In part II of this series, we focused on Oil Security and the regional developments that shaped the environment leading to the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. In this part, we will explore the root causes for the instability in the environment affecting Israel Security and shaking its foundations.
1. Israel Security: An American Strategic Asset
Having learned from the Suez Canal episode with Britain and France in 1956, Israel shifted its strategic focus to bring it into alignment with the United States: containing Soviet influence in the Middle East region. From that point onward, Israel Security became the second pillar on which the United States built its Mideast policy (the first pillar being Oil Security as discussed in Part I and Part II of this series).
Israel, equipped with superior American weaponry, could defeat Soviet equipped Arab armies and contain militarily Soviet expansionist desires in the Middle East. In contrast with Southeast Asia, the United States did not need to deploy its own troops to contain the Soviet Union; Israel could do it alone. In fact, the Six-Day War in 1967 clearly showed Israeli military superiority over the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria and enabled Israel to occupy the Arab lands of Sinai, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. From 1956 and until the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1992, Israel Security was of strategic importance to the United States.
What about the Middle East Conflict?
Israel’s narrative of the conflict with Palestinians has always been framed as part of a larger Arab-Israeli conflict: Jewish nationalism against Arab nationalism. Arabs, having rejected the partition of Palestine in 1947, fought the establishment of the State of Israel and lost Arab lands in the 1967 war. From Israel’s perspective, a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict should be based on Israel returning Arab occupied lands (not necessarily all Arab lands) in exchange for obtaining full peace with Arab countries. Palestinian refugees were in Israel’s eyes Arab refugees who would then settle permanently in Arab countries as part of an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. The conflict pitted Jewish nationalism against Arab nationalism.
Palestinian statehood was never part of this Israeli narrative.
This Israeli prism, which was fully embraced by U.S. foreign policy makers, explains the actions undertaken by Israel and practically accepted even when not fully supported by the United States from 1967 until the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Settlements in the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war were considered by the Israeli Government as a necessity to consolidate and reinforce the consensus among the key Israeli establishments:
- Security Establishment: Given the lack of strategic geographical depth of the State of Israel, building settlements in the occupied territories enhances Israeli security.
- Religious Establishment: For many religious Israeli Jews, Judea and Samaria are historically Jewish lands that must be reclaimed as quickly as possible through a proactive settlement policy.
- Political Establishment: Political leaders in Israel, irrespective of their party affiliation, have, with very few exceptions, considered the settlement policy as strengthening Israel’s negotiating hand in any future peace talks with the Arabs.
The Arab-Israeli conflict that erupted with the partition of Palestine and its rejection by Arabs was not in its nascent days a top priority for U.S. foreign policy-makers because it had no real impact on its Oil Security Pillar and proved to be incapable of damaging Israel Security. As explained in Part I of this series, the United States introduced the Peace Process as a necessary means to better manage its two-pillar policy in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1973 war launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel. By viewing the conflict through the Israeli prism, the U.S. foreign policy establishment advanced a process aimed at achieving peace between Israel and Arab states that would take into account the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people – no real talk of Palestinian statehood.
2. Israel Security: Shaky Grounds
Israel Security, as articulated above, was rock solid vis-à-vis the Arab States and an important strategic asset for the United States in the Middle East region. Israeli victory in the 1967 war produced, however, a new subterranean powerful dynamic that has, over a period of two decades, transformed the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict in ways that were not fully assimilated by key Israeli and American policy-makers. Let me explain.
The 1987 Intifada: a New Dynamic
While American and Israeli policy-makers were approaching the peace process in the manner described above, a new dynamic was taking shape among Palestinians in the occupied territories. The occupation awakened Palestinian nationalism as a force distinct from (though still connected to) Arab nationalism.
From 1967 and until the 1987 Intifada or Uprising, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was the main Palestinian entity engaged in fighting Israel. The PLO was in reality an umbrella organization made up of various Palestinian groups. These groups were supported by different Arab governments that often used them as “tools” to settle their own differences (Syria against Iraq, Libya against Egypt, etc.). This structure of the PLO reinforced Israeli and American convictions that the conflict was indeed an Arab-Israeli one and should be viewed and treated as such.
It is this prism that was largely responsible for “blurring” the vision of American and Israeli policy makers and rendered them incapable of realizing that the 1987 Intifada was far more than a simple uprising. Having taken matters into their own hands, Palestinians living in the occupied territories affirmed their own Palestinian nationalism as distinct from Arab nationalism.
Hamas was officially born.
American and Israeli policy makers, however, remained largely oblivious to this new phenomenon. This explains why the Oslo Agreement of 1993 focused on reaching an understanding between Israel and the PLO – totally bypassing the dynamic created by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Indeed, Israeli policymakers believed that an understanding with the PLO based on the latter’s renunciation of terrorism and acceptance of the existence of the State of Israel would help them contain and hopefully bring to an end the state of uprising in the occupied territories and provide new momentum to the Peace Process.
The 1982 Invasion of Lebanon: Birth of Hezbollah
On June 6, 1982, Israel launched a massive military invasion of Lebanon, code named Operation Peace for the Galilee, with the intention of bringing to an end PLO rocket fire and military operations emanating from South Lebanon and targeting northern Israel. Israel’s military campaign against the PLO was very successful, and Israel proved once again its military superiority in the region. Victory, however, produced a totally different dynamic that, by the close of the 20th century, rendered the security environment surrounding Israel much more unstable.
Three key events have contributed to this new environment:
• The massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in the aftermath of the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bechir Gemayel on September 14, 1982, on the hands of Christian militiamen allied with Israel and under the watchful eyes of the Israel Defense Forces besieging those camps produced a worldwide condemnation of Israel. Arab governments, pressured by their outraged populations, mounted pressure on the U.S. Government to intervene. The United States came to the rescue by deploying U.S. Marines in Lebanon (part of a Multinational Peace Keeping Mission), with the aim of ensuring the security of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps in Beirut and working out a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon.
In so doing, however, the United States inadvertently and unintentionally produced a direct linkage between Oil Security and Israel Security, thus putting at risk its entire Mideast policy. Having suffered two bombings in 1983 (the U.S. Embassy on April 18 and the U.S. Marines Barracks on October 23), the Reagan Administration ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon on February 7, 1984. While this act was deemed by many analysts to constitute a major setback for the United States, it in fact delinked the two pillars of America’s Mideast strategy, enabling the United States to resume its “business as usual” approach to the region.
Lesson: Forces opposing U.S. policy in the region understood that the vulnerability of the U.S. two-pillar strategy resides in “linking” the two pillars.
• The attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Marine Barracks in Lebanon were carried out by suicide bombers.
Lesson: Suicide bombing presents an effective weapon to overcome the military inferiority of those opposed to U.S. and Israeli policies.
• Continued Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon, especially South Lebanon, as a means to protect its northern border alienated the Shiite community of Lebanon and gave rise to a new entity: Hezbollah. Hezbollah carried out an aggressive campaign from 1984 to 2000, utilizing suicide bombings as its main tool to target Israeli military positions in Lebanon. Mounting Israeli casualties in Lebanon led the Israeli Government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces on May 24, 2000.
Lesson: An asymmetrical warfare environment is much more effective that standing armies in defeating the might of Israel’s armed forces.
3. Israel Security: At Risk
The rise of Hamas in the Palestinian occupied territories and the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon has fundamentally transformed Israel’s immediate neighborhood. Israel’s “borders” became much more vulnerable with an increasingly volatile and insecure environment.
Further compounding the fragility of Israel Security was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, which brought to an end the U.S. containment strategy. That sudden turn of events transformed Israel Security in the eyes of many U.S. policymakers from a strategic asset to a moral commitment.
The Lost Decade of the 90’s (as I referred to it in Part II of this series) was in reality a double-missed opportunity for the United States: failure to capitalize on Rafsanjani’s Presidency in Iran to boost its Oil Security Pillar, and, as we saw in this part, failure to reshape the environment affecting its Israel Security Pillar. In summary, the wasted 90’s was actually the root cause for instability shaking both pillars of the U.S. Mideast strategy.
It is imperative to keep this background in mind as we explore the post 9/11 regional developments in Part IV of this series, subtitled “An Emerging New Order.” Developments include America’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of Iran and Turkey as the new regional powers eclipsing Egypt and Saudi Arabia in influencing Muslim opinion and power, the entrance of China as a key international player in the region and its impact on the “Competitive Power Game” between the U.S. and China vis-à-vis oil and gas, and the options available for U.S. policymakers in affecting this new order.
Cultural Intelligence matters!