It’s fight or flight

The 2006 Second Lebanon War found Israel woefully unprepared for the Islamist enemy and its new battlefield tactics, says Jonathan Spyer.

Jonathan Spyer in Lebanon War tank 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jonathan Spyer in Lebanon War tank 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 prey.
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 forces.
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 Conflict, 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.
A 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.
“My 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 process.”
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.
“The 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 respond sufficiently.”
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 all.
“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.
“In that 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 better.’”
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 stuff.”
“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 friends.
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 Arabs.
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 side.
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 it happening.
Do you see Iran as willing to directly engage in conflict with Israel?
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 disadvantage.
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 engagement.
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 the hilt.
“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 response.”
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 its activities.
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.
They do 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 leading it.
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 alliance.
Isn’t that something we need to be taking advantage of? Shouldn’t Israel be seeking to have good relations with Turkey?
Absolutely. 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.
What 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 ideology?
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 administration.
How close is Lebanon to becoming a Hizbullah-led Iranian proxy?
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?
I’m 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 capacity.
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.