There were two articles published yesterday on the topic of Israel’s security in the wake of the Arab uprisings that arrived at polar opposite conclusions about the behavior Israel should expect from new Islamist governments. One was authored by me in the National Interest and I argue that massive economic crises and the renewed focus on quality of life issues that comes with elections have created a situation in which Israel’s Arab neighbors have too much on their plates to be thinking about causing trouble for Israel (the argument is longer and more nuanced than the one sentence summary, so please click over to the National Interest and read the whole thing). Writing in the Daily Beast at Open Zion, Benny Morris comes to the opposite conclusion, arguing that Israel is now “the most dangerous place for Jews in the world.” Looking at recent developments in the region, Morris sees things as follows:
But for Israel the “Arab Spring” represents a dramatic, abrupt tightening of the noose. The takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas; the ongoing takeover of Egypt by the Brotherhood, traditionally an advocate of Israel’s destruction; the gradual subversion by Islamists of Hashemite control in Jordan; the Hizbullah dominance of Lebanon; and the current overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria all represent a tightening of the siege.
As Jeremy Pressman breaks down in a thorough fashion at Mideast Matrix, the reason Morris and I view Israel’s security situation so differently is because I am looking at material interests and capabilities and Morris is looking at ideology. For Morris, ideology outweighs every other consideration, and Islamism is a monolithic entity, the same in Iran as it is in Egypt. No matter what else is taking place, Morris sees Islamic fundamentalists joining hands to jump at the opportunity to destroy Israel. As Pressman rightly points out, Morris’s argument is difficult to test since Islamists are not actually controlling Egypt (the military is still very much running the show), Jordan, and Syria at the moment, but there is a reason that he and I differ over how to view emerging Islamist governments in Arab states, and it has to do with how one views ideology and ideological states.
There is something ironic for me about the fact that I am downplaying the role of ideology here since the thrust of so much of my non-blog writing is about how ideology is often a controlling variable in a variety of situations. My dissertation argues that ideology operates as a constraint on successful democratic transitions, and I have theorized that the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was pushed out the door so quickly because the military and regime softliners did not see an emerging ideological threat (although their calculation was incorrect). In the case of new Arab Islamist governments looking to confront Israel, however, ideology is not a particularly important factor, which Morris does not grasp because he fails to distinguish between variants of ideology and their purpose.
Morris looks at Iran, which is an Islamist regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and assumes that every other Islamist government is going to behave in an identical fashion. The problem with this view is that while the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed very hostile to Israel, it misses some extremely important context. The Iranian regime is one that uses ideology as a source of legitimation; it’s argument for existing is that it governs a revolutionary state, the aim of which is to spread the Islamic revolution beyond its borders. Despite its parliamentary and presidential elections, it makes no real pretense to legitimating itself through democratic institutions and is run by unelected and unaccountable officials. Ideology is both its primary purpose and primary source of legitimacy, and thus if it does not act to carry out its ideological mission at all times, it endangers its very existence; when ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, fealty to the ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. In this sense, ideology becomes its primary interest to be advanced and it can take precedence over material concerns.
Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood (to the extent that the MB actually controls anything) is theoretically also an Islamist state, but its relationship to ideology is not the same as in Iran. The MB government in Egypt does not use ideology as its source of legitimacy even though it is an ideological movement. The MB ran for office in free and fair elections and campaigned on a host of promises to improve the economy, eliminate corruption, and increase transparency. In other words, it subjected itself to the people’s will as a way of creating legitimacy and it appealed to a host of material, rather than ideological, concerns. Not only does the MB not need to justify everything it does from an ideological perspective, it would be devastating to its long term prospects if it did. When it comes to confronting Israel, the MB will do so in a number of lower grade ways since it is a popular stance and also fits in with the party’s ideology, but it is not going to launch a war at the expense of its economic and political goals.
I do not mean to downplay in any way the hostility that the Muslim Brotherhood and other related Sunni Islamist groups harbor toward Israel. I do not view the MB as a benign reformist movement (or even necessarily a democratic one at heart rather than out of convenience) and the Israeli government is correct to be vigilant in not letting down its guard. This is not the same thing though as being on constant alert for invading Islamist armies willing to sacrifice their entire existence for a chance to kills Israeli Jews. Ideology is an extremely powerful force, but in order to understand how and why, it is necessary to get a handle on the different ways that ideology operates to shape events rather than taking a Manichean worldview that sees every situation involving Islamists as identical. Iran presents a real danger to Israel arising from its ideological worldview, but new Arab Islamist governments do not.