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Far from ambivalent

The Majalla blog – 26 September 2013

An interview last week with Michael Oren, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the United States, has added to the already significant confusion about the country’s goals in the civil war raging across the border in Syria. And that is how Israel prefers it.

According to Oren, contrary to appearances, Israel has been far from ambivalent about who emerges victorious from the fighting between Bashar Assad’s regime and the rebels — a ragbag of secular and Islamist groups, some of the latter allied with Al-Qaeda. Rather than preferring “the devil we know”, as many Israeli officials have observed of Assad and his father (“devils” who kept the border with Israel remarkably quiet for decades) Oren says Israel has been quietly cheering on the rebels from the outset and that it was in fact hoping for Assad’s downfall “well before the outbreak of hostilities”.

In Oren’s words, “[Israel] always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran”. That suggests Israel prefers a Syria controlled by Sunni opposition groups — possibly including those aligned with Al-Qaeda — to the current Alawite-dominated Assad government. “The greatest danger to Israel is [from] the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren continued.

Although any public pronouncement by an Israeli official on this matter should be treated with caution, Oren’s assessment usefully points to some of Israel’s long-term thinking in its “battlefield diplomacy”. Israel has viewed its regional policy primarily through the lens of an obsession with Iran since at least the early 1990s, after the first Gulf war and the US sanctions regime started to erode neighbouring Iraq’s countervailing influence.

In 1994 Aluf Benn, a young Israeli analyst — and today the editor-in-chief of Israel’s most respected newspaper, Haaretz — noted Israel’s most pressing concern: “Iran could aspire to regional hegemony and ruin the peace process by virtue of having nuclear weapons … of exporting terrorism and revolution and of subverting Arab secular regimes.”

Once the self-serving language is stripped away from this sentence, the logic driving Israel’s policy for the past twenty years is laid bare: Israel fears that a genuine military rival in the region, one that challenges its nuclear monopoly, will undermine its position as the neighbourhood enforcer and erode its influence in the corridors of Washington. A weak Israel would not be able to drag out an endless and pointless “peace process”, or receive billions of dollars in hand-outs from the US each year. At some point Israel would have to hand over the occupied territories, or — still worse, from its point of view — abandon its ethnocratic character, designed to privilege Jews over the native Palestinian population.

Israel’s concerns with Iran have only grown over the past decade. Back in 2003 Israel’s ideological allies in Washington, the neo-conservatives, advanced the US-led invasion of Iraq, finishing-off Saddam Hussein. At the time, Israel quietly cheered the break-up of Iraq, but only because it assumed this would be promptly followed by a similar strike against Iran. Instead, the Bush administration buckled in the face of strong opposition from the oil industry and much of the military. As a result, Iran’s influence grew, forcing Israel to warn endlessly that Tehran was only months away from acquiring a “doomsday” nuclear weapon. Ten years later Israel is concerned that those mistakes are not repeated in Syria.

From Israel’s perspective, there are key differences between Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2013: Iraq was a counterweight to Iranian influence; Syria is an ally of Iran, even if not always the most enthusiastic one. Breaking up Iraq simply strengthened Iran; crushing Syria could be expected to have the reverse effect, weakening Iran. This is because Syria, as Oren notes, has been the geographical linchpin of Iranian influence, providing a territorial bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and onward to Hamas in Gaza — two groups that have been the most active in confronting the Israeli militarily. For that reason, Israel has been keen to see Assad’s energies sapped by a protracted civil war, and might ultimately be happy to see regime change.

Either the effective “balkanisation” of Syria or the dominance of Sunni groups in Syria could be expected to lead to similar, desirable outcomes for Israel:

  • a renewed civil war in Lebanon, tying up Hezbollah in fighting on two fronts: at home and in neighboring Syria;
  • another nail in the coffin of pan-Arab nationalism, the main threat to Israeli regional hegemony, while bolstering Islamic extremism, under-girding Israel’s claim that it is on the front line of a war for civilization;
  • further erosion of Arab support for the Palestinian cause, as neighboring states deal with domestic troubles, triggering a deepening of the schism between Fatah and Hamas, and intensification of Iran’s isolation and an exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia split.

But despite Oren’s claims, there are risks for Israel in turning Syria into a failed state, and ones that have made it relatively cautious up until now. Allowing Al-Qaeda groups a more secure base in Syria could lead to a classic case of blowback: they and Palestinian factions could use Syria as a launch-pad for rocket attacks and cross-border raids, in much the way same way that Hezbollah has been able to do from Lebanon. There is also the danger of who might get hold of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles should he be toppled. Israel can at least hope that the current US-Russian timetable for disarming Syria starts to address such fears.

For Israel these risks can be mitigated so long as regime change in Syria, unlike that in Iraq, is tied to the simultaneous crushing of Iranian influence. And that can only be achieved through direct US intervention in both countries — preferably, from Israel’s point of view, with US boots on the ground. For this reason Israel has been at the forefront of the intelligence disclosures apparently proving that Assad has crossed Barack Obama’s “red line” for military intervention by using chemical weapons. Similarly, Netanyahu again ramped up the rhetoric against Iran last week, arguing that the world should not be “fooled” by the efforts at rapprochement from Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani had earlier warned during an interview on the US channel NBC that Israel had “brought instability to the region with its war-mongering policies”. Destabilizing its enemies has long been Israel’s main strategy. Now its challenge is to persuade Obama that war, not diplomacy, is in Washington’s best interests in Syria and Iran.

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