Like nature, Israel's strategic relations abhor a vacuum. In the wake of the Obama administration's decision to drastically curtail the US's strategic alliance with Israel in the interest of American rapprochement with Iran and Syria, the Netanyahu government has been moving swiftly to fill the void.
On Monday, with Pope Benedict XVI's arrival and with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Sharm e-Sheikh, two potential strategic alliances came into view.
Building effective alliances with the Vatican and Egypt is a delicate process. Each side wants more from the other than the other can reasonably provide. But each side also has much to gain even if it doesn't achieve everything it wants. The art of alliance building is making the new ally both happy with what it gets and comfortable with not getting everything it wants. This is the task that presents itself today, as Netanyahu and his colleagues engage with both the pope and with Mubarak.
The strategic goal that Israel wishes to advance through an alliance with the Vatican is the strengthening of its international position as the sole sovereign in Jerusalem. The strategic goal it wishes to advance with Egypt is the prevention of Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons.
UNDER POPE BENEDICT XVI, the possibility of winning the support of the Catholic Church for Israel's position that Jerusalem will never again be partitioned and will remain under perpetual Israeli sovereignty is greater than it was under his predecessors. Unlike his predecessors, Benedict has been outspoken in his concern for the plight of Christian minorities in Islamic countries. During his visit to Amman he made a point of speaking out for the protection of Iraqi Christians who are under attack from all quarters. Since he replaced Pope John Paul II, Benedict has made repeated calls for religious tolerance and freedom in Islamic countries – most notably in his 2006 speech at Regensberg where he quoted a Byzantine emperor from the Middle Ages criticizing Islam for seeking to spread its message by the sword.
After his words sparked murderous violence throughout the Islamic world, Benedict expressed his regret for the hurt his statement caused. But he never retracted it. Moreover, during his visit to the King Hussein Mosque in Amman on Saturday, Benedict indirectly reasserted his 2006 message. When he said, "It is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society," Benedict was reinforcing – if cryptically – his basic criticism of Islam.
The pope's obvious recognition of the danger jihadist Islam constitutes for Christians puts the Vatican, under his leadership, in a position where it could be more interested than it was in the past in working with Israel to secure the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem by supporting Israeli control of the city.
The pope made this possibility even more apparent in his homily at Mount Nevo. Standing on the mountain where Moses gazed at the Land of Israel, Benedict spoke of "the inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people." As he put it, "From the beginning, the Church in these lands has commemorated in her liturgy the great figures of the patriarchs and prophets, as a sign of her profound appreciation of the unity of the two Testaments. May our encounter today inspire in us a renewed love for the canon of sacred Scripture and a desire to overcome all obstacles to the reconciliation of Christians and Jews in mutual respect and cooperation in the service of that peace to which the word of God calls us!"
In saying this, the pope made clear that he views the preservation of Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem as essential for Christian heritage. The Islamic Wakf, which would control the city's holy sites in the event of its partition, has already gone to great lengths to systematically destroy the ruins of the Temple Mount and the Jewish and Christian heritage of the holy basin through archeological theft, illegal building and digging.
ISRAEL'S ABILITY to embrace the Vatican as an ally and so advance an alliance with the Church regarding Jerusalem is constrained from its perspective by the legacy of the Church's behavior during the Holocaust. Politically, this constraint is manifested in the Vatican's stated desire to canonize Pope Pius XII.
Quite simply, no government in Jerusalem has the moral right to ignore weighty allegations that Pope Pius XII collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. It is because of this moral imperative to remain vigilant in seeking justice for our murdered brethren that successive governments have strained relations with the Vatican by objecting to Pius XII's canonization.
What the government can do is encourage Holocaust historians and Yad Vashem to engage their Catholic counterparts in a joint study – through conferences and research – of the allegations against Pius XII. Such discussions have taken place between Vatican scholars and Yad Vashem over the years, most recently in March. Israel should offer to institutionalize them.
Specifically worthy of a joint study are the revelations made in January 2007 by Lt.-Gen. Ion Pacepa, the former head of the Romanian KGB, that the allegations against Pius XII were the brainchild of the KGB. In an article published in National Review, Pacepa, who when he defected to the US in 1978 became the highest ranking Soviet-bloc defector, claimed that in the late 1950s the KGB began perceiving the Catholic Church as the primary threat to its control over Eastern Bloc countries. Consequently, in 1960 the KGB decided to wage a campaign to destroy its moral authority. Since Pius had died two years earlier, the decision was made to castigate him as a Nazi collaborator. Already dead, he was in no position to defend himself.
Pacepa alleged that the 1964 play The Deputy, which opened the floodgates of criticism against Pius, was written by the KGB and that its presumed author, Rolf Hochhuth, was a communist fellow traveler. He claimed that the basis for the play was documents that Romanian KGB agents disguised as Catholic priests had purloined from the Vatican archives. Those documents, he alleged, were then doctored at KGB headquarters in Moscow.
Former CIA director James Woolsey has vouched for Pacepa's personal credibility. Pacepa's memoir Red Horizons formed the basis for the indictment and conviction of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed in 1989.
At the same time, it is impossible to fully accept Pacepa's assertions in light of the Vatican's refusal to open its wartime archives.
If Israeli scholars are willing to engage Catholic counterparts in an open exchange of information on Pius XII's wartime record that allows for new verifiable information to be fairly assessed, whatever the eventual results of the research, Israel would be able to clear some of the acrid air that makes it difficult to gain Vatican cooperation on pressing concerns like strengthening its diplomatic standing on the issue of Jerusalem. And again, this is in the Church's own strategic interest since it wishes to preserve and ensure free access to Christian and Jewish holy sites there.
THEN THERE IS EGYPT. In his videotaped address to the AIPAC conference last week Netanyahu made the case for a strategic alliance with Egypt when he said, "For the first time in my lifetime… Arabs and Jews see a common danger… There is a great challenge afoot. But that challenge also presents great opportunities. The common danger is echoed by Arab leaders throughout the Middle East; it is echoed by Israel repeatedly… And if I had to sum it up in one sentence, it is this: Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons."
Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2006, Egypt has demonstrated repeatedly that it supports Israel
in its fight against Iran and its proxies. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia supported Israel in the war against Iran's Hizbullah proxy in Lebanon in 2006. They supported it in its war against Iran's Hamas proxy in Gaza in Operation Cast Lead this past December and January.
Egypt helped Israel by keeping its border with Gaza closed and by allowing the IAF to overfly Egyptian airspace en route to attacking Iranian weapons convoys in Sudan destined for Gaza. Moreover, with Egypt's rejection last week of the Obama administration's attempt to link action against Iran's nuclear weapons installations to Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Mubarak and his associates in Cairo have made clear that they will support Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear installations.
On the other hand, as the self-proclaimed leader of the Arab world, Egypt is a main sponsor of the Palestinian war against Israel and a leader in the campaign to delegitimize Israel internationally. The Mubarak regime may risk its own domestic stability it if is perceived as supporting Israel since the overwhelming majority of Egyptians are hateful toward Israel and Jews. Furthermore, today Egypt has Jordan to consider.
The Obama administration has clearly enlisted King Abdullah II to act as its proxy in the Arab world for coercing Egypt and the Gulf states to deny support for Israel on Iran for as long as it maintains its refusal to give more of its land to the Palestinians. Given Jordan's new role, Egypt and the Gulf states have been put in an even more awkward situation vis-à-vis Israel and Iran.
To contend with this situation, the Netanyahu government would do well to hew very closely to the line that Netanyahu set out in his address to AIPAC. There he made clear that there will be no chance of peace with the Palestinians as long as Iran and its proxies remain ascendant.
Netanyahu would also do well to recall that the reason that Egypt and Saudi Arabia ended up accepting Hizbullah control over Lebanon and Hamas control over Gaza is because under the Olmert government, Israel failed to defeat them. Had Israel routed Hizbullah in 2006 and Hamas this past December and January, Egypt may have adopted a different position relating to the Palestinians.
So too, like Israel, today Egypt views preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and weakening its Hizbullah and Hamas proxies as a paramount national interest. If, with Egyptian assistance Israel is able to successfully prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the regional dynamic relating to the Palestinians – who support Iran – as well as the political standing of the Obama administration – which is enabling Iran to acquire nuclear weapons – may change. So Israel's best practice regarding Egypt is to buy time on the Palestinian issue while successfully preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Building alliances is difficult business. And recognizing their limitations as well as their potential requires courage and patience. But today the opportunity to build new relationships is clear. Israel's great challenge going forward then is to seize the moment.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.