Israel Looks Farther Afield for Friends

Neglected on the far edge of Israel's air force museum sits an array of claptrap defensive weapons.

They were once state-of-the-art: Air superiority has long enabled Israel to boast a "kill ratio" of 41 to 1 against Arab planes, which suits the air force motto: "Results, not apologies."

But the real lesson of the rusting equipment is that, as one analyst says, the "last word" in defense technology is rarely that.

Recognizing that its military superiority and nuclear ability alone won't guarantee long-term security, Israel is quietly seeking alliances that could limit the scope of any future conflict.

For Israeli analysts, bids for acceptance from countries as distant as Turkey, South Africa, and China, make sense. For its Arab enemies, this is a return to Israel's "periphery doctrine" of the 1950s, and a cause for alarm.

"The enemy of your enemy is your friend," says Efraim Inbar of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "We are always looking for extra-regional allies."

Israel's stock went up after the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accord in 1993. And as one of the world's top high-tech military producers, Israel has much to offer willing partners.

The "periphery doctrine" was first put forward in 1956 by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who said that Israel must search out friends in "outer ring" states to outflank adjacent enemies of the "inner ring."

Israeli analysts say shifts in the region mean the doctrine no longer applies. To stalwarts of the inner ring, Israel's efforts smack of Zionist conspiracy and a political grab for strategic depth.

"Israel is looking at ... Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan, and who will have the Islamic atomic bomb," says Mamdouh Anis Fathy, a retired Egyptian general with the semiofficial Al-Ahram think tank in Cairo. "Israel is now trying to accomplish the Zionism project, to be the regional superpower," he says. "They think they may fight a war against the whole world in the next decade."

Israel's policy of boosting its population with Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet bloc and Ethiopia, a 30-year aim of settling Jews in occupied Arab territory, and its nuclear power all point to a "Rambo" mentality that it justifies with its "holy book," he says.

That analysis is "one-dimensional and incorrect," counters Joseph Alpher, a defense specialist and director of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem. When Israel was surrounded by enemies bent on its destruction, strategists looked for non-Arab states that "had their own problems with the Arab nation," he says.

The peace process has undercut the policy. Two key regimes, Iran and Ethiopia, were overthrown. And Israel saw that "Arab countries were no longer cut from the same cloth," Mr. Alpher says.

But examples of Israel's creative diplomacy today still hint at a well-planned strategy. A new military friendship with Turkey, for example, has become the strongest in the Middle East since 1995, and benefits both sides.

Israel has set other startling precedents. It kept ties with Iran for years after the 1979 Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the pro-Western shah.

Under Iran's new Islamic regime, Israel served as the secret link between the US and Iranian leaders as the US sought the release of American hostages kidnapped in Lebanon. Though ties were presumed cut long ago, an Israeli businessman indicted in May for selling chemical-weapons material to Iran insists his deals were well known to Israeli defense officials.

The outer ring stretched as far as South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, and extended to Ethiopia. Current ties focus on Eritrea, to the north of Ethiopia, which enables Israel to watch its potential enemies on the Red Sea.

Israel has signed a 1995 defense cooperation agreement with Russia, and sought to supply a $400-million upgrade of India's Russian weapons systems and fighter planes, according to the weekly Defense News in Springfield, Va. Israel has also assisted China in developing a jet fighter.

"Part of the periphery is not relevant anymore," says Ze'ev Schiff, an analyst for Israel's Haaretz newspaper. "Now we are looking to create a different buffer."

For Israel's immediate neighbors, the connections add up to a growing threat. "The area that Israeli leaders consider to comprise their strategic interests is extensive," says Egypt's al-Ahram weekly. "[It] can only be covered by a sizable arsenal of medium- and long-range missiles and delivery systems."

Maj. Gen. Fathy in Cairo explains: "[The Israelis] don't trust any state - only the US, if it still supports them," he says. "But they have to trust the others, because only peace will give solutions for everything."

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