The Region: Israel's grand strategy

A coherent foreign policy is drivingour leadership.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit:)
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
I'll bet you didn't know that Israel has a strategy. After all, given politicians' maneuvering, the difference between what is said in public and private, the partisan sniping and so on, it's easy to miss the underlying coherence of policy. This is not to suggest that politicians are thinking great ideas and putting them into effect; rather it is the set of interests, threats and opportunities that push people into a coherent structure. There is no solution; the enemy is not going away, nor will it moderate. The world wants to hear that Israel is seeking peace and doing everything possible, and it will. Yet the fact that these expectations are wrong is also an essential part of the idea package. Total military triumph is also not a way to solve the problems, as far as ending them is concerned. Attacks can be deterred, reduced in number and made less effective, but actual peace is beyond reach. If, however, the threats and their effect can be minimized, life goes on and the country does well. So far this year, unemployment has hit a 20-year low, the economy is doing incredibly well and tourism has hit an all-time high. Morale is high despite contempt for the current prime minister. Things are pretty good. This does not mean people are naïve, even compared to the levels of hope in the 1990s. Lessons have been learned. So here's what underlies what's happening. ISRAEL IS facing threats on four fronts. In each case, there is an effort under way to neutralize, or rather reduce, those problems.
  • To the north is Hizbullah. The Lebanese radical Islamist group will never accept Israel's existence. If it thinks such actions are profitable Hizbullah will attack, at least through cross-border raids. The prisoner exchange has not sated its appetite; instead, it has produced more bragging. But it has also contributed to undercutting one of its most compelling means of incitement. Hizbullah's main problem, however, is two-fold. Its top priority is securing the bulk of power within Lebanon and at least doing well in next May's election. Fighting Israel right now is a distraction from that goal. In addition, Hizbullah reduced its popularity in 2006 with just such a war and has not been able to rehouse many of its supporters after two years, despite lavish promises. Aside from the cost of the attack, Israel's tactic is to warn Lebanon that now with Hizbullah back in the government, any aggression will result in all of Lebanon being a target. Israel's deterrence on this front should not be underestimated, and it is likely to remain relatively quiet for a while.
  • To the northeast is Syria, with whom the government is currently negotiating. Virtually no one in the leadership expects an agreement. But aside from domestic politics, the immediate goal is to give Syria an incentive to keep Hizbullah on a leash. The attack on Syria's nuclear installation, probable involvement in assassinating a high-ranking Hizbullah official allied to Syria and a possible part in killing a Syrian general also signalled Damascus that Israel can hit it hard if necessary. A key aspect is the humiliating nature of these three incidents. The IAF showed its planes could attack anywhere in Syria. and that a high-ranking terrorist was not safe even in Damascus's most secure area. That sent a clear message. So Syria is constrained from attacking directly or indirectly. But there is another element of Israeli policy towards that country that is little understood: the looming confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons. If Israel some day attacks Iran, it wants to minimize the extent to which Syria or Hizbullah would retaliate. By providing them incentives to remain quiet - reinforced by deterrence power - these two forces are less likely to attack, or would do so at a lower level. A similar pattern exists on the eastern front, with the Palestinian Authority, and southern one, with Hamas.
  • Regarding the PA, Israel wants to see Fatah remain in power: Hamas would be worse, and the PA does do a bit to block terrorism. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are eager either to reach an agreement in principle with the PA (nowadays called a shelf agreement) or pretend to have done so to claim great success. At the same time, though, there is little illusion about possible peace and no better real alternative than maintaining the status quo.
  • In the short term, the Hamas front is the most potentially volatile. Through the cease-fire, Hamas has been given incentive not to go to all-out war if its patron Iran is attacked. Of course, Hamas frequently violates the cease-fire, either directly or by tolerating attacks - but at a low level. For Israel, the decision posed is what amount of violations (or in the longer run, Hamas military buildup) should trigger an offensive. There are also few illusions about a military attack "ending" the problem or stopping rocket firing completely. Virtually nobody thinks Hamas will make peace or even a long-term, reliable cease-fire. Yet again the status quo is about the best that can be accomplished. THE EFFORTS on these four fronts will not necessarily diminish the response to a future attack on Iran, but they could and are - for other reasons as well - basically worth trying. This doesn't mean all politicians would implement this strategy the same way or that the current government's actions are brilliant - in general terms, the current leadership gives up more than is advisable or necessary - but the gap isn't huge. The bottom line is that being prepared to focus on the Iranian front, the relatively good domestic situation, internal politics, the lack of attractive alternatives, the intransigence of opponents, the weakness and doubtful moderation of potential negotiating partners and international passion for the mirage of peace have created a strategy based on a relative consensus across the political spectrum. It looks messy and certainly poses a range of problems, yet is neither terrible nor irrational. One might apply here in joking terms the anecdote about Winston Churchill being asked what it was like to be 90 years old. "Terrible," he replied, "but consider the alternatives." The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies