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Israel's Insightful Cynicism

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By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst

Israel is in the process of watching a peace treaty unravel. I don't mean the one with Egypt, but the one with Syria. No, I'm not crazy. Since Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy in 1974, the Israelis have had a de facto peace agreement of sorts with the al Assad family. After all, there were clear red lines that both sides knew they shouldn't cross, as well as reasonable predictability on both sides. Forget about the uplifting rhetoric, the requirement to exchange ambassadors and the other public policy frills that normally define peace treaties. What counts in this case is that both sides observed limits and constraints, so that the contested border between them was secure. Even better, because there was no formal peace agreement in writing, neither side had to make inconvenient public and strategic concessions. Israel did not have to give up the Golan Heights, for example. And if Syria stepped over a red line in Lebanon, or say, sought a nuclear capacity as it did, Israel was free to punish it through targeted military strikes. There was usefully no peace treaty that Israel would have had to violate.         

Of course, the Syrians built up a chemical arsenal and invited the Iranians all over their country and Lebanon. But no formal treaty in the real world — given the nature of the Syrian regime — would likely have prevented those things. In an imperfect world of naked power, the al Assads were at least tolerable. Moreover, they represented a minority sect, which prevented Syria from becoming a larger and much more powerful version of radical, Sunni Arab Gaza. In February 1993 in The Atlantic Monthly, I told readers that Syria was not a state but a writhing underworld of sectarian and ethnic divides and that the al Assads might exit the stage through an Alawite mini-state in the northwest of their country that could be quietly supported by the Israeli security services. That may yet come to pass.
         
Israeli political leaders may periodically tell the media that Bashar al Assad's days are numbered, but that does not necessarily mean Israelis themselves believe that is an altogether good scenario. Indeed, I strongly suspect that, for example, when the Israelis and the Russians meet, they have much in common regarding Syria. Russia is supporting the al Assad regime through arms transfers by sea and through Iraq and Iran. Israelis may see some benefits in this. Russian President Vladimir Putin may actually enjoy his meetings with Israelis — who likely don't lecture him about human rights and the evils of the al Assad regime the way the Americans do.
         
True, a post-al Assad Syria may undermine Iranian influence in the Levant, which would be a great benefit to Israel, as well as to the United States. On the other hand, a post-al Assad Syria will probably be an anarchic mess in which the Iranians will skillfully back proxy guerrilla groups and still be able to move weapons around. Again, al Assad is the devil you know. And the fact that he is no longer, functionally speaking, the president of Syria but, rather, the country's leading warlord, presents challenges that Israelis would prefer not to face.
         
What about Hezbollah, in this admittedly cynical Israeli view? Hezbollah is not a strategic threat to Israel. Hezbollah fighters are not about to march en masse over the border into Haifa and Tiberias. Anti-missile systems like Iron Dome and David's Sling could reasonably contain the military threat from the north. Then there are Israel's bomb shelters — a one-time only expense. Hezbollah, moreover, needs Israel. For without a powerful Israel, Hezbollah would be robbed of the existential adversary that provides Hezbollah with its immense prestige in the Lebanese political universe, making Hezbollah so much more than just another Shiite group battling Sunnis.
 
Israel's war against Hezbollah in 2006 is known as a disaster. But it did have its positive side effects: Israel has had seven years of relative peace on its northern border, even as the war usefully exposed many inadequacies in the Israeli military and reserve system that had been building for years and were henceforth decisively repaired, making Israel stronger as a consequence.
 
Threats abound, truly. The collapse of the al Assad regime may lead to a weapons free-for-all — just like in post-Gadhafi Libya — that might force Israel to "mow the lawn" again in southern Lebanon. As for Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic and capable Hezbollah leader, maybe he, too, is the devil you know, informally obeying red lines with Israel since 2006. Nasrallah appears to be less extreme than his deputy, Naim Qassim, who would take over if Nasrallah were ever assassinated by the Israelis, unless the Sunnis in a Lebanon and Syria thrown into utter, post-al Assad chaos assassinate him sooner.
         
Then there is Gaza: once again, like southern Lebanon, "mow the lawn" once or twice a decade, though this might be harder in a post-Arab Spring geopolitical environment because of the greater danger of unhinging Israeli-Egyptian relations. Still, in Gaza there is no existential threat, nor a real solution, regardless of what the diplomats say. Idealists in the West talk about peace; realists inside Israel talk about spacing out limited wars by enough years so that Israeli society can continue to thrive in the meantime. As one highly placed Israeli security analyst explained to me, the East Coast of the United States and the Caribbean have periodic hurricanes. After each one, people rebuild, even as they are aware that a decade or so down the road there will be another hurricane. Israel's wars are like that, he said.
         
Presently a real underlying worry for Israel appears to be Jordan. Yes, King Abdullah has so far expertly manipulated the growing unrest there, but to speculate about the collapse of the Hashemite dynasty is only prudent. More anarchy. More reason to heed Ariel Sharon's analysis of four decades ago to the effect that Jordan is the real Palestinian state, more so than the West Bank. And because Jordan and Saudi Arabia could conceivably unravel in coming decades, maybe Israel should seek to avoid attacking Iran — which along with Israel is the only real state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian Plateau. Iran may have a repulsive regime, but its society is probably healthier than most in the Arab world. So there is some hope.
         
You get the picture. Israel had a convenient situation for decades, surrounded as it was by stable Arab dictatorships. Israel could promote itself as the region's only real democracy, even as it quietly depended on the likes of Hosni Mubarak, the al Assad clan and the Hashemites to ensure order and more-or-less few surprises. Now dictators are falling and anarchy is on the rise. Fighting state armies of the kind that the Arab dictators built in wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 was simpler compared totoday's wars: Because the Arabs never really believed in their dysfunctional states, they didn't always fight very well in state-organized formations. But sub-state militaries like Hezbollah and Hamas have been more of a challenge. In the old days, Israel could destroy an Egyptian air force on the ground and solve its security dilemma in the south. Nowadays, to repeat, there are no solutions for Israel: only sub-state adversaries that hide among civilian concentrations in order to attack your own civilian concentrations. No peace ever, therefore, just periodic wars, hopefully spaced-out.
       
The Middle East today has turned out perfectly if you are a Jewish West Bank settler. The divisions within Palestinian ranks, coupled with the increasing anarchy of the Arab world, mean the opportunities for territorial concessions on Israel's part have diminished. In fact, Israel's only option may be more unilateral withdrawals. That is probably the only thing the settlers have to worry about.
       
But the Zionist dream lives on. Jerusalem and much of the rest of Israel are thriving. Light rail and pedestrian walkways make Jerusalem more vibrant than ever. The Arabs in the Old City survive well — under the circumstances, that is — on the "Jewish" side of the "fence," where the standard of living and quality of life is so much better than on the Arab side. The "fence" is both a monstrosity in abstract moralistic terms and a practical solution in an age of repeated diplomatic failure and fewer and fewer diplomatic opportunities. From 28 percent of the gross domestic product in the mid-1970s, Israeli military spending is down to between 6 and 8 percent of the country's GDP. Life is good in Israel. The unemployment rate is lower than in the United States and Europe, despite high housing costs and the need for reform in health care and education. One could argue that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — so vilified in the West — has not handled the economy altogether badly.
         
But what about idealism? What about a better, more humane Middle East? What about the wise and talented statesmen who periodically see opportunities where others see none? What about slowing down Israel's drift to a quasi-Apartheid society, characterized by Israeli domination of the more numerous Arabs and something certainly not in Israel's interest? These are all real things to constantly keep in mind and to struggle for. But the Levant remains a zero-sum struggle for physical survival. So it is a place where there will always be benefits to dealing with strong dictators. Given their geographical circumstances, Israelis can be forgiven their cynicism.
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