Focus: Tomorrow’s Flashpoints
Yes, I think it’s time we intervened. By intervention, I mean the kind where a bunch of people sit down with a good friend and have a heart-to-heart talk with them about their self-destructive behavior. That kind of intervention. And which friend should we sit down with?
I’m not the only one to think so; a fair number of Israelis agree that someone needs to talk sense to their government. Before Israeli tanks even crossed into Gaza last December, 10,000 Israelis demonstrated against the war in the streets of Tel Aviv – a number which surprised even the demonstration organizers. It’s pretty interesting the extent to which Israel is portrayed, at least in this country, as a nation united behind the need for “decisive” military action. Maybe it’s not so amazing that a lot of Israelis are fed up when you stop to think about how unsuccessful those “decisive” actions have been at actually producing … you know … a decision.
What’s that one definition of insanity? Something about repeating the same action over and over and expecting different results?
Any discussion of Middle-Eastern violence inevitable gets tangled up with claim and counter-claim concerning which act of violence was a precipitating event and which was a response. There’s also the whole issue of proportionality of response which, although taught at the US Army War College as an integral part of the Law of War, is seen by some as too squishy and liberal a notion to merit much discussion. Okay. Forget about all that. Let’s talk about one thing and one thing only-results. Because while we may disagree about right and wrong, I think everybody recognizes stupid when they see it.
Step back, way back, and look at Israeli policy for the past forty years, and the one consistent result of that policy has been the replacement of secular Arab leadership with radical Islamic leadership. For a good part of that period – and I know this sounds unbelievable – that was, in fact, the deliberate aim of Israeli policy.
The enemy, in Israeli eyes, was the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). But the leadership of the PLO was secular (a significant number of its leaders and rank-and-file were actually Palestinian Christians), and Israel’s inability to visualize the sort of adversary it might face in place of the PLO was the genesis of the current fighting in Gaza.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy the PLO infrastructure there. Mission accomplished! The new Islamic fundamentalist group Hezbollah (”Party of God”) sprang up and filled the power vacuum left by the PLO’s forced departure, but that was okay. You see, Hezbollah was backed by Iran, and in 1982 Israel was actually helping Iran in its war against Iraq. Surely Israel’s new friendship with Iran would moderate Hezbollah’s behavior. Surely.
And why was Israel helping Iran in its war with Iraq? Because Iraq was seen as the greater threat and you have to understand, in the rough-and-tumble of real world politics: My enemy’s enemy is my friend. (See Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, by Ray Takeyh [Holt, 2007].)
Yeah. That always works out well.
Hezbollah soon grew to be the strongest force in southern Lebanon, and in combating the Israeli occupation introduced some innovative new tactics no one had really tried before on a large scale – like suicide bombing. The Hezbollah “situation” simmered for over a decade and finally boiled over in 2006, when the Israelis launched another major invasion which accomplished nothing other than greatly increasing Hezbollah’s prestige, consolidating its political position in Lebanon, and embarrassing the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
Okay, Lebanon could have worked out better. But what about occupied Gaza and the West Bank? From 1967, when the occupation began, the Israelis went after the PLO leadership (including the Palestinian Christian leadership) without relent, but practiced a strict “hands off” policy with respect to Islamic fundamentalists. Why? Because they were preaching against the PLO, and remember: My enemy’s enemy is my friend. As the Israeli columnist Uri Avnery recently observed,
“For years, the occupation authorities favored the Islamic movement in the occupied territories. All other political activities were rigorously suppressed, but their activities in the mosques were permitted. The calculation was simple and naive: at the time, the PLO was considered the main enemy, Yasser Arafat was the current Satan. The Islamic movement was preaching against the PLO and Arafat, and was therefore viewed as an ally.”
At one point the Israelis actually convinced themselves that Islamic fundamentalists would make less mischief because – wait for it – they spent all of their free time praying. (You can’t make this stuff up!) In 1987 this policy reached its logical fulfillment when the Islamic resistance united and renamed itself Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement). Did the Israelis wake up and smell the coffee at this point? Hard as you will find this to believe, the answer is no, they did not. A year later, in 1988,
“Israel forcibly exiled Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad, a Christian pacifist who advocated the use of Gandhian-style resistance to the Israeli occupation, and Israeli-Palestinian peace, while allowing (Sheik Ahmed)Yassin (co-founder of Hamas) to circulate anti-Jewish hate literature and publicly call for the destruction of Israel by force of arms.”
When the Palestinian moderate Mahmoud Abbas replaced the late Yasser Arafat as head of the PLO, and renewed the efforts to reach a negotiated territorial settlement, the Israelis sensed weakness and stonewalled. Why make concessions when you are in a position of strength? The Israeli government marginalized and humiliated Abbas, and prime minister Ariel Sharon even called him “a plucked chicken.” This policy also reached its logical fulfillment in the next Palestinian elections – a resounding Hamas victory. After all, the PLO’s attempts at a negotiated settlement were obviously not going to produce any results.
Make no mistake: the recent campaign in Gaza was not about ending rocket attacks; it was about the liquidation of Hamas. Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said exactly that. Dr. Frankenstein decided the time had come to destroy the monster he created.
And what was the result of that? Remember, all we are talking about today, all we care about, are results. The results were nearly identical to the 2006 Lebanon operation: blood and failure.
Israel is still ringed by secular Arab governments. The Arab world watched the destruction of Gaza and the death of hundreds of women and children at the hands of the Israeli Defense Force, and noted the fact that every Arab government stood idle and impotent while this unfolded. Every televised frame of violence in Gaza contributed to the mounting rage, not simply against Israel, but more importantly against those Arab governments and their, “despicable silence and connivance,” in the words of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement.
Israel still has the opportunity to reach an accommodation with an Arab leadership dominated by secular nationalists, but the opportunity may be fleeting. If Israel waits – content that it operates from “a position of strength” – the day may come when it is instead surrounded by Islamic fundamentalist regimes. By acts such as the campaign in Gaza, it actively hastens the arrival of such a day, just as its inept policies in Lebanon and the occupied territories nurtured the growth of Hezbollah and Hamas.
Whoever thinks Israel will then be more secure, raise your hand.