Archive for ‘Israel & the Territories’

April 22, 2012

Golan Heights’ Druze: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Golan Heights is a disputed territory to the southwest corner of Syria and in the northeast corner of Israel. Once used as a high ground from which to launch shells into the Galilee Valley, the Israelis captured it in two days during the Six Day War. It was not an empty area. Maybe 100,000 Syrians lived there. But most of its poor inhabitants fled immediately. The only group that largely stayed were the Druze: “Around 7,000 remained in six Druze villages: Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, Buq’ata, Ein Qiniyye, Ghajar and Shayta. They are estimated to number 20,000 today.” There are populations of Druze in Israel and Syria. Nothing was particularly different about the Golan’s Druze until this moment. None could have guaranteed they’d be virtual Israelis into infinitude, but that has what happened.

In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights for several reasons. Unlike the West Bank, it was a direct front with a sworn enemy, unlike the West Bank regarding Jordan. Jordan was not as hostile an Arab state as Syria, nor did the issue of negotiating territory with the Palestinians come up with the Golan – it was never Palestinian. So only the Golan and East Jerusalem have been annexed from the conquests of the Six Day War, leaving both populations with unique residency rights in Israel. The Golan Druze face a different social situation than the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. They were citizens of Syria, and their territory was recognizably Syrian. East Jerusalem was void of an internationally recognized owner. So here, nationality was neither in dispute nor coalescing. East Jerusalemites have experienced waves of Arab nationalism, Jordanian citizenship and Palestinian nationalism both under the Jordanians and under the Israelis. Golan’s Druze were cut off from their indisputable home government.

Druze are generally labeled fiercely loyal to their home regimes, no matter who’s in charge. Along the same lines, the leadership is generally pragmatic. In Israel, Druze living in the Carmel and the Galilee aligned themselves with the Jews in the Israeli War of Independence. Today, they are the only ethnic or religious group aside from Jews who are obligated to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (a request made by the group’s leadership).

The Druze of the Golan don’t have any sort of requirement. The reasons are simple. For one, their loyalty is ambiguous. There have been vocal pro-Assad demonstrations in the Golan for years. The community has either been motivated by a genuine patriotism for Syria or fear that a land-for-peace deal might bring vengeful Syrian police to arrest anyone who advocated against Damascus while the territory was Israeli. But secondly, while it’s practical for the Israeli government to hold back anyone whose loyalty to the Jewish State is just non-existent, it’s also a humanitarian gesture and obligation that they don’t serve in the IDF. It is illegal under international law to force residents of an occupied territory to serve in the conqueror’s army. Even if it weren’t, it would be cruel to compel service to anyone who is conflicted about their national identity.

Golani Druze carry Israeli residency cards and have virtually open access to the country’s services without some of the rigors of citizenship, but maybe about 10% of them have accepted Israeli citizenship. Many Druze have taken the opportunity to attend universities, a fictional example of which coming from the Israeli film “Syrian Bride.” On the Syrian side of things, there is an exchange between the two countries for Golani college students to go for free (with Syrian government funding) to universities in Damascus. Funerals also bring visitors, who more and more over the years have gotten more relaxed ruled on moving between the borders.

After almost 50 years on the Israeli side, the attachment to Syria is breaking. The lot of native Israeli Druze is noticeably good. Despite whatever social and economic issues might exist for the small Israeli Druze community, it doesn’t approach critical levels. Intermingling is also much easier than with Syrian Druze. The social scene is also available to the younger Golani Druze, being just another opportunity to immerse themselves on the Israeli scene.

With no clear way of returning the Golan Heights to Syria, much less to a Syria ruled by Bashar al-Assad, Golan’s Druze will probably continue to adopt Israeli citizenship at an increasing rate.

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April 22, 2012

Israeli Gas Drillers Get Nearly $1 Billion in Investments from US

by Gedalyah Reback

It was announced April 22nd that the group of owners developing one Israel’s large offshore gas fields, Tamar, will be getting just over $900 million in loans from a consortium of 11 companies and banks in the near future.  The money is a huge boon for the developing Israeli energy industry.  It also indicates the potential for the export element of the business the industry is aiming for.  The connections are coming from principle Tamar developer Noble Energy, based in Texas, which owns about a third of the field.

In January, the controlling group signed a deal with a smaller Israeli energy provider to supply gas for nearly 20 years, declaring they wished to increase competition in the Israeli market.  That deal is worth $5 billion.

Tamar is a large gas field whose vast area has caused diplomatic and security issues to pop up with Lebanon and Hezbollah. The field is one of several that is also the target of joint development projects with Cyprus. Cyprus’ interests have angered Turkey, creating tension with Ankara as well. Turkey does not recognize the government of (southern) Cyprus, preferring the Turkish Northern Cyprus government as the official representative of the island. Israel has been looking at enlarging its navy in anticipation of security issues to offshore development sites in the future. Lebanon has refused to negotiate with Israel up till this point, instead filing complaints with international bodies and refusing to ratify a joint development agreement with Cyprus.

The symbols of the main companies involved are here: Noble Energy (NBL); Delek Drilling (DEDRL); Isramco Negev (Isral) & Avner Oil (Avnrl).

April 21, 2012

Israel’s Navy Expanding to Defend Offshore Gas

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has expanded its relationship with Greece for two reasons. The first is because Greece is the natural alternative to having an alliance with Turkey, which is falling apart. The second is Greece is the natural patron of Cyprus, the other country about to win big from natural gas fields discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is planning to develop several fields, so naturally they will want a strong relationship with the other country nearby, Cyprus. The fields are in the “territorial waters” of the two countries, that is the area of ocean or sea water that is within legal range of a country’s coastline.

But that also involves Lebanon. Lebanon is nowhere near as advanced as Israel in its ability to explore for mineral deposits offshore. But now that Israel has hit the jackpot, Lebanon is making claims that some of the fields are in Lebanese water. The maps would have to be manipulated to make that true, but that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah and the rest of the Lebanese government from making an issue out of it. Hezbollah added fuel to the fire, threatening Israel if it crossed into the ambiguously defined Lebanese waters. In kind, Israel promised it would defend its gas deposits with force.

There is teeth to the Israeli words while little to Hezbollah’s. Despite what little naval options Hezbollah or Lebanon would have, Israel is stacking up. The navy is negotiating with South Korea and Hyundai to buy a bunch of new frigates. Israel recently had a spat with South Korea’s military industry because Jerusalem chose to buy a squadron of training planes from Italy instead of the Koreans. Filling the need to bulk up the navy and stay on good terms with South Korea is like killing two birds with one stone. Some even want Israel to stock up on bigger sorts of ships like destroyers and cruisers.

Israel is also replacing its joint naval war games with the Turks by conducting new ones with the Greeks. Greece is a patron to tiny Cyprus, so any business or military affairs happening on the island resonate in Athens. Greece is equally involved in the cultivation of the natural gas deposits as Cyprus or Israel, so the Greek navy will be the first natural ally for the Israelis in the Mediterranean.

Cyprus might end up mediating between the Israelis and the Lebanese on a maritime border. Cyprus already has working agreements with both countries on exploration, but both could be undermined if either country cannot begin working offshore. Lebanon refuses to ratify its agreement with Cyprus until it gets clarity on its southern border, forcing Cyprus to get pro-active about solving the dispute. Israel and Lebanon are also beginning to cooperate in other ways on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – blocking Palestinian activists from crossing into Israeli waters on Land Day and Nakba Day. There is room to settle the dispute, but it might have more to do with Hezbollah’s willingness to cook up an issue to fight about then actually taking a pragmatic approach to the issue.

Turkey is the big reason though to bulk up. Initially you’d think I’m talking about the Flotilla incident in 2010, when the Israeli navy boarded a ship and killed nine Turkish activists on their way to protest the blockade of Gaza. The reason to buy bigger boats has more to do with Turkey’s relations with Cyprus. Turkey has a tense relationship with Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invade Cyprus and carved out the northern third of the island as a separate country for Turkish residents – Northern Cyprus. Only Turkey recognizes the country, and in September 2011 signed a joint exploration deal with the tiny country to search for gas off the Northern Cypriot shore.

Turkey has had fierce rhetoric since and its own naval maneuvers, rattling its sabers in the direction of the Greek, southern Cyprus working with the Israelis. In December, Turkey drove ships toward the fields claimed by Israel and the southern Cypriots and fired in the direction of the fields. Israel and Cyprus have asked for help from the US to keep the Turks back, but the tensions are hot as Turkey seeks to stake a claim for itself and its tiny Northern Cypriot neighbor. The International Crisis Group in the beginning of April accused Turkey of a series of provocations against southern Cyprus, and told Turkey to discipline itself.

April 19, 2012

Turkey’s Alevis: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

There’s been attention on the Alawite sect of late. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the sect, and the sectarian implications of the violence in Syria is huge. I recently posted about members of the religion who live in the Turkish-Syrian border area and how their emotions could complicate Turkish intervention in Syria.

Another group weighs even more heavily on Turkish politics: the Alevis. Their name has a similar origin to the Alawis’, but there are few similarities after that, religiously. Both groups are outgrowths of mainstream Shi’a Islam. Politically, the two groups have been traditionally marginalized and faced discrimination for their unorthodox beliefs. But the ambiguity of both groups’ religious beliefs has caused a lot of confusion. Religion and Middle East scholars often mix the two groups up unintentionally, making studying the two minorities unnecessarily difficult. That confusion even runs through the groups themselves. Since Alawites kept many particulars to their dogmas under wraps to a degree and Alevis are both secularized and don’t emphasize religious practice, the two groups have members who think the two religions have a lot more in common than they actually do.

Their beliefs are much more esoteric than mainstream Islamic sects. There are ideas similar to the Catholic trinity, heavy borrowings from Sufi ideas & a heightened appreciation of Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

Alevis might make up as much as 20% of Turkey’s population, though that rarely factors into political analysis. The party of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is religious in nature, Sunni to be specific. Its popularity and indicator of resurgent religiosity in Turkey overshadow the diversity that actually does exist in Turkey. Alevis’ religion also has origins in the various Sufi sects that once had much more influence in Turkey during the period of the Ottoman Empire. It made telling the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, in general, a difficult task. The groups has been influenced by Sufi spirituality, making their religious culture much richer in arts, dances and meditation. Because of the former influence of Sufis, Sunni Turks also felt their impact. That translates today in political terms.

Alevis have a tremendous but nuanced influence on the country. Because they are such a large group, their votes can make a difference. The fact the head of the Turkish opposition is an Alevi could spell future electoral trouble for Turkey’s leaders. Alevis also appreciate the secular traditions of modern Turkey much more than the current ruling party. Disenfranchised secular voters, combined with agitated minorities, could swing an election. In fact, it’s their religious beliefs that are actually a political issue in Turkey. Much of the ambiguity scholars reflect about Alevi and Turkish Sunni commonalities is because the Turkish government has maintained a policy that doesn’t recognize the minority as a separate religion. Recognition is important for many reasons, of late to avoid the mandatory Sunni-oriented Islamic classes in public schools. Because of that, the sect’s only institutions and places of worship don’t get the sort of government support that Sunni places do. Though the assumption they are Sunnis should enable money to flow to their centers, unofficial discrimination still exists.

On Syria, the confusion about Alevis’ connection to the Alawites isn’t the only thing that matters. Alevis might feel that an aggressive government policy toward Syria would actually be a Sunni push against a minority-ruled regime. If that were to happen, it could initiate the political backlash mentioned above.

April 16, 2012

Liberal Protests just aren’t the IDF’s Bag

by Gedalyah Reback

Another incident with liberal, pro-Palestinian activists has hit the IDF squarely in the face, metaphorically speaking. This picture is a screenshot from the latest incident, when Shalom Eisner suddenly smashed his rifle into Danish activist Andreas Ayas’ punim. Despite whatever other articles have been published that try to emphasize the excuse provided, the video doesn’t show this particular man doing anything. In fact, he looks confused and oblivious to Eisner’s shouting.

It’s just the latest incident that didn’t have to happen. Activists have been coming to the West Bank and before 2005 Gaza for quite a long time. The sudden concern about publicity stunts like the flotillas on boats and “flytillas” on planes are a worrisome stain on the country’s reputation. The Israeli media delivers more attention to activists than any other country’s private and public coverage. It was unusual that such a minor publicity stunt, like May 2010’s flotilla, attracted such a massive amount of reporting. It put pressure on the Israeli navy that shouldn’t have been there.

Now the Israeli government is dealing with a dragged out media shouting match between Eisner and Ayas. The Danish ambassador has had to demand answers from Jerusalem. The attention given to Eisner’s broken hand, no matter how he got it, seems to be justifying some sort of rage coming from Eisner, which is inexcusable as well.

In retrospect, this isn’t the big incident that even this blog post might lead you to think it is. Accidents happen in crowd control, or someone does something stupid. This is nowhere near the uncalled-for pepper spray incident at UC Irvine last year.

This isn’t the flotilla debacle from two years ago, either. No matter how selective or unfair the editing is, Israeli commanders have to add media to their perspective on how to deal with things like this.

April 16, 2012

Turkey & Israel: The Turkeys in Turkey – Business Still Flourishing

by Gedalyah Reback

So I’m sitting in class at Hebrew University listening to the latest lecture on Ottoman history. Going over the economic history of the empire, it can get relatively boring: the social structure brought on by hyper-organized guilds, economic protections, imports & exports, etc.

It’s all boring, but extremely relevant from where I sit in the academic capital of the Jewish State. Today, Haaretz posted a report that Israeli tourists were starting to go back to Turkey for cheap, close-by vacations.

Turkey has always been an economic hub being a fertile, particularly after the mass import of American products hit Europe. They went on to become niches for the cuisine in certain countries: the tomato sauce of Italian pasta & pizza; the potato in Ireland; the renown industry for Swiss chocolate. Gold proved to be a much bigger influence. Because so much extra entered Europe, the price of it went down and caused tremendous economic problems, particularly in the Ottoman Empire. It has always been a large market sitting between the centers of trade in India & Europe. That status is extremely true today, as its economy has grown roughly 10% annually like clockwork for the last ten years. That even includes strong economic relations with Iraq and especially Iraqi Kurdistan, even though there is a long-standing rivalry between the Kurds & the Turkish government.

But while we’re talking Turkey, we have to mention the recent failures in the relationship between the growing economy there and the strong one in Israel. The context of today’s trade is remarkable, because both sides have seen a massive collapse in military and diplomatic relationships. On the military side, the Turks have gone out of their way over the last three years to keep Israel from joining military exercises with NATO or bilateral games between the two countries on their own. In turn, Israel has scrapped some lucrative military industrial deals with the Turks, including a project to develop unmanned drones that Israel ended up shifting to Azerbaijan, costing Turkey access to new technology and massive economic losses. Prime Minister Reccip Erdogan was apparently livid when the Azeri deal was announced.

But other trades seem to be on the up & up despite the threats by diplomats and ministers to break the relationship further. In fact, the economic relationship seems to be completely independent of the military and diplomatic ones.

Traditionally, Turkey was a hub for agricultural exports to Europe from Asia, mainly in livestock. That included a breed of guineafowl nicknamed the “turkey hen” or “turkey cock” (i.e. a Turkish chicken). Peacocks and pheasants made their way through in addition to all the raw materials and silks from India & Persia. Livestock isn’t the main staple of the economy now. That would be manufacturing and machinery, in which Turkey is heavily involved in an international market where parts are imported or exported, assembled, then redistributed. Today, Israel is heavily involved and invested in that industry. About 900 Israeli companies are apparently active in Turkey and the Turks are the 8th largest export market for Israeli industry. Israel is only 17th to Turkey for centers of export, about 1.5% according to the article linked above. But Israel has free trade agreements with the United States and is a member of the European economic alliance, the OECD. Turkey is also a member, which not only means the two economies have easy access to each other but also are forbidden by organizational rules from boycotting other members of the alliance.

Turkey’s name has been significant in American exports since before the United States’ founding. The name of the newest discovery in cuisine, the turkey, came from being mixed up with the above mentioned “turkey hens” that came from India (India, “Hodu” in Hebrew, also being the origin of the Hebrew name for the turkey: “hodu”). What was once the tomatoes, turkeys and gold of the Americas has become chemicals, manufacturing and consulting services between the Turkey and the New World. With the US so close to Israel, it’s imperative that Turkey maintain its economic ties with Israel if it wants to maintain some level of diplomatic niceties with the United States. So while the reasons Turkey is stuck with Israel are apparent, they’re intertwined with the reasons Turkish businessmen aren’t looking for ways to divorce themselves from the Jewish State’s economy.

Turkish merchants haven’t forgotten Israel’s tech industry either, and their pressure on the government in Ankara has made it tough for politicians to follow through with threats against Jerusalem. The military is not the only interested consumer. Israelis are known for selling start-ups, but now they seem to be buying them. An example is the Turkish company Med Ilac, a medical tech company gobbled up by pharmaceutical giant Teva for 10s of millions of dollars. With medical and digital tech hubs in the Middle East located in Israel, the Turkish government has little pragmatic reason for severing the relationship with the Israelis to that degree.

As Turkey tries to break into the tech and R&D worlds, it’s previously close connection with Israel effectively makes the relationship indispensable. The Turkish military will look for ways to renewed cooperation, especially in weapons and communications. This is a general analysis, and it even reflects some of the points Israeli PR makes about industry and technology when it tries to draw attention from contentious Israeli issues like politics and the Palestinian territories. But it’s indispensable truth. Israel and Turkey will probably repair their relationship on financial grounds more than on strategic ones, but it seems inevitable.

April 15, 2012

The Syrian Civil War and Israel’s Strategy

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has to watch what is happening inside Syria extremely closely. Despite whatever announcements the government there or the rebels make, neither have proven trustworthy or able to verify any claims they make in the media. Who wins this power struggle, which will probably go on for at least a few more months, will have control over Syria’s foreign policy with both Iran & Israel. Neither side is likely to make a quick peace with the Jewish state. Frankly speaking, the two sides’ fighting will be what preserves Israeli security on the northern border.

Syria & Hezbollah’s Abilities Impaired

With Syria’s ability to make war completely incapacitated by the civil war inside the country, its resources are limited. It cannot expect to simultaneously support Hezbollah financially or logistically while it has priorities at home. And if Syria were to make war with Israel to try to deflect attention from the civil strife at home, perhaps in some naive attempt to unite the population against a common enemy, Israel’s military superiority and a probable strong support for the Jewish state’s retaliatory war effort would end the regime in Damascus. Even going through a proxy like Hezbollah is not so much of an option for this sort of distraction tactic, simply because of the reasons mentioned above that Hezbollah wouldn’t have the ability to sustain a war effort against Israel without dependable supplies coming from Syria.

Whom to Support?

The only certainty from Israel’s perspective is continued civil war. That also goes for what helps Israel’s security. The possibility is real that the two sides could fight for years, especially without intervention. If that happens, the two factions might try to solicit support from neighboring states. The rebels already have support from the West & Turkey. Even if the government offered Israel a favorable peace deal, Jerusalem probably wouldn’t risk its reputation to support such an unpopular and criminal regime – especially if it weren’t guaranteed they’d come out on top.

Then comes what options there are with the rebels. The rebels are mainly Sunni Muslims, the majority in the country and arguably the historically most hostile religious domination to Israel’s existence. This is a generalization, but it’s true Israel has always considered alliances with angry minorities and marginalized groups. That approach was active in Iraq with the Kurds and Lebanon with the Maronites (Catholics). In this case, the government is run by Syria’s minorities (Alawites, Druze, Ismailis & Christians). There is no automatic strategy for Israel to take.

Worldwide the argument has trended toward arming Syria’s rebels. Certain Arab countries already claim to be doing so, and the idea is popping up in Europe. Even the United States’ hawkish senators Joe Lieberman & John McCain are backing the idea, even though Syrian rebels have made statements accusing Israel of working with the Syrian regime and have even peddled anti-Semitic ideas like the matzah blood libel.

What Israel will do is likely, though not guaranteed, to be one of two options: 1. stay out of it or 2. arm both sides. This second tactic has been used before. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the United States simultaneously armed Saddam Hussein and the Iranians. It wasn’t just because America’s allies were divided on which country to support, rather there was value in keeping these two otherwise hostile countries from turning their attention to closer American allies like Israel or Saudi Arabia. Even the Israelis were involved in the Iran-Contra scandal that funneled weapons to the Iranians.

A Quick Scenario

Other countries certainly have a stake in the outcome in the Syrian Civil War. This article only focuses on Israel’s approach, and in a very general way. This post is lacking not mentioning how Turkey fits into the mix. Future posts will cover that. But these are fair and important points to make regarding Israeli policy toward the Syrian Civil War. This being said, I would think the Israeli military might actually be leaning toward supporting the regime in Damascus. This isn’t because Israel would want Assad to win.

The side map shows roughly where Syria’s minorities live, mostly along the coast and adjacent to the Golan Heights. Some people have suggested before that if a war like this were to have ever broken out, the regime might cut its losses and consolidate its supporters and the minority populations into a de facto separate state from the majority Sunnis. If that were to happen, there would almost certainly be continued war because that minority country would have full control of the coastline and crush the economy of the desert interior. That is just one scenario where the Syrian Civil War could actually create two separate countries who would have a much harder time threatening Israel’s security with such little resources divided between the two “new” countries.

If it were to come close to the end, forcing the two sides to continue fighting would keep them from quickly rebuilding a decimated Syrian military that would be hostile to Israel. This deserves much more though. I leave it at here for now.

April 15, 2012

Israel’s Submarines Might Pack a Surprise for Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has been buying Dolphin class submarines from Germany the last couple of years. Last year, Germany might have even been delaying deals in order to push Israel on the peace process, but as it turns out Israel has gotten more armor from the European giant. In February, it leaked Israel might be buying three more.  That barely amounts to a handful, but the costs make the deal for Israel’s F-35 stealth planes look like a bargain.  Apparently, they cost about $659 million apiece.  But all in all, what could Israel do with merely six submarines?  No other country in the Middle East has that many, but what good does it do compared to the punch planes will have against foes in the field?

What should be appreciated is that Middle Eastern countries have a horrible history keeping navies.  It has been an Achilles’ heel for the past empires of Egypt and the Ottomans in the face of European technology and firepower, going back a millennium.  Facing Crusader threats in the late 1200s (opens PDF), the Egyptian rulers of medieval Palestine decided to literally destroy their own coastline because, “we just can’t defend her.”  Without a navy, they expected to spend infinite sums on maintaining coastal defenses, so they decided to level the fortresses and evacuate the coastal cities, forcing the major fights onto land.

The policy was extremely self-defeating, as it ruined the economic prospects of empires’ different territories and made holding them a chore.  They constantly had to keep troops in the field occupied and interested since they had made places like Ashdod, Yaffo and even southern Lebanon desolate and into a backwater.

Boats & Planes

But with the advent of the air force, is Israel really correcting a historical error by several Middle Eastern powers by investing heavily in this sort of navy?  Planes today effectively represent the navy, even in the United States.  The planes that live on aircraft carriers are actually navy planes.  Israel’s main enemies are adjacent or so close they can be reached in minutes if not seconds.  What do the submarines add?

They add the ability to quietly extend Israel’s reach in the Mediterranean and perhaps even the Persian Gulf.  These submarines can launch torpedoes, and Israel has invested the time into the tests and training on how to shoot them.  In 2000 & 2002, apparently working with India the two countries tested cruise missiles off the coast of Sri Lanka.  The range was thought to be short, but the boats Israel is buying and the ones the orders it’s already received from Germany could fire weapons with much longer ranges like the ones used by the United States.

A cruise missile is much harder to shoot down than a plane, and it takes less work to fire a missile 1,500 kilometers than launching a plane.

Positioning

Ultimately, Israel would have to get these submarines in range to fire.  If Israel had a 1,500-km capable missile, it would be able to hit anywhere in Iran from the Persian Gulf. It’s not an issue. They’ve been there before. But could Israel keep a constant presence in the Gulf at cost and be ready to enter into any battle? Israel only has 4 of its submarines right now. Two more are on the way, but won’t arrive till 2014 & 2016. If Israel goes it alone, does the punch just four offshore secret weapons weigh heavily enough to impact the fight?

April 14, 2012

Israel toward Egypt’s Christians

by Gedalyah Reback

For Easter 2012, Egypt’s Coptic Christians had an opportunity they formally hadn’t had in decades – visit Jerusalem. Pope Shenouda III (who?), the leader of the Coptic Church (20 million+ members worldwide), passed away last month. In addition to his being a significant religious figure, the late Pope also banned Copts from making any pilgrimage to Jerusalem as so long as it was considered occupied. But his recent death has marked an unexpected shift for Egypt’s Christians and maybe Israel’s diplomatic opportunities around the Nile.
Copts have unprecedented pressures in Egypt: a revolution’s new wave of violence against Christians; Islamists’ election victory; and now, their spiritual and de facto political leader’s demise. At the helm since 1971, it is a tremendous power vacuum. Simultaneously, Israel’s link to Egypt is fraying and the country has no social traction with the Egyptian on the street. So, the Copts of Egypt should be a vital concern for Israeli diplomacy, and electing a newer Pope should certainly have some bearing on where either side goes in respect to each other.
The idea of leveraging minorities in neighboring countries is often a fantasy of Israeli commentators or enthusiastic politicos who can’t resist thinking of ways to make Israel’s security more solid. But it’s hardly unprecedented. Innumerable resources were poured into Iraqi Kurdistan pre-Yom Kippur War to pressure the Baath Party, and Israel was quick to align with the Catholics of Lebanon in 1982. Extending these policies to Egypt would be seeing an Egyptian Christian minority have controlling votes in a new parliament and blunting the political blades of Islamists in government. But it’s tough to tell if Egyptian Christians really would hold any measurable or favorable sway on their country’s foreign policy if they were to become more politically organized. But this latter event is a prerequisite to any significant amelioration of the relationship between Egypt and Israel.

Christians’ Politics

A new Pope already has more pressing concerns, like keeping open the opportunities the revolution has given and defending the community against ethnic and religious attacks. Israel has plenty to talk about with a new Church leader: priority among them would be the dispute over Coptic Church property in and around Jerusalem. Even if Israel does recognize, negotiate with and reach a deal over disputed spots in the holy city, that doesn’t translate into good will between Israelis and Copts on a general level. And even with a maximum outburst of positive emotions, Copts’ physical security (that is, their own preservation) is the overwhelming priority.

But taking the diplomatic path with a reinvigorated Church could bear unexpected fruit. At the onset of Hosni Mubarak’s power, the Coptic Church has been relatively independent. All it and the late Pope Shenouda III had to do was support Mubarak or stay out of his way. The side-effect was an uninvolved Coptic community, grossly unprepared for the better organized and experienced Muslim Brotherhood to win post-revolution seats in the parliament in December. Standard along with that, Shenouda III always toed the line on the social climate regarding Israel – before Mubarak, he vocally opposed Sadat’s normalization with the Jewish State. It doesn’t stop there.

Isolation is a tempting strategy in the Middle East, but what comes with it is letting enemies encroach on what minimal boundaries you have. An aggressive minority would have a better chance of defending its interests, and Copts should be initiating their own political parties, matching Islamist political enthusiasm and distinguishing their views from the Muslim Brotherhood. The community gains a sense of direction beyond politics with a well-defined platform. Fearing a similar result in the next elections, some vibrant counterbalance to Islamist politics isn’t against the interests of the Egyptian army.

Israel

Relations with Israel are a political issue, not unlike how Americans debated ties to Napoleonic France. Coptic authorities also dispute property in the Old City that Israeli police handed to a different Church in the early 1970s. These issues are probably interrelated. Resolving one would unbind the other. While Israelis consider gestures for the next Pope, he’ll in turn have a chance to solidify a political stance and philosophy being engaged with Israel.

Shenouda III was not John Paul II. But therein might lay a solution to the Church’s problems. In a broader scope, it works in defining the Coptic Papacy as a socio-political pillar in Egypt and the Arab World. tandem with promoting ethnic and religious harmony across the Middle East. Being an outspoken advocate for the fortune of Arab Christians will work well in tandem with promoting other causes for coexistence in the Middle East.

But ultimately, Copts will weigh the benefit versus the cost of being more open to Israel.  In today’s climate, they might be inviting more pressure from Muslim Egyptians.

Israel’s options for facilitating the reputation of such a man are limited, but probably more from a lack of imagination than ability. It would be in their interest to open a new chapter with the Church beyond traditional political issues and foment an alliance. Israel should facilitate a leader that can stabilize a shaky fault, and tremors in the Coptic community imply an opportunity to do just that. Anything Israel can do overtly and covertly to facilitate those mechanisms and developments ought to be a priority. It can change the calculus in Egypt and balance the equation across the Sinai.

April 11, 2012

Iraq’s New F-16s

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel isn’t as anxious about Iraq’s new fighter jets as it is anxious to get a hold of some new ones for itself. Over the last few years, Israel’s been eager to be the first country to buy the newly developed F-35 Lightning jet fighter – a stealth jet. It placed its first order last year for 20 of them at a price tag in the billions of dollars.   Once Israel gets them delivered – maybe as early as 2015 – Israel will have, indisputably, the most powerful air force in the Middle East by a much greater margin than it has now.  So why make any sort of fuss over Iraqi planes which are actually an older model? Iraq has no air force of comparison right now anyway.

Israel might want to cover Iraqi skies on its way to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. It might also be anxious that those planes could end up aimed at Israel eventually, the beginning of a reconstituted Iraqi military that was once Israel’s greatest threat.

Saddam’s Iraq

Saddam Hussein posed the most significant military threat to Israel when he was in power.  He kept the Jewish state on its toes.  Even before Saddam, Iraq was viscerally opposed to Israel.  Iraqi Jews suffered Iraqi pogroms and expulsions before, during and after the Israeli War of Independence.  Arab nationalism particularly in Iraq took an emotional, near-psychotic approach to Zionism and Israel’s existence.  Iraq’s army was part of the Arab coalition in 1948.  Iraq’s army actually occupied the northern West Bank and Sh’khem/Nablus.  In 1973, Iraqi tanks entered the Yom Kippur War and fought Israel’s.  Israel’s strategy in the West Bank until 2003 was to defend against an Iraqi invasion.  In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq to destroy its nuclear facilities.  A rebuilt Iraq could one day be hostile – again – to Israel.

Arab Air Forces

Last year, a deal that gave Saudi Arabia a new fleet of F-15s caused the same sort of headlines. Saudi Arabia is a much more capable country than Iraq, buying a super package of military machines for over $60 billion including jets and helicopters. That deal increased pressure on Israel to pay the cash for the stealth jets, and the pressure on the United States to get the deal done and deliver the weapons to Israel.  Other Arab countries have sophisticated abilities also, like the United Arab Emirates (80 F-16s & 30 French Mirages) and Bahrain (33 F-16s & 16 Northrops).

Iraq is getting 36 F-16s, apparently as strong and capable as the planes Israel’s air force uses.  That could mean an even fight in the skies if the planes were to tango, like they might if Israel tried to hit Iran.  Iraq did buy sophisticated radar systems just last month.  But would Iraq actually get into a dog fight with the much more experienced and massive Israeli Air Force?  The US thinks the new planes can handle Syrian or Iranian jets while not standing a chance with Israel’s.  But is the Iraqi Air Force really going to be standing in the way of Syria’s or Iran’s?

Iraq & Iran

Iraq will eventually emerge from its internal problems. So the concern about the planes is more on the distant future, when Iraq might consider using them for offense. But this isn’t Saddam’s country. Ruled now by Arab Shi’ite Muslims, the conflict between Shi’ite Iran and the Arab World has put Iraq into a neutral position.  Given that, Iraq could play a moderating role, or at least stay as far away from conflict as possible.

The idea Iraq might be neutral is as much wishful thinking as a peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  The Iraqi government and military have strong, intimate ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.  Iraq’s political and religious elite spent decades of exile in Iran both in the seminaries and in the trenches against Saddam Hussein.  Iran offered asylum to the major Shi’ite religious families the Hakims and the Sadrs, both of whom have major representation in the big Shi’ite political parties in Iraq.

Iran’s influence has grown since the US military left Iraq last year.  How much is unclear, but whatever amount is enough to concern Israel’s strategists.  Now with Syria on the brink of collapse, Iran might want to replace its top Arab ally with a new one with more potential, far more assets and a steadier cultural connection (Shi’ite Islam).

This is all a brief overview of things.  But it’s important to pay attention to Iraq in the years to come and especially the opportunities weapons and technology companies will get to rebuild Iraq’s depleted military.  The Iraqi Air Force might only be one facet of the military, but it’s the most lucrative and packs the biggest hypothetical threat from a rival Iraq hostile to Israel.

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