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Book Review: Israel's Political Dilemma

Hasson book cover scan .jpg

This is the eighth in a series of reviews of new books on Middle Eastern affairs. We asked Dr. Gail Weigl, an APN volunteer and a professor of art history, to review Shlomo Hasson's new book on Israel's geopolitical dilemma in a changing Middle East.

Shlomo Hasson, Israel's Geopolitical Dilemma and the Upheavals in the Middle East, translated by Mairav Zonszein (College Park: University of Maryland Institute for Israeli Studies, 2013). 92 pages.

This slim, densely written book is recommended to anyone interested in Israel's future as a democratic state.  It is particularly relevant to those who seek to understand that future in the context of regional and global social, political, economic and cultural developments.  It is the work of an analyst steeped in knowledge of the geopolitical circumstances confronting Israel, her allies and enemies, with the added advantage of presenting a lucid and canny synopsis of how those circumstances are impacted by conditions as diverse as the changing face of the Arab world, and the challenges facing the United States as a global power. 

The book underscores Hasson's scholarly distance, lack of sentimentality and careful articulation of complex interactions whose patterns kaleidoscopically shift with the slightest nudge in one direction or another. Most impressive is the author's ability to articulate multiple scenarios in a style that is lucid and highly readable. Hasson articulates each scenario with such depth and scope that his final conclusions are all but indisputable. 

Because Israel's future cannot be separated from regional and global events, Hasson's grasp of how developments in one arena ripple through others is invaluable.  His concern, as he tells us in the Introduction, is to examine how Israel can sustain itself as a democratic state in the Middle East within secure, defensible borders.

He then proceeds to discuss Israel's current dilemma within the context of the end of the Cold War and the power struggles taking place among regional players seeking to fill the vacuum left in its wake; the decline of America's international standing in the region; the Arab Spring and the degree to which internal developments are generated by anti-Israeli sentiment; and finally, the impact of Israeli and Palestinian unilateral action as the byproduct of failed negotiations.

Section One, "Geopolitical Approaches: Journey into Israel's Imaginary World" looks at approaches to border issues prevalent among Israelis, in consideration of concerns ranging from defense to national identity.

Here, in separate sections accompanied by illustrative maps, Hasson examines the pros and cons of five possible scenarios, which, in fact, mirror those of the Palestinians: the 1967 borders with agreed upon land swaps; defensible borders; interim borders; blurred borders; and borders of the Greater Land of Israel.  In each case, he first lays out the argument, its justification and rationale, and the difficulties it presents.  A final comparison summarizes these various positions, noting the lack of political consensus in Israel, and the fundamental dilemma of each party's conviction that it alone understands the history of the conflict, and it alone possesses the solution to a viable way forward. Hasson himself takes no position, simply presenting the alternatives objectively, while observing that alternative readings of reality are conditioned by divergent cultural codes that prevent consideration of possibilities other than one's own.

The second section, "The Driving Forces," considers global, regional and local forces as well as relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  This is the most complex and substantive portion of the book, in which the author elaborates his thesis that unpredictable political changes occurring throughout the Arab world make it unlikely that Israel and the Palestinian Authority can reach any agreement without being heavily influenced by the interests of the superpowers, actions by regional players, and internal developments in the Arab world.  At the global level, Hasson speculates in a lengthy analysis of the decline of U. S. power that a possible result of this decline could be the emergence of Iran as a dominant force in the region, but more ominously, an America which sees an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as the cornerstone of its Middle Eastern policy is in fundamental disagreement with an Israel which sees Iranian nuclear power as the greatest threat to its existence.  Hasson rightly cautions that Israel must consider the imperatives of geopolitical interests as possibly trumping shared values.  As for Russia, her role as a potential partner for Iran and the ambivalence of Russian policy toward Israel and of its foreign policy in general renders Russia an unpredictable quantity. In the face of European Union criticism of Israel, countered by the rise of anti-Muslim parties in Europe, and in the face of America's still potent role in NATO, Hasson concludes that it is in Israel's best interests to strengthen America's capacity to act as a guarantor of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The rise of an Iran in conflict with an emerging Turkey--that is, a "regional geostrategic competition" between "radical Shiite-oriented forces and the Sunni-oriented axis"--is the most unpredictable scenario facing the region, a scenario that could develop into full scale war, a regional balance of power, or the emergence of one dominating power.

Hasson discusses at some length Iran's goal of regional dominance, but is most concerned with one of the most important strategic players in the region, Turkey, a country which serves as a role model for Islamic movements, and which is now challenging Israel's  status in the region.

While entertaining various questions concerning Turkey's policies both present and future, Hasson envisions scenarios ranging from the return of the Cold War, to Turkey becoming a regional superpower that can bring stability to the region. But in any case, the fluidity of changing alliances, and the unpredictability of Turkey's alliances bodes ill for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. It also suggests that Israel will maintain defensible borders in the face of unknown and unknowable threats.  Similarly, the unrest and uncertainty that characterizes internal developments in Arab countries, together with the rise of Islamism and the use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a focus around which ideologically antagonistic groups can coalesce suggests that now is not the time to anticipate any agreement--even an interim one--between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  This sad conclusion is reinforced by the unique character of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, infused with cultural issues of no concern to the Arab countries, issues such as the status of Jerusalem and of the refugees. United in the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, these issues have resulted in the stalemate which continues to confound: "Israel has reacted to the Palestinian refusal to recognize it as a Jewish state by continuing to build settlements in the West Bank." 

Israel's Geopolitical Dilemma concludes with four scenarios which take the preceding analyses and the Israeli scenarios outlined in Section One into account, and present potential solutions to the overriding question of whether an Israeli-Palestinian peace is possible without settling wider regional conflicts and the global, regional, and national considerations that inform them.  Hasson proposes in each of these scenarios a possible model for the kind of interdisciplinary and trans-national cooperation necessary to understanding the social, political, economic, and security issues impacting the superpowers, Middle Eastern countries, and relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Hasson argues that a return to the 1967 lines  - he calls it Pax Americana -- not only involves ignoring the geopolitical issues previously discussed, but also, the importance of Turkey's diplomatic and military positions and America's increasing interest in allying itself with moderate Islamic regimes.  While it may be in Israel's best interests to return to the 1967 lines with land swaps, Israel's policy regarding borders will be dictated by developments in the region and globally.  A second scenario envisions an Islamic Caliphate and interim borders, but here the variable is, again, Turkey's ability to confront Shi'ite Iran and its allies. In this scenario, Israeli opposition to Hamas may serve to ally her with a Sunni-axis which potentially could promote an interim agreement. The third scenario, defensible borders, envisions anarchy in the region, and nation-states consumed with internal issues which have no bearing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The absence of security and ongoing conflict will undermine any efforts toward a two-state solution, regardless of Arab governments' declarations of support for such a solution. This may lead simply to the continuation of the status quo, or Israeli withdrawal to defensible borders in recognition that a continued Occupation of the West Bank would undermine Israel's democratic and Jewish character.

Finally, Hasson posits a clash of civilizations between a radical Islamic bloc and the West, negating any possibility that Israel would or could renegotiate her borders.  Unlikely as such a scenario might be, here again Turkey seems to be the critical variable.

Finally, the author summarizes Israel's geopolitical dilemma in light of the different scenarios, and concludes that with the exception of the American peace scenario, Israel is destined to find itself increasingly isolated. If Israel is to survive as a homogenous Jewish nation-state, it is in her best interests to promote an American presence in the Middle East, and to withdraw to the 1967 borders with land swaps. Under current circumstances, however, such a solution is unfeasible, while the status quo in the Territories also is not an option for both demographic and geopolitical reasons. Ultimately, due to the potential for regional anarchy or for the emergence of what Hasson terms an "Islamic Caliphate", most likely under Turkey, Israel's most viable option at present is to withdraw to interim borders or what Hasson calls "defensible" borders.

This review only touches on the comprehensive and complex arguments presented in this excellent study, an example of the work necessary to realistically assess the role of Israel in the world, in the Middle East, and in relation to the Palestinians and a Palestinian state.  It is the second in a series commissioned by the University of Maryland Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israeli Studies. They are to be commended for this invaluable contribution to increasing our understanding of the dilemmas facing Israel, and to increasing thereby the possibility of informed and intelligent debate.