Cautionary Tales: Sound Strategies in the Levant

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

What can Israelis and Americans learn from the past, even acknowledging that fighting the last war is a prescription for poor policy going forward?

Israeli elections are just four months away. Which Israeli politicians can be trusted to keep their word? Who will tell you the difficult truths that may upset your most cherished desire to live in peace with your neighbor? Learning from the past is a good way to begin.

In his memoir, In Defense of Israel, former defense minister Moshe Arens wrote that within days of turning over the Defense Ministry to newly elected prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000, he “preemptively” withdrew from southern Lebanon. “His betrayal of the SLA [South Lebanon Army] and the unilateral withdrawal of the IDF… was interpreted in the Arab world as a sign of weakness and brought on the Second Intifada… It did not bring an end to Hezbollah activity against Israel and was followed by the Second Lebanon War.”

At the turn of the millennium, war-weary Israelis had lost too many of their boys. They were without a clear plan of exit after 18 years of disappointments and failures, and the leadership hadn’t articulated a clear vision going forward. They expected the newly elected prime minister to fulfill his campaign promise and disengage from Lebanon, although not necessarily in the dark of night, abandoning friends to the wolves of Shi’ite Jihadism. The logic was, if Israel had no presence in Lebanon and there was were no territorial conflict with Hezbollah, then the world would take Israel’s side if hostilities, aggression, and terrorism again emanated from Israel’s northern border.

The best of intentions, the worst of results. 

Within short order Israel’s most decorated military hero was turned out of office and replaced by one of its most right-wing politicians, who contrary to his previous actions and rhetoric over the preceding 40 years, unilaterally withdrew from the mother of all quagmires, the Gaza Strip.

The best of intentions, the worst of results. What can Israelis and Americans learn from the past, even acknowledging that fighting the last war is a prescription for poor policy going forward?

Here is a primer: What do the following have in common? The withdrawal from Lebanon; the Gaza disengagement; abandoning Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria in favor of Iraq and Turkey; America’s withdrawal from Iraq, fulfilling Obama’s promise to bring US troops home; Israel inviting an unrepentant and defeated PLO into Gaza and the territories in its quest for a lasting peace; the American recommendation that Israel trade the Golan Heights to Hafez Assad for peace; trusting that Israel’s strong relationship with Iran in the ‘70s and with Turkey in the ‘90s would stand the test of time; trusting international promises to ensure Israel’s security in Lebanon in 2006 and Egypt in 1967; and believing the Arab Spring would lead to a more democratic and stable Middle East.
All were made or hoped for with the best of intentions, but at best, led to unpredictable, unexpected and usually much worse results than the previous status quo.

LET’S ANALYZE the results and see how well they matched up with well thought-out intentions and expectations from some of our leading politicians and thinkers.

1. An Iranian-controlled Hezbollah permanently entrenched in Lebanon with the Lebanese government beholden to a terrorist organization.

2. A permanent Hamas terrorist base with 2 million human shields in Gaza perpetually threatening hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians.

3. An Iraqi Kurdish nation – that was a loyal ally to America – feeling betrayed, which sent a message to American allies around the world that they too can be forsaken.

4. A loyal Syrian Kurdish army that lead the fight against Daesh, now abandoned and forced to make deals with America’s enemies; Russia, Iran and Syria.

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5. A vacuum formed by president Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq after the surge of 2011 that helped create the Islamic State.

6. The marginalization of indigenous Palestinians post-Oslo with the imposition of Arafat’s corrupt and terrorist-oriented Palestine Liberation Organization that guaranteed the path to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a much higher hill to climb.

7. An Arab Spring that quickly turned to winter; that abandoned a friendly, authoritarian dictator; that led not to democracy but instead empowered the leading center of anti-Western Islamism – the Muslim Brotherhood – while creating the conditions for the Syrian civil war and permanent Iranian entrenchment in the Levant

8. An impotent international force in Lebanon that has never stopped a single Iranian weapons delivery to Hezbollah.

ALL OF this brings us to the best of intentions of Commanders for Israel’s Security, former leading generals and members of the security establishment whose laudable goal is to extricate Israel from the Palestinians, but whose strategy is “not contingent upon the existence of a [Palestinian] partner

continued IDF control over the West Bank until a permanent status agreement is reached.” 
Is this possible or realistic?

The common expression of the Left is that you have to negotiate with your enemies. But what if your enemies won’t negotiate with you? Can you disengage or create a unilateral divorce and still remain secure, setting the stage for a lasting Palestinian peace?


The goal of a sustainable Jewish majority faithful to its democratic nature is consistent with the goal of the vast majority of both Israeli and Diaspora Jews. But is that possible when the vast majority of your Palestinian adversary overwhelmingly believes you have no right to exist as a Jewish entity in even a centimeter of the land, because the Jews are an illegitimate Western colonial outpost invading Dar al-Islam (lands that are irredeemably Muslim)?

How does one square the circle of lasting security, disengagement and legitimate Israeli rights beyond the Green Line with an adversary that won’t negotiate, who leads the BDS movement to delegitimize your very existence, and in this century turned down 100% of the “occupied” land with swaps, east Jerusalem as their capital, and continued Muslim control of the Temple Mount?

Strategists know the wrong formula in the Middle East is to appear weak and that poor policies are made of naiveté, abandoning allies, unilateral withdrawals without something tangible and lasting in return, and the dangers of trusting that relationships even with current allies will stand the test of time.

That is why Israel knows it must be self-sufficient and not rely for its security on the guarantees of other nations. This is part of the reason Israel is such a strong ally of America, not being asked to put its soldiers in harm’s way. This does not mean not having and creating new diplomatic relationships, but never relying upon them in the shifting sands of the Middle East as a core part of your survival. 

The best path forward as Israel embarks upon its election season is honesty and managing expectations with your constituents, and maintaining strength. This is what is respected in the Middle East. And if you want to empower and allow your Palestinian partners ever to concede anything even for a limited armistice, figure out a way for them to keep their honor (an insight of Micah Goodman in Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War), while never losing sight that you must remain in complete control of your security.

The writer is the director of MEPIN™ (Middle East Political and Information Network™) and a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post and i24TV. 

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