Monday, February 16, 2009

A Mideast Story

I do not claim to know the truth of the story that follows, but it matches observed behavior ominously well and thus deserved to be taken seriously…

At some point during the last decade of the last century, a consensus arose among the Israeli ruling elite that force was the path to success. Sensing, if vaguely, both the length of the path and the risks of the strategy, these decision-makers designed a plan. Perhaps they designed the whole plan in detail at the beginning; perhaps they just laid out the general direction and filled in the details as apparent initial success whetted their appetites for more.

Step I was the elimination of Arafat personally and the whole PLO as independent actors, so as to subordinate the Palestinian people once and for all. Feeling, with some justification, that they had achieved this by 2005, they agreed to Bush’s idea of a Palestinian election to provide a democratic veneer to the Israeli victory.

Although shocked by the Hamas victory in January 2006, they reacted with dispatch, launching an economic war against the new Palestinian regime and encouraging a mini Palestinian civil war. In accordance with the consensus on force as the tool of choice, the speed of the Israel reaction suggests that little serious thought was given to alternative approaches, such as welcoming the newfound Hamas willingness to play by democratic rules. Israel was determined to drive home the point that Palestine belonged to Israel.

In the event, Hamas ended up being partially overthrown, keeping control only of Gaza. Again adjusting tactics rapidly but retaining the underlying strategy of force, Israel focused its economic war on the population of Gaza. At the same time, Israel continued its harsh suppression of West Bank Palestinians, despite the subservience of the Abbas regime. The Israeli elite consensus in favor of force prevented Israel from taking advantage of the opportunity to make the West Bank a showcase of how Palestinians might live profitable, if not exactly free, lives in return for subservience. Offered no hope of a better life should they accept subservience to Israel, the population of Gaza naturally continued to support Hamas.

Although Hamas’ electoral victory had knocked Israel slightly off balance, it nevertheless moved smoothly to take Step II of its strategic plan, preparing for and, when given the excuse by Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers, executing an invasion of Lebanon. Israel had been trying firmly to subordinate Lebanon for a generation and resolved to erase the bitter memory of its retreat from that country in 2000. Lebanon was not in itself terribly important, but Hezbollah’s “resistance” rhetoric and odd rocket attack were both distractions and a symbol that resistance might not be futile. In the second shock of the year, Hezbollah fought Israel to a bloody draw, quite sufficient to put a shine on its resistance armor and tarnish the reputation of the regional superpower.

Keeping its eye nonetheless on the distant goal line, Israel both balanced the Hamas and Hezbollah balls and advanced the Syrian ball, attacking a Syrian “nuclear reactor” under construction on September 6, 2007. Whether or not the attack on a building under construction eliminated any real, if only eventual, threat to Israel, Step III smartly dismissed any Syrian pretentions to independence and drove home the lesson that Israel’s neighbors did not have the freedom even to possess technology without Israel’s permission. Any Egyptians or Saudis or Turks, much less Iranians, aspiring to study advanced technology could take note as appropriate.

By 2008, Israeli decision-makers were itching to teach both Hamas and Hezbollah the lessons they had failed to teach in 2006. First, they signed a ceasefire with Hamas in mid-2008 but cheated by maintaining the economic war against the population and again by launching a small attack in November. Hamas logically refused to extend the ceasefire in December, giving Israel the excuse it was looking for, and it launched what was intended to be a decisive military attack to destroy Hamas as an independent actor (if not literally to exterminate it). The Israeli blitzkrieg faired better in the Gazan ghetto than it had in the unwalled hills of Lebanon. Despite the survival of Hamas as an independent actor, Israeli decision-makers felt they had achieved sufficient success to move on to address once again the failed mission in Lebanon.

Israel marshaled its forces along the Lebanese border and sent its jets to violate Lebanon’s borders to the sound of rhetorical threats warning Lebanon that Israel would attack if Hezbollah sought revenge for Israel’s murder of a Hezbollah official or even if Lebanon imported weapons without Israel’s approval. Meanwhile, Hezbollah continued to strengthen its domestic political position and now seems within reach of winning the upcoming Lebanese election. Assuming both that Hezbollah gives Israel no pretext for invading and that Hezbollah does indeed appear headed for victory as the election approaches, Israel will face a major decision: a Hezbollah regime in Lebanon three years after Israel’s invasion to destroy that party would represent a severe symbolic challenge to Israel’s claim to regional domination.

Whatever happens in Lebanon, Israel seems intent on moving to Step IV, knocking Iran off the regional stage. While Israel has been focused on the preliminary steps in its strategy of using force to achieve dominance, Iran has much less aggressively and more smoothly been making its own bid for regional leadership. First, Iran tolerated the American intrusion into the region, benefitting from the American elimination of Iran’s two enemies, the Afghan Taliban and Saddam. Second, Iran used Israeli bad-neighborliness as justification for its own claim to regional leadership.

Israel stumbled against Lebanon, stumbled again against Hamas, and strained its formerly close ties with regional power Turkey but nevertheless seems intent on pursuing its strategy of force to achieve its goal of regional domination. After all, Israel still has its U.S. blank check, not to mention European support and support from various Arab dictatorships. Israel has established its ownership of Palestine. Israel has established its right to control how its neighbors arm themselves. Attacking Iran would only extend these principals from the Gaza Ghetto and the Levant to the Asian shore of the Persian Gulf.

Will Israeli decision-makers see the victory over Palestinians, the messy and imperfect bloodying of Gaza, and the draw against Hezbollah as evidence that they have a good strategy for challenging a power on the region’s edge? If so, what state will be next to be taught an Israeli lesson?

No comments: