A Middle Eastern Finland

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Middle Israel: A Middle Eastern Finland

There was a time when Switzerland epitomized the idyll Israel would never enjoy: wealth, Alps and neutrality.

While eternally snowcapped summits remain an exoticism, Switzerland’s economic success is no longer so antithetical to Israel’s, and neither is its neutrality.

In what is emerging as a new Israeli mind-set, Jerusalem is going out of its way to keep above the frays of the Middle East’s steadily multiplying conflicts, realizing that its interests in them are either elusive or contradictory, and that taking sides might only backfire.

Neutrality – the policy and the ideal – has been around for some two centuries, during which it became identified first and foremost with Switzerland, which emerged with this quest from the Napoleonic Wars. Unlike other historically neutral countries, such as Austria and Sweden, the Swiss did not join the European Union which surrounds them, and until last decade did not even join the United Nations.

This nearly religious observance of neutrality will remain an Israeli dream. What Israel finds itself increasingly emulating is the Finnish model, whereby a small country wedged between two big rivals kept above their conflict’s diplomatic fray while engaging economically with both.

The USSR was for Cold War-era Finland what the Arab world is gradually becoming for Israel: a giant neighbor with a hostile past and a more pragmatic present.

The Finns, who were invaded by the USSR in 1939 and fought the Red Army bravely before ceding land for peace, joined neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact.

While remaining a democracy and market economy, and an obviously Western country in every cultural respect, they bought from the USSR arms and oil and sold the Soviets timber and finished goods, all of which added up at one point to 20 percent of Finland’s foreign trade. In other words, the former enemies who remained ideological adversaries still cultivated collaboration where they could.

Now, as Israel looks around it and counts rapidly multiplying conflicts in which it has no clear horse, its choices increasingly resemble Cold War Finland’s.

THE NUMBER of conflicts by which Israel has come to be surrounded since 2010 is staggering.

What began with the clash in Tunisia between democracy and tyranny then became in Egypt an Islamist assault on secularists and Christians, and what began in Syria as a revolt against the regime soon produced an Armageddon between Sunnis and Shi’ites that later spread to a tribal and religious war in Yemen, and before that to a multi-tribal war in Libya. Now these are joined by a clash between Moscow and Ankara, and another between Riyadh and Tehran, and all this besides Iraq’s decomposition and the rise of Islamic State.

Meanwhile, Israel’s American patron and Iranian nemesis are having an affair, while Russia and Egypt, which once formed between them the most potent anti-Israeli axis, now join hands with Israel in confronting an Islamist insurgency in Sinai.

Faced with this dizzying strategic commotion, some claim that its main feature is the Sunni-Shi’ite cleavage, and that Israel is firmly positioned on its Sunni side. That is very inaccurate.

Yes, the Shi’ite universe is currently hostile to Israel, unlike the days when the Shah’s Iran was Israel’s main regional ally. However, there is no such Sunni anchor either, and besides that, the Sunni world is itself split between Islamic State and the rest, and also between Egypt and Turkey. Israel has Sunni allies; but in the rift within Islam, it cannot play any role.

Almost wherever Israel looks, its best choice is to keep quiet and stay away. It is also its inclination.

In Syria, considering its government’s alliance with Iran, one might have expected Israel to side with President Bashar Assad’s enemies.

That has not happened. Instead, Israel realized early on that despite its revulsion with Assad’s record, both toward Israel and toward his own people, those in a position to succeed him might well be worse.

The result is a strict policy of neutrality, underscored by the IDF’s medical assistance to the civil war’s victims and compromised only once and on the margins, when the IDF warned last year it would not allow a massacre in the Druse village of al-Hadr, outside the border fence on the Golan. Jerusalem’s apparent policy of attacking Syrian arms shipments to Hezbollah is neither intended nor understood as taking sides in the civil war.

The same reflex is at play with the rest of the Arab civil wars. Israel says nothing and apparently does nothing about the fighting in Libya, Yemen and Iraq, nor about the ongoing strife in Lebanon and Bahrain.

Obviously, when it comes to the Sunni states’ clash with Iran, and to their war on Islamist terrorism, Israel is not neutral. Yet this cooperation is shallow. The Arab side does not want to be seen openly waltzing with Israel, and Israel, too, prefers that its collaboration with a government like Saudi Arabia’s remain discrete. That is why Israel will not openly say anything about Riyadh’s rift with Tehran, even though its sympathies are obviously with the Saudis.

Even in Egypt, where Israel is clearly on the Sisi government’s side in its ongoing war with its Islamist opponents, Jerusalem’s help is extended far from the public eye.

And even with Iraqi Kurdistan, where according to foreign reports Israel now buys much of its oil, relations remain secret and informal.

Yes, the Kurds are seen in Jerusalem as a long-term investment, a natural ally with a history of Israeli assistance harking back to the 1960s. Yet in these days of incessant and sudden conflagrations right and left, Israel is doing its best not to be seen as taking sides.

This attitude has been particularly clear in the Turkish-Russian row.

JERUSALEM has said nothing about the rift between Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan.

In the meantime, like Switzerland during the two world wars, the Jewish state is trading with this conflict’s two sides, and may in fact benefit from their reduced trade.

The Russian decision to stop buying Turkish fruit and vegetables leads naturally to Israeli alternatives, while Turkey’s fear of depending on Russia’s gas supplies is leading it to seek alternative supplies from Israel.

To top it all, Turkey wants to restore Israeli tourism, which thrived until the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, and which it hopes will compensate for the Russian tourism it has just lost due to Putin’s command.

Israel can afford these kinds of overtures to Turkey because belligerents generally tolerate neutral countries doing business with their enemies.

Still, Israel’s budding rapprochement with Turkey is unnerving Ankara’s other enemies, the Greeks and Cypriots, which Jerusalem has been cultivating as strategic alternatives following Erdogan’s abandonment of his predecessors’ alliance with the Jewish state.

The evolving result of these contradicting processes is the same as what is happening between Israel and the Kurds: political neutrality and economic engagement. That is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will promote when he and the leaders of Greece and Cyprus hold a summit in Nicosia in two weeks.

Israel is of course not neutral when it comes to Erdogan the man, but Turkey the country is a different matter. That is why, like Finland’s brisk business with the Cold War’s antagonists, Israel will offer both the Turks and their historic enemies large portions of the gas it has begun to mine in the Mediterranean.

Economically, Israel will offer to the minerally impoverished Turks a much needed alternative to Russia’s gas, and to the financially distressed Greeks a much needed economic boost in the form of a pipeline to Europe.Politically, however, Jerusalem will effectively be telling its gas customers that it cannot take sides in their disputes. It is neutral.

Israel tried in the past to help reshape its region, twice: first, in 1982, when it hoped to democratize Lebanon and strike a peace deal with it, and then in 1993, when it tried to inspire the emergence of a New Middle East. Both experiments failed amid much bloodshed.

All Israeli decision-makers are graduates of both these traumas, as are the leaders of the opposition. While they differ on the price Israel should someday pay for peace, they agree that Israel is in no position to reshape its region or meddle in its conflicts. What it can do is quietly trade with its neighbors while shunning their increasingly intractable clashes. It’s the most sensible option for a small country living in the shadows of big belligerents.

Ask Finland.