A recent cluster of unrelated events is bringing Israel to a point of inflection; or at least, to a moment of deep almost existential reflection - on this, the seventieth anniversary of its founding. The depth of this quite anxious introspection became explicit in a discussion (Hebrew original) hosted by Yediot Ahronoth, Israel’s widest circulation Hebrew newspaper, with six former heads of Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Service.
The most iconic irruption into this sombre mood was the statement in the Knesset (parliament) that the population between the Jordan and the sea, was exactly balanced at 6.5 million each, between Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, that demographic equality would occur at some point, everybody knew. It was not as such, then, a surprise; but it constituted a slap of reality, nonetheless. These figures were published by the IDF and are therefore difficult to contest. This moment of reality thus curtails the ability of some Israelis to persist with the wishful thinking that the number of Palestinians is far less. This hugely symbolic tipping point is here — the point has arrived.
The question of what type of state will Israel be is no longer theoretical. One of the six former Mossad directors, Pardo said, in answer to the question, what, in your opinion, is the greatest threat to [Israeli] national security:
“[The greatest threat, is the] fact that between the sea and the Jordan [river], there is a nearly identical number of Jews and non-Jews. The central problem from 1967 until today is that Israel, across the entire breadth of its political establishment, hasn’t decided what country it wants to be. We are the only country in the world that hasn’t defined for itself what its borders are. All of the governments have fled from coping with the issue … If the State of Israel doesn’t decide what it wants, in the end there will be a single state between the sea and the Jordan. That is the end of the Zionist vision.”
Two other events have served to sharpen the dilemma: Firstly, the Israeli Prime Minister was forced into a U-turn on an initiative that would have allowed tens of thousands of recent African immigrants to Israel, to be resettled in Europe. The right wing of his coalition government did not want Israel to become a pipeline for African economic migration into Europe - and forced a political retraction. The refugees are likely now to be expelled back to Africa.
It might seem a relatively unimportant event (except to the migrants), but it again brought into focus – especially amongst liberal Jews in Israel and the US - the question of what now, is the moral basis to the Israeli state: Israel took in a million immigrants from the USSR (many of whom were not Jews). Is Israel now abandoning ‘the exile and refuge’ mission of the state? It widens the schism in American Jewry.
The third disconcerting event, was the mass “March of Return" of Gazans towards the fence separating Gaza from Israel. Israel responded with live fire, killing 17 Palestinians: “Picture the outcome”, an Israeli defence official told Ben Caspit, "if they would have burst through the fence, even at a single point, and begun marching into Israel. It would have ended in a bloodbath". The collision of the news that Palestinians now number 6.5 million, with the new Palestinian mass "unprecedented civil rights movement" tactics of peaceful protest, sent a shiver down the spine of the Israel security establishment: What would be the consequence if one hundred thousand Palestinians swarmed the fence, broke through, and overran the neighbouring towns and countryside? Panic – and hence, the live fire.
But these existential questions are arising as a difficult constellation is arising in Israel’s geo-strategic situation. As one example, the New Yorker quotes, a former US official attending Jared Kushner’s initial briefing by the NSC:
“We took out the map and assessed the situation,” the former defense official said. “Surveying the region, they concluded that the northern tier of the Middle East had been lost to Iran. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, controlled the government. In Syria, Iran had helped save President Bashar al-Assad from military disaster and was now bolstering his political future. In Iraq, the government, nominally pro-American, was also under the sway of Tehran. “We kind of set those to the side,” the official told me. “We thought, So then what? Our anchors were Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
And the upshot: Kushner, who had no experience of the Middle East, took himself off to Riyadh for several ‘all-night’ sessions with his new friend MbS, to discuss the latter’s “ideas about how to remake the Middle East … But, Bannon told [the New Yorker], the message that he and Kushner wanted Trump to convey to the region’s leaders was that the status quo had to change, and in the more places the better. “We said to them—Trump said to them, ‘We’ll support you, but we want action, action,’” Bannon said. No one seemed more eager to hear that message than the deputy crown prince. “The judgment was that we needed to find a change agent,” the former defense official told me. “That’s where M.B.S. came in. We were going to embrace him as the change agent.”
What? Bannon and Kushner, declare that they want to change the status quo of the Middle East, but having only just concluded that they had already lost the northern tier, and possibly Iraq too, to Iran – they decide that they will give the job to MbS who had said to an incredulous Tony Blinken (in 2015): “He told me his goal was to eradicate all Iranian influence in Yemen,” Blinken said. I was taken aback, noted Blinken: to purge Iran’s sympathizers from the country would require a bloodbath. “I told him, you could do many things to minimize or reduce Iranian influence. But to eliminate it …?”.
Is MbS the one who can “roll back the Persians”, as Steve Bannon argued? This cannot be taken seriously. Did anyone remind Kushner of Stalin’s words to Pierre Laval in 1935: “The Pope! Just how many Divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”.
No wonder the Israeli security establishment is cautious. Yediot Ahoronot relates: “I asked them [the former Mossad Directors] whether they, looking at Israel on its 70th anniversary, are pleased: “I was the first Mossad director who wasn’t part of the 1948 generation,” said Shabtai Shavit. “I was born into the state, and I feel very bad about what is happening in it. The problems are so great, so deep, so comprehensive. There aren’t any red lines, nothing is taboo. As members of the intelligence community, our most important capability is to try to anticipate the future. I ask myself what kind of country I’ll be leaving for my grandchildren, and I can’t come up with an answer.”
Shavit was referring mainly to internal divisions, and to the loss of integrity amongst the Israeli political leadership; but the external geo-political situation is not favourable to Israel either. America, one way or another, is winding down in the Middle East. More significantly, however, it is becoming apparent that, with America’s desire to cut China and Russia down to size, it has triggered an unexpected response.
It seems both China and Russia have had enough ‘of it’ (western bellicosity). Maybe it was the ‘revisionist power’ jibe in the US National Defense Posture statement; maybe it was the escalation to tariff war; or maybe the ‘last straw that broke the camel’s back’ was the ‘Skripal’ co-ordinated mass expulsion of Russian diplomats (which seems to have infuriated China as much as Russia) that triggered this reaction. Whatever the exact cause, the ‘gloves are off’, it seems. China and Russia are not going to ‘take it’ any more.
This has major implications for the Middle East: China and Russia have been putting on a very visible display to America of the depth and strength of the strategic unity that exists between them. Iran is very much part of this. It is a strategic partner, too.
China will inflict pain on the US should the latter persist with a tariff war (or other mode of financial war). Russia, working with China will cause pain to America and the US, should it believe that the American Deep State continues to threaten Russia. Neither will accept Iran or Syria being unjustifiably targeted by western interests, either. President Putin made this clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu in the wake of the shoot-down of the Israeli F16: Russia has it interests in the region now, and it will not permit Israel to ‘mess’ with them.
Who will back down in this ‘game of chicken’? It is not clear. It may instead escalate. Ostensibly, China has much to lose in a pure tariff war, but the US may be more vulnerable than thought. This Administration has tied political credibility indissolubly to the state of its asset markets (particularly the stock market). Asset markets therefore have become the litmus of political achievement and success in America.
There are signs that China understands that US asset markets and debt markets represent America’s Achilles heel. Steven Englander of Rafiki Capital Management notes:
“The trade spat is largely being played out in financial markets, with the reaction in equities being used to determine the wisdom of China or the U.S.’s policy.
The US tariffs seem to have been chosen to make a point on economics and trade. China’s response today was driven by the desire to inflict as much visible political and financial market pain. It is hard to believe that a country with higher tariffs, and US exports, that are both labor intensive and almost four times its US imports, can win a trade war. However, this could emerge if US policy is more sensitive to asset prices and to politically sensitive products, than China’s policy is, to the goods that are newly tariffed.
A perceived vote of confidence from financial markets can have real world consequences in strengthening respective negotiating hands: positive reactions give policy makers more leeway to push their policies; a market sell-off will increase pressure to back off, or find a quick resolution”.
Israel’s deterrence is likely to be one casualty, as America and the China-Russia axis lock horns. Bannon’s belligerent bluster about “our plan [being] to annihilate the physical caliphate of ISIS in Iraq and Syria—not attrition, annihilation—and to roll back the Persians", may sound neo-Realist, but may well have been hollow rhetoric. Iran is a Russian interest – in diverse ways. The Israelis have been warned. Their ability to act has been circumscribed.
And Israel’s asset markets, as an adjunct of Wall Street, may be ‘collateral damage’ too, in these new financial wars, exacerbating its internal tensions.
Finally, this concatenation of events may cause some Israelis to ponder why be Iran’s antagonist at all – if China and Russia look poised to emerge as the coming axis of power in Eurasia. A strategic shift is under way. And, after all, Israel was then pragmatic enough to have relations with the new revolutionary leaders of Iran immediately after 1979. Israel only broke off and began demonising Iran, only as a result of a shift in domestic Israeli politics – and not from any new sense of threat.