A high-ranking Israeli official on a visit to Washington said Israel must be “sober and realistic” in addressing the current situation in its “dangerous neighbourhood”.
Moshe Yaalon, a former Israeli Defence minister and military chief of staff, told a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that, amid the chaos and civil wars tearing the region apart, Israel’s response should follow a few clear principles in what he described as an “ongoing earthquake”.
The political violence unfolding in the Middle East is shaking the foundations of a number of Arab countries. Yaalon, who is a visiting fellow at the institute, cited as examples the situation in Egypt, Syria and Yemen and cautioned that Israel should not intervene in internal Arab affairs, as it had done in Lebanon, so long as Israel was not directly threatened. The real threat to Israel is no longer the Arab states, which it went to war with four or five times in as many decades.
Israel, said Yaalon, must draw on lessons learned in Lebanon following the June 1982 invasion and subsequent occupation of the country and of Tel Aviv’s meddling in the internal affairs of its northern neighbour, as was demonstrated by the support of Christian militias and gambling on Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Christian coalition to take over the Lebanese presidency. Gemayel was assassinated and Israel was dragged into the Lebanese civil war.
Israel, said Yaalon, must remain “neutral,” as it has been in the Syrian conflict. Democracy means more than just having elections, he said.
It is always somewhat ironic that Israel — the cause of many of the region’s troubles — is seen by the West as “the only democratic country in the Middle East” despite such undemocratic practices as the continued occupation of the West Bank, the collective punishment of an entire region and the mistreatment of Palestinians. Where is the justification for banning Palestinians from driving on certain highways that are reserved exclusively for Israelis and, of course, foreign visitors?
The belief that Jeffersonian democracy can be taken off the shelf and adapted to cultures that have had no prior exposure to truly democratic traditions is wishful thinking.
Syria, Iraq and Yemen are largely the creation of colonial powers making decisions on demarcation lines and drawing up borders by tracing straight lines in the sand. Such a creation did not give these countries a solid foundation upon which to build sound democratic systems.
At no time was any consideration given to the fact that these redrawn borders separated clans, tribes and families. At the same time, these adjusted borders gave rise to an increase in tensions between opposing ethnicities, religions and tribes that found themselves living on the same side of a border, where previously their ancestors roamed unhindered by imaginary frontiers.
The lack of continuity in Washington’s policy strategy was and remains the greatest disadvantage to promoting democracy in the developing world. The conflicts raging in several Middle Eastern countries are not isolated sideshows but part and parcel of a sustainable strategy by opponents of freedom and democratic ways of life.
Lack of continuity of a sustainable political strategy in the Middle East by consecutive US administrations — both Republican and Democratic — has been one of their greatest shortcomings.
Washington’s lack of a coherent strategy vis-à-vis Syria, for example, is well explained in a recent episode of the popular TV show Homeland. During a debriefing upon his return from areas under control of the Islamic State, a CIA undercover operative is asked how successful was the US strategy in fighting the terror group?
“What strategy?” the CIA agent replied.
When asked what he believed was needed to solve the problem, the field operative said: “Two hundred thousand boots on the ground and an equal number of teachers for an indefinite period of time.” A senior CIA officer fires back: “Well, that’s not going to happen.”
Until the day peace really breaks out in the Middle East the whole region will continue to live precariously and in a bad neighbourhood.