“Biggest Crisis Since the Time of Mohammad”

 “Biggest Crisis Since the Time of Mohammad”

As U.S. President Trump talks about an Israeli-Palestinian deal, General Moshe Ya’alon, former Israeli defense minister and candidate for Prime Minister, is much less optimistic.  Ya’alon characterized the Middle East as in its “biggest crisis since the days of Mohammad.”

Gen. Ya'alon at American University, Washington, D.C., March 6, 2017

Ya’alon, a conservative, outlined his view of the developments that shape the Middle East today.  The collapse of the artificial nation-state system is accelerated by the disengagement of the United States from the region.  Turkey and Iran are filling that political vacuum. The two-state solution is unlikely any time soon, he said.  And the perception that Israel sides with U.S. Republicans is likely to do more harm than good to Israel’s own interests.

Ya’alon detailed the creation of the modern Middle East as a Western intervention based on ignorance, wishful thinking, and paternalism.  Western diplomats from Sykes-Picot to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq didn’t take into account the demography, geography, or history – tribes, sects, and ideologies – of the region when they drafted boundaries for new nations and established new governments.  They believed naively that elections could develop profound understanding of and respect for human rights and democratic processes.  This faith leads to making decisions based on hope rather than on reality.  Syrian or Iraqi national identities, for example, are subordinate to tribal, Kurdish, Alawite, Sunni, or Shia identities.  Western interventionists believed that it was within their power, in their own interests, and in the interests of the peoples of the Middle East, to build and shape nations.  Israel, too, he said, has made that mistake in its past.

But U.S. disengagement from the Middle East allows Iran, Turkey, and Russia to fill that power vacuum.  Turkey allowed its borders to be porous enough for foreign fighters and materiel to flow to ISIS, and for Syrian refugees to flow to Europe.  Russia swept into control of the situation in Syria when the U.S. hesitated over the chemical weapons “red line.”

Most importantly to Ya'alon, U.S. disengagement facilitated Iran strengthening its roles in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.  In these capitals, and with Hamas, Iran advances its religious, political, and geostrategic interests.

On the Palestinian question, Ya’alon was more pragmatic than idealistic. He sees no chance for a permanent solution in the near future.  Full separation would cause a security and humanitarian crisis, he predicted.  He sees more than the status quo – steady but incremental improvement, with increasing autonomy but not independence.  This requires things like education reform and an end to terrorist financing, but is the best way forward for now, he judged.

Ya’alon noted that relations with the United States have developed at least two new problems.  The general issue of partisanship, and Israel being seen as a “Republican not Democrat” issue, could have long-term negative consequences.  Being identified with President Trump, if his popularity were to plunge, could bring U.S. support for Israel down with it.  Globally, Ya’alon worried about populism replacing real political leadership in many countries, with the manipulation of ideology for advantage replacing real statecraft and diplomacy.

Above all, though, Ya’alon returned to the idea that the most critical concern for Israel and the United States is Iran, Iran, Iran.  The surging expansion of Iranian influence and the disengagement of the U.S. creates vital risks both to Israel and to American interests.

Video of the speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jS2LJOD0WMQ

Photo: American University,