How time flies in the Middle East, where a regional alliance can be formed at sunrise and then—surprise!—break up at sunset.
From that perspective, the relative durability of what became known as the “alliance of the periphery,” an informal strategic alliance between four non-Arab states in the Greater Middle East—Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, and Israel—during much of the Cold War was significant. However, the grouping is now eclipsed by Israel’s thawing relations with its formerly most implacable foes, the Arab states.
In particular, Iran and Turkey, two prominent Muslim states, were willing to cooperate with the Jewish State when the Arab-Muslim countries and most of the Islamic world refused to recognize that Israel’s existence was quite remarkable.
Historians have suggested that Israel’s success in establishing close military ties with Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia derived from the implementation of the so-called “periphery doctrine.” The idea was the joint brainchild of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and his advisor Eliahu Sassoon, himself the first Israeli diplomatic representative in Ankara.
The two believed in forming alliances with non-Arab states and forces with which Israel had no direct conflict. This not only included Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia, but also religious minorities, like the Christian Maronites in Lebanon, and non-Arab ethnic groups, such as the Kurds in Iraq. Cultivating a cohort of partners with shared interests would allow the Jewish State to emerge from its regional isolation.
Indeed, offsetting the diplomatic and economic boycott of the Arab World could be seen as part of a traditional balance of power strategy aimed at countering Egyptian Pan-Arabism, which had dominated the region since the mid-1950s.
Hence, while the Arabs saw Israel as a foreign intrusion dividing the Arab Middle East, the periphery doctrine promoted the notion of the Middle East as a mosaic of national, ethnic, and religious groups, including Israel.
Moreover, the fact of Turkey’s NATO membership and Iran and Ethiopia’s close relations with Washington and the West in the context of the Cold War dovetailed with Israel’s goal of thawing ties with the United States, which until the early 1960s imposed an arms embargo on the Jewish State.
Although Turkey and Iran initially sided with the Arabs and voted against the 1947 United Nations partition plan, they soon saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as limited to Israel and the Arab states rather than a pan-Islamic one. Ankara and Tehran had territorial disputes with the Arab states and considered them rivals for regional dominance.
Ethiopia, led by the “Lion of Judah” Emperor Haile Selassie (who, according to legend, was a descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba), established diplomatic relations with Israel that helped his country in its fight against Eritrean rebels.
Turkey recognized the State of Israel in 1949, and Iran later became the second Muslim state to do so in 1950. Before these dates, the two had even established low-level diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.
Much cooperation between Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia occurred behind the scenes between the respective militaries and the security services that dominated politics and policymaking in Tehran, Ankara, and Addis Ababa. Nevertheless, the nexus of ties never amounted to a genuine “strategic alliance.”
Iran and Turkey regarded their relationship with Israel as a way of hedging their bets and providing them with additional diplomatic and military resources to resist the pressure from aggressive Arab nationalist states. Nonetheless, geographical proximity, economic dependence on, and religious connections to the Arab World significantly constrained the ability of Tehran and Ankara to upgrade their ties with Israel, especially during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.
At the same time, Gurion and his successors regarded the periphery doctrine as a temporary strategy that needed to be sustained as long as the Arab nations refused to make peace with Israel. However, the periphery could not substitute for the central tenet in Israeli policy: peace with Arab Israel’s neighbors. Nor could it be an alternative to a strategic relationship with a global power like the United States.
The periphery doctrine proved, at best, a cost-effective form of realpolitik for Israel and eventually as a strategic illusion. Israel’s close relationship with Ethiopia and Iran collapsed after the fall of their ancien régimes and the ensuing political turmoil that engulfed each country.
Nor did the occasional military cooperation with the Maronites in Lebanon or the Kurds help terraform Israel’s position in the Middle East. If anything, in the case of Lebanon, it led to the catastrophe of the Israeli invasion of that country in 1982.
In the case of Turkey and Israel, the end of the Cold War, the democratization process in Turkey, and the strengthening of the alliance with the United States after the first Gulf War opened the door to improving the ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.
But contrary to the high expectations of neoconservative strategists, the relationship between the two countries didn’t evolve into a strategic alliance.
In fact, demonstrating the continuing sensitivity of Tukey to its ties with Arab World, it was the positive atmosphere in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the early 1990s (the Oslo Accords) that made it possible to raise the mutual diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level. A Turkish ambassador presented his credentials to President Chaim Herzog, on March 23, 1992, in Tel Aviv. The Israeli embassy is located in the capital city of Ankara.
However, the 2002 landslide victory of the conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan marked a turning point in the ties between Israel and Turkey. Erdogan insisted that his policies toward the Jewish State would be directly affected by its policies toward the Palestinians.
Interestingly enough, the collapse of the alliance of the periphery was taking place just as Israel’s relationship with the Arab World was beginning to change, starting with the Israeli-Egypt peace agreement and followed by the Oslo Process and the peace treaty with Jordan.
Indeed, one of the reasons for the effort made by the United States to accelerate the Arab-Israeli peace process has been the loss of Iran and Ethiopia as strategic allies and the threat facing the Arab oil-producing states following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
From that perspective, solidifying the Arab-Israeli core to counterbalance the Iranian threat and the challenge of an assertive Turkey created the strategic environment for the signing of the Abraham Accords. Israel has expanded its ties with four more Arab countries, along with reports about the possible normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
These changes in the balance of power in the Arab-Israeli core may explain why Erdogan is seeking to improve relations with Israel. In the long run, the current Saudi-Iranian détente could encourage the Iranians to reassess their relationship with Israel.
Israel may have established the periphery alliance in the 1950s as a tool against its Arab rivals. But it seems that today a return to that alliance goes through reconciliation with the Arab World. Or, to put it differently, to reach the second circle in the Middle East, Israel has to make peace with the first.
Dr. Leon Hadar, a contributing editor at The National Interest, has taught international relations at American University and was a research fellow with the Cato Institute. A former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, he currently covers Washington for the Business Times of Singapore and is a columnist/blogger with Israel’s Haaretz.