It is difficult not to be moved by events in Syria. Images from Aleppo, Syria are heart-breaking. It is also fair to say, most of us in the west, despite vocally shouting that ‘something needs to be done’, haven’t got much idea about exactly what. Syria is a tale of 1000 trenches with 2000 armies.
During the ‘Arab spring’ in 2011, I remember being engaged in debate over events in Libya. As ‘interventionists’ were encountering difficulty coordinating international support for anti-Gaddafi action, I was pointing towards Syria, worried international impotence was signaling to Assad he could act with impunity. Action in Libya was the ‘easy’ choice.
At the time, most commentary over the ‘Arab Spring’ was positive. Thousands of experts, mostly liberal elites listening to the sound of their own echo, applauding the ‘rising up’ of the Arab street. This policy brief from the European Policy Centre discusses how Europe should ‘open up’ to ‘democracies in the making’. Brian Whitaker in the Guardian suggested on 14/3/2011 that “the Arab spring is brighter than ever”.
My pessimism in conversations on the topic was unwelcome. Nobody wanted the input of the doomsayer. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in the Guardian led with a headline “Arabs are democracy’s new pioneers”. They asked “what these new experiments in freedom and democracy will teach the world over the next decade?” It is now 2016, we are half way into that ‘next decade’. This piece is in answer to that puzzle.
In the beginning
To do this I must start this story 20 years earlier. To be precise at 3.30am on 18th January 1991.
At that time, I was huddled inside a ‘sealed room’. In reality this was just a room specially decorated with masking tape and plastic sheeting, designed to increase my chance of surviving a chemical attack. I didn’t speak Hebrew, and the information given on the radio was linguistically out of my reach. One of my neighbours kept their dog leashed outside their house and I’d frequently sneak over to let it run free for a while. So when the sirens came, I first ran to free ‘Lady’, to share my protection against chemical attack. So, there we sat in the sealed room, two loners, taking our chances together.
The reason I mention Iraq is because Arab response to Saddam’s belligerency, coupled with Israel’s restraint, were taken as early signals of what Shimon Peres would begin to call the ‘New Middle East’. Regardless of how foolish such thought looks in 2016, the underlying pillars of these ‘believers’ have been the central drivers of the global strategy towards Israel for the last three decades.
Within three years of Iraq, and to loud international applause, Israel was importing terrorists from Tunis. Just months later, buses were exploding in Israel’s cities. As Yitzhak Rabin sought ways to act against the rise in terror, Israel was asked to act with restraint.
Israel often hears international applause when it lowers its guard and is swiftly criticised when it reacts to aggression from within the new reality. In early 1995, as bus bombs in Israel threatened to unseat Rabin and the Labour party, pressure was applied on Israel to deliver the concessions to make peace with Syria. The price – the Golan Heights. The UK Foreign Secretary in 1995 suggested ‘historic opportunities could be missed’, if the parties seeking peace were ‘over cautious’.
Imagine now, the Golan Heights being part of the catastrophe that is Syria. Rather than a minor border confrontation between states, Israel would find itself embroiled in a global strategic fight with Russia, Iran and Turkey pulling strings as 1000 different armed factions could use Israelis at target practice. In 1995 this deal was sold as a way of *ensuring* Israel’s long term security.
In 1999 Israel’s Lebanon withdrawal was marketed as a sign of weakness and as a Hezbollah success. Southern Lebanon became a terrorist fortress and the conflict in 2006 became inevitable. When war did break out, as a sign that stupid ideas rarely die off quickly, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the conflict as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”.
After Israel was heavily criticised for its reaction to attacks and rocket fire, the end of the conflict brought guarantees, set out in UN resolution 1701, about “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon”. Today Hezbollah are considered “the most capable non-state armed group in the Middle East”. This, less than 10 years after the international community had pledged to disarm them as part of an agreement with Israel.
No rockets on Ashkelon
Gaza tells a similar tale. In 2005 when Israel dismantled all the settlements in Gaza and withdrew its forces, the action was met with international acclaim. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described the withdrawal as an “historic and joyful day for his people”. Within weeks, rockets were being fired against Israel.
It is a simple truth. Since 1990, every time that Israel has been pushed towards making sacrifices for peace, it is rewarded with violence and an international community, that are politically incapable of following through with their promise of action or support.
Every time that ‘doom merchants’ promised attempts at peace making would only bring further violence, they were chased from the room. Yitzchak Rabin, suggested the Likud were scared only ‘of peace’ and promising there would be no rockets from Gaza (in Hebrew). These failures, persistent, repetitive failures, they form the central pillars of those determined to prove peace is within reach, however much the reality argues against them.
Cause to fight
Outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledges anti-Israel Bias at UN, yet there are no lessons learned from such an admission. The UN, has perpetuated rather than sought a solution to the Israel /Arab conflict. Some times, for people involved in conflict “war is a safer bet“. Conflict resolution expert James Schear in 1997:
“Peace, on the other hand, is a leap into the unknown. It involves bargaining concessions, contingent exchanges of promises that can come undone. . . . Most of all peace involves loss of political control and cohesion. It tends to dissolve the glue that cements wartime coalitions together whether on the political left in El Salvador or among the non-communists in Cambodia or as we see today among the nationalist Serbs in Bosnia.”
Now consider Israel. The coalition, or rather industry, that has an interest in perpetuating the conflict around Israel is huge and sustains hundreds of thousands of people. All dependent on there not being peace. What would the reality of millions be, including the ‘refugees’ in places like Lebanon, were this to be settled?
A Palestinian state would be a pauper state. Forgotten, unmentioned and dependent without cause. Today they are on everyone’s lips, on everyone’s top table, the first item on every agenda. Peace would bring reality, political and economic oblivion. Conflict brings the illusion of cohesion, peace only promises internal factions fighting amongst themselves. What price then, a low intensity conflict that claims so few lives and sustains so many?
Which brings us back to Aleppo. In the reality of a brutal world, Aleppo is what happens when the international community cannot agree on a response to humanitarian disaster. When strategic aims of the global powers differ. Israel lives in a global world that shifts quickly. Help doesn’t come and self-interest drives all diplomacy. Massacres of civilians, however large, cannot be addressed if strategic differences exist. Ambassadors are still shot at point blank range, lorries are driven at people shopping for Christmas. The veneer of control is an illusion.
Suggestions of peace are empty talk made against the backdrop of a moment in time. An unseen tsunami may be on the way even as the pressure to make concessions is applied. Long term strategic planning is undertaken by those who foolishly think history is predictable when viewed forwards.Today’s powers, today’s friends, cannot promise anything for tomorrow.
It is far more logical, far more supported, to suggest that in the next 50 years, millions of innocent people will die in conflict and the world will just shrug its shoulders, than to suggest a new era of peace is coming.
There are three major lessons for Israel in the ruins of Aleppo:
1. Ignore international promises
2. Strength is the best deterrent
3. Israel needs to trust only itself when it comes to its long-term security
And those who still follow the ‘new Middle East’ argument. Who suggest Israel should make large concessions because, well, it has worked so well for them before. Some parts of Israel are only 250 miles from Aleppo in Syria. In the comfort of London and New York, it is easy to tell others to take risks for peace.
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