A War Israel Is Ill Equipped to Fight

Hosni Dumpty sat on the wall
Hosni Dumpty took a great fall
$70 billion in U.S. military aid
and all of that Israeli advice
Couldn’t put Hosni Dumpty together again

1. How to Win Friends and Influence People

In late 1980, not long after the Camp David Accords were signed between Israel and Egypt, I was invited to give a talk to large gathering – perhaps 500-600 people – at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. Asked to comment upon the Accords, which were, in those days, immensely popular throughout the United States, I did so.

In my usual inelegant style, I criticized the agreements as little more than a military alliance that would not decrease but increase Middle Eastern regional instability. It would all cost U.S. taxpayers a pretty penny. I suggested that the agreement would lead to a tightening of the Israeli hold on the Occupied Territories and that with Camp David consummated, the likelihood of a negotiated agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would vanish for some time in the future.

I wondered out loud as to the fate of the two-state solution. There were other consequences – the puncturing of Arab secular nationalism, strengthening U.S. control over Middle East energy resources, etc.

The speech had a number of minor repercussions.

  • First, my remarks, which I thought quite reasonable, were met by angry cat calls, boos, a fair number of those in attendance walking out. That was new.
  • Then, my relations with the mainstream Colorado Jewish Community, already fragile, were permanently shattered. Unkind telephone calls, death threats followed – the usual histrionics that accompanied criticisms of Israel and U.S. support of it at the time – as did several visits to my employers by delegations of the ‘committee of the faithful’ organized by what was then called the Colorado Zionist Federation.

2. Flash Forward to Today

Flash forward to today: the Middle East is changing with much of the world

Tunisians embracing a poster with the picture of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian from Sidi Bouzid whose immolation and death on December 17 started the Tunisian democracy protest movement, cheering on the democratic movement everywhere it raises its head throughout the region. Not so much in Israel.

For decades, Israeli leaders – and their often more vociferous U.S. supporters – have pointed to the democratic deficits in Arab countries as a fundamental rationale for their need for U.S. aid and their country’s militarist policies.

The political constellation of forces that has long dominated the region is revealed as the crisis deepens. This is the case, even if it remains unclear how the emerging alternative political framework might affect (both US and) Israeli relations with its Arab neighbors.

An underlying theme emerges: Despite denials, Israel, like the United States, prefers the old status quo relationships with its strategic allies in the region the likes of Mubarak, King Hussein of Jordan, the Saudi royals to the newly emerging and still largely unknown democratic alternatives.

Uncertainty and anticipation are driving Israeli (and U.S.) angst. Democratic change in the Arab world is unsettling for Israel. For starters big questions about the fate of the Gaza blockade, enforced by both Israel and Egypt, are in the air. Would a new government continue or ease the blockade from the Egyptian side? How could/would that shift the Israeli-Palestinian political chemistry (or lack thereof)?

Then there are broader issues, among them, the long term viability of the Camp David Accords. The initial concern is that Camp David, along with Israel’s long cultivated relationships with Middle East geriatric billionaire kleptomaniacs, could slowly but surely, come unglued.

It is highly unlikely that anything will happen in the short term. But how long is that and what then? How far will the Egyptian Revolution go? What will the changes mean to the U.S.-Israel-Egyptian relationship?

3. Israelis Are Saying, ‘Apres Mubarak, le Deluge’

The nervousness Israelis expressed as Zine Ben Ali was forced to make his hasty exit from Tunisia grew exponentially as the Egyptian protest demonstrations intensified, reaching something approaching panic dimensions in recent days. According to the New York Times, ‘The Israelis are saying, apres Mubarak, le deluge’. Would Netanyahu have done whatever possible behind the scenes to keep Mubarak in power?

Israel held a four day security conference in Herzliya to address the current developments. Among those in attendance or scheduled to attend were NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen; UK Defense Secretary Liam Fox; Israeli President Shimon Peres; Israeli Chief-of-Staff Gabi Asheknazi; and opposition leader and former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Certainly on the agenda was how the changes in Egypt might affect the 1979 Camp David Accords.

Signed in 1979, the Camp David Accords set the course of U.S.-Israeli-Egyptian relations until now. It essentially neutralized serious Arab military challenges to Israel by eliminating the largest and most advanced military in the Arab world from the military equation. Neither Egypt nor Israel was especially interested in signing the Accords and an already somewhat weakened United States was unable to crack enough heads to pull the adversaries together until big money was put on the table.

An offer of $3.0 billion in military and economic aid for Israel along with secret side security agreements (not so secret as they were published in the Washington Post) softened Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s resistance. A slightly smaller piece of financial bait – about $2 billion in U.S. military and economic aid was offered to Egypt which likewise came around and accepted the deal. Iran might have departed from the U.S. orbit in 1979, but for $2 billion annually, Egypt jumped in to fill the void.

4. Camp David Accords: A Second Balfour Declaration

For Israel, Camp David was as much of a diplomatic coup as the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and United Nations vote to recognize Israel as a member of the international community in 1948. ‘In principle’ it was supposed to be the first of several steps of Middle East peacemaking to include Israeli negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians.

Instead, two short years after signing the Accords, in 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights. The next year, 1982, in an orgy of destruction, Israeli forces stormed into Lebanon killing 20,000, dislodging the Palestine Liberation Organization from its headquarters there and turning a blind eye as Lebanese fascist Phalange forces butchered thousands of Palestinians in two Beirut camps, Sabra and Chatilla. In the Palestinian Territories seized in 1967, the occupation tightened considerably.

Israel ‘in the midst of this turbulence’ – Tzipi Livni

There are indications that Israeli angst concerning the future viability of Camp David is just the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’:

  • The ‘democratic wave’ which has now reached far beyond Tunisia and Egypt to essentially every other Middle Eastern Arab country is creating a major political and identity crisis in Israel. Wherever it looks in the region, its allies – overt and covert – are reeling.
  • The royal family in Jordan is finding itself in tighter and tighter straits.
  • In Saudi Arabia, an unprecedented event: a Wahhabist imam, Grand Mufti Shaikh Abd al-Aziz al-Shaikh, who issued a ‘fatwa’ against the Egyptian demonstrations on the grounds that they violate Islamic law, was openly challenged by other scholars, including several members of the (increasingly nervous) royal family. After Egypt, Saudi Arabia?
  • Now there are ‘Tunisia-like’ calls for a massive demonstration in Morocco on February 20.
  • In Yemen, Libya, Algeria and in the Gulf tensions remain high with the possibility of demonstrations erupting in these places.

Throughout the Middle East, from Morocco to the Gulf, Israel is watching as one Arab ally after another begins death spasms, the rumblings are beginning to get louder as well. Some, like Zine Ben Ali, will be swept from power more quickly than others, but regardless, the political alliances that Israel has carefully cultivated since Camp David are collapsing one after another, with this, something far more serious: Israel’s legitimacy as a state. Israeli authorities have known that these undercurrents have existed throughout entire region, in countries like Egypt and Morocco where they had support.

The 31 years of relative Israeli security since Camp David seems to be coming to a close. Israel’s regional allies are on shaky ground and so is Israel. Tzipi Livni spoke of the events as leading to a point where Israeli legitimacy is being questioned, where the Israeli presence “in the midst of this turbulence” is coming under scrutiny. Ironically there is something far more threatening to Israel than an Arab military threat: its likely growing isolation in the region.

Israeli Options: Join NATO? Negotiations with Syria?…or the road not taken: resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and make peace with its neighbors?

There is no present danger of some kind of coordinated Arab attack against Israel. Far from it. Any suggestions of such a military threat are the workings of paranoid minds. The Arab countries, regardless of how things play out, will need a long time to put their economic and social affairs in order. None of them, Egypt included, are in any position to launch offensive military actions against Israel.

Israel is not confronting Arab armies or guerrilla movements here, but an explosion of Arab democracy, and it seems ill prepared, caught off guard by the recent flow of events.

If anything, the opposite is the case. There hasn’t been a strategic military threat to Israel for decades. As result of this Arab democratic upsurge, the prospect of any military challenge has been reduced that much further. Arab leaders will be too riveted on domestic considerations (maintaining power, offering concessions, restructuring economies, etc.) to give much time or energy to Israeli concerns (or U.S.) – isolating Iran, ‘defending’ the Gaza blockade.

The problem is thus not of a military nature. Then what is it? It is the insecurity of not knowing how the regional balance of power will shift. It is the unknown Israel fears, not so much U.S.-made Egyptian and Saudi F-16s and Israel’s growing regional isolation.

In the coming period Israel will find itself alone even more alone than it has been until now. Nothing in Israel’s substantial military arsenal with its nuclear weapons, German submarines, cluster and phosphorus bombs, US-made F-16 and F-22 jet fighters, has prepared it for this kind of situation, transitions to democracy led largely by pacifists who seem to reject Islamic fundamentalism as much as do Washington and Tel Aviv.

Will Israel’s bunker mentality continue? There are now Israeli calls to formally join NATO (although informally it has close strategic cooperation with it already) as if strengthening its military alliances (how much more can it go?) would solve its problem.

This is ‘a war’ that Israel is ill equipped to fight. It is nervous, on edge, arguing with its main benefactor (the U.S.) and now from within, serious internal splits are emerging. Israel knows how to fight wars, now it is going to have to develop quite different skills. The idea that its security ultimately rests with the other option, the road not taken, to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and make peace with its neighbors, is apparently still not seriously considered.