After America leaves: Israel’s “new” Periphery Doctrine

As of 1 November, 2012 America is still hegemon of the Middle East. We know this because while Russia-backed Iran and Hezbollah are openly supporting the Assad regime in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are still on America’s leash and watching from the sidelines. So, while the United States is but a shadow of its presence before invading Iraq even in its present diminished stature the US is at least still able to assert authority over its “allies” and dependencies in the region.

While American “interests” in the region have been confused for decades, signs of collapse only became obvious with the overthrow of the Sunni Iraqi regime and its replacement with a Shiite-dominated government which clearly would fall under the sway of Shi’a-dominated and Russia supported Iran. When all other justifications for invading Iraq evaporated Bush was forced to retreat to providing the Arab world the gift of Democracy. Under Obama enthusiasm for democracy took wing and first the Egyptian tyrant was dethroned, and then Libya was gifted with the “good word.” Iran-inspired Shi’a demonstrators demanding “democracy” in the streets of Bahrain (home of the US Fifth Fleet)? Obama sides with Iran, orders the Saudis not to interfere. Which they defied, and so even America’s dependent Arab oil magnates began to appreciate the limits of their protector’s understanding, and commitment.

How is it that Iran today defies American power and threats in Syria? Absent Russian diplomatic protection the ayatollahs would likely still assume their present confident posture. They have more than a decade’s experience testing American mettle first by backing the anti-American insurgency in Iraq; then the empty Bush threats regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and finally weakness of the superpower in negotiating an end to the program.

And so, on 1 November, 2012, stands America on the Syrian border, dazed and confused: afraid to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Israelis appearing in the media almost uniformly blame Obama for American indecision and inaction. Certainly his leadership style seems out of sync with dealing with what Sadam called, “a tough neighborhood.” But Obama did not initiate American foreign policy, its global interests. Obama is not the author of the America’s Theology of Democracy resulting in Islamist “democracies” sprouting across North Africa and the Middle East. To credit him with the policy is to limit the horizon on the superpower’s underlying motives and policy. And that could result in tragedy. The issue is not this or that president but America’s well-established policy trajectory backed by long history (Carter deposing the Iranian Shah as one earlier example). The focus of Israeli discussion should be over the country’s next superpower alliance, not on who will become the next US president.

Israel’s Periphery Doctrine first emerged in the 1950’s, an outreach to Muslim non-Arab states designed to provide strategic depth in a hostile world. The alliance with Iran lasted until the revolution, with Turkey until that countries ambitions shifted under its new Islamist government. Her recent return to the “periphery doctrine” under Lieberman is generally credited to Turkey’s turn away from the Israel alliance, and the arrival of the “Arab Spring” to Egypt and Jordan. And while this explanation has merit, I suggest the new doctrine is aimed farther afield: It is a long-term strategic response to shifting American policy priorities.

Israel’s first line of outreach logically corresponds to the immediate threat posed by Iran. Greece serves both as a jumping off point should the time arrive, and as a response to Turkey’s regional ambitions (Greece and Turkey share a border and are traditional enemies). “Periphery” also includes several Balkan states, reinforcing the alliance with Greece. The next tier includes the non-Arab/Persian Central Asian Muslim states of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and others, all of whom have simmering conflicts with Iran.

But the real revolution in the doctrine is Israel’s outreach to India and China. These represent the world’s next superpowers generation. But for the nearer term Russia will replace the US in the Middle East, and that opens the possibility of Russia replacing also America’s “special relationship” with Israel.

Three months following his return to Russia’s presidency, on 25 June, 2012 Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel the agenda likely Syria and Iran. Concluding his meeting with Netanyahu Putin told the press, “My arrival in Israel has strengthened my belief that there exist between us friendly ties and not just words.” Dismissable as just diplospeak, except that Israel was among his first foreign visits and in the world of diplomacy, such things catch attention.

Six months before the Putin’s visit Israel’s Foreign Minister visited Moscow:

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Wednesday met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, in a surprise visit that had not been on the agenda of his current Eastern European swing.

An “alliance” between the two countries appears unlikely based, if nothing else, on the fact of Russia’s relationships with Iran and Syria. But this may be too simplistic since Russia also is at war with militant Islam in Chechnya and the Central Asia states. Russia and Israel therefor share a common concern over the spread of Islamism through the region.

Days before Putin’s visit a Russian publication speculated on “reasons” for expanding relations with Israel:

Russia and Israel share views on terrorism and Islamism. They prefer pragmatic approaches and are disturbed by a prospect of democratization in the Middle East, which would lead to Islamic revival in the whole region. Since Israel is a high-tech-driven and developed country, it can serve as useful source for modernization, badly needed in Russia.

Professor Yakov Rabkin, not himself a Zionist but a thinker on Israel-Russian affairs describes a developing relationship between the two states:

“There exists a special relationship between Russia and Israel… including interstate diplomatic and military relations, business and technology links, tourism as well as cultural and media interface… Military and strategic cooperation continues to increase, both in terms of joint production of weaponry and regular official consultations on security issues.

Neither is the developing relationship missed by the Arab press: Russia Boosts Military Ties With Israel Defence Ministers Sign Deal.

Of course none of this represents conclusive evidence that Russia and Israel will enter into strategic partnership at the level of that which exists with the United States. But even following the anticipated American withdrawal Israel still represents the most modern and stable country, the most powerful military force in the region. And if, following America’s exit, Israel might not have the immediate security of a superpower with similar regional interests in a future conflict, neither would Israel have to ask permission to protect its own interest when they diverge from that superpower.

A final note: It should be recalled that Middle East oil is a depleting resource, that global shale oil is daily reducing dependence on oil from the Middle East (a recent report described the United States as possessing oil reserves far larger than the Saudis). As regional oil loses its importance, so goes the threat of oil as a weapon against Israel.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.