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
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
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
, 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.
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.
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
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 outcome.
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
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 at
“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.
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 the campaign.
“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 that.
“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
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
“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
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 anymore.
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 Iranian challenge.
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
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
Do you see Iran as willing to directly engage in conflict
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
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
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
“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 missile
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
You seem to take the view that Turkey and Syria are part
of the Islamist camp.
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 whole.
Many analysts take a different point of
view and see a policy that wants to engage both East and West.
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
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-Turkish
Isn’t that something we need to be taking advantage of?
Shouldn’t Israel be seeking to have good relations with Turkey?
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 aware of.
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.
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
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
How close is Lebanon to becoming a Hizbullah-led Iranian
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 suspects.
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 one.
How do you see the Obama administration on that count?
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
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.
Jonathan Spyer will be
launching his new book,
The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist
Conflict, with a talk at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue at 8 p.m. this Saturday,
January 1. A question-and-answer session will follow the formal presentation and
admission is free.
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