Crazier ideas have worked before. The Israeli security sector is very uneasy with what’s happening right now across the Golan. Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez have never been friendly, but the Israel-Syria conflict has long been stabilized and fought through proxies. There’s a worry that the fall of the House of Assad will yield more urgent tension–at best, a fledgling government may attempt to shore up support by getting pushy about the Golan Heights. At worst, they see a small chance that Israel will have unstable Islamist governments in its two historic state rivals, plus Hezbollah on its northern border. What can Israel do to prevent that unhappy geopolitical outcome? More than you’d think.
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An anonymous Free Syrian Army officer, speaking to London’s Asharq al-Awsat, said that the militia is buying weapons from a number of sources, including the Assad-sympathetizing shabiha militia. This shows the danger that Assad has put himself in with his many unsavory bedfellows. The Shabiha got their start as (to borrow a phrase from Assad’s lexicon) armed gangs that made their money through smuggling that the regime tolerated as long as they remained loyal. Now, while they help Assad wipe out his unarmed opponents by day, they aid his armed opponents by night. That’s the cost of doing business with these types.
This might be a foretaste of a future Iranian revolution, should one occur. The IRGC, like the Shabiha, is not loyal to the regime alone–they have growing interests in the economy, including in the black market. If the Islamic Republic starts to fall apart, elements of the Pasdaran might start playing both sides in much the same fashion.
This is not the only unsettling news about semi-official forces moving weapons. There have been reports in the Israeli media that Hezbollah has taken possession of some of Syria’s formidable arsenal of chemical weapons. If they can integrate these into their array of rockets, Israel will be at a new level of vulnerability. Reports indicate that perhaps 40% of the Israeli population does not have gas masks. An all-out Hezbollah rocket attack would be a disaster for Israel; a chemical attack would be even worse. This prospect could shape Israel’s strategic calculations toward Hezbollah and its allies Syria and Iran.
Newt Gingrich has found himself at the center of a firestorm after remarks in an interview in which he called the Palestinians “an invented people,” stating that they are Arabs first and foremost. This has predictably drawn heavy criticism from his rivals to the GOP nomination and from Palestinian leaders. Saeb Erakat even called the remark “the most racist statement [he’s] ever seen.” Gingrich’s remarks in full:
I believe that the Jewish people have the right to have a state. Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, who are historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places and for a variety of political reasons, we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s. I think it’s tragic.
Yeah, it’s simplistic. It’s hard to argue, for starters, that Arabs strongly identified with the Ottoman Empire that conquered them–it’s typically regarded by Turks and Arabs alike as a dark age. It’s also a bit silly to talk about how Palestinians “had a chance to go many places,” considering that Palestinian refugees are still second-class citizens in many Arab states, even if they’ve been there for generations.
But let’s give the former Speaker some intellectual credit. (He is, after all, to use his own words, “the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson,” in what be the only time the name Wilson was referenced glowingly by a Republican.) There is, in fact, a historical rivalry of the Palestinian and Arab identities, and it plays a prominent role in pan-Arabist thought, especially that which originated in Egypt. Mr. Gingrich is, in other words, a Nasserite. Nasser wanted to unite all Arab peoples in one state. One of the fundamental goals of pan-Arabism, by geopolitical necessity, was thus the elimination of Israel, as Israel physically divides the Arab world into two parts. He thus saw the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 as a serious threat to pan-Arabism, because it claimed that a Palestinian movement, not an Arab one, was most suited to the task of returning Palestine to Arab rule, and because it replaced the notion of one unified Arab people with parochialism. Nasser’s Syrian rivals were wise to this, and accordingly heavily backed the PLO and other Palestinian movements, allowing them to use Syrian territory and weaponry to conduct guerrilla raids into Israel.
Recall also that in Nasser’s day the territories which we now call Palestine–the West Bank and the Gaza Strip–were not Palestinian. Gaza was a part of Egypt; the West Bank a part of Jordan. Both Egypt and Jordan had very difficult relationships with their Palestinian subjects, but they were nevertheless in control. Advocacy of a return to this era is known as the three-state solution; it’s extremely unpopular because the Palestinian populations were never really beholden to or respected by Cairo and Amman. To advocate it is to ignore the last 50 years of Middle Eastern history. That’s the most charitable interpretation of what Gingrich was saying–namely, the best solution for Palestine is for it to be absorbed by its neighbors. The less charitable interpretation, and what I suspect Gingrich actually intended to convey when he spoke, is that Israel should control both the West Bank and Gaza, and that the Palestinians should leave these areas and go live somewhere else. This position is most closely matched by the old Gush Emunim movement, which sought to settle the West Bank and Gaza to hasten the return of the Messiah. It’s a position that is not advocated by any major Israeli party. Gingrich, in his effort to show his pro-Israel credentials, positioned himself to the right of almost everyone in Israel. It’s a bit reminiscent of Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress earlier this year, in which the Israeli PM was repeatedly interrupted by applause, despite the fact that he made several remarks that were, in the Israeli context, partisan.
Gingrich’s remarks, then, weren’t as wildly unjustifiable and racist as they seemed, but they also did not show he has a deep “professorial” understanding of the challenges of the Middle East. As it turns out, his aides have stepped in to end the controversy, saying that Gingrich favors a two-state solution: “a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.” However, the spokesman added,
understanding “what is being proposed and negotiated” requires a grasp of “decades of complex history — which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview.”
Comment I wrote for a course; the topic is two articles in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, pitched as a debate on Israel’s current weak international position. The first is Ronald R. Krebs’ “Israel’s Bunker Mentality: How the Occupation Is Destroying the Nation.” The second is Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner’s “The Problem is Palestinian Rejectionism: Why the PA Must Recognize a Jewish State.” Both articles are well-written and worth reading, but both, in my opinion, miss the mark.
I had only intended to write two posts on Israel’s bad week. However, sometimes a lot happens in a week. The fallout with the Turks expanded, with Erdogan threatening to use Turkey’s military to protect aid vessels traveling to Gaza. Such an action could start a war, which would certainly jeopardize Ankara’s standing in NATO. Still, no nation likes to be threatened with military involvement by an ally. Last night’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, however, is the icing on the cake for the Jewish state’s awful week. Protests outside the embassy were not tolerated under Mubarak; now, they’ve become regular, and they’ve been growing more intense for weeks. An Egyptian man scaled the building in which the Embassy is housed and removed the Israeli flag; during his arrest, soldiers hoisted him above the crowd like a hero. In subsequent nights, protesters launched fireworks at the embassy’s windows. With a view to relieving tension, the government built a large Berlin Wall-like barricade in front of the building; a few nights ago, protesters tore it down with, among other things, a large makeshift battering ram.
In the past several hours, however, unrest crescendoed. Protesters breached the building and then the embassy itself, throwing sheaves of documents from its windows and again removing the flag from its balcony. Several embassy personnel were reportedly inside when the protesters entered, and barricaded themselves in a room; a security agent on the phone with Foreign Ministry officials reportedly asked them to tell his family of his death in person rather than by telephone should the last door fall.
The other reason Benjamin Netanyahu is probably not sleeping well tonight is an American whisper campaign. Recently retired Defense Secretary and Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates called him “ungrateful,” suggesting that Israel is offering America little in return for many favors. At the same time, the New York Times has run a story on an FBI Hebrew translator who was jailed for leaking information gleaned by American espionage about Israeli efforts to influence the American political system. There was a saying among American spies operating in Moscow that “once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” Given the sensitivity and care with which America manages its relationship with the Levantine power, we can likely lower our standards of evidence–this is a coordinated, deliberate action.
It’s been a rough week in Israel. After PM Netanyahu refused to offer more than regrets for the flotilla incident after the release of an ambiguous official report, Turkey sent home Israel’s ambassador and announced plans for a range of sanctions. Meanwhile, reports have emerged that recently retired US defense secretary Robert Gates was a harsh critic of Israel behind the scenes, and that his criticisms were not met with objections by other senior officials. Either one of these events happening alone would be unsettling; the two happening in the same week surely has Israeli leaders sweating from more than just the late summer heat.
The Turkish affair comes amidst a steady deterioration of relations. The rise of the Islamist-lite AK Party in Israel’s ally was very worrisome to some Israelis (and many Turks) who see its moderate rhetoric as a mask for a darker agenda. Erdogan, Gul, and Davutoglu led the Republic away from an increasingly unfriendly Europe and towards greater influence in the Middle East, with little regard for the alignments of the factions from which they sought influence. Realists found this tactic quite familiar and thus downplayed reports of a fundamental Turkish shift even when Ankara’s stance after the flotilla incident was effectively pro-Hamas. This was a credible position—while the rhetoric flying between Turkey and Israel was heated, cooperation continued behind the scenes, including in crucial areas like security.
The zero change thesis is now becoming harder to maintain. Erdogan has promised the total suspension of all dimensions of Turkish-Israeli relations, including not just military aspects, but also trade (the latter being $3 billion per annum). Erdogan is prone to overstatement, and an anonymous official later said that the Prime Minister was only referring to a stoppage of military trade, rather than all commercial activity. However, this is still (to paraphrase another famous misspeaker in contemporary global leadership) a big deal. The falling out has now begun to damage the hard elements of the relationship—a changed Turkey is all but undeniable.
The LA Times has a rundown of Israeli preparations for September protests related to the Palestinian UN recognition bid:
As Palestinian leaders rally West Bank residents on Facebook and activists prepare campaigns against Jewish settlements and military checkpoints, Israel’s Defense Ministry has spent about $22 million on new riot gear and police have canceled September vacations.
[ . . . ]
To prepare, the military is stockpiling tear gas dispensers, rubber bullets, stun grenades and so-called skunk water cannons, which spray a foul-smelling liquid and have been used to disperse weekly Palestinian protests against the separation barrier in Bilin and other villages.
Yisrael Beiteinu FM Avigdor Lieberman is predictably agitated:
When you prepare a demonstration in which tens of thousands will storm the Kalandia checkpoint, everyone can just imagine what would happen if 30,000 or 40,000 people try to forcefully enter Israel. How are soldiers and officers supposed to react?
The article does suggest that Palestinian activists have been unable to achieve effective organization so far. However, the mere possibility of a major crisis, the mere possibility of massacres, riots, bombings, is all avoidable. The Iranian government referred to its war with Iraq as the Imposed War. If strife breaks out, IDF grunts might have a similar nickname for this conflict. Israeli PM Netanyahu’s fear of UN recognition is at odds with Israeli history and the facts on the ground, as I’ve discussed before. Misperception is extremely dangerous in politics. If cooler heads don’t prevail, this will be demonstrated–Netanyahu will give Israel a crisis it cannot profit from and could have avoided.
Mideast journalist Patrick Seale has a new column in the Diplomat asserting that Iran has “defeated” Obama, whose alleged policies of “demonizing” the Islamic Republic continue to throw away a golden chance at engagement. It’s unusual to see a piece so full of errors in a major publication, so I felt it would be worth addressing.
Obama did misread Iran, but in precisely the opposite direction from that which Seale alleges. The candidate Obama took a very open, soft stance to Iran, making promises of face-to-face meetings with no preconditions. Obama meant it, too–it was, in technical terms, a costly signal, for Clinton and McCain criticized him for it relentlessly, yet he stuck to his guns. Obama thought that by opening America’s ears to Tehran, there would be a change in calculations as the mullahs realized that the US was not an eternal enemy and that our two nations share some common interests and, beneath the chador of the state’s harsh Islamism, a lot of common culture. Those taking this position have a lot of explaining to do–how can America even be neutral towards a major proliferator and sponsor of terror, how can it ignore the soldiers dead from Iranian bombs in Iraq, how can it ignore the tragic repression of one of the world’s most ancient cultures? However, it’s not a totally indefensible position by any means. There are always glimmers of hope emerging from beneath the system, and the hardline stance of the regime gives it few friends–shouldn’t it want to reach out? Can’t the perennial appearance of reformists be a sign of a chance for detente?
You have to wonder about the timing of this story–with the debt ceiling thing on everyone’s minds around the world, it’s a great time to slip in a new policy without getting a lot of bad press. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a serious peace bid for the first time in his tenure. The basis of negotiation will be pre-Six Day War 1967 borders, and Palestine will trade land in its territory that hosts settlements for Israeli land beyond the 1967 lines–there will be “mutually agreed swaps.” That phrase, of course, is taken from Barack Obama, who was subjected to extensive criticism for it from his own domestic audience, even though everybody from Toronto to Tehran knows that that is the only realistic basis for peace talks. Any peace policy that doesn’t recognize the Palestinians’ more reasonable claims (i.e., we’re leaving out right of return here) will not get their support–any such policy is not a policy. The folks at J Street must have been extremely unhappy, as the criticism of Obama was a testimony the ability of the Likudniks–and not left-leaning groups like themselves–to get their talking points airtime, regardless of sensibility. To see Israel’s reliably rightist PM quietly taking a position that just a few weeks ago was deplored as foolish pie-in-the-sky leftism in the US shows the very weird way that the Middle East peace process is discussed in America.
But back to Bibi. It’s obvious that the reason he’s suddenly making serious steps in the peace process is the Palestinian bid for increased recognition at the UN next month. As I’ve argued in this space many times before, Israel has nothing to worry about from this. It will move the peace process forward by about an inch, because Palestine already has standing to take a lot of actions in international forums, and because the peace process will forever be between Israel and Palestine only, not Israel and the international community. An Israeli Prime Minister, especially one as seasoned as Netanyahu, should know that. Elements in the international community have been at Israel’s throat since Ben Gurion read out the Declaration of Independence, and Israel has continued to exist and thrive. In spite of this, there have been many rumors that Netanyahu was terrified of the UN bid, that he thought it would bring a “diplomatic tsunami” against Israel. We can now see that those rumors are true. They fit perfectly with Netanyahu’s image as a paranoid politico, always watching his back for maneuvers. That’s a sensible stance in the chaotic world of the Knesset, but it’s a bad way to make decisions in a state protected by one of the world’s most effective militaries and sitting on strategic, surprisingly defensible land. Netanyahu has restarted the peace process on realistic grounds due to threats from an imagined enemy. It’s as if Don Quixote, while jousting windmills, had accidentally lanced a real giant.