A Get Or Not A Get is Gotta be the question.An orthodox woman’s 3-year divorce fight

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Her approach is correct.  Broadcast these Middle Age Jewish Chauvinistic Customs

An orthodox woman’s 3-year divorce fight

Four-and-a-half years ago, Gital Dodelson, now 25, of Lakewood, NJ, married Avrohom Meir Weiss, part of a respected rabbinic family on Staten Island. Ten months after the wedding, Dodelson left the marital home with their newborn son, claiming her husband was controlling and manipulative. Despite getting civilly divorced in August 2012, they remain married under Jewish law because Weiss refuses to grant the faith’s decree of divorce, known as a “get.” As a result, Dodelson’s life in the Orthodox community is in limbo and she is unable to date, let alone get married again. Now, after more than three years of pleading with Weiss to sign the document that will set her free, Dodelson has gone public with her story in The Post:

I’m helping my friend get ready for a date. It’s Saturday night after Shabbat, and I can see how excited she is as she puts on her makeup and curls her hair. She never met the guy before, but it’s fun to think about the possibilities. Who knows — in just a few months from now, could this be the man she’s engaged to?

As I zip up her dress, I feign a smile — but inside I feel despair. She has what I long for — a life where she’s free to date men. But men can’t even look at me now. That’s because I’m an agunah — an Orthodox Jewish woman whose husband won’t give her a “get.” Under the eyes of God, I’m still married, chained to someone who refuses to release me back into society.

When I first met Avrohom in October 2008, I thought he was great husband material. That’s what my parents and friends told me. After all, in my society you’re expected to listen to them on these matters.

They told me that at 23, he was learned, a great Talmudic scholar from an esteemed family, whose great-grandfather, Moshe Feinstein, was a legendary rabbi.

It’s traditional to arrange the date through a matchmaker. Days later, there was a knock at my front door. My dad opened it and led a handsome, dark-haired man with bright blue eyes into the room. He spoke softly and politely, but seemed shy. I happily got in his car.

Our first date was at a big hotel near the Garden State Parkway, and we sat in the lobby drinking Diet Cokes. In Jewish culture, this is the quintessential way that you get to know a potential partner. Dates always happen in a public place and are very formal. We spoke about our families, and although he seemed interested in what I had to say, it was a little off-putting because he kept fiddling with his phone.

I always think it’s impolite not to accept a second date, so I agreed to see Avrohom again. This time, he only really became animated when he was talking about his expensive watch. I told the matchmaker I wanted to stop seeing him, that we weren’t a fit.

Days later, my parents got an urgent phone call from his parents — begging me to reconsider, saying that the personality he showed me on our dates wasn’t the real him, that he was nervous around girls. My parents asked me to think about it because his parents were so insistent I had the wrong impression of him.

In Orthodox dating, you rely a lot on what other people tell you — what their impression is. So I gave him another chance.

After two months of dating — about twice a week, every week, first sharing sodas in hotel lobbies, then graduating to dinner and visits to the Museum of Natural History — we both knew we were expected to take the next step of getting engaged.

Gital Dodelson is now studying law while awaiting a religious divorce from her ex.

It was a chilly December night, and he took me to a glitzy hotel in Midtown. We were walking around on the mezzanine level, watching all the tourists whizzing around below. Avrohom suddenly dropped to one knee, pulled out a black velvet box with a sparkling, round diamond ring inside, and asked me to marry him.

“Gital,” he said, softly. “We can have a wonderful future together.” He talked about the kind of marriage he wanted, where we’d be equal partners and make decisions together. Suddenly my reservations about him melted away. All I could think about was the excitement of the wedding.

The engagement period in our community, like our dating, is very short. There was so much to do before our February wedding that I didn’t worry too much about our compatibility.

As per our tradition, each side pays for certain things — our side the food, his side the flowers. I didn’t fuss much over these things, but I couldn’t believe how many times Avrohom sent back the invitation because it wasn’t the perfect font. Looking back, I should have seen the signs.

Before I knew it, the big day arrived. Four hundred guests celebrated with us at a gorgeous catering hall in Lakewood. I felt so beautiful in my ivory lace dress and veil, with a white rose bouquet. The band, which Avrohom chose himself, had all the guests, women on their side and men on the other, dancing for hours.

But only three days into the marriage, I knew I made a terrible mistake. It was our first Shabbat together as man and wife — and it was spent in silence. We were about to light the Sabbath candles, and we discussed how each of our families likes to light it. It’s a female tradition, and you typically do what your mother did. When my way contradicted his way, he criticized me and turned angry. Avrohom said: “You have no choice. It’s not my way,” and gave me the cold shoulder for the next 24 hours. From Friday night to Saturday night, we didn’t speak a word.

When I couldn’t stand the hostility anymore, I said, “You can’t just ignore me — this isn’t how a relationship works. We have to be able to talk about these things.” The only response he could muster was: “When I don’t get my way, I don’t know how to function.”

I got pregnant right away. As a Torah-observant man, Avrohom would study in the yeshiva all day while I was in school or working at my mom’s technology company.

I was the sole breadwinner, but he had control over our finances. Several times he would give handouts to his brother, who was unemployed. “Why are you giving away the money that I earned?” I asked Avrohom one day. “You don’t get to make the decisions,” he replied, adding that I’m stupid. “I’m the man of the house.” He wouldn’t allow me to employ an occasional housekeeper so, even though I was pregnant and exhausted, I had to do all the cooking and cleaning as well as work up to 40 hours a week.

His controlling and belittling behavior only got worse. I guess I was in denial about how bad things really were. I couldn’t confide in anybody, not even my mom.

We were sitting down to dinner one night, and I casually mentioned that I’d picked an OB-GYN. “Why didn’t you consult me first?” he growled. “It’s up to me to choose your doctor.” When I asked if he had any better suggestions, he said that I should produce a short list of 10, and that he got final say. He always had to be in the position of control — it’s stifling.

At one point, I suggested we look at places in Lakewood, where there would be more room for the baby and we’d be closer to my family who could help out. He said, “People always fuss too much over new mothers, not the father. You’re too spoiled!” My heart sank. I thought: “How can I bring a child into this world with a virtual stranger? Someone I’m so disconnected from?”

Around my seventh month, after getting the silent treatment over Shabbat again, I told Avrohom that we needed to see a marriage counselor. He flatly dismissed the idea, saying: “You can pack your bags and leave. We’re not going to therapy under any circumstances, and if anyone finds out we have a bad marriage, I’ll divorce you.”

Our son, Aryeh, was born on Nov. 19, 2009 at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. He was two weeks early, and I wonder to this day if it was because of the mental strain I was under during the pregnancy.

The second the nurse handed him to me, the world was a perfect place. I had this beautiful, perfect person. But I was soon reminded that my husband was quite the opposite. My parents had been in the waiting room for hours during the labor.

When they asked to come in to see me afterward, Avrohom steadfastly refused to let them into the room.

I later found out that he actually manhandled my mom, shoving her back as she tried to walk out of the room. That’s a major taboo against women, and she was very shaken up. My father told Avrohom, “Don’t touch my wife,” and he backed off.

Finally, Avrohom gave in, and they came in to see me.

A few weeks after Aryeh arrived, Avrohom agreed to move together to a rented apartment in Lakewood. It was on one condition: that we took the baby and slept over with his family in Staten Island at least once a week.

Two weeks later, on a frigid December night, Avrohom insisted we drive to see his parents. I didn’t want to needlessly drag a newborn out in the freezing cold, so I said no. He was yelling at me, and the baby started crying because Avrohom’s shouting woke him up. He was only 1 month old.

Avrohom had already stormed out of the house twice after two other rows, but this time I reached my breaking point. I said, ‘This isn’t working, I’m moving back to my parents.’ I packed up Aryeh right then and there, and drove off. I told him I wasn’t coming back, and I meant it.

I said: “You’re not a bad man. We’re just not right for each other.” He snapped back: “You would make any man unhappy.”

When my mom met me at the front door, I blurted out what had happened and how terribly unhappy I’d been. Thank God she was sympathetic. She then told me she and my dad had been increasingly worried about his controlling behavior.

Avrohom filed for full custody of Aryeh a few months later, in March 2010, at New Jersey civil court. He broke with tradition — instead of going straight to a beit din (a Jewish court) to resolve our issues, he filed in civil court, which shocked people because it takes a certain kind of person to thumb his nose at Jewish tradition like that.

But it was all a front. He was actually going to use Jewish tradition against me as a weapon.

While he agreed to a divorce in the civil courts (which blocked his bid for full custody of Aryeh but gave him custody every other weekend, plus every Tuesday and Thursday for a total 12 hours a week), he still holds the trump card. He will not sign the “get,” the all-important bill of divorce which is recognized by halacha (Jewish law).

Civil law governs the legal aspects of life, but under the eyes of God — and everyone who’s important to me — I’m still married to Avrohom. On paper, I am a free woman. But this means nothing in halacha, and I’m still imprisoned by my husband to this day.

On my last mission to ask for a get, a month ago, Avrohom said, “I can’t give you a get — how else would I control you?” I think that’s the key to it all. He insists the marriage isn’t over until he says it’s over.

We’ve tried everything — the informal route, negotiations. I’ve asked him myself, my parents have asked his, our camp tries to reason with his camp, but, counting down from the time when he sued for custody in March 2010 and I first asked him for a get, we’ve been shut down for 3¹/₂ years. One proposal his side put forward in January was for me to agree to override the court decision on custody of Aryeh and hand over a payment of $350,000. There’s no way I can afford that.

It’s been an uphill battle trying to appeal to his family — this almost untouchable, powerful rabbinic family. Many rabbis have called on his grandfather, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, who heads the Yeshiva of Staten Island, to influence his grandson to give a get, but he staunchly supports Avrohom. Prominent rabbis have even called for the dismissal of his father, Yosaif Asher Weiss, as editor for the major Jewish publisher . Ironically, [Avrohom’s] great-grandfather Moshe Feinstein was a major champion of agunot, and convinced many husbands to give their wives a get in his day. Now Avrohom is one of those insubordinate husbands.

I would love to find a stepfather for Aryeh, and someone who I could have more children with, but right now I can’t even have coffee with a guy. It wouldn’t be fair to him or myself.

If I move on romantically without a get, I would have to leave this community — my friends and family and entire support system — because it’s committing adultery. My children and I would be ostracized and not welcomed in the community.

Some people might argue that I should ignore the traditions of the Torah. But I’m deeply religious and won’t go against the God I believe in. Why should I?

One good thing is that I have gathered a lot of support from people in the community who are horrified by the whole issue of the agunot [women whose husbands won’t grant gets]. They staged two rallies outside Avrohom’s home in Staten Island, with about 200 supporters each, in June 2012 and June 2013. We asked people to make it as non-confrontational as possible and keep it respectful. He never even came out of his house. Even though withholding a get is defined by Jewish law as a form of domestic abuse, Avrohom refuses to give an inch.

[Calls and e-mails from the New York Post to Avrohom Meir Weiss and his family members have gone unanswered.]

I am currently in my last year of a law degree at Rutgers University, but I was planning on being a lawyer even before I got married. I find the idea of the law helping agunot interesting, and I would be willing to do whatever I could to help anyone is such a situation.

The lesson I’ve learned from this whole thing is not to turn people away when they need help, regardless of what kind of situation they’re in. I hope I can use my legal experience to help people, regardless of whether they’re agunot.

It’s an insulated community. It takes a strong push to step out beyond that. This step I’m taking is difficult but necessary. I’ve decided to go public with my story after exhausting every other possible means. the Orthodox are fiercely private, but I am willing to air my dirty laundry if it means I can finally get on with my life.

Avrohom, if you’re reading this, this is my last bid: Let’s both move on with our lives. Let us focus on Aryeh and our future, instead of being stuck in the past.

More about the get:

Few people outside the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community have heard of the get — the crucial document in Jewish law which a husband must sign before a divorce is finalized in the eyes of God.

Without it, the wife, known as an agunah, is not allowed to marry again. If she has children, they are considered bastards. The man, however, can move on without a get, openly dating other women.

The contentious issue of the get came to public notice last month after two rabbis in Brooklyn were accused of charging vulnerable agunot up to $60,000 each to kidnap and torture husbands who refused to sign the paperwork.

In some cases, electric cattle prods allegedly were used on the recalcitrant men’s genitals.

The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a New York-based nonprofit, condemns all forms of violence and extortion, and acts as an intermediary between the wives and husbands in an effort to secure a get.

“The refusal to issue a get is never justified and is defined in Jewish law as domestic abuse,” says Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of ORA.

Some agunot have been waiting as long as 10 years after their marriages ended in the civil courts. Others have been unable to unchain themselves from husbands who are criminals or even pedophiles.

“It’s the last form of control the husband has over his wife,” adds Stern. “The mentality is, ‘If I can’t have her, no one can.’ It’s fundamentally about control and spite.”

NYC is highly affected by the agunah crisis, with 30 of the 50 cases currently being handled by ORA involving at least one spouse living in the region.

ORA has resolved 205 cases since 2002. (The latest estimates, from a 2011 study, report 462 agunot from the previous five-year period in the US and Canada.) Twenty-three percent of ORA’s cases concern non-Orthodox women.

Stern says that in Modern Orthodox circles, the get is often used as leverage, so his organization tries to broker one before any civil decision is made.

As for the Dodelson case, he says: “It’s shocking that Weiss hasn’t made any public statements about it. What his side says they’re looking for is greater custody/visitation and a large sum of money as compensation for legal fees.

“He was the plaintiff in all civil court matters; now he’s using the get as extortionary leverage.”

For more information, see SetGitalFree.com or getora.org.

Survey: Egypt Overtaking Saudis As Most Conservative

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Survey: Egypt Overtaking Saudis As Most Conservative

Survey of 7 Arab countries: Saudis think women should cover all but eyes in public, yet half for women choosing clothes.
Arab women (file)

Arab women (file)
Flash 90

A recent survey of 7 Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries has revealed conflicting viewpoints in Saudi Arabia, a country that doesn’t let women drive and is often considered one of the most repressive nations in terms of women’s rights.

While nearly 2 out of 3 in Saudi Arabia think women should cover all but their eyes in public, nearly 50% say women should choose how they dress. The latter figure is close to the response in more liberal Lebanon with its large Christian population, and is far more permissive than Iraq, Pakistan or Egypt.

Mansoor Moaddel, lead author of the survey published by the Middle Eastern Values Study at the University of Michigan, claims to CNN that the results show Saudia Arabia has “a considerable liberal leaning.”

“Saudi has had a religious government for a long time,” stated Moaddel. “People tend to develop an opposition attitude.”

While Saudi Arabia recently allowed its first female lawyer, the nation’s religious police enforcing Sharia law have a far from stellar record on women’s rights. In March 2002, religious police stopped schoolgirls from escaping a burning school in Mecca because they were not wearing headscarves and black robes, nor were they accompanied by a man. As a result, 15 girls died and 50 were injured.

Moaddel argues that Egypt is the most conservative of the Muslim nations, as only 14% there said women should choose their dress, the lowestresults among the 7 nations.

Furthermore, 19 in 20 Egyptians said a women should be required to obey her husband, the highest result in that question.

The findings back research last November which placed Egypt the lowest in the Arab world in terms of women’s rights, with Saudi Arabia coming in third worst. A UN report last April found that 99.3% of Egyptian women and girls had been sexually harassed.

However, Moaddel assesses the Egyptian position as being sexist without relation to Islam. “The problem with Egypt is not just religion, it is an intellectual trend,” said the researcher, adding “Egyptians have become more sexist in the past decade. They have become less religious, less supportive of Sharia (Islamic law), but on the issue of gender, more conservative.”

The survey found that the generally agreed mode of dress for women in public among the 7 Muslim nations consisted of a tight white headscarf covering everything but the face.

Interviews with 2,005 people in Saudi Arabia and at least 3,000 in each of the 6 other countries made up the data for the survey.

Top 10 Fast Facts about Ariel Sharon

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 Ariel Sharon was known as The Bulldozer: a larger-than-life, blustering figure who came to dominate the domestic political scene as much by his sheer physical presence as by his rhetoric. He died this afternoon at the age of 85. Here are some important facts you need to know about this very important leader.

Ariel Sharon in Knesset

10. Unit 101

In 1953, Sharon created an elite military group called Unit 101. This special branch of the Israel Defense Forces was responsible for the launching of retaliatory strikes against Palestinian terrorists.

9. Renewed friendship with Africa

He renewed diplomatic ties with some African nations that had been cut off nearly a decade earlier. He also assisted with the immigration of large numbers of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

8. Lebanon War 1982

Sharon allied himself with pro-Christian Lebanese, and supported a new government that was led by Bachir Gemayel. After Gemayel was assassination, a faction of Gemayel’s supporters attacked the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Palestinians held Sharon accountable for the terror. Sharon would later explain that the militia was supposed to rid them of any remaining terrorists. The Lebanese War put a dent on Sharon’s career as a military and political figure.

7. Meat lover

Sharon, 5-foot-7 and a meat lover, at times had weighed more than 300 pounds. Doctors ordered him to go on a diet in 2005 after a minor stroke. Stories of Sharon’s appetite and obesity were legendary in Israel. He would often stock his car with caviar, vodka, and snacks.

6. Eldest Son

Sharon’s eldest son, Gur, died at age 11 in a gun accident in 1967.  Gur was playing with his friend when they found an antique gun and the friend accidentally pulled the trigger. Gur died in Sharon’s arms on the way to the hospital.

ariel sharon and david ben gurion

5. Hometown

Sharon was very connected to his family farm in the Negev Desert. He asked for updated information when every calf was born, according to Sharon: The Life of a Leader.

4. Roadmap to peace

In May 2003, Sharon approved the Road Map for Peace, which paved the way to open a dialogue with Mahmud Abbas, showing his willingness to establish a Palestinian state.

3. Marriage

Sharon was married twice. His first wife Margaret died in a car crash in 1962. He soon remarried Margaret’s sister Lily and the two were married until Lily died of cancer in 200.

2. Health problems

Sharon suffered a minor ischemic stroke, while still in office. He had no major health concerns before the major stroke that left him in a coma for 8 years. His obesity, combined with high cholesterol, contributed to his failing health.

1.Legacy

He is ranked among the most powerful leaders in the history of Israel, who succeeded in removing the Israeli soldiers from Gaza. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the tensions diminish.

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Sharon’s political legacy: Livni and Lapid are in his debt

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Pulling Israel out of Gaza, Sharon created a new constituency of Israeli voters looking for peace but without compromising on security. Its impact is felt even today

His military prowess made him famous, his disregard for the rules infamous and his decision to pull Israel out of Gaza a legend, but few outside of Israel remember him as the unlikely father of the Israeli political center.

Kadima election poster (Photo: Gilad Kollorchik)
Kadima election poster (Photo: Gilad Kollorchik)

Following his overwhelming defeat in the 1999 elections,Benjamin Netanyahu resigned the Likud leadership, and Sharon was elected as his successor in Israel’s right-wing party.

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In 2001, with the Likud under his control, General Sharon ran against Ehud Barak in a special election for prime minister, and won by a landslide. Sharon was still the epitome of the Israeli rightwing: Militant, headstrong and unabashedly opposed to the land-for-peace formula.

But after two years of a brutal and bloody intifada, which left more than 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis dead, Sharon began to promote his plan for unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

The plan swayed neither to the left nor right: On the one hand it called for the uprooting of Israeli settlements, settlements Sharon himself had built as housing minister, yet it wasn’t leftist: its underlying rationale was not one of dialogue and peace, but rather a unilateral “disengagement” from the Palestinian people – a severing of a rotting umbilical cord, not an end to the occupation.

More importantly, the plan was primarily concerned with Gaza, and not with the West Bank.

Against all odds, and despite a severe internal crisis within the Likud, the Disengagement Plan took place in August of 2005; eight thousand settlers were removed from Gaza, and their homes demolished. In the aftermath and the not unexpected political fallout, Sharon announced his departure from the Likud to establish a new party – Kadima , or Forward.

The rationale behind the party’s formation was both ideological and political: Sharon had come to understand that he would not be able to realize his vision for the region through the Likud – yet it was obvious that he had no viable home in the Labor party that he despised, and which despised him just as much.

Pulling moderates from the Likud and disgruntled Labor MKs – among them current President Shimon Peres – Arik created ex nihilo a centrist party based around the premise of unilateral disengagement from Palestinians, a vaguely liberal ideology and a capitalistic agenda.

While it was far from being Israel’s first centrist party, Kadima succeeded where others had failed, overcoming classic political and ethnic fault lines and consolidating a constituency underrepresented on either the right or the left; both in terms of economy and security.

Unlike its political predecessors Shinui (Change) and before that Dash, which ran on a strong liberal and anti-religious agenda and failed to step beyond the niche of wealthy Ashkenazi voters, Kadima managed to pull in right-wing Sephardic votes – at the expense of the Likud – as well pragmatic and free-market oriented Labor voters.

Riding on Sharon’s political and military clout, Kadima managed to present a viable alternative to the classic left-right (Likud-Labor) divide. It allowed the middle class to vote for a two-state solution, without compromising on security. It was a peace-oriented jingoism of sorts.

Thus, Sharon, the man who always got his way, cashed in on a crisis of representation and facilitated a new type of politics in Israel – one unbound by international demands or messianic land-grabs.

Kadima’s impressive success in the elections after Sharon’s collapse consolidated the center as a long-term presence in the Israeli political scene; not so much as any specific party, but as a political force to be reckoned with.

And although Kadima failed to follow up on its 2006 victory, and its power seemed to slowly ebb away, the modest success ofTzipi Livni ‘s Hatnua and the massive win by Yair Lapid‘s Yesh Atidgive weight to the belief that there is a large number of Israelis still in search of a political home.

Lapid managed to pick up the votes that Livni and her Kadima successorShaul Mofaz lost, but the pool of voters over which they’re fighting is Sharon’s doing. Thanks to Sharon, a new constituency has been born in Israel.

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Ariel Sharon dies at 85, eight years after stroke that felled him

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Former prime minister and combat soldier will be remembered for his exploits in Israel’s wars, the decision to leave Gaza, an infamous trip to the Temple Mount at the start of the second intifada – and the massacre at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon

 

Ariel Sharon, the controversial prime minister often blamed for lighting the touchpaper of the second intifada in 2000, and who led Israel out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, has died at the age of 85. He had spent eight years in a coma following a massive stroke in January 2006.

A dominant yet divisive figure in Israel, both as a military and political leader, Sharon died on Saturday afternoon at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, where he had been receiving long-term care.

His son Gilad Sharon announced: “He has gone. He went when he decided to go.”

A lifelong soldier, Sharon had turned to politics immediately after ending his service in the Israel Defense Forces at the age of 45. He had fought in the nation’s conflicts from before the inception of the state in 1948 up to and including the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He retired from the military with the rank of major general, and entered the Knesset. His political career flourished, albeit, like his military life, not without some controversy.

Sharon served as defense minister from 1981 to 1983, and prime minister from 2001 to 2006. It was while he held highest of political posts that he suffered the stroke that would leave him in a coma.

Ariel Sharon at a Knesset meeting in 2005 (Photo: Reuters)
Ariel Sharon at a Knesset meeting in 2005 (Photo: Reuters)

Ariel Sharon was born in Kfar Malal on March 1, 1928 to parents Deborah and Samuel Sheinerman, who arrived in Israel in the Third Aliyah from Russia, after the First World War.

Throughout the years, Sharon’s personal life bore much turmoil and drama. His first wife Margalit was killed in a car accident in 1962. Their son, Gur, was killed in 1967 at the age of 11 after a bullet discharged from a rifle Sharon used as decoration in his home.

One year following Margalit’s death, Sharon married her sister, Lily. The two had two sons, Omri and Gilad. Lily passed away from lung cancer in March 2000, and asked to be buried on a hill overlooking their famous Sycamore Ranch.

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In 1942, he joined the Haganah, the pre-state militia that evolved into the IDF, and thus began a long career in the military. During the 1948 War of Independence, at the age of 20, he was a platoon commander in the Alexandroni Brigade and was seriously injured in the battle of Latrun. Upon his recovery, he became a battalion intelligence officer.

In 1951, Sharon was appointed chief intelligence officer for the Central Command, and in 1952 served in the same role in the Northern Command. He then took study leave, working for a bachelor’s degree in history and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In 1953, he was an instrumental figure in the creation of Unit 101, whose purpose was to carry out retribution operations in response to infiltration attacks (Palestinian fedayeen) from Jordan and the Gaza Strip. Under his command, Unit 101 carried out several successful retaliation operations; however in October 1953, a retribution action in the village of Qibya in the West Bank resulted in 69 Arab casualties.

Following the “Qibya massacre”, the decision was made in January 1954 to end the unit’s independent operations, and it merged into a paratrooper battalion, under the Sharon’s command. In 1956, he was appointed commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, and fought in the Suez Crisis (Operation Kadesh) the same year.

From 1958 to 1962, Sharon studied law at the Hebrew University, and commanded the Infantry Brigade and the army’s infantry school. With the appointment of Yitzhak Rabin as the IDF chief of staff in 1964, Sharon was named Chief Staff Officer in the Northern Command, and two years later he was appointed head of training within the IDF General Staff, a role that awarded him the rank of major general.

Ariel Sharon, right, with Yitzhak Rabin (Photo: Defense Ministry)
Ariel Sharon, right, with Yitzhak Rabin (Photo: Defense Ministry)

He took part in the Six-Day War as an Armored Division commander, winning high praise. In 1970 he was appointed as head of the Southern

Command. He primarily took command of the War of Attrition, while fiercely criticizing the policies of then-IDF Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev and quarrelling with his General Staff colleagues. At the end of the War of Attrition and in 1971 he planned several attacks on terrorist cells in the Gaza Strip. In addition, he evacuated the Bedouins from northern Sinai, an act for which he was reprimanded by the then-chief of staff.

Sharon retired from the IDF in June 1973, and turned his attention to the Liberal party and the Knesset elections. He spent the next several months working with Menachem Begin on establishing the Likud, an amalgam of several existing rightist and liberal political parties. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, Sharon returned to active duty as an Armored Division commander, quarreled with his superiors, and crossed the Suez Canal in what would become the war’s turning point.

New battles

Sharon became a Knesset Member in the general elections of December 1973, but resigned a year to return to the IDF. From 1975-1976, he served as defense advisor to Rabin, who was by then prime minister.

In 1980, Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann resigned, and Sharon sought to replace him. But Prime Minister Menachem Begin refused his request, and tensions arose between the two. It was only after the elections for the tenth Knesset in 1981 that Sharon was named defense minister. In this role, Sharon initiated Operation Oranim (Pines), which aimed to eliminate terrorist bases in Lebanon, and put an end to the ongoing attacks across the northern border.

The major operation, dubbed Peace for Galilee, began on June 6, 1982. Sharon was involved in all its stages, and critics charged that he had taken several steps without Prime Minister Begin’s knowledge or approval. In September 1982, after the assassination of Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel, the Lebanese Phalange forces massacred thousands of Palestinian residents of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Beirut, an act that would haunt Sharon – and Israel – for years to come. The Israeli Kahan commission of inquiry found that Sharon bore personal responsibility for the massacre, and he was forced to resign as defense minister.

Despite this, Sharon continued to serve in the government as minister without portfolio, and was appointed industry and trade minister in the unity government formed after the 1984 elections, despite the opposition of HaMa’arakh (alignment) party members.

Sharon with his wife, Lily,1990 (Photo: Reuters)
Sharon with his wife, Lily,1990 (Photo: Reuters)

In February 1990 he resigned due to the government’s decision to allow elections in the Palestinian territories. After the fall of the government on March 15, Sharon was appointed minister of housing and construction under Yitzhak Shamir. In this position he accelerated large-scale settlement construction in the territories.

Ahead of the 1992 elections, Sharon ran for Likud leadership, yet came in third after Yitzhak Shamir and David Levy. Following Likud’s defeat by Labor in the 1992 elections, Shamir retired from political life. In the internal Likud elections in February 1993, Sharon chose not to run against Benjamin Netanyahu, who went on to lead the party to victory in 1996.

Sharon was initially left out of the new Netanyahu government, but was given the ministry of national infrastructure following an ultimatum presented by David Levy. He was member of the security cabinet, and towards the end of the government served as its foreign minister.

National leader

Following his overwhelming defeat in the 1999 elections, Netanyahu resigned the Likud leadership, and Sharon was elected as his successor in September 1999.

In September 2000, Sharon visited the Temple Mount, a controversial visit that received much media attention, despite warnings regarding the possible consequences of such an act. Following the visit, a wave of violence erupted among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as among Israeli Arab citizens. This wave of violence marked the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

In the 2001 elections, Sharon ran against Ehud Barak in a special election for prime minister, and won by a landslide. In January 2003 he led the Likud to a decisive win in the Knesset elections.

Sharon inherited the prime minister’s chair with the second intifada in full swing, and Israel facing numerous terrorist attacks. Under Sharon, the country took major steps against the continuous assaults, including a prolonged military attack against terrorist organizations. Military action peaked in late March 2002, with Defensive Shield, a major operation involving conscripted and reserve soldiers triggered by a massive suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya on the first night of Passover days earlier, in which 30 people were killed.

In December 18, 2003, Sharon began to promote his plan for unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The full details of the plan were presented in April 2004, when Sharon announced he intended to execute a full separation from Gaza, which would include the evacuation of all Israeli communities in the Strip, along with four settlements in northern Samaria.

Within the next few months, Sharon managed, albeit with great difficulty, to maintain the stability of his government and implement his disengagement plan: In August 2005, all Israeli settlements in Gaza were evacuated, along with the four settlements in the northern West Bank.

Ariel Sharon at his beloved Sycamore Ranch in the Negev (Photo: Yossi Rot)
Ariel Sharon at his beloved Sycamore Ranch in the Negev (Photo: Yossi Rot)

The disengagement led to a severe internal crisis within the Likud. In November 2005, after the resignation of the Labor party from Sharon’s government and the agreement on early Knesset elections, Sharon announced his departure from the Likud and – the establishment of a new party, Kadima.

It was during what would prove to be a short-lived term as head of a Kadima government that Sharon suffered from two strokes, the second of which would leave him comatose. The first, in December 2005, was a mild stroke, and he was hospitalized for just two days. But on January 4, 2006, the prime minister suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Ehud Olmert, who served as Sharon’s deputy prime minister, became acting prime minister.

Sharon never regained consciousness. He is survived by his two sons, Omri and Gilad, and several grandchildren.

Israel’s ex-PM Ariel Sharon dies

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Ariel Sharon (November 2005)

Ariel Sharon’s life was intimately entwined with the life of the country he loved from the moment of its birth.

He fought in its war of independence in 1948 and from that point until he slipped into a coma in 2006 it seemed there was hardly a moment of national drama in which he did not play a role.

He was always a controversial figure in Israeli politics – certainly not universally loved – but in mourning his passing, Israelis are marking the loss of one of the few public figures left whose career stretched back to the earliest days of their state.

Ariel Sharon’s roots were in the world of Zionist pioneering zeal – he was born between the two world wars in Palestine when it was under British control – to a Jewish couple who had fled to the Holy Land from Belarus.

Ariel Sharon in Sinai (October 1967)Sharon was admired among Israelis for his military exploits

His reputation as an uncompromising and unapologetic defender of his country’s interests dates back to his military career.

He was still a teenager when he fought in the war of 1948 and in his autobiography, fittingly called Warrior, he described intense fighting against soldiers from the Jordanian Arab Legion for control of a crucial police fort on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

He and his men lay in fields ignited by gunfire in the burning heat with water and ammunition running low.

He remained a soldier for many years afterwards, fighting with distinction in Israel’s battles with its Arab enemies in the wars of 1967 and 1973.

He helped set up Unit 101 – a commando detachment whose job was to conduct reprisal operations across the border in Arab territories to retaliate for attacks against Israel.

Such was his reputation as a military commander that some accounts of his army career say he was nicknamed the Lion of God after a particularly daring tactical parachute operation against Egypt in 1967 in the Sinai desert.

Shadow of Lebanon

But already there was a dark undertone. Allegations emerged that Egyptian prisoners had been shot and there were questions at home about whether the operation had been a military necessity.

Fifteen years later, it was another dark episode that brought Ariel Sharon international attention.

Continue reading the main story

Political Career

  • 1973: Elected Knesset member for Likud
  • 1975-77: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s special security adviser
  • 1977-81: Minister of Agriculture
  • 1981-83: Minister of Defence
  • 1984-90: Minister of Trade and Industry
  • 1990-92: Minister of Construction and Housing
  • 1996-98: Minister of National Infrastructure
  • 1998-99: Foreign Minister
  • 2001-2006: Prime Minister
  • 2005: Left Likud to found Kadima

He was minister of defence when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. The strategic goal was to bring stability to the country’s northern border by crushing Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which was then holed up in southern Lebanon and Beirut.

But the war was deeply controversial at home as well as in the wider world.

And there was worse too.

Fighters from a Christian militia group which was co-operating closely with the Israelis carried out extensive massacres in Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatilla.

It is likely the names of those camps will be associated with Mr Sharon’s own name as long as the history of that conflict is remembered.

Eventually an Israeli inquiry held that Ariel Sharon was “indirectly responsible” for the killing.

The war cost many lives – Israeli as well as Palestinian and Lebanese – and it casts a long shadow over his historical legacy.

Second intifada

Within Israel Mr Sharon was not finished though.

Long a supporter of the settlers who moved on to the lands Israel captured in the war of 1967 in defiance of international opinion, he saw himself as a natural leader of the Israeli right.

In a volatile place, he could be a provocative figure.

Paul Adams looks back on the life and legacy of Ariel Sharon

In the year 2000, flanked by hundreds of Israeli riot police, he staged a visit to the area of the Old City in Jerusalem which contains sites sacred both to Jews and Muslims – the Temple Mount or Harem al-Sharif.

Even though the area is in the part of East Jerusalem captured by Israel in the war of 1967, Jewish rights to pray there are limited – and it is a microcosm of the tensions that fuel the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

Intense rioting followed his visit there and many people trace the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada to that moment.

Ariel Sharon was characteristically unrepentant.

Bold moves

He became prime minister in 2001, promising to bring peace and security to his country but it was a turbulent period in Israeli politics and he eventually left the governing Likud party to found his own Kadima movement while still in office.

Ariel Sharon in Nitzanim, north of Gaza (May 2005)Sharon pulled Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, a move which divided his supporters

Peace remained elusive then as it is elusive now.

It was on his watch as prime minister that construction of a barrier began with the intention of preventing suicide attacks on Israel from the Palestinian territories.

His supporters would argue that it worked. Its detractors would say it entrenched an already deep sense of separateness.

He did not shy away from bold political moves though. The man who had supported Israeli settlers ordered their removal from Gaza when he decided to withdraw from the Palestinian enclave beside the Mediterranean in 2005.

It was precisely his reputation as a hardliner that allowed him to sell to his supporters a decision with which many felt instinctively uncomfortable.

Not long afterwards, he slipped into the coma from which he was never to emerge and we will never know how he would have followed up that decision or where it might have led.

Ariel Sharon died hated by Israel’s enemies but there are plenty of Israelis who would argue that the depth of that hatred was a measure of the success with which he always defended the country he served.

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Israel in the Eye of the Hurricane

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The Middle East is imploding. America is pulling back. Time for a new regional strategy.

Israel in the Eye of the Hurricane

A Syrian man walks amid destruction in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 10, 2013. © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images.

As upheaval sweeps into country after country of the Middle East, endemic instability has become the order of the day—with no end in sight. Egypt and Tunisia seem permanently on the verge of civil war, Syria in the­­ midst of it; Libya and Yemen are disintegrating, with Lebanon and Iraq seemingly not far behind; unrest is seeping into Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, and Jordan; not even oil-rich Saudi Arabia or the smaller Gulf states seem immune. Long-established certitudes about the regional order are no more, having been supplanted by an Arab “spring” that produced neither a summer of democracy and prosperity nor a return to the winter of past authoritarian immobility but, rather, a prolonged autumn of volatility and baffling uncertainty. And this is not to speak of the impact of events on nominally peripheral powers like Turkey, Ethiopia, and Iran—the last-named of which presents a regional challenge of major proportions—or on such formerly inhibited but now emergent actors as the Kurds, the Christians, the Druze, even the Alawites.

At the eye of this regional hurricane, Israel is eerily quiet, tensely following the turbulence and endeavoring, amid the wreckage, to fathom the shape of the new Middle Eastern reality. Much is still unknown—other than that the old order is gone for good, an epochal shift is under way, and Israel’s three-decades-old strategy for survival may have to be abandoned. Can it be replaced by a better one—even an older one?

1. LINES IN THE SAND

The history of Israel’s regional strategy predates by a half-century the birth in 1948 of the state itself. Under the formal suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, the centuries-old regional order found by the visiting Theodor Herzl in 1896 displayed a variety of social and political arrangements. Some areas were administered directly from Istanbul, others—like Egypt and Arabia Desert a—were virtually independent, and still others like Kuwait and Lebanon enjoyed special rights and status under the protection of European powers. Herzl sought to forge a deal either with the Sultan or with a European power to sponsor a Zionist protectorate. At his death in 1904, his efforts seemed to have come to naught.

But a decade later, almost exactly a century ago, came the opening shots of World War I—and fresh opportunity. By siding with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Sultan signed the death sentence of the gigantic Ottoman empire, long regarded as the “sick man” of the international system. Even as war raged, the British and French set out to carve a new regional order out of the expiring empire’s carcass.

In December 1915, Sir Mark Sykes proposed to the British cabinet that a straight line be drawn “between the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”—that is, from the northern Mediterranean coast of present-day Israel to the mountains where present-day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey meet—with the area above the line going to France and the area below it to Britain. The eventual division agreed upon by the British and the French in early 1916 (which came to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement) adhered roughly to the same line, defining zones of influence under direct or indirect control of the two powers. Pretty much oblivious of local circumstances, it was expressive only of cold imperial calculations.

There was one main exception. Neither side would readily concede to the other the southwestern corner of the regional carve-up that comprised the Holy Land. Unwilling to leave an ill-defined gap on the flank of their prized Suez Canal, the British in particular found themselves reconsidering an idea sown a decade earlier by Herzl: setting up a new protectorate for the Jewish nation in its ancient land. The idea would allow Britain to enlist Zionists as allies in the war effort, and help rally American Jews to the cause of the war.

Thus would a minor initiative exercise some of the most significant and long-lasting regional effects. Encountering at first much skepticism toward the idea, both within the British government and by the French (who derided it as a chimerical attempt to resurrect a “Kingdom of Israel”), London reopened channels to Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist leadership. It was an opportunity the latter did not let slip from their grasp. Adding a proposal to recruit Palestinian Jewish troops for the Western war effort, they finally achieved, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the formal commitment of Britain to the creation of a Jewish “national home.”1

In deciding the fate of their new Middle Eastern possessions, the British and French encountered a patchwork of entrenched local realities and many clashing interests, long played deftly against one another by the Ottomans. Two main options presented themselves. One was to follow, as much as possible, existing ethnic and religious divisions, producing a mosaic of political entities that, while hard to control, would be consistent with the modern principle of self-determination. The other was to attempt some kind of partial or complete regional unification, so that the whole area, in which Arabic was the predominant language, would be deemed “Arab” and ordered accordingly. The British, followed later and unwillingly by the French, opted for the second course. This apparently simple principle left the region with a legacy of arbitrary borders and unstable identities, all of which have come home to haunt it and the West a century later.

Further complicating the map were the conflicting promises made to local parties by the two powers. The British had promised to the Zionists a Jewish national home and to the Kurds an independent state. At the very same time, in the very same areas, they were wooing the Hashemite dynasty of Mecca with the promise of a pan-Arab state ruled by them. For their part, the French, who had no intention of ceding to the Hashemites a foothold in France’s sphere of influence, created a succession of states and entities based sometimes on religious and ethnic identities and sometimes not. The war added its own complexity when an “Arab revolt” led by the Hashemites, which was supposed to overwhelm the Turks, failed to end Ottoman rule.

In 1917, a British army under General Edmund Allenby left Egypt to invade the Ottoman empire. In its forces were a number of Jewish regiments comprising much of the next generation of Zionist leaders: from Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and the one-armed war hero Joseph Trumpeldor to future Israeli prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol to future Israeli president Itzhak Ben Zvi. Allenby’s army captured Gaza, Beersheba, and Jerusalem, eventually crushing the Turks at the decisive battle of Megiddo in today’s northern Israel and bringing about the swift fall of the Galilee, Amman, and Damascus. Thus, when the war ended in November 1918, the Zionists and Hashemites as well as the British and French were harboring their own respective plans for future regional borders.

As those borders took shape in the wake of the war, Zionist policies, which until then had focused almost solely on persuading and pressuring the great powers, gained a local dimension. Parallel to holding an increasingly reluctant London to its pledge of establishing a Jewish homeland within its postwar Mandate of Palestine, Zionists now had to deal with Middle Eastern interests and opinions. The circle extended outward from the Arabic-speaking groups and tribes in the Mandate areas to Christian-dominated Lebanon and the Hashemite dynasty ruling first Arabia and later Iraq and Jordan.

In the face of the gradual weakening of Britain’s commitment to the Jews, and the wide front of Arab opposition, Weizmann attempted to reach some kind of understanding with an important regional player. He floated repeated proposals for nominal Hashemite suzerainty over Palestine, under which Jewish self-rule could shelter. But despite many negotiations and even a short-lived treaty signed with Emir Feisal in 1919, no Arab figure of prominence, Hashemite or otherwise, was willing publicly to stomach the presence of Zionism in the region. The nominally “special relationship” that developed between Zionist leaders and the Hashemites, persisting to this day, always remained a fair-weather one. When push came to shove, as it would do in 1948 and 1967, the recurring response from across the river Jordan was treachery and betrayal.

By the late 1920s, the effort to find an Arab partner for Zionism had failed completely in the wider regional sphere; in the local sphere, the situation was even worse. There, the British-installed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had successfully founded his leadership of Mandate Arabs on the twin pillars of his own tyrannical rule and his virulent opposition to Zionism; the latter frequently erupted into brutal attacks, most notoriously in 1929, on Jewish neighborhoods and settlements. The Mufti soon also became active on the wider Arab and Muslim scene, turning fanatical hatred of Zionism and Jews into a key marker of Arab identity.

Nevertheless, Zionist efforts to reach an accommodation with Arab leadership persisted. As late as 1936, David Ben-Gurion strove to convince Mussa el-Alami, the local representative of the Supreme Arab Committee, that Jewish immigration and development would yield much economic and social benefit to Arab inhabitants of the land. Ben-Gurion became convinced of the fruitlessness of such efforts only when the urbane Alami responded that, rather than partake of progress brought by Zionists, he would prefer to leave the land poor and barren “even for another century.”2

As all attempts to find Arab partners with a Jewish state foundered, two opposite responses emerged among the Zionists. One, in groups like Brit Shalom and later Ihud, consisted of ever more desperate proposals seeking some minimal quotient of Jewish presence that would be acceptable to the Arabs—even something as small as a cultural-religious community under Arab protection. The other was formulated most cogently by Jabotinsky in the title of his 1923 article, “The Iron Wall”; there he argued that, in the face of widespread Arab extremism, Zionism had to be built behind the protection of military force—ideally its own—and only in the long run, “when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then [would] extreme groups lose their sway, and . . . moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions.” This approach, often described as hawkish or even extremist, was actually quite modest in scope, proposing only to mount a strong enough defense to ensure Zionism’s existence until the region accepted it as fact.

Although modified versions of the opposing Brit Shalom and Jabotinsky approaches would inform the ideas, the positions, and the values of diverse Zionist figures and parties, neither of them was actually adopted by the leadership that piloted mainstream Zionism from the mid-1930s onward. Instead, a third approach, much more activist and inventive, eventually became the strategy guiding Zionist policy.

2. ISRAEL’S OLD SCHOOL

It fell to David Ben-Gurion to steer the Zionist ship through the maelstrom of the 1930s and 1940s. Ben-Gurion successfully combined a commitment to Herzl’s strategic legacy—alliance with at least one great power—with a regional policy. If the main goal until 1948 was the establishment of the Jewish state, thereafter it was to withstand and eventually break up the Arab anti-Zionist front.

In the years before 1948, Ben-Gurion had adroitly maneuvered both the declining and increasingly recalcitrant British and the rising but endlessly wavering Americans to support Zionist policies. With many tactical failures along the way, not least when it came to saving more of European Jewry in World War II, he succeeded in persuading London and Washington to refrain from aborting the Zionist project and to accede, eventually and grudgingly, to the creation of the Jewish state. In Israel’s ensuing war of independence, much to the surprise of both powers, the fledgling nation managed to survive the seemingly insurmountable odds arrayed against it.

From early on, Zionists had sought out alliances at the regional level, sending feelers to Christian-dominated Lebanon as well as to the Alawite French protectorate that was trying to resist incorporation into Syria. On the local level, too, there were tentative attempts at partnering with groups that might be disconnected from the hostile Arab front—a policy at least partly vindicated in the 1947-1949 war when most Druze, some Christian towns, and some Bedouin tribes sided with Israel rather than its enemies. This “localist” approach fit well with the new military doctrine emerging under the influence of Orde Wingate, a maverick British officer and Christian Zionist who advocated daring initiatives that would inspire many of Israel’s later security policies.

It was against this background that Ben-Gurion by 1948 had established a “school” of regional strategy: a three-tier affair for actively seeking out allies and opportunities.

At the first level, in addition to looking for points of contact with immediate neighbors, Israel kept an eye out for internal fissures and conflicts within hostile but more distant countries like Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria. The idea in both cases was to identify and support those with a shared aversion to an exclusively Arab Middle East. At a minimum, the policy aimed at creating distractions among Israel’s enemies; at a maximum, it held out the possibility of discovering future leaders and groups with whom one might do business.

The second level was directed to the “peripheries”: the outer edges of the Middle East where Israel actively and for a time quite successfully courted the three major non-Arab countries: Ethiopia, Iran, and Turkey. Here the aim was to forge structures of mutual cooperation with nations bent on countering the intrigues of pan-Arab nationalists and opposing (often in cooperation with the U.S.) the spread of Communism.

The third level, the Herzlian one, saw Israel striking actual alliances with Western powers, in particular France until 1963 and, especially since 1968, the United States.

The rise of Israel’s strategic doctrine coincided with a period of general unrest in the Middle East. The power vacuum created by Britain and France’s gradual retreat from their empires was filled with conflicts over the borders or the very existence of many individual states. The Christians in Lebanon could hardly control that country’s other groups, and anyway Christian rule was never recognized by the Syrians; in Sudan, the southern populations resisted forced incorporation into the Muslim-dominated regime in Khartoum; the Kurds, sliced up among Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, rose repeatedly against their oppressors; in Yemen, a long and bloody civil war yielded a decades-long division into northern and southern states.

But the most potent destabilizer was pan-Arabism: an ideology purporting to incorporate the whole gigantic area between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans into a unified Arab nation that, once liberated from its oppressors, would occupy a position of prominence among the great nations of the world.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of states in the region would undergo military coups and counter-coups, assassinations, insurgencies, regime changes, and bloody palace intrigues, intermixed with the vicious repression of opposing forces—all in the name of pan-Arabism. Regimes committed to some version of the ideology came to power in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Libya. But its dark shadow spread everywhere; although it never came close to achieving its universal goal, it played a major role in delegitimizing the states erected by the great powers after World War I. All the while, its excuse for failing to deliver on its promises was a single, unchanging refrain: the existence of a Jewish state in the midst of what, by right and by logic, was to be an exclusively Arab homeland.

For Israel, therefore, the main strategic objective in those years was to challenge and undermine the claims of pan-Arabism, with the help of any parties that had reasons of their own to oppose it.

What did Ben-Gurion’s activist school accomplish? At the level of the more or less immediate vicinity, it offered assistance (mostly covert) from 1955 onward to the South Sudanese uprising against the Muslim north, and from 1961 to the Kurdish uprisings led by Mustafa Barazani against Iraqi rule. Also in the 1950s, Israel continued to nurture its ties with the fickle Christian leadership of Lebanon and to carry out other programs, most of them still unpublicized, from Algeria to Egypt to Yemen.

At the second, peripheral level, the Ben-Gurion strategy saw extensive cooperation between Israel and, especially, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia in areas ranging from the economy and agriculture to armaments and intelligence. Here, too, much has not been fully disclosed to this day, but what is known speaks volumes. To give just one example: in October 1958, a series of regular quarterly meetings was initiated among the heads of the intelligence services of Israel, Turkey, and Iran. (The Ethiopians collaborated as well.) Dividing the region into spheres in which one partner would assume the lead position while the others assisted, the group undertook to define common objectives in fighting both Soviet influence and the pan-Arabist agitation spearheaded by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. Against Egypt itself, it planned a full range of activity including espionage, economic sabotage, and regime destabilization.

At the third level, Israel’s close partnership with France enabled it to obtain vital military and economic assistance as well as crucial support in the often hostile environment of international diplomacy. The most important product of this alliance was the Sinai war of 1956, when France and Israel co-opted Great Britain in a joint effort to seize the Suez Canal area from Nasser, who had unilaterally nationalized it, thereby hoping also to discredit his claim to leadership of the Arab “nation” and to lay the ground for the establishment of an acquiescent regime in the most populous and prominent Arab country. For Israel, there was the added goal of eliminating Nasser’s constant efforts to block maritime traffic to the port of Eilat and his sponsorship of Palestinian “Fedayeen” terrorist gangs operating against southern Israel.

In military terms, the 1956 campaign was a spectacular success. Israel easily seized the Sinai peninsula, and Franco-British forces swiftly gained control of the Canal. In diplomatic terms, however, it was a complete debacle. Together, the U.S. and the Soviet Union pressured Britain and France, neither of them any longer up to the great-power game, to withdraw from Suez; Israel held out for a while but eventually withdrew as well, after receiving UN and American assurances that it would never again be threatened by Egypt.

Jerusalem learned its own, bitter lessons from this episode. In 1967, again vitally threatened by Egypt, it found neither the UN nor anyone else willing to lift a finger in aid. But it was probably Washington that would most rue its short-sightedness in 1956. In saving Nasser’s neck, America handed the Egyptian dictator his greatest propaganda victory and convinced much of the Arab world that it was possible to withstand the combined might of the great powers; even many Egyptians gradually came to believe that their military prowess had broken their opponents’ spirit. For decades to come, the legacy of Nasser’s “victory” caused untold damage to Western interests and values, encouraging the delusions of petty emulators from Libya to Iraq and, perhaps worse, of the Arab masses. It is only now, some three generations later, that Middle Eastern societies have come seriously to question the whole pan-Arab narrative.

For Israel, meanwhile, although it had been forced to retreat from the Sinai with little to show for it materially, on the international scene as well as at home this small sliver on the map had demonstrated its ability to stand up to and overcome a grave challenge.

The golden age of the activist Israeli school lasted through the long ascendancy of Ben-Gurion, who served as prime minister from 1948 to 1954 and (after a hiatus of 21 months) from 1955 to 1963. Aside from Ben-Gurion himself, figures associated with the strategy included such direct disciples as Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon as well as those, like Yigal Allon, belonging to rival factions of the Labor-Zionist movement.

To be sure, there were also dissenters, especially among those still hopeful of concluding some kind of arrangement with the Sunni Arab world or its central players. Prominent among these was Moshe Sharett, longtime foreign minister and briefly prime minister (1954-1955), who preferred a more pragmatic and reactive stance, as well as central political figures like future Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. For the most part, as long as the “Old Man” was in power, these figures refrained from contesting his line openly, instead trying to limit its scope; when he finally left office, they gradually abandoned the activist strategy associated with his name, and shifted course.

The change was concealed for a time, first by Ben-Gurion’s brooding presence in the wings and the possibility he might return to power, then by the stunning Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day war. But that war actually accelerated the change, for Israel’s triumph, accomplished in circumstances of dire necessity and with the country’s back to the wall, lulled its political leadership into a false sense of confidence. To the temperamental aversion to activism of many Labor leaders was now added a sense that Israel could deal with its neighbors from a position of power, and there would be no further need for serious strategic initiatives forthwith; the scope of such initiatives declined.

Indeed, the 1967 war itself had been fought without benefit of a strong alliance with a great power, and without clear goals except for removing the immediate threat to Israel’s existence. Once victory had been achieved, internal debates focused on the fate of the liberated territories. While Ben-Gurion, in old age and in opposition, asserted the need at all costs to keep the sacred sites of the Old City of Jerusalem and Hebron, as well as the Golan Heights, successive governments failed to formulate anything like a clear strategy, eventually pursuing neither a truly serious policy of settlement and annexation of all or some of the territories, nor a policy of trading all or some of the territories in exchange for secure peace treaties. Only eastern Jerusalem was formally re-unified with Israel in 1967, while in 1981, in an attempt to placate domestic criticism of his treaty with Egypt, Prime Minister Menachem Begin would annex the Golan Heights—again with no considered plan for development or settlement. Even such daring feats as the 1976 Entebbe raid in Uganda and the 1981 bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq were conducted without benefit of comprehensive strategic thinking.

Attempting to fight this drift were two men widely regarded as prime-ministers-in-waiting: Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. The latter especially, both before and after the 1967 war, suggested that among Israel’s aims should be the creation of a Druze state, carved out of Druze-populated areas in southern Syria and Lebanon, that would become a natural ally of Jerusalem. He was overruled. On the other hand, Allon’s detailed plan defining those post-1967 territories that in his view had to remain in Israeli hands became for some two decades the only thing approaching a strategic program—again, however, a program never wholeheartedly embraced or rejected by successive governments despite haphazard attempts to apply its principles.

By the early 1970s both Dayan and Allon were politically sidelined, and by 1981 both were dead. Among Ben-Gurion’s disciples, that left Shimon Peres, always energetic but no less erratic and inconsistent, and Ariel Sharon. Famous for his go-it-alone manner and military prowess—which played a decisive role in Israel’s triumph against terrible odds in the Yom Kippur war—as well as for his insistence that the “Palestinian problem” could be solved only by making Jordan into the sought-after Palestinian state, Sharon was responsible for whatever post-’67 settlement policy Israel could be said to have.

In 1982, having become defense minister and the dominant figure within the Begin government, Sharon attempted to implement his “Great Oranim” plan: an overt military-cum-political alliance with Lebanese Christians against Yasir Arafat’s PLO and the Syrians, who between them had shackled Lebanon to their war against Israel. The ensuing military campaign, initially an unreserved success, brought about the evacuation of PLO forces from Lebanon and even a formal peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon. But what was envisioned as the start of a whole new era quickly unraveled as the IDF found itself doing all the fighting and compelled against its wishes to move northward to the very outskirts of Beirut. When the Christian leader and Lebanese president-elect Bashir Jemayel was assassinated in September 1982, no one else proved willing or able to step forward; the leaderless Christian militias, in retaliation for his murder, then turned in a murderous rampage against hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila—thereby bringing domestic and international opprobrium down upon the Israeli government and leading to Sharon’s dismissal in disgrace.

3. THE “NEW MIDDLE EAST”

The Lebanese debacle and the prolonged political eclipse of Sharon left Israel without anyone prominent enough to assume the mantle of strategic activism and very little desire to be associated with it altogether. In the meantime, ever since the two wars of 1967 and 1973, an alternative approach had gradually developed whose aim was instead to achieve “stability.” It was epitomized in 1982 by the complete Israeli withdrawal from and obliteration of its settlements in the Sinai peninsula in fulfillment of its obligations under the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. Often identified with the formula of land-for-peace, the new, “stability” approach posited that Israeli territorial concessions could achieve a durable political settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

But this was only a corollary to the strategy’s essential thrust: namely, reaching real concord with the region’s Sunni Arab dictatorships on the basis of mutually shared interests. In its most candid version, the strategy assumed that the surrounding Arab populations were themselves profoundly if not irredeemably anti-Israel and anti-Jewish; therefore, Israel’s best insurance policy lay in striking accords with their rulers, who by dint of their very cruelty and corruption could be counted upon to keep popular passions in check. This line of thinking had the added benefit of fitting nicely into American strategic doctrine, which since the 1970s had increasingly preferred regional stability and containment to more active options.

Thus, in the early 1970s, Israel repeatedly saved the pro-Western King Hussein of Jordan from enemies both internal and external, while scaling down its assistance to the Kurdish and South Sudanese insurgencies; after 1973, both Israel and the U.S. cooperated (often behind the scenes) with other established Arab regimes in ensuring domestic tranquility. After 1982, the approach assumed paramountcy in Israeli strategic thought.

Perhaps surprisingly, a domestic factor also contributed to the strategic shift. This was the political rise of the center-Right Likud party, which took office in 1977 and since then has been continuously in power for all but nine years. As mentioned earlier, the supposed hard-line approach of Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” had paradoxically fostered among many of his disciples an essentially defensive attitude, manifested in a reluctance to entertain the creative and admittedly risky activism of the Ben-Gurion school. Similarly, militant rhetoric aside, later Likud leaders have tended to make do with firmly resisting Arab aggression or (in the case of Dan Meridor, Ehud Olmert, Ronnie Bar-On, and Tsipi Livni) have openly supported the stability school of thought.

True, most of the architects of the late-1970s peace treaty with Egypt, from Prime Minister Begin to Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and Foreign Minister Dayan, did not wholeheartedly subscribe to that school of thought; rather, the agreement with Cairo was a move calculated, albeit at a high price, to remove from the conflict the strongest of Israel’s Arab enemies and thus permit greater flexibility on other fronts like Syria and the PLO. Yet the conceptual opening supplied by Camp David created room for others, including young Labor activists like Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir, Nimrod Novik, and Avrum Burg, to flesh out a new positive vision, rooted in the principle of stability, that was eventually embraced and implemented by none other than Shimon Peres.

By the early 1990s, Peres had become a true believer in the stability principle, articulating it explicitly in his book The New Middle East (1993) and making it the animating premise of the Oslo accords with the arch-terrorist and would-be dictator Yasir Arafat. The argument went like this: since the region was not yet ready for openness and democracy, one should strive for a kind of armistice with its regnant potentates. Ideally, such an arrangement, girded by Western financial assistance, would encourage economic progress, and growing affluence would in turn produce an easing of regional tensions, a waning of extremism (including the extreme hatred of Israel and the West), and perhaps even, in the fullness of time, a lessened attachment to such outmoded commodities as chauvinism and national borders. Eventually, in Peres’s rosy conception, the rise in prosperity and goodwill would allow Israel to join the Arab League—by then metamorphosed into a Mideast version of the European Union—and one day perhaps even see Arab peoples partaking of democracy with a capital D.

In order to work, this strategic vision required cooperation among all major players in crushing any threats to regime stability. Such threats were perceived as emanating not only from leftist and Islamist terrorists but also from domestic liberals working for civic reform or democracy; they, too, would have to be suppressed—an unfortunate circumstance but, to true believers, well worth the price. The allure of the strategy to U.S. policy makers was obvious: the State Department and Peres were at one in the conviction that the Middle East’s Ghaddafis, Assads, and Mubaraks did not have to be contested or toppled but rather engaged and supported. As for Israeli policy makers, a majority, although eschewing Peres’s colorful rhetoric, likewise came to embrace some form of this vision, which in later years would still be informing the policies of prime ministers Ehud Barak (1999-2001) and Ehud Olmert (2006-2009).

Finally, the “stabilist” American and Israeli approach went hand in glove with the mood of the reigning powers in the Arab world, which, from about 1970 on, enjoyed an extended respite from internal turmoil. The frequent coups, revolutions, and civil wars of earlier decades had declined sharply, and while pan-Arabism remained the predominant rhetorical posture, individual regimes seemed to have mastered the art of securing their rule on their own—aided, of course, by immense oil wealth that enabled the concentration of all power in the hands of the governing elites and discouraged any significant economic or political competition. Dissent was easily bought off, or forcibly crushed. Even countries lacking significant oil revenues, like Egypt and Syria, could easily obtain funding for their repressive regimes by extending or withholding support for terrorist groups or browbeating minuscule oil sheikdoms.

4. THE DEATH OF STABILITY

But, notoriously, the presence of great oil riches in the closed and repressive circumstances of Arab societies turned out to be as much curse as blessing—to put it mildly. All over the region, an outwardly stable and sturdy exterior hid an interior in which everything was rotting. Probably never in history have such gigantic resources been invested in such a short time with so little to show for it. The Arab states poured money into nationalized and grossly inefficient industries, gargantuan but defective infrastructure, substandard education for all, and mammoth armies that time and again collapsed on the battlefield. The regimes’ only objective success lay in the savage suppression of all internal opposition.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, failing in war against the Iranians despite having gassed them, later gassed its own civilian Kurdish population for refusing to fall into line. Hafez Assad’s Syria, unsuccessful against Israel, terrorized Lebanon and butchered the civilian population in its own rebellious city of Hama; the record of Assad’s son and successor Bashar is too recent and too well known to bear repeating. The atrocities committed by Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and others, many in the name of Arab nationalism, have not been much different.

By their very nature, these regimes discredited not only pan-Arabism but eventually their own legitimacy. Their subjects learned to scorn the empty bombast and to resent and distrust the state, increasingly turning to local ethnic and tribal connections. Ironically, only traditional monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco, which also rely on some kind of religious sanction (as descendants of the Prophet or keepers of holy sites), have succeeded in retaining a degree of legitimacy for their rule, lately reflected in their relative ability to withstand the Arab “spring.” By contrast, most Arab “republics,” originally established by military coups, eventually came to rely on the support of tribes and clans. As the years progressed, this clannish system produced the odd spectacle of so-called republics with dynastic successions. Even in far less tribal and clannish Egypt, the exhausted regime could find no better replacement to ailing president Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1982, than to groom as successor his son Gamal.

It was a vicious circle that could not be sustained indefinitely—and neither could the stability model that was its Western enabler. What would eventually replace it was very different from the “new world order” envisioned after the first Iraq war by the elder George Bush and the U.S. State Department, let alone the “New Middle East” fantasized by Peres and his supporters. Instead, with the final collapse of the Soviet empire, in whose embrace many an Arab leader had sheltered, various Islamist factions became energized, under the banner of “global jihad,” to accelerate their terrorist activities against the oil-rich Arab dictatorships—and especially against the Great Satan that protected them.

September 11, 2001 represented a spectacular success for the new Islamist jihad—and, in swift reaction, the emergence of a new American strategy, aimed not only at hunting down and destroying al-Qaeda and allied groups but also at overthrowing regimes supportive of anti-American terrorism. The new strategy saw the direct U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, wide-ranging preemptive military actions in places like Somalia and Pakistan, and pressure on regimes like Ghaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria to realign themselves with American interests or risk being added to the hit list. Although the complications unleashed by the 2003 removal of Saddam Hussein would quickly damp U.S. enthusiasm for regime change, by then it was too late to rewind the clock. The regional mold had been shattered, and all of Washington’s horses and all of its men couldn’t put it back together again.

5. TOWARD A NEW OLD SCHOOL

The Arab “spring” and its aftermath, having toppled three Arab regimes (Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt), plunged two more (Yemen and Syria) into civil war, and seriously rocked many more (from Morocco through Jordan to Bahrain), has completed the breakdown of the previous regional order. Nor is there an easy or painless option going forward. Any new regional system will either entail the bloody imposition of authoritarian regimes in country after country or see the formation of entirely new political entities. Some of those new entities are likely to reject the old arbitrary regional borders, along with the Arab identity formerly imposed on them.

Today, Iraq is de-facto partitioned into three zones: a southeastern Shiite area, a southwestern Sunni area, and the non-Arab Kurdish area in the north, a resounding economic and political success and now independent in all but name. Syria could be replaced by partially or completely independent Alawite, Druze, Kurdish, and Sunni-Arab zones. Libya is divided into tribal areas, loosely along the lines of the pre-independence entities of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. The Western Sahara, militarily occupied by Morocco since 1975, is stirring. In Algeria, a sclerotic regime is facing calls for Berber self-definition, especially in the Berbers’ northwestern stronghold of Kabylie. Even in Jordan, there are indications of a potential break between the Palestinian-majority urban north and the Bedouin-dominated tribal south.

Taken together, these developments are the expression of one fundamental truth: although for a century the Middle East has been commonly perceived as a Sunni Arab region, it is the non-Arab and non-Sunni groups who constitute the actual majority. As formerly oppressed communities like the Shiites of Lebanon and Iraq, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq, and the Christians of South Sudan have asserted themselves, there has been a dramatic recalibrating of regional identities. A presumptively monolithic “Arab” region is being supplanted by a patchwork of identities and allegiances whose definition, patterns of organization, and prospective alliances are all yet to be played out.

For Israel, the latest developments mean not only that the “stabilist” strategy of the last 30-odd years has become completely irrelevant, but that efforts to revamp it would be nothing short of immoral. Even Shimon Peres, the most outspoken proponent of stability, has recently admitted that butchers like Syria’s Assad cannot be left in power, let alone become partners in a regional order.

Going forward in these circumstances, however, also entails significant obstacles and perils. Even doing nothing means effectively either to abet some local rebellion or to encourage its ferocious repression by a cornered dictator—as currently in Syria. On the other hand, to favor strongman rule means to will the military measures necessary to secure it. One such quandary already presents itself in Gaza, where suppression of the Islamist Hamas government by the secular Abbas dictatorship—a presumed good—would require Israel to take responsibility for affording passage, and perhaps assistance, to Palestinian Authority soldiers: a hazardous course with very few foreseeable rewards.

On a larger scale, even to begin considering Israel’s choices requires abandoning the preoccupation of the last decades with two issues at the expense of virtually all others: namely, the conflict with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear threat. Both are extremely important, and both are in urgent and unceasing need of the most vigilant attention; but that does not diminish the need to think about other threats—or to consider the possible opportunities afforded by emerging developments. Indeed, among such opportunities might be some with positive implications on these two fronts as well.

The good news is that Israelis are alive to today’s challenges and airing ideas about how best to meet them. Although discussion for the most part is being conducted away from the public eye, the media have managed to find what to report. On one side are those, like Amos Yadlin, former IDF chief of military intelligence and today head of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), who believe that the internal Arab strife of the last years has seriously weakened the threats posed to the Jewish state, and might well produce significant strategic benefits—the implication being that a prolongation of the turmoil strife is in Israel’s interest. On the other side are those, including diehards of the old stability strategy, who warn that the fighting will inevitably embroil Israel as well, to no clear end—and that now is precisely the time for Israel to indicate its readiness for regional negotiations with the Arab League, whose moldering peace initiative might yet “contribute to enhancing stability in the Middle East . . . and strengthening Israel and the moderate Western-Sunni axis.”

Still others, deploring passivity, have begun to urge a return to the activist approach: not a simple revival of Ben-Gurionism, obviously—the problems and concerns of those days are no more, while others, like the use of missiles and non-conventional weapons by state and non-state actors, have emerged with a vengeance. Rather, a return to old-school activism in today’s circumstances would entail a forward-looking flexibility and, especially, a readiness to seize opportunities thrown up by the disappearing legitimacy of most of the region’s secular authoritarian regimes and the corresponding search for new sources of identification and protection in ethnic, tribal, or religious identities.

To the activists, the forces at work in the region are seen as operating in two directions. A disintegrative pull is evident everywhere from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to Yemen and post-partition Sudan, to Morocco and Algeria, to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states; even non-Arab Turkey and Iran are now threatened by Kurdish and Azeri stirrings. In areas that are solidly Sunni and Arab, the breaking point tends to follow tribal and regional allegiances, as can be seen in Libya, in the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq, in the solidifying division between Palestinians in Gaza versus those in the West Bank, and even in Jordan.

At the same time, however, integrative forces are also in play, presenting the possibility of new alignments and partnerships. Broadly speaking, these forces adhere mainly to either nationalist or religious-ideological visions.

Most obvious among the nationalist forces are the Kurds. Barring disastrous factional infighting, the way seems open for a historic convergence of some 30 million Kurds and the potential emergence of a Kurdish national entity; such an entity, encompassing the already autonomous Kurds of Iraq and Syria and the increasingly organized Kurds of Turkey and Iran, could dramatically recalibrate all regional balances.

Another potential force is Berber nationalism in North Africa, affecting up to 35 million people spread out from Morocco to Tunisia. In their current state of organization, only the Berbers of the Kabylie in Algeria are seriously active in seeking self-determination; but this is a community on the march.

And then there is the other important integrative factor: religion, or rather religious ideology. While in some cases this can break political entities apart, in others it can have the opposite effect. Visible in today’s ferment is the potential emergence of three large religious-ideological clusters, each vying with the others to assume leadership. To a great extent all three subscribe to a version of the Islamist ideology that entered the vacuum created by the demise of radical pan-Arabism.

The best-established and most salient among the three clusters is the radical Shiite grouping, led by Iran and comprising as well the Hizballah-led Shiites of Lebanon and the Assad-led Alawite-Shiite alliance of western Syria, with the Shiite majority in Iraq similarly drifting toward Tehran’s orbit. Iran is also eyeing the sizable Shiite communities that form a majority of the population in Kuwait, Bahrain, and eastern Saudi Arabia—all in the hope of engendering a Shiite belt around the Persian Gulf.

The second cluster is the populist-Sunni grouping led by Islamist Turkey and allied with Qatar and the various Muslim Brotherhood-inspired political movements in the region. It is currently in power in Yemen and Gaza, while forming the main political opposition in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Jordan. In Egypt, it was only recently ousted from power in the anti-Brotherhood military coup. This grouping supports democratic elections, in the expectation (usually correct) that it will emerge from them either victorious or as the main opposition party.

The third cluster is authoritarian-Sunni, led by Saudi Arabia and including such traditional monarchies as Morocco, Jordan, and all Gulf nations except Qatar, as well as the Sunni leadership in Lebanon, the Mahmoud Abbas faction of the Palestinian Authority, and, its most important recent prize, Egypt led by General al-Sisi. Algeria seems also to be edging toward it. This grouping is in effect what remains of the former Arab Sunni majority that dominated the region for decades; now in retreat and on the defensive, it tends to distrust democracy and is allied to the various “Salafist” groups of purist Islamists who reject the Muslim Brotherhood as being too liberal and democratic.

Each of the three clusters maintains close connections to terrorist organizations, which are activated at will against the others as well as against Western and Israeli targets. Moreover, to these three groupings one may add a smaller one composed of the various Sunni jihadist groups, the most famous of which is al-Qaeda. These organizations, which for the most part do not accept the authority of any of the big three, are politically and numerically inconsequential. But they wield clout in their two fields of concentration: terrorism against Western targets worldwide and insurgency against non-Sunni regimes. A good example of the complex interplay among all these forces is the current contest for leadership of those areas in Syria that have been liberated from the Assad regime (itself part of the Shiite grouping) and are now dominated by Arab-Sunni fighters. There, the fierce contest for territorial control and political dominance among the pro-Turkey Muslim Brotherhood groups, the pro-Saudi Salafist groups, and the go-it-alone jihadists often eclipses the battle against Assad.

6. WHAT CAN AN ACTIVIST ISRAEL DO?

Israel is, to say the least, not a good fit for any of these regional groupings. Yet it must be said that in at least one respect, they represent an improvement over the formerly united anti-Zionist Arab front. As long as they continue to exist, they are likely to invest fewer resources in fighting the Jewish state than in fighting each other for dominance. They are also quite fluid and brittle, as we have seen in Egypt’s recent switch from the populist to the authoritarian grouping. Indeed, even in the three leading countries of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the internal political situation is far from secure, and a change of leadership, especially in Turkey, is hardly unthinkable.

What, then, can an activist Israel do?

On the first level, i.e., the immediate vicinity, a new-old policy of supporting minorities would see Israel focusing on those who do not and cannot identify with any of the three Islamist groupings: the Christians and Druze of both Lebanon and Syria, and above all the Kurds. The last of these, while mostly Sunni, overwhelmingly tend to identify with their Kurdish nation and may potentially turn into one of the largest and most cohesive political powers in the region. Together with Israel, these groups might conceivably form a fourth, alternative group to the three Islamist clusters—one with a shared propensity in favor of self-determination, democracy, open societies, and open markets.

In addition, Israel should obviously consider ways to weaken the three Islamist groupings by seeking out elements who might be tempted to secede. The most evident candidates are the Syrian Alawites; concentrated in the coastal area, they are now led by Assad and allied to the Shiite cluster, but this is a far from natural alliance. The Alawites do not subscribe to the tenets of Shiite Islamist ideology. (Regarded by Shiites as doctrinal heretics, they tend to be quite secretive and moderate in religious matters.) If the war in Syria concludes with the establishment of a self-governing Alawite zone, sooner or later its residents will have an interest in jettisoning the Assads and distancing themselves from the bear hug of fanatical Shiite ideology.

A similar course might be followed in the long run with Iran’s restive Azeris, who make up some 20 percent of the population and are concentrated in the northeastern corner of the country (bordering on the Kurds and Azerbaijan). And then there is Sudan, where even after partition, a new civil war is looming between the Arabic-speaking population of the north and east and the long-oppressed groups of the south and west who describe themselves as Africans (rather than Arabs) and now seek new allies.

At the second level, that of peripheral strategy, the implosion of the Arab world has created a regional power vacuum unprecedented since World War I. The old peripheral strategy was predicated on the assumption that Ethiopia, Turkey, and Iran—the three main non-Arab powers at the edges of the Arab-speaking states—had in common with Israel both an interest in stemming pan-Arabism and the capability to influence the regional balance of power. In the latter decades of the 20th century, however, all three suffered a reversal, while Israel turned elsewhere.

Ethiopia fell prey in 1974 to a Communist dictatorship, plunging it into a generation of famine, terror, civil war, and destruction ending only in 1991. In Iran, the 1979 revolution brought to power the radical Khomeini regime, which promptly fought a long and exhausting war with Saddam’s Iraq. Turkey, which fared somewhat better, nevertheless faced a serious and protracted problem of terrorism and underwent a number of military coups; thanks to its faltering economy, its successive attempts to join the EU met with repeated rebuff.

Now, all three are back on their feet. Ethiopia, having put its political and economic house in order, is today the most stable and important American ally in eastern Africa, cooperating with Washington in fighting Islamist terror in Somalia, defending the strategic city-state of Djibouti, and extending assistance to newly independent South Sudan; to the chagrin of the Egyptians, it is erecting the greatest dam ever built on the river Nile. Turkey, having enjoyed in the last decade both political stability and spectacular economic progress, has abandoned its EU-oriented strategy and, notwithstanding Prime Minister Erdogan’s current troubles, is now consolidating its role as a regional leader . Iran has already acquired a central role as patron and protector of all things Shiite; although still crippled by sanctions directed against its military nuclear program, it has successfully serenaded the West into easing up and off.

Now the Arab collapse has drawn these powers from the periphery right into the thick of things, with, in the case of Turkey and Iran, decidedly challenging implications for Israel’s security. At the same time, however, a new periphery is emerging, as the formerly Soviet republics of the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan present a possible counterbalance to the bordering nations of Turkey and Iran. Especially significant is oil-rich, Shiite Azerbaijan, wary of Tehran’s schemes against it, enjoying strong ties with Iran’s oppressed Azeris, and conspicuously friendly with Israel. Even Greece and Cyprus, uneasy at growing Turkish assertiveness, are strengthening their ties to the Jewish state, especially in the spheres of defense and energy policy.

On the international scene, finally, there is no escaping the current troubles of the United States—and there is no lack of powers who would like to replace it, from the EU or some of its members (like France) to Russia and even China. As things now stand, none of these is equipped with the requisite combination of military, economic, and intellectual resources, and none seems up to putting its money and troops where its mouth is. Despite predictions of “The End of the American Era” (Stephen M. Walt, theNational Interest, November-December 2011), the U.S. is still by far the only serious great power on the international scene, and for the foreseeable future there is no alternative to its might.

Political will, however, is another matter, and in that respect Israel might indeed be facing a diminished American role, at least if elements within both political parties in Washington achieve their wish for a retreat from world leadership. At the moment, the U.S. is mired in a foreign-policy labyrinth of its own making; if this turns out to be a sign of things to come, Israel’s options will be severely affected. However implausible a complete disengagement of the U.S. from its strong commitment to Israel’s security may appear, even a relative retrenchment, signaled by the reluctance to employ military force or even direct diplomatic and economic pressure, would transform the regional equation and enable the entrance of new players.

The Saudis, disquieted by American disarray, have already announced a major strategic “shift away” from Washington and, along with others in the region reliant on American support, are now seeking alternative options. As of now, Israel is not yet seriously readying itself for a serious American cutback, but some are already proposing that, in case it materializes, Jerusalem should seek to combine American support, however diminished in scale, with the support of at least one other major ally. Since the EU, Russia, and China have significant limitations in this respect, a principal candidate for partnership is now India, an emerging giant making its first and very tentative steps on the world stage. Israel has already become India’s main supplier of military equipment, and there are growing ties of commerce, technology, and intelligence between the two countries, which also share a deep-rooted democratic tradition as well as a strategic conflict with radical Islam.

7. CONCLUSION

Such, then, is the new shape of the Middle East, and such are the dilemmas facing Israeli strategists and policy makers. If the stability strategy, in any form, seems the worst possible way to proceed—for how does one “stabilize” something that has already died?—the activist strategy requires not merely a shift in policy but a complete transformation of outlook, a change of heart. First and foremost, and for the foreseeable future, it means viewing instability and competition as assets, not drawbacks; it also means not only seizing opportunities but creating and initiating them.

There is no such thing as a strategy without a price; in choosing activism, Israel would be choosing to involve itself in difficult and uncertain ventures and to run the risk of failure and setbacks, including in the form of severe cross-border violence. Some failures will be costly in diplomatic and economic terms, others in human lives. But the alternative is no less fraught with danger, and its cost will be measured in the expansion and consolidation of Israel’s enemies.

It is also worth pointing to the moral dimension of the strategic choice at hand. Fomenting disarray and division among Israel’s enemies, helping them to crumble, is both an enticing prospect and a good in and of itself. But the activist course also has the clear advantage of working mainly in favor of those forces in the Middle East seeking self-determination, democracy, and liberty: the forces that brought into being the Arab spring. A change in this direction of a single important regime—a more Western-oriented Turkey, a non-Islamic Iran—would create a regional power shift as dramatic as anything witnessed in the last few years.

At best, the activist strategy can go much farther. It can foster and assist newly emerging political entities in the region that will be far more favorably inclined to the existence among them of the Jewish state. Cooperating with peripheral powers from Greece through the Caucasus to Ethiopia can create a wider regional partnership whose scope might then extend outward toward international actors with shared values and interests. In the best of circumstances, an activist strategy can advance the process by which various former minorities become a strong and stable alliance of national communities, constitutionally inclined to democracy, free markets, and open societies.