Dancing with Tyrants*

By Norman A. Bailey
Friday, December 25th, 2015 @ 7:21PM

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Left: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.

The communist leadership of China; President Putin of Russia; Turkey’s Erdogan, King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Should Israel deal with such regimes? They are all wholesale violators of civil and human rights. They persecute, jail and often execute political opponents and journalists. They regularly confront protest with disproportionate force. They systematically discriminate on the basis of religion, race or class or gender.

Can dispassionate cost-benefit analysis be applied to such relationships? Is it true that national interest always trumps ethical and moral considerations? President Franklin Roosevelt once said, of the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic “I know he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.” Should that be Israel’s guide?

Countries like North Korea and Iran are clearly enemies. No dilemma there. Perhaps the same can be said of the Chinese leadership the other way around. China is obviously very anxious to be Israel’s friend, in every sense, but particularly in trade, investment and education., As Europe is fading economically, Israel needs to open new markets and is very successfully doing so in Asia.

Russia for the moment does not threaten Israel’s interests, and indeed has faithfully cooperated in preventing accidental confrontations in the skies over Syria. President Putin has never exhibited a whiff of anti-Semitism and gets along well with the Jewish community in Russia. Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, its military intervention in Syria and the establishment of naval and air bases in that tragic country, as well as its military posturing in the Baltic and the North Seas – do not affect Israel. Putin is not looking for an alliance, but he is not looking for confrontation either.

Saudi Arabia is every bit as repressive as Iran. It is as much a violator of civil and human rights as the Islamic Republic, and until recently was as active in supporting radical Sunni Islamic groups outside its borders as Iran was and is in supporting radical Shiite terrorist organizations. But now the Saudis and the Gulf states are terrified of a potentially nuclear-capable Iran on the one hand and of Islamic State on the other. The startling announcement of the formation of a “military” alliance of Sunni countries to confront terrorism is clearly a symbolic step. It is not even clear yet how many and exactly which countries are involved – 33? 34? 35? Is Lebanon in or out? And so on. It is clearly impossible to coordinate the military and security activities of so many countries.

What is clear, however, is the fact that the Saudis now realize that they helped create several Frankenstein monsters, starting with al-Qaeda and that the Kingdom is in mortal danger. Israel clearly would like to establish relations with the likes of the UAE and Kuwait, which are no more democratic than Saudi Arabia. It has been doing business for years with Egypt, which for most of the time was a military dictatorship. Informal contacts, mostly concerning defense, security, and intelligence, are pursued constantly with the GCC countries. There is no compelling reason for not elevating relations to a more formal level, should that be encouraged by the other side.

Much more problematic is the situation with reference to Turkey. There is no doubt that Erdogan is in trouble. All of the countries and groups surrounding Turkey are now hostile, with the possible exception of Islamic State (IS), which Turkey assisted and fostered, creating its own Frankenstein monster. Now it seems that after years of denouncing Israel he wants to make friends again. Some might say, what is the downside? Israel doesn’t need enemies, it needs friends. Besides, we can look forward to selling the Turks natural gas.

Not so fast. There would be, in fact, considerable downside: (1) Israel has already apologized for the incident, which was not its fault, and paying compensation to the families of the victims would be seen in the region not as a magnanimous gesture, but as a demonstration of weakness. Lifting the blockade of Gaza should not even be thought of. Besides the security implications for Israel of such a move, it would infuriate the Egyptians, who are enforcing their own blockade of Gaza, arguably even more effectively than is Israel. It would be seen by our allies the Kurds of Iraq and Syria as a betrayal, not to mention the Kurds of Turkey itself. For now, the Kurds are the only force confronting the IS on the ground, except for an Iraqi army push in Anbar province. Finally, it would anger the Russians, who are in a furious dispute with Turkey over the attack on a Russian plane by two Turkish aircraft.

The bottom line is that dancing with tyrants can and often is risky and dangerous, but it can as often be advantageous. Israel is the only democracy in the entire region, as we are fond of pointing out. If that is the case, then the only informal or formal allies we can have, will not be democracies. QED.

* Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, and teaches at the Center for National Security Studies and Geostrategy, University of Haifa.

* Published by Globes [online], Israel business news – www.globes-online.com – on December 24, 2015

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