Middle East atemporal

Decembrie 21, 2011

Victor Kotsev : Israel in the midst of the Arab winter

Filed under: Uncategorized — mihaibeltechi @ 7:19 am

With Egypt slowly descending into chaos and Syria in a state of a civil war, many analysts fear that the Arab Spring may be turning into a bitter Arab winter. It will likely take years to comprehend the full extent of the changes that are happening, and the basic status quo in the region stands to be transformed significantly. The two conflicts that currently loom over every other issue in the Middle East, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Iran standoff, also stand to be transformed, whether by exploding into violence, by falling out of fashion, or in some other way.

In the middle of all this sits Israel, one of the main regional powers in the Middle East, as well as, right now, one of the most stable economies in the world (a dubious honor, given its size and dependence on trade links and foreign aid). Many eyes are set on it: the decisions that its leaders must make in the next year, for example whether to attack Iran or what, if any, concessions to
make to the Palestinians, can alter the course of events in the entire region, and perhaps in the entire world.
At the same time, and in contrast with this formidable reputation which they enjoy, the Israeli leaders are just as anxious about the future (we can infer this much from their statements and from leaks in the Israeli media). Although they recognize that the lack of representative democracy among their neighbors is a major impediment to a stable and comprehensive peace agreement, they are suspicious of anything coming from the Arabs.

So is the majority of the Israeli public – in this way, at least, the Benjamin Netanyahu government is entirely representative of its constituency. Growing numbers of Israelis have stopped believing that an end to the conflict is possible in their lifetimes.

„It is not a question of if there will be a war,” a 24-year-old friend of mine in Tel Aviv likes to say. „It is a question of when.” Sometimes, she adds with just a touch of bitterness in her voice a sentence along the lines of: „My children will be fighting the same war, and their children, too.”

That belief is largely motivated by history. War has been a constant companion of modern Israeli history since the fateful day, May 14, 1948, when David Ben Gurion declared Israeli independence. The very next day the Arab armies invaded. The war was bloody and lasted almost a year; Israel surprised most international observers by winning, though in retrospect careful military analysis has shown that after a certain point fairly early in the conflict, the Israeli victory was all but guaranteed.

The influential American think-tank Stratfor describes the geostrategic situation of Israel in the following way:

The exterior lines of Israel’s neighbors prevented effective, concerted action. Israel’s interior lines permitted efficient deployment and redeployment of force. It was not obvious at the time [1948], but in retrospect we can see that once Israel existed, was united and had even limited military force, its survival was guaranteed. That is, so long as no great power was opposed to its existence.

… The conquests of Israel occur when powers not adjacent to it begin forming empires. Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, Rome, Turkey and Britain all controlled Israel politically, sometimes for worse and sometimes for better. Each dominated it militarily, but none was a neighbor of Israel. This is a consistent pattern. Israel can resist its neighbors; danger arises when more distant powers begin playing imperial games. Empires can bring force to bear that Israel cannot resist.

Israel therefore has this problem: It would be secure if it could confine itself to protecting its interests from neighbors, but it cannot confine itself because its geographic location invariably draws larger, more distant powers toward Israel. Therefore, while Israel’s military can focus only on immediate interests, its diplomatic interests must look much further. Israel is constantly entangled with global interests (as the globe is defined at any point), seeking to deflect and align with broader global powers. When it fails in this diplomacy, the consequences can be catastrophic. [1]

This is an apt summary not only of Israel’s ancient history, but of the last six decades as well. The new country did not become a regional hegemon immediately; several major regional wars followed the one in 1948-1949. The Six-Day War in 1967 was by far the most spectacular demonstration of Israeli ingenuity, courage, meticulous preparation, superb intelligence and full utilization of the element of surprise – qualities and tactics that have since become the hallmark of the Israeli military doctrine. At the end of that war, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and much of the Golan Heights. In military terms, that meant securing a certain amount of strategic depth, though also spreading out forces and stretching supply lines across greater distances.

The October War in 1973 – known in Israel as the Yom Kippur War – saw several dramatic reverses. The Egyptians launched it with a surprise attack across the Suez Canal, overwhelming the Israeli defenses. The Syrians followed suit. Recently declassified records reveal unmitigated panic at the highest levels of the Israeli government in the first days of the war. The following excerpt from a conversation between Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister at the time, and Moshe Dayan, a legendary hero of the 1967 war and Meir’s defense minister, is particularly revealing:

Golda Meir: „They have no reason not to continue. They smelled blood.”

Moshe Dayan: „To conquer Israel, finish off the Jews.” [2]

The Israeli army eventually pulled itself together and won the war – though not without the help of a massive weapons air lift from the United States, the new superpower ally the Jewish State had acquired in 1967. Rumor has it that the Israelis threatened to nuke the Arabs in order to secure American generosity, but neither party will comment – in any case, Israel sticks to an official policy of ambiguity on any topic related to its nuclear program.

The war in 1973 was the last big regional war, at least for several decades to come, and was arguably a major turning point for both sides. Up until that moment, the Arabs had never given up the hope of wiping the Jewish state off the map; they had rejected practically every Israeli effort to negotiate, as demonstrated by the famous three „nos” of the Khartoum summit of the Arab League following the 1967 war: no to peace, no to recognition, and no to negotiations.

However, just as the Arabs were finally shaken in their confidence in 1973 (and forced to realize that Israel was there to stay), so too were the Israelis. They had started to rely too heavily on their military prowess, which had in part enabled the Egyptians to surprise them. More importantly, they were shocked to see how quickly their enemies could recover from the 1967 rout with aid from the USSR, the rival superpower of the US in the Cold War which was raging at the time. The Soviets had generously supplied the Egyptians and the Syrians with equipment, military doctrines, and even instructors to help train their armies.

Gradually, the Israelis began to understand that, when heavily outnumbered and surrounded by what they perceived as a „sea” of close to 300 million Arabs, no victory was conclusive, and a single defeat could mean their end. This in turn fed into an earlier fear, the fear of the destruction of the Jewish people which had almost been realized three decades earlier during the Holocaust, and which the initial military exploits of the Jewish State had somewhat mitigated.

Arguably, these realizations also eroded the confidence that even a comprehensive peace treaty – something that traditionally would follow lopsided victories such as those that had been achieved – would guarantee Israeli security. The Israeli public became altogether disillusioned with the prospects for lasting peace.

Peace treaties remained highly desirable – not least due to the economic benefits and the generous American military aid they tend to entail – and Israel sealed a couple of deals, with Egypt and Jordan, in the decades following the Yom Kippur war. Still, just as the Arabs started to shift toward a position that welcomed negotiations, the Israelis started to pull back.

These shifts in Israeli attitude were not immediately noticeable after 1973; it took almost three decades, the apparent failure of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s and the Palestinian suicide terror of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, for Israelis to become more or less apathetic to the peace process. The prominent Canadian-Israeli journalist and academic Bernard Avishai, an important figure in the Israeli peace movement, describes this poignantly. In a public lecture taped in October 2008, he relates his experience returning to Israel in 2002 after not living there since the 1970s.

I began to notice … that no one used the term „peace process” any more. No one would talk about diplomatic initiatives, no one would look at the details of the peace process any more. And I as a journalist whose last year living in Israel was the year of the First Camp David Agreement in 1979 was a little mystified because in 1979 we used to do nothing but think about „if Sadat does x, will Dayan do y. If Carter does y, will … Assad do z” … and so on. We spent a lot of time agonizing, torturing ourselves over the likelihood of this or that diplomatic move, and this continued through to the 1990s and the Oslo peace process … No one was talking about this any more. People were talking about „hamatzav” – „the situation.” Hamatzav. And they spoke about the situation a little like the way alcoholics speak about being alcoholic. It’s a condition that you manage, but you never expect, ever, for the rest of your existence, to cure… [3]

For Avishai and for other prominent Israeli peace activists, the cause of this apparent political apathy is internal rather than external: an unresolved conflict among Israelis.

Avishai speaks of a sizeable group of ideological Jewish hardliners, „for whom Jerusalem is the kind of anchor for a Jewish state like Iran is a Muslim state. They believe in theocracy, they want a theocracy. That kind of person is deeply threatened by the influx of Arabs. It’s not a problem that they are coming to Old Israel, it’s they are coming to Judea.”

He calls them „Judeans”, and contrasts them to the „Israelis”. „The real question is: About 2/3 of Israel is Israeli. About 1/3 of Israel is Judean, and sort of concentrated around [Jerusalem and the settlements]. Are Israelis going to fight Judeans for the sake of Palestinians? … These Israelis can make peace with the Palestinian state, but these Judeans cannot.”

„Fight” is a strong word to use, perhaps, and the idea of a civil war between Israelis of different political persuasions seemed almost absurd right now. (This is despite the occasional act of vandalism by extreme right-wing settlers against the Israeli army or the occasional dirty diaper or rock thrown against the Israeli police by disgruntled ultra-Orthodox youth.) Yet even so, emigration is constantly perceived as an existential danger; besides, faced with so many enemies, Israel usually needs all the solidarity it could muster – anything less is understood as a jeopardy.

Consequently, Israelis are loath to take steps that could threaten their social consensus – particularly in exchange for uncertain returns. Most have adapted to the reality of war, and, like the inhabitants of other parts of the world plagued by intractable conflicts, have learned to seek a certain kind of normalcy or stability within that reality.

The Israeli government takes a similar approach, resisting fundamental changes in the status quo, trying to seal itself off from neighbors, and maneuvering to adapt to anything that happens in the region. There are many threats, including very recent ones: after the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak last February, for example, the Israeli defense establishment has felt compelled to dust off contingency plans for a possible collapse of the peace treaty in the future. The instability in Syria, which is threatening to bring down the hostile but predictable Syrian regime, adds suspense.

The crisis with Iran also looms. It is hard to believe that Israel would attack on its own, without at least tacit American consent and support. However, Israel’s ability to surprise is well-known.

Many uncertainties remain. The Israeli economy is doing well, but a new recession in Europe and the US may reverse that in months, if not weeks. Given that thousands of missiles are pointed at Israel’s small territory, a war could cause large-scale death and destruction.

Yet one need not see the future in dark colors only; a moment of crisis and uncertainty is also a moment of opportunity. It is also possible to imagine optimistic scenarios for the Middle East. On Tuesday, for example, a senior US official announced that the death of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il had occurred just as a deal for the halting of the country’s nuclear program was being finalized. [4] The statement is suspicious for its timing, but it does point to a creative way to influence Iran’s thinking on the nuclear issue.

After all, North Korea provides not only advanced weapons and technology to Iran, but also a policy paradigm for a regime which has enjoyed security due to the possession of nuclear weapons. If (late Libyan leader) Muammar Gaddafi had not given up his nuclear program, an argument goes, he would still be alive and in power today. If, on the other hand, the North Korean regime gives way under pressure, that might affect the strategic calculus of the ayatollahs – and of other regimes in the region. If it balks, could we imagine a North Korean Spring next year?

Such a scenario, of course, is highly speculative. Realistically, as the Rolling Stones once sung, you can’t always get what you want. But then again, you usually get at least some of what you want truly, at least some of the time.


1. The Geopolitics of Israel: Biblical and Modern, , Stratfor, May 14, 2011 (Subscription or registration required)
2. “Dayan to Golda: If we can’t evacuate, we’ll leave wounded behind,” , Ynet, October 4, 2010
3. Program in Jewish Studies: Visiting Professor Lecture – Bernard Avishai (October 22, 2008), Accessed December 12, 2011
4. U.S. official: North Korea leader died just as deal was struck to halt nuclear program , Ha’aretz, December 20 2011

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.



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