Sunday, September 23, 2007


There’s a story about a rebbe whose disciples ask him why it is that he is always perspiring after he finishes meeting with people. He responds: Whenever I meet with someone, I can’t sit and listen dressed in my clothes, because I have to see the world as he sees it. So I have to take off my clothes and put on his clothes. But then, in order to give advice, I can’t remain in his clothes. After all, he is in his clothes, which is why he can’t see the answer. In order to help, I have to look at the problem from my point of view. So I have to take off his clothes and put on my clothes. So every time I meet someone, I have to dress and undress four times. So if I sit with three people in the course of an hour, I have to dress and undress a dozen times. Now, if a person dresses and undresses a dozen times in an hour, how can he not perspire?

The story provides us with a good example of avoiding a common strategic error sometimes referred to as “cognitive egocentricism,” the assumption that the other side thinks the way I do.

In trying to understand the Middle East situation today, it is important that we try to understand not how we would perceive us if we were in their place, and not how we would act if we were in their place, but rather we have to try to understand how the other side perceives things, what the other side’s goals and interests are, and then try to predict how the other side will act based on the way it sees things.

That is what I would like to do in trying to assess the current situation in the Middle East in the light of the recent changes in the geopolitical map.

How does Israel see its situation?

In the north, Hezbollah is rearming at a fierce pace. The UN is doing nothing to carry out its mandate to guarantee that Southern Lebanon will be free of any armed personnel other than the Lebanese Army. Indeed, Hezbollah flags can be seen flying beside the UNIFIL flags. The Lebanese government is also doing little if anything to implement UN Security Council resolution 1701 in terms of the unconditional return of kidnapped Israeli soldiers, stopping the influx of arms from Syria to Hezbollah, and denying Hezbollah an armed presence in South Lebanon. So, Israel has a Syrian proxy state to north, preparing for war.

In the south, the Hamas controls Gaza and has created a radical Islamist terrorist entity with the help of Syria and Iran. The Hamas state takes its marching orders from Syria, and as much as Israel may like to believe and behave otherwise, it is increasingly clear that decisive action will have to be taken against Gaza, either in terms of a major military incursion or the imposition of economic and other sanctions in order to stop the daily firing of missiles and mortars at Israeli civilian targets.

Syria is working in cooperation with Iran in support of Hezbollah and Hamas, while building up its military arsenal, its antiaircraft emplacements and its ground-to-ground missile systems. Syria claims that it is merely putting up a defensive array, but its antiaircraft systems seem primarily intended to shield ground-to-ground missiles aimed at Israeli civilian targets. Syria has made it clear that it is prepared to go to war against Israel, and that in such a war, Hezbollah will be a strategic partner.

In the West Bank we have the remains of the Palestinian Authority. The PA showed itself to be utterly ineffective in creating any viable sort of governance in Gaza. The PA is currently in power in the West Bank to a not insignificant degree thanks to the actions of the IDF in frustrating Hamas attempts to infiltrate and take over key centers of power and influence.

Those are the facts on the ground from an Israeli perspective. Facts that translate into an existential threat from what are, in effect, three Arab states supporting, sponsoring or controlled by radical Islamic terrorist organizations, and with a Palestinian entity to the east that is hostile to Israel, but that Israel must prop up in order to prevent it from becoming part of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance.

How does America perceive the current situation?

America, led by a President with an idealistic, moral worldview, went to war with Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein, liberate the Iraqi people from the yoke of tyranny and create a situation conducive to democracy. The war on Iraq is also perceived to be part of America’s wider struggle against the threat of Global Terrorism, which the American administration portrays in terms of a conflict with Radical Islam.

When America first got involved in this, its hoped to create a coalition of Western democracies. But even then, and more and more, as things progressed, America also had a strategic interest in bringing the Arab world into the coalition. That interest has become more and more important as America realizes that it needs an endgame strategy for getting out of Iraq.

This brings us to our first issue of misunderstanding the other side. The Iraqis don’t necessarily think like Americans. Liberating them from tyranny will not, necessarily, open the door to democracy. At least not in the short term. In order for America to pull out without making the pullout seem a failure or defeat requires a new endgame other than a democratic Iraq. Making Iraq an Arab problem, to be solved by the Arab world in its own way, is a possible way for the US to leave Iraq and make it appear that it has achieved it goals.

And so, America needs the Arabs on its side on the Iraq issue.

In the case of the War on Terror, here, too, America wants the Arabs on its side, or at the very least, it does not want the perception of the US in the Arab world to be that America is the enemy of the Arabs or of Islam or that America is at war with the Arabs or with Islam.

This need is not cosmetic or “political” in the narrow sense. It is strategic. In its propaganda, the other side – Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, radical Islamic groups, Iran, - paints a picture of America as the enemy of the Arabs and of Islam. America and the West are portrayed as the enemy of Islam.

In order for America to refute that, it must prove the opposite. It must say and show that its argument is not with the Arabs or with Moslems but with “Radical Islam.”

Now that is not an easy thing for America to sell. From an idealistic, moral point of view, the Arab world is not on America’s side. America stands for republican democracy, freedom, pluralism, equality and tolerance. The Arab states are all totalitarian dictatorships. Even the most moderate, “pro-Western” Arab leaders – like Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah – are totalitarian dictators.

And so, in this area, America cannot act entirely idealistically. It has to act in pragmatic, realistic terms. And so it has to take the view that the issue right now – realistically – is not a struggle between Democracy and Totalitarianism, but a war against Radical Islam. In that war, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are on the “good” side. Radical Islam is a threat to them, too. And so the Middle East breaks down into Arabs and Islamists. America is not at war with the Arabs or the Moslems, but with the Islamists – the common enemy.

This pragmatic view, it is hoped, will make it possible to keep the moderate Arab states on America’s side while providing a means for withdrawing from Iraq victoriously without achieving the goal of a democratic Iraq.

So, where does this place Israel?

Of course, Israel and America share a common worldview on the most fundamental level. Israel and America share common ideals. From an idealistic, moral point of view, Israel and America are on the same side, and America cannot abandon Israel just as Israel cannot help but identify with and support America.

But, in the framework of Arabs versus Islamists, and in the framework of bringing the Arabs on board, America’s friendship with Israel represents a problem.

As far as the Arabs are concerned, Israel is at war with the Arabs. In order for America to maintain its alliance with Israel, and still bring the Arab’s onboard, it must change the Arab perception of America’s ideological alliance with Israel.

Practically speaking, that means that Israel, too, cannot be at war with Arabs or Moslems, but rather with Radical Islam. If Israel is at war only with Radical Islam, then an enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In practice, this meant – last year – that Israel had to go to war against Hezbollah not against Lebanon. War against Lebanon would be war against an Arab state. War against Hezbollah is war against a radical Islamic threat. That, of course, had pronounced effects on how Israel could conduct the war. It also affects how Israel is supposed to view the current Hezbollah build up in Lebanon, a build up that is not being hindered by the Lebanese army or by UNIFIL.

In a similar vein, once Hamas took over Gaza, Israel – from an American standpoint – must make it clear that it is not at war with Gaza, or the Palestinians, but rather with Hamas. Being at war with Hamas is okay. Hamas is part of the Moslem Brotherhood. The Moslem Brotherhood presents a threat to Egypt and other Arab states. America can be friends with a country that is fighting the Hamas or the Moslem Brotherhood without jeopardizing its standing with the Arabs.

If we look at the current situation vis-à-vis Syria, we see something similar, although a little more complex.

Syria is an Arab state. It is also a client state of Iran, a supporter of Hezbollah and of Hamas. The fact that Syria is an Arab state, and that Assad wishes to promote himself as an Arab leader, means that in terms of Arabs versus Islamists, Israel must be encouraged to negotiate with Syria, to reach an accord with Syria, and to hand the Golan over to Syria. This is important for two reasons.

1) Because it is an Arab state, America requires that Israel not to be in a hostile relationship with Syria. If Israel is in negotiations, then America’s support of Israel is tolerable. If America is also pressing Israel to give in to Syrian demands, then America can be viewed as less one-sided in the Arab view.

2) Because Syria is aligned with Radical Islam, it is important to try to sever that tie. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “The superior militarist strikes while schemes are being laid. The next best is to attack alliances.” From an American point of view, if Israel can be brought to a deal with the Syrians that will give the Syrians what they want, then it might be possible to sever the relationship between Syria and Iran.

In light of all that, it should be fairly clear why America is pushing hard for an international conference in the Middle East. Getting Israel to sit down at the table with the primary Arab states – not just with the Palestinians or the Syrians – serves the American interest. Particularly when the understanding is that Israel is coming to the table to make concessions. The conference lines up America’s Arab friends to receive gifts from Israel at America’s urging. America is no longer pro-Israel, but an honest – i.e. pro-Arab – broker, using its influence to solve the Aran-Israeli conflict with appropriate appreciation of the Arab view and interests and based upon the Arab plan.

Of course, America also thinks that, overall, this is all good for Israel. There will be peace. The conflict will be at an end. More or less. And maybe any outstanding issues or hurdles – like Hamas – can be ironed out by the Arabs. This “ironing out” will, needless to say, be a lot easier to achieve if Israel hands the West Bank over to Abu Maazen and gives him whatever he may ask in terms of other concessions like freeing prisoners, and some compromise on the “Right of Return.”

That’s the American view.

How does Israel see that American view?

From the Israeli perspective, the American distinctions are problematic. Israel necessarily sees a different reality.

Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is not limited to the Hamas. The Hamas is not merely a terrorist organization. Hamas was elected as the government of the Palestinian Authority. Until June, it ruled in a shaky coalition with the PLO, and at that time, Israel was in a conflict with the Palestinian Authority. Since June, it is the sole ruler of Gaza. But that takeover of Gaza did not change the underlying nature of the conflict, it just made it clearer that the conflict is not with terror organizations as opposed to the Palestinians, but with the Palestinians.

To say that the issue is with the Hamas is very problematic for Israel. It means that when Hamas – the government of Gaza – holds a kidnapped Israeli as a hostage, Israel cannot act against Gaza. It must act only against the Hamas as opposed to Gaza, and it must continue to do so even when Hamas, as government of Gaza states that it is holding Gilad Schalit, that it refuses to allow the Red Cross to see him, and that it will continue to try to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

Before June, it might have been possible, although disingenuous, to say that Schalit was being held by a terrorist cell, and not by Gaza. But once the Hamas took full control and full responsibility, one can no longer say that the issue is with Hamas as opposed to Gaza. When rockets and mortars are fired daily from Gaza at Israel’s civilian population, one cannot make believe that those responsible are a group of rogues when it is the government of Gaza that takes responsibility and that declares that the attacks will continue.

Such an approach is not only ludicrous, it also makes any serious military response or economic sanctions out of the question.

If Gaza and the Hamas are viewed as one and the same, then there are a variety of options open to Israel. For example, Israel could present the Hamas government of Gaza with an ultimatum: Stop the mortars and missiles or Israel will stop supplying Gaza with gasoline, as Charles Krauthammer recently suggested. Free Gilad Schalit or Israel will institute an air, land and sea blockade. Start behaving responsibly or Israel will no longer sell electricity to Gaza.

If Gaza is at war with Israel, those responses are all legitimate. The problem is that if Gaza is not at war with Israel, if Israel maintains the fiction that only the Hamas organization as distinct from Gaza is at war with Israel, then any such otherwise legitimate actions could be deemed unlawful collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population.

In other words, accepting the American view of the conflict means that Israel’s arsenal of responses is very, very limited.

The same is true regarding the Hezbollah. The Hezbollah is not a rogue organization in Lebanon, or a Syrian-supported foreign presence on Lebanese soil. It is an organization with representatives in the Lebanese government. It is a Syrian backed organization in a country that is a Syrian vassal state. It is a military force operating with the consent of the State.

When the Hezbollah acts against Israel, the address should Lebanon not Hezbollah. When a country tolerates hostile action from its soil against another state, it is not the individual actors alone who should be held accountable but the state. It is not Israel’s role to police Lebanon for the Lebanese, it is Lebanon’s duty to police its own state, and if it does not do so, and if it reuses to live up to its obligations under Resolution 1701, then it is Lebanon that should be held accountable.

But there, too, the Israeli perception of reality is problematic from the point of view of US policy, which requires that Israel imagine that Hezbollah is unrelated to the Lebanese government and represents a hostile threat to it. And so, a response to aggression from Lebanon cannot be met by a war against Lebanon but must be limited to actions that target Hezbollah, actions that Israel cannot now take because of its agreement to the presence of the UNIFIL force in accordance with Resolution 1701.

Clearly, from an Israeli perspective, fighting Hamas and Hezbollah in accordance with America’s distinctions is problematic, since it means doing nothing, or at least doing nothing effective.

Now let’s look at Syria. What are Israel’s interests in regard to Syria?

On the face of it, Israel wants peace and Syria wants the Golan. Easy. But why does Syria want the Golan? And what will Syria give for the Golan?

Assad is the Alawite leader of a Sunni Moslem country. He is the head of the Baath pan-Arabist party. His primary goal, as that of any totalitarian dictator, is to remain in power. Beyond that, he wants Syria to be recognized as the leader of the Arab world, and he wants control of Lebanon.

Now, how does the Golan fit into the overall picture of Assad? Getting back the Golan, first of all, represents a victory over Israel, especially if it can be achieved without any substantial concessions. That serves Assad’s desire to strengthen his position at home and in the Arab world.

What does that give Israel? It is supposed to give Israel peace. It was commonly believed that Israel really had nothing to gain from peace with Syria, since – in fact – Israel already had de facto peace with Syria. Giving up the Golan would mean relinquishing a deterrent element of strategic depth, which would give an expansionist Syrian regime an enticing military advantage.

The former situation has changed in Syria’s perception. By using the threat of the Syrian-controlled Hezbollah on the northern border, and the threat of a Syrian-controlled Hamas-Gaza in the south, Assad believes he is now in a position to say that it is to Israel’s advantage to negotiate because, while Syria was not in a good strategic position to attack Israel before, it is now. In can use its proxies to go to war against Israel even without the Golan. Now it is worthwhile for Israel to negotiate with Syria and give Syria what it wants – or else. That’s how it looks to Syria.

So let us imagine that Israel gives Assad the Golan, then what? Then the situation on the ground would look something like this from an Israeli perspective: Syrian-controlled Hezbollah to the north. Syrian-controlled Hamas in the south. Syria controlling the Golan Heights right down to the Kinneret. Syrian anti-aircraft missiles between the Golan and Damascus, and behind those missiles an array of Scud ground-to-ground missiles that can strike any part of Israel.

What would you do then if you were Assad?

Ii is hard to be sure. But from an Israeli point of view, the situation would appear to be one of existential threat. If Assad would choose to attack, the scenario might be something like this: The Hezbollah would begin firing rockets at northern Israel – like last summer – and Israel would have to dedicate a certain amount of military resources to counter that assault. The Hamas would begin an intensive offensive against Israel in the south, requiring that Israel dedicate a certain amount of military resources to counter that assault.

And then Syria could begin firing missiles at Israel and move tanks and troops down the Golan in the hope that with so much of Israel’s ground forces dedicated to fighting in Lebanon and Gaza, at the very least, Syria would be able to force Israeli to fight a war on the battleground of the Galilee, and even a brilliant military response will, nevertheless, require getting ground forces up the Golan and deep into Syrian territory in order to get at the Scuds. Not a very happy prospect for Israel, and a very alluring scenario for Syria. It’s win-win. No matter how things go, Israel will suffer tremendous military and civilian losses. It is unlikely that Israel will find itself better off after the war than before it. A UN or US sponsored ceasefire, imposed while Syrian troops remain anywhere in the Galilee or even the Golan will be viewed by Syria and the Arab and Islamic world as a military victory.

Facing that possible scenario, Israel has no interest in ceding the Golan to Syria.

As for negotiating with Abu Maazen, here too there is a question of what Israel has to gain. If Israel gives Abu Maazen everything he wants, what does it gain?

First, a deal with Abu Maazen doesn’t solve the problem of Gaza, it simply results in a PLO-led Palestinian state in the West Bank, at least at first glance. But actually, it doesn’t even give that. One of the great problems in negotiating with Abu Maazen and Co. is that they already proved in Gaza that they couldn’t deliver. One reason for that is that any concession they make with Israel on anything – even the so-called right of return – will be viewed as “collaboration” with the enemy. A second reason is that they lack the will power, desire, willingness, readiness or whatever to go to war – if necessary – with the Islamic opposition groups in order to create a state that has one government, one army, and one policy.

But let’s imagine that all of that is not true. Let’s imagine that Abu Maazen can deliver. Then what?

Then the Hamas will take over the West Bank.

The reason for that is, unfortunately, very simple, and has to do with Palestinian perceptions. Giving Abu Maazen everything he desires will create a vacuum in Palestinian identity – a Palestinian identity crisis.

What does it mean to be a Palestinian? Unfortunately, since its inception, Palestinian nationalism has been based upon the idea of a struggle with Israel. Palestinian identity is defined in terms of that struggle. In the post-Oslo period, one would have hoped that the Palestinian leadership would have applied itself to building an independent Palestinian identity. But it did the opposite. It strengthened the concept of armed struggle against Israel as the central, defining characteristic of Palestinian nationalism.

And so, if Israel gives the Palestinians what they want, there will be nothing left of Palestinian identity. And then the Hamas will step in, because the Hamas remains true to the fundamental values of what it means to be a Palestinian – armed struggle against Israel.

For those who doubt that, consider what happened to Hezbollah when Israel withdrew form Lebanon. In principle, Hezbollah should have ceased to exist. In fact, had it admitted that the goal of its struggle against Israel had been achieved, it would have had to disappear. Instead, in order to survive, it continued the struggle against Israel, since that is the core value of its existence.

And so, Israel really has little or no interest in reaching any long-term accord with the Palestinian Authority. It cannot do so until the Palestinians do the hard work of defining who they are independent of Israel. Then they can be independent without threatening Israel. Before that, independence means an increased threat to Israel, either due to an Islamic takeover, or arising from the need of the PA to maintain its armed struggle against Israel in order to prevent an armed struggle against the Islamists.

And on that note, we go to the International Conference: Israel on one side; all of the Arabs on the other. And Israel is expected to make concessions. And those concessions are supposed to be real progress towards establishing an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank.

The bottom line is that, from a purely Israeli point of view, the Middle East cannot be viewed in terms of Arabs on one side and radical Islam on the other, it cannot be viewed in terms of a confrontation with Radical Islam but not with Arabs.

For Israel, that worldview leads to incapacity and to existential threats.

What we see, then, is that Israel and the United States have very different perceptions of what’s going on, and on what has to be done in order to win the war on terrorism.

So, why is Israel’s leadership willing to view Hezbollah as separate from Lebanon? Why is Israel willing to make believe that it is at war with Hamas alone? Why is Israel willing to talk to Syria and to go to an international conference even when Israeli leaders and members of the Cabinet say that we have nothing to gain from negotiating with Syria and nothing to offer the Palestinians that will satisfy their demands?

It is not because Israel sees the geopolitical situation the same way that America does. It doesn’t.

It would be easy to say that it is because Israel has no choice but to America’s bidding, but that isn’t really true. While the pragmatic needs of America require that Israel conduct itself in accordance with the American political worldview, America is, nevertheless, ideologically motivated at a very fundamental level. At base, it is America’s ideological worldview – its desire to bring peace, stability and democracy to the Middle East that motivates its current pragmatic program in the Middle East.

But the same ideology that requires America to pursue its pragmatic program in the Mideast is also an ideology that believes in Israel as a bastion of freedom and a kindred spirit. The ideology that wants to bring democracy to the Middle East will not, or should not accept the sacrifice of Israeli existential interests to the needs of pragmatic alliances with totalitarian states.

Summary: Israel and the United States understandably assess the geopolitical situation differently. From the American point of view, the Middle East breaks down into Arabs and Islamists, and since the immediate threat is from the Islamists, it is important to align the Arabs with the US. This alignment will neutralize opposition, weaken the Islamists and therefore contribute to success.

Israel cannot make the same distinction. For Israel, there is an Islamist threat and an Arab threat and the two are intertwined in a way that means that appeasing the Arab threat is very dangerous. Appeasing the Arabs hampers Israel’s ability to confront the Islamist threat, and it may even increase that threat. At most, appeasing the Arabs may neutralize or lessen Arab hostility from Arab countries that do not currently pose a direct threat – like Saudi Arabia and Jordan – while at the same time it will increase the danger of war with those Arab states that do pose a threat, like Syria.

The result is that within the same theatre we have two completely different shows, and both share the same actors.

America feels that Israel must accommodate its agenda, and that without Israeli cooperation, America will not have the credibility it needs in the Arab world. But Israel cannot cooperate fully without taking existential risks. This means that ultimately, at some point, the two countries will not be able to cooperate in a crisis.

If that inevitable crisis is to be avoided, America will have to reconsider whether its current view of the Middle East is one that best serves its interests.

Is the US correct in its working assumption that pressuring Israel will actually align the Arab states with America’s program?

If Israel continues to play ball with America’s strategy, Israel ability to defend itself may be seriously undermined. Once Israel is seriously weakened, or once it has nothing more to sacrifice or relinquish to the Arabs, will the Arabs have any reason to continue to side with America? If not, what will America’s strategic position be when faced with a weakened Israeli ally and Arab states that no longer have anything to gain from an alliance with the US?

Some people might argue that in the face of the threat that radical Islam presents to countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Arabs will have no choice but to remain aligned with the US in any case. But if that is true – and I think it is – then why bother pressuring Israel when, ultimately, that pressure will weaken Israel for a short-term gain of little real importance?

But beyond that, there is a moral aspect: Does it really serve America’s interests to align itself with countries that reject its fundamental values? Can the United States fight what is at root a war against one destructive ideology by aligning itself with allies that hold an ideological position that is inimical to what America stands for?

Can you ignore your principles in order to achieve your ideological purpose? That is a question that Israel and the IDF grapple with every day. Maybe it is about time that America and Americans begin to ask themselves that question, too.

I think the answer is that America has to rethink its strategy, and forcefully support Israel not because it’s good for Israel, but because it is essential for America if America is going to remain true to itself. Ultimately, the US will have to find a way to bridge the gap between what it believes and what it does.

The above is a summary of a geopolitical analysis delivered by Avinoam Sharon while a scholar-in-residence in the United States in September 2007.