Tuesday, April 21, 2015

‘Historic’ Changes in the Middle East

The Middle East has always been a volatile region but recent changes initially arising from the Arab Spring, which saw regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, as well as ongoing civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya, have created some new realities that both the US and Israel are trying to come to terms with.

Recently, the US has begun implementing a more Machiavellian policy change vis-à-vis Iraq and Syria. With respect to Iraq, US forces are now fighting on the same side as Iran against ISIS and concomitantly, the US is trying to broker an imminent deal (as a member of the P5+1 countries) with Iran towards an historic agreement that would bring Iran back into the fold and end years of crippling sanctions. Furthermore, there seems to be at least some tacit agreement between the two that Iran will not attack US forces in Iraq and that US forces will leave Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) forces alone as they both battle their common enemy ISIS in Iraq.

With respect to Syria, a few years ago US President Barack Obama had called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and had even famously drew up ‘red lines’ that Assad has subsequently crossed without much fanfare or consequences. Has the situation in Syria improved much since then? Not at all. The Syrian President is still fighting to retain control of his deteriorating country and is still killing his people as the civil war rages unabated. However, what has changed is the US rhetoric and policy towards Syria.

I spoke recently with Prof. Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Middle Eastern and African Studies Centre at Tel Aviv University who explained that “what Bashar controls now is the main cities in Syria, what I call ‘Little Syria’ and of course there are parts of Syria being controlled by others (Alawites, Druse, Kurds, ISIS) but the main thing here is to listen carefully to what US Secretary of State John Kerry actually suggested in recent days saying that we would consider coming to terms with Bashar al-Assad. This is a big, big change and I can tell you that for me this is something historic. It is a sign of the first time that the West understood and realized ‘don’t be too pretentious about the Middle East, don’t use grand designs’. This is the guy who used chemical weapons against his own people, who crossed the red lines and did whatever was the wonderful pretext for the West to do something; they did nothing and he is still there thanks to the Russians and the Iranians. And the Americans while trying to make something of the chaotic situation in the former Syria and Iraq, when they understood that the ISIS inspiration can get beyond the Middle East, as we see happening now in Europe, they had to make sure that they have some partners here in order to at least curtail ISIS.”

With respect to Israel’s approach to the changing situation in Syria, Israel has been watching with apprehension as the turmoil in Syria has reached the Syrian-Israeli border, with the rebel Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda offshoot) battling Syrian government forces there. What has made matters worse has been the recent entry of Hezbollah and IRGC forces into the area to support Assad’s pro-government forces. This has sent alarm bells ringing in Jerusalem as a new front has opened up on what used to be a relatively quiet border. The presence of Iranian forces, whether directly through the IRGC or its proxy Hezbollah in Syria abutting Israeli positions in the Golan Heights is so worrying precisely because Iran can now drag Israel into a regional conflict from the relative safety of Syria since it would be unfettered by the powers that be in Lebanon.

While Hezbollah is a strong Lebanese political party with a significant military presence in Lebanon it is forced to share power with a large and more liberal Sunni faction and smaller Druze and Christian parties as well. A weak Assad regime with a strong Hezbollah and IRGC force controlling the Syrian border with Israel would be under no such constraints and Iran would be able to act more confidently against Israel then presently allowed under Lebanon.

So what does this mean for Israel? Prof. Rabi believes that “in the medium term there will be no other choice but for Israel to do something which is much more penetrating or simply take sides”. Regarding Iranian involvement in Syria Prof. Rabi states that “what Iran and Hezbollah are trying to do is two things regarding the Syrian part of the Golan Heights: the first of which is to make sure the rebels don’t get closer to Damascus, especially as they understood that the Druse there are in a predicament and they could just shift their alliances in order to ease the rebels way to Damascus and so basically Iran and Hezbollah would like a stronghold there in order to make sure that they could block Jabhat al-Nusra from getting further up north. The second thing is just to open up a new additional front besides Lebanon, which would expose Israel to threats coming from different directions. This is a kind of contingency plan, if Hezbollah has its back to the wall and it would like to have Israel dragged into the whole mess, it could easily do that.”

While Israel hasn’t taken sides yet in the Syrian civil war, with greater Iranian involvement in an unstable Syria, it is possible that Israel may adopt a more Machiavellian policy shift in Syria – like the US – yet in the opposite direction, veering further away from the emerging US position and aligning itself with those forces fighting against the IRGC and Assad’s government forces. Israel is already providing humanitarian aid in the form of emergency medical care to rebel forces fighting on the Syrian-side of the Golan Heights. Will Israeli involvement extend beyond that? No one knows for certain but as the emerging policy divergence between Washington and Jerusalem continues, it is quite possible that if the Iranian presence in Syria continues to grow, particularly along the Syrian-Israeli border, Israel will have no other option but to act.

The Robust Israeli Democracy

Israel is not your run-of-the-mill country and for better or worse its citizens are anything but a single coherent group. Israelis are a melting pot of various religions and cultures, and a cacophony of languages. There are Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Druse, Bedouins, Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Arabs, Christians and Jews. On any given day you can hear Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and French spoken on the streets of Israel, as well as Tagalog, Thai, Chinese, Farsi or Turkish.

As such, it wouldn’t surprise many to know that there are numerous social, political and cultural chasms that divide people here and the spectrum of our differences is immense. You need to go no further then view the political parties running in the upcoming elections that cater to economic, religious, cultural and nationalistic sensibilities. Among the dozen or so mainstream parties running in the upcoming elections, there is also an Ultra-Orthodox women’s party, a party to legalize cannabis and another to lower rent prices.

Some would view the multi-faceted nature of Israeli society with apprehension lest it weaken us in the face of those more homogenous neighboring countries seeking our demise. I would argue that these ardent differences of ours when expressed within a single yet pluralistic civil society is perhaps our greatest strength. Like the influx of European immigration to the US at the beginning of the 20th century and subsequent waves of immigration from Asia as well as Mexico and Central America, which has had a net positive effect on the US both culturally and economically, so too our differences in Israel strengthen our society and ironically make us more impervious to the vagaries of the shifting sands of the Middle East. While all of our neighbors have experienced considerable turmoil and tumult arising from the Arab Spring, Israel has been spared the more violent internal machinations that have plagued our neighbors precisely because as a democratic and pluralistic society we are better able to temper such sudden and drastic changes.

Our Knesset is a microcosm of Israeli society and debates there are usually heated and often involve shouting, sometimes even followed by the ejection of a Knesset Member. The beauty of Israeli democracy is that the Knesset and Israeli Supreme Court are independent bodies separate from the ruling government (as is the case with most true democracies) and in effect allow the “cool and deliberate sense of community to prevail” in times of crises. James Madison, the fourth president of the US and the father of the US Constitution believed that there needed to be a counterweight against any ill-advised decision by a leader who became swept up by the masses.

Madison wrote so beautifully in 1788 that “there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”

While Israel is far from perfect with a myriad of social and economic problems as well as the Herculean task of attaining a peaceful and mutually satisfactory agreement with the Palestinians yet before us, we must remember that our right to vote in the upcoming election is an opportunity to not just resolve these issues but also a good time to pat ourselves on the back for this robust democratic system in the ever-volatile Middle East, which is no small feat.