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Israel’s “Natural Allies”?

Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

The so-called “Arab spring” has created turmoil around Israel, casting doubt on the stability of Israel’s Arab partners. In turn, some analysts have argued that Israel should return to its earlier policy of cultivating minorities and states on the periphery, from Kurdistan to Greece. Ofir Haivry of the new Herzl Institute has made just that case at Mosaic Magazine. I’ve offered a response, arguing against alliances with the weak and suggesting other alternatives. Israel isn’t alone in worrying about American retrenchment, and that may open opportunities. (See also responses by Michael Doran and Efraim Inbar, my own “natural allies” of long standing.) After reading, be sure to check back later at Mosaic Magazine, where Haivry will have the last word.


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