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Israel’s Fear of Being Taiwanized

During his controversial speech to Congress Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indirectly dismissed the notion that Iran is a “lesser evil” to the Islamic State which can be worked with on an ad hoc basis when he proclaimed, “The enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

Herein lies a not so new fear that Israelis and supporters of Israel have: that Israel will gradually become “Taiwanized” as part of an American rapprochement with Iran.

The theory is very basic. As with the US opening with China in 1971 the Israelis (and indeed the Saudis) fear that a similar opening with Iran under the present regime there could badly undermine both their regional interests and their security.

The recent Saudi air strikes on Shia Houthi forces in Yemen aptly demonstrates how uptight the Saudi Kingdom feels about both real and perceived Iranian designs on the region. Also those intermittent Israeli strikes into Syria since, at least, January 2013 have invariably been aimed at very specific military targets belonging to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and/or the Hezbollah group, both of whose patron is Tehran.

These fears, and frustrations, have likely been augmented by a recent US security assessment presented to the Senate which did not list neither Iran or Hezbollah as terror threats to the US and its interests. In light of the threat of Salafi Sunni terror gangs, such as the infamous Islamic State group, a realpolitik-guided foreign policy would deem Tehran and its predominantly Shiite proxies as “lesser evils” of whom the present circumstances make it incumbent to work with since these forces, in the case of Iraq, have been highly active in combating Islamic State.  In Tikrit the US is presently launching air strikes against Islamic State fighters who are also under attack from Shia militias backed by, armed by and close to Iran.

While the US never abandoned Taiwan per se it did nevertheless tone down its hitherto antagonism to the authorities in Beijing given their common rival in Moscow and elsewhere. Realpolitik led Nixon to China and while the US continued, and continues, to guarantee Taiwan’s security it nevertheless relented to Taipei’s de-facto replacement by Beijing as the sole governmental authority of China at the United Nations shortly after that historic opening. A far cry from it’s prior two decades of trumpeting the nationalist republic governments claim to represent all of China and its citizenry.

Israelis have long feared being Taiwanized and see it as the first step towards their delegitimisation. A path they believe and argue may ultimately lead to their physical destruction.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which left Israeli society quite shaken, it was argued that the utilisation by the Arabs of the so-called “oil weapon”, hence the Saudi-initiated oil embargo on the west which was implemented as a response to direct US rearmament of Israel in the latter stages of that war, would see the US pressure Israel to make too many concessions out of geopolitical and economic necessity. A ploy they claimed would weaken them strategically before the next round of fighting which many believed would be inevitable.

In retrospect it’s also interesting to note that in those days the regime of the last Shah of Iran done its utmost to downplay its important economic and security relations with Israel. The Shah retained them but at the same time recognised how openly condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory helped improve and foster relations between Iran and regional Arab states. Notably Egypt, whose then President Anwar Sadat the Shah was quite close to, after the aforementioned 1973 war when it failed to retake by force its Sinai region, which Israel had previously occupied during the June 1967 war, and began to pursue a peace accord with the Israelis which culminated in the 1978 Camp David Agreement.

Today there are fears among Israel’s supporters that a US rapprochement with Iran under the present regime, possibly coupled with increased international pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue, will significantly weaken Israel and embolden its adversaries.

That prospect may indeed be a very dim and unlikely one. But it is nonetheless one worth evaluating and understanding since it is a real fear which may well be acted upon in the not too distant future.