, suicide bombers, rockets
from Lebanon and Gaza, and Hezbollah fighters is real, but it does
not threaten the survival of Israel the way the threat from Egypt and
Syria once did (and the Israelis see actions like the Gaza blockade as
actually reducing the threat of intifada, suicide bombers and rockets).
Non-state actors simply lack the force needed to reach this threshold.
When we search for the reasons behind Israeli actions, it is this
singular military fact that explains Israeli decision-making.
And while the break between Turkey and Israel is real, Turkey alone
cannot bring significant pressure to bear on Israel beyond the sphere of
public opinion and diplomacy because of the profound divisions in the
region. Turkey has the option to reduce or end cooperation with Israel,
but it does not have potential allies in the Arab world it would need
against Israel. Israel therefore feels buffered
against the Turkish reaction. Though its relationship with Turkey
is significant to Israel, it is clearly not significant enough for
Israel to give in on the blockade and accept the risks from Gaza.
At present, Israel takes the same view of the United States. While
the United States became essential to Israeli security after 1967,
Israel is far
less dependent on the United States today. The quantity of aid the
United States supplies Israel has shrunk in significance as the Israeli
economy has grown. In the long run, a split with the United States would
be significant, but interestingly, in the short run, the Israelis would
be able to function quite effectively.
Israel does, however, face this strategic problem: In the short run,
it has freedom of action, but its actions could change the strategic
framework in which it operates over the long run. The most significant
threat to Israel is not world opinion; though not trivial, world opinion
is not decisive. The threat to Israel is that its actions will generate
forces in the Arab world that eventually change the balance of power.
The politico-military consequences of public opinion is the key
question, and it is in this context that Israel must evaluate its split
The most important change for Israel would not be unity among the
Palestinians, but a shift in Egyptian policy back toward the position it
held prior to Camp David. Egypt is the center of gravity of the Arab
world, the largest country and formerly the driving force behind Arab
unity. It was the power Israel feared above all others. But Egypt under
Mubarak has shifted its stance versus the Palestinians, and far more
important, allowed Egypt’s military capability to atrophy.
successor choose to align with these forces and move to rebuild
Egypt’s military capability, however, Israel would face a very different
regional equation. A hostile Turkey aligned with Egypt could speed
Egyptian military recovery and create a significant threat to Israel.
Turkish sponsorship of Syrian military expansion would increase the
pressure further. Imagine a world in which the Egyptians, Syrians and
Turks formed a coalition that revived the Arab threat to Israel and the
United States returned to its position of the 1950s when it did not
materially support Israel, and it becomes clear that Turkey’s emerging
power combined with a political shift in the Arab world could represent a
profound danger to Israel.
Where there is no balance of power, the dominant nation can act
freely. The problem with this is that doing so tends to force neighbors
to try to create a balance of power. Egypt and Syria were not
a negligible threat to Israel in the past. It is in Israel’s
interest to keep them passive. The Israelis can’t dismiss the threat
that its actions could trigger political processes that cause these
countries to revert to prior behavior. They still remember what
underestimating Egypt and Syria cost them in 1973. It is remarkable how
rapidly military capabilities can revive: Recall that the Egyptian army
was shattered in 1967, but by 1973 was able to mount an offensive that
frightened Israel quite a bit.
The Israelis have the upper hand in the short term. What they must
calculate is whether they will retain the upper hand if they continue on
their course. Division in the Arab world, including among the
Palestinians, cannot disappear overnight, nor can it quickly generate a
strategic military threat. But the current configuration of the Arab
world is not fixed. Therefore, defusing the current crisis would seem to
be a long-term strategic necessity for Israel.
Israel’s actions have generated shifts in public opinion and
diplomacy regionally and globally. The Israelis are calculating that
these actions will not generate a long-term shift in the strategic
posture of the Arab world. If they are wrong about this, recent actions
will have been a significant strategic error. If they are right, then
this is simply another passing incident. In the end, the profound
divisions in the Arab world both protect Israel and make diplomatic
solutions to its challenge almost impossible — you don’t need to fight
forces that are so divided, but it is very difficult to negotiate
comprehensively with a group that lacks anything approaching a unified