It’s fight or flight (JERUSALEM POST) By ILAN EVYATAR 12/30/10)
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In the final days of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Jonathan Spyer and
his Armored Corps reserve unit were sent to capture ground north of
el-Khiam, a village just a few kilometers away from the border. As
they headed back and dawn approached, his company commander’s tank
broke down and Spyer and his crew were given the job of towing it
back to Israel in a race against time to avoid Hizbullah’s antitank
teams who would come out at first light to hunt for their prey.
As the sun rose they became a perfect target. A missile crashed into
the company commander’s tank and seconds later another slammed into
Spyer’s. With one man dead, Spyer and the rest of the crew endured a
harrowing onehour wait, hiding in a ditch, before they were rescued
by IDF forces.
It was an incident that left him with a palpable sense of anger at
the IDF’s lack of preparedness for the clash with Hizbullah and one
that he says “encapsulated a lot of what went wrong in the war.”
But for Spyer, a research fellow at Herzliya’s Inter-Disciplinary
Center, the war was about a lot more than his own personal
experience. It was a watershed moment in the rise of a new conflict,
one he calls “the Israel- Islamist conflict.”
In a newly published book, The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the
Israel-Islamist Conflict, Spyer, through both first-person account
and analysis, examines the rise of that conflict and how, since the
collapse of the peace process in 2000, the old conflict with Arab
nationalism over real estate and recognition has given way to a
fundamentalist struggle. Israel has found itself facing an alliance
of countries and organizations, with Iran at the forefront, committed
to the strategic goal of ending its existence as a Jewish state.
A frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Post, the UK-born Spyer
explains that he was not only trying to trace the parameters of this
new conflict, but also to gauge the temperature of the response to
this latest challenge.
“My sense,” he says, “is that Israel is a society that in any case is
going through deep processes of change. The response to this new
conflict is being filtered through those processes of societal
change. Israel is becoming less and less European in outlook, more
traditional, more religious. At the same time, Israel is a very
dynamic and open free-market society. So it’s quite a new Israel that
is emerging, that is having to deal with this new conflict. Israel is
responding in the way that Israel often responds – it has not been
good at strategic planning, it hasn’t been good at thinking long term.
“The book, in my own humble way, is an attempt to suggest to people a
way at looking at this thing in a bigger sense. We’re not good at
that as a society. The result is that we usually take some pretty
nasty blows at the beginning of the process.”
WHILE HE sees the Second Lebanon War as the watershed moment of “a
totally unprepared Israel coming up against a new enemy and a new
form of warfare,” Spyer also, ironically, identifies a positive
“The other side of that coin,” he says, “is that Israel, once it has
received that initial slap, tends to respond creatively, quickly and
dynamically to the new fire that it has to put out. In that respect,
some good things have happened in terms of the system’s thinking and
response. But we won’t really know if we have managed to respond
correctly until the next big test comes along. Since 2006 the other
side has, of course, been preparing furiously for the next round.
Iran is preparing for the next round and Syria is preparing for the
next round, and we won’t really know until the next set takes place
whether we have managed to respond sufficiently.”
In addition to the military, political and strategic level, Spyer
also finds positives in the way Israeli society has responded. “One
of the central claims of the Islamists is that Israeli society is
weak,” he says, “that Israeli society lacks the will to deal with a
conflict of this kind. That particular claim has not borne itself out
“Actually Israeli society has responded with much greater fortitude,
with much greater stoicism to this situation, certainly than the
enemy thought we would, and more than many of us thought. If you look
at the public’s response to the second intifada, with hundreds of
people being murdered in terrorist attacks, society didn’t crumble.
Society didn’t respond with extremism and vengeance, or conversely
with moral collapse. Neither of those things happened and society
continued to get up every morning and live.
“In that sense there is room for guarded optimism. It is a huge
challenge, though, and we are going to need all the creativity and
all the energy which we have as a society to engage with this.”
While Spyer doesn’t see the war as broad strategic failure, he says
it did “highlight some very serious flaws in the system – of
complacency, of underestimating the enemy, of failing to respond to
the seriousness of the challenge. All those things were highlighted
in very unflattering colors. This was a very serious moment for
Israel, but if we look at Operation Cast Lead in Gaza two years
later – even though Hamas is a less challenging kind of enemy than
Hizbullah – then we have seen some improvements in Israel’s
performance, in spite of the massive PR problems that emerged from
“Militarily, for example, Israel undoubtedly performed in a far
superior way than had been the case in 2006. With regard to the
broader media-diplomatic- political war that is taking place
alongside the military issue, once again the system is just starting
to get to grips with the delegitimization aspect, the desire to cut
Israel off from its natural hinterland in the Western world. Israel,
and the Jewish world as a whole, are only just starting to respond to
“There is a very energetic desire at least to begin to engage – to
start to work out an effective response. We don’t yet have an
effective response. We do have a desire to develop one, which is
already something. Lebanon 2006 painted Israel in a very unflattering
light and we are beginning to respond to it. There is some evidence
that in Gaza we responded on a military level quite well, but on a
political and diplomatic front we are still way behind the curve. The
enemy is far ahead of us, in terms of its energy, its organization,
its networks. We are starting to respond, we are starting to get
there, but the report card should say ‘can do better.’”
For Spyer, the initial failure to grasp the severity of the rising
tide of Islamism stems from the general sense in the Western world in
the 1990s that “our societal model had won and that there were no
serious challenges remaining.” Israel, too, reflected that reality.
In the midst of a hi-tech fever and looking to reap the fruits of
globalization, for a lot of people “the conflict was old, boring,
finishing, and it was time to get on with new stuff.”
“Unfortunately,” he says, “that prevailing sense led much of society
to ignore quite apparent signs that the conflict had a long way to
run yet, that its energies had not burned out and that it was likely
to erupt again at a certain stage – as it did at the end of 2000. It
has been argued that the Western world received a wake-up call after
the tragedy of September 11. One could say that Israel received a
similar wakeup call a year earlier. Israel’s 1990s, let’s say, ended
in the autumn of 2000; for the whole of the Western world they ended
a year later.
So having awakened to that reality, what should Israel be doing?
We have a general engagement on three fronts, military and strategic,
political and diplomatic and a third one, where we occasionally get
peeks into an ongoing, clandestine war that is taking place
throughout the region, a shadow war between Israel and Iran and its
On the issue of the clandestine war, I have no experience. I
sincerely hope that the people our taxes pay to do that stuff know
what they are doing. There is some evidence that that is the case.
In terms of the political and military aspect, it is very important
for Israel to link up with moderate forces wherever it can. It is
crucial for Israel not to see this conflict in isolation: It’s not
Israel against the region, versus the Arabs.
On the contrary, Israel has natural allies – allies of convenience,
not love – throughout the Arab world. The Iranian threat is no less
heinous to Saudi Arabia, to the small Gulf states, to Lebanese
democrats, to Palestinian democrats for that matter, than to Israel.
If we look at the WikiLeaks cables, we can see just how salient that
matter is when the doors are closed and they don’t have to grandstand
What they currently, actually, want to talk about, constantly, is the
Iranian threat. So there is a huge basis for broadening the political
outlook, for locating Israel as part of a broader response to this
Israel needs to be doing all it can to get the Western world to
realize that this is the real picture of what’s happening in the
region. It’s not just about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – this
endless Sisyphean desire to get the socalled peace process on track.
There is a much broader picture of crucial importance that Israel
needs to be working daily to imprint on the minds of its Western
allies. Right now, it has not done that.
There isn’t yet a perception in Washington, certainly not in European
capitals, that this conflict is being engaged and that its result
matters greatly to all of us. So on that political level there is a
huge amount to be done.
On the military level, there is a need for Israel to respond to a new
kind of warfare, which is not going to be the old style of mobile
armored warfare that Israel excelled at in the past. It’s going to be
a very different style of asymmetric warfare – based on the use of
missiles, based on the use of guerrilla forces – and this represents
new challenges for Israel. My main contribution is on the political
diplomatic end of the campaign, which has only just begun.
Can victory be achieved in this kind of conflict?
There isn’t going to be any Berlin 1945 kind of moment with grim-
faced American generals accepting the surrender of the Revolutionary
Guards. I think what it’s more likely to resemble is the classic
projection of the Israeli- Arab conflict with Egypt and the Egyptian
system and secular Arab nationalism at its center. Ultimately that
conflict was not won by a single knockout blow – although it faced a
Waterloo moment in 1967. It was eventually won because Arab
nationalism, and the states and movements associated with it, slowly
ran out of steam. They did not construct a successful societal model
and could not construct a workable military model that brought
victory to their side.
They had based their whole appeal on that, and as that [failure]
gradually, through defeat after defeat and setback after setback,
became apparent, the charisma of those movements reached the top of
its trajectory and went slowly into decline.
The watershed moment was of course was [Anwar] Sadat’s decision to
take Egypt away from the Soviets and go over to the American side.
Over time that movement ran out of steam and began to look more and
more decrepit and less and less attractive to masses of people in the
region because it simply could not, had not, delivered on the
promises it had made in the moment of its youth.
I suspect with regard to this Islamist challenge, this time focused
on a non-Arab state in Iran, that the victory will look somewhat
similar. Over time, this very aggressive, very angry, very optimistic
group of people will come to look a little bit less impressive. In
the end they will suffer a series of defeats and will fade or fall,
or the regime may choose to realign itself and end its challenge to
Israel and the West. That’s the kind of picture we are looking at.
Could there then be a Berlin 1989 moment rather than a 1945 moment?
I don’t think that’s likely. The difference between Berlin 1989 and
Teheran now, in spite of the demonstrations we saw after the stolen
elections, is that in Berlin the ruling authorities, the communists,
were decrepit, were old, were tired and were more or less ready to
throw in the towel. The crowd in Teheran is not at that moment; they
are still very hungry and very much on the way up. They came to power
through violence and will do more or less anything to stay in power.
The prospect of the Iranian people emerging like a deus ex machina to
save us would be wonderful, but I don’t see it happening.
Do you see Iran as willing to directly engage in conflict with
It will do everything to avoid that. In a certain sense the whole
strategy of Iran and its friends is a strategy of how to win a
strategic conflict even though you have an obvious and wide
conventional military disadvantage.
This is an attempt to use all the things they know they’re good at.
They know that at a conventional level they can’t beat Israel, so
maybe above that with WMD or maybe below that with asymmetrical
warfare, with political warfare. These are the ways which, in spite
of that discrepancy, they can perhaps win. So I think they will do
everything they can to avoid direct engagement.
Having said that, in Lebanon in 2006, it becomes clear that the
Iranians were doing everything other than directly engaging Israeli
forces. A very large contingent of Revolutionary Guards, we now know,
was present in Lebanon and Syria at the time. They were the ones who,
under cover of the Iranian Red Crescent, under the cover of
ambulances, were getting weaponry and ammunition through to Hizbullah.
A YEAR after the war, Spyer traveled to Lebanon as a civilian. He was
told that, on the day when his own tank was hit, intelligence was
picking up communications in Farsi, although that has never been
officially confirmed. “It’s not hard to imagine how that would work,”
he says. “I mean some very sophisticated antitank systems were in
operation on that day and one could imagine that perhaps the IRGC
wouldn’t entirely trust the Arabs to work them themselves, so its not
a ludicrous scenario by any means. Clearly they’ve been involved and
they are involved to the hilt.
“So they are engaged, but as for state-to-state warfare, I think they
will do everything they can to avoid that. Still, if Israel were to
launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, then its not
unimaginable, for example, to think there could be a ballistic
If Iran did manage to go nuclear do you believe the regime would be
willing to risk a nuclear strike against Israel?
The central danger from a nuclear Iran is not that it would
immediately launch a nuclear strike on Israel, but rather that it
would use its nuclear capability as a shield behind which it would
continue and increase its subversive activities across the region.
This is also the main concern of many Arab states. Iran is already in
the process of launching a bid for regional hegemony. A nuclear Iran
would be effectively invulnerable and would be able to increase the
range and extent of its activities.
You seem to take the view that Turkey and Syria are part of the
Yes. But I think it’s complicated, and we have to separate out the
two. With regard to Turkey, I do think that the AKP, the ruling
party, is an Islamic political phenomenon, a phenomenon which is of
massive import to Turkey’s strategic stance vis-a-vis the region and
vis-a-vis the West. Turkey is undergoing a major change from what is
was in the Cold War, a key NATO ally in this region, to being an
Islamic power turning toward the East and the Middle East region as a
Many analysts take a different point of view and see a policy that
wants to engage both East and West.
They do want to engage with the West. The question is on what terms?
It’s not that I would place Turkey as moving toward the Iranian-led
camp. That’s not going to happen because Turkey is too big and
important to be No. 2 in an Iranian-led alliance. If Turkey is going
to be part of any alliance, it’s going to be leading it.
If we are looking at a changed region, in which American power to a
certain degree is receding and all sorts of other countries are
looking to fill the vacuum, then the implication is probably for
Iranian-Turkish rivalry further down the line rather than an Iranian-
Isn’t that something we need to be taking advantage of? Shouldn’t
Israel be seeking to have good relations with Turkey?
Absolutely. Israel should not in any way be be taking an antagonistic
view toward Turkey. We should be trying our best in every way to
maintain relations and of course relations do still exist. In spite
of the Mavi Marmara, in spite of comments by [Turkish Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, it’s not over yet. We need to do everything we
can not to turn Turkey into an enemy; Turkey isn’t an enemy and there
is no reason it should be so.
But we also have to be aware that the direction AKP is currently
taking Turkey is one of concern, not only to Israel but also to the
West. In other words it’s a new Turkey we are going to be dealing
with, and we will find a way to deal with it. I don’t think it’s a
Turkey that will align itself with the Iranians, it’s not one which
will pose the kind of direct threat to Israel which the Republic of
Iran currently does, but it is one that we are going to have to be
I don’t think we should underestimate the emotions Erdogan and the
people surrounding have regarding Israel. He has been described as
somebody who “hates” Israel. It’s for real, certainly, but there is
room for maneuver given the nature of Turkey in a way that there is
not with Iran. And we should know how to play one against the other.
They are two separate phenomena, but two real challenges.
What about Syria? How do you see Syria as being part of that camp?
Syria is something quite different. Syria is a charter member of the
pro-Iranian camp and I think that Syria will continue to be so. I
know that there are those in our defense establishment who believe
very strongly that Syria, one way or another, can be enticed away
from the Iranian-led alliance. I don’t want to reject the
possibility, but all attempts to engage Syria over the last half a
decade have proven completely unsuccessful, and Syria has benefited
hugely, from its point of view, from its relations with Iran.
It’s because of its relations with Iran that Syria is managing to
rebuild its strength in Lebanon, to influence events in Iraq, to help
influence events among the Palestinians. These are all products of
the Syrian-Iranian relationship. Why would you end that when it seems
to be bearing fruits?
Isn’t it though more of a question of interest than ideology?
With the Assad regime it is more a question of interest than
ideology, but it’s a question of the Assad regime’s interests, not
Syria’s interests. The regime wants to survive, and we can see that
the regime has always benefited, since it came into existence, from
aligning with the big strong regional spoiler and then turning that
alliance into a situation where it can punch above its weight
diplomatically in the region, and in which it can drop hints that it
can be bought off and then cleverly play the one camp against the
other. That’s what Syria is engaging in now.
With regard to ideology, it is accepted wisdom to say that this is a
nonideological regime and that it’s about survival, but we need to
complicate that picture a little.
We don’t know what is going on in [President Bashar] Assad’s mind, of
course, but there are those who would tell us that Bashar’s
relationship with [Hassan] Nasrallah and Hizbullah is something quite
different to any relationship that his father had with his various
terrorist or paramilitary clients. Hafez Assad had contempt for these
guys and would use them and discard them almost according to will or
to need. It’s hard to quantify, but there is a sense that Bashar does
buy into this camp, into this “authentic regional force operating
against all sorts of puppets and servants of the West.”
There is a sense that he may take some of that seriously and that it
isn’t just stone cold cynicism. If that is the case, then it’s a
cause for concern, but it also helps us to understand why it is less
likely that Syria will realign from its position and why it has
proven so resistant to doing that so far – despite the very energetic
enticements offered to it by [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy, by
the Saudis and by the Obama administration.
How close is Lebanon to becoming a Hizbullah-led Iranian proxy?
The Iranians are winning in Lebanon. Frankly, the March 14 movement,
the government and the anti- Iranian forces, the pro-Western forces
are largely kept on as a “decoration” to conceal the power relations
in which Hizbullah is peerless, is dominant. The talk now is of the
indictments to be handed out by the special tribunal [investigating
the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri] and
I want to ask who is actually going to go and arrest these Hizbullah
fighters [who may be indicted]. Hizbullah will of course resist by
force of arms. What force exists to challenge it? The answer is
currently none. The March 14 movement, as we know from May 2008,
doesn’t have a force which can resist Hizbullah. The international
community isn’t going to dispatch men to drag out these Hizbullah
So I suspect that what will happen is not that there will be a
Hizbullah coup, but rather that the international community will
become increasingly aware of the fait accompli – of an already
existing situation of Hizbullah dominance, of Hizbullah’s
unchallenged power in Lebanon. We are already there. Hizbullah and
therefore Iran already have a position of invulnerability in Lebanon
at least vis-a-vis any internal Lebanese forces that might at one
stage or another want to put up a fight. If Hizbullah is not ruling
Lebanon openly today, if Hassan Nasrallah is not declaring himself to
be the new Shi’ite president of Lebanon, it is because he doesn’t
want to, not because he can’t.
Do you see America and the West as failing in their strategic
understanding of the dynamics of the region?
Essentially there is a failure of conceptualization. There is not yet
an understanding in Western policy circles, in Europe and also in
Washington, that this is the nature of the game being played, this is
the central dynamic of the region, this is the central challenge and
that we as the West will either engage with it or we will face a
region with more and more instability and less and less room for the
West and its allies to promote their own interests. It’s fight or
flight, either we are going to stop this process or we will have to
accept a situation in which we are being pushed back in the region,
and the force that is pushing us is not one that can be accommodated
in ways of mutual interest; rather, it is one whose interests and
ambitions directly threaten the wellbeing and perhaps even the
existence of important presences in the region, of which Israel is
How do you see the Obama administration on that count?
I’m afraid the Obama administration must be given a fairly low
ranking. There has not been this conceptualization. On the contrary,
there has been the opposite view; it has adopted the almost silly
view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key strategic issue
in the region and everything depends on that. You begin with that and
you end with the absurd situation that the addition of a balcony in
an apartment suddenly becomes a greater strategic threat to the peace
of the region than Iran’s ongoing rush toward domination of Iraq,
Lebanon and the Palestinian camp, and toward a nuclear capacity.
That’s an absurd situation, but it starts off with the wrong thinking
that the key issue is the Israeli-Palestinian one and the Iranian
challenge is a product of that. It’s the other way round. It’s not
that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the motor driving other
processes in the region. Right now it’s another process, the Iranian
push across the region, that is driving the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. (© 1995 - 2010 The Jerusalem Post. 12/30/10)
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